As COVID-19 Lingers, Wealthy Nations Must Not Abandon Migrants

Humanitarian worker places a face mask on a child refugee during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: AFP

With no end in sight to the COVID-19 pandemic, tens of thousands of the world’s most vulnerable and desperate migrants are being socially excluded or abandoned to sickness and death within some of the wealthiest nations on Earth.

The social exclusion of migrants threatens local and global efforts to successfully control the spread of this transmissible disease both within and across borders. 

As a scholar who studies global health inequities, I have documented how migrants have suffered the worst health, social, and economic consequences of COVID-19 in Europe and the United States. France is a case in point.

Migrants in France

In 2020, my colleagues and I interviewed and surveyed hundreds of migrants in France, most of them men from African countries and Afghanistan, who are waiting for their asylum cases to be adjudicated by the French authorities. 

We assessed the impact of the pandemic and a nationwide lockdown on their lives and livelihoods, and how the treatment of migrants impacted France’s efforts to control the spread of COVID-19.

Our participants had a median age of 26, and most had only an elementary or secondary school education. They told us that their sub-standard living and sanitary conditions made them unable to follow the most basic COVID-19 protocols. Pseudonyms are used for confidentiality purposes.

Social Isolation, Loneliness, and Vulnerability

Fadjibma, a migrant from Guinea, reported, “It is practically impossible to follow the social distancing rule. We live in a small physical space, and it is overcrowded.” 

Mariame from Mali shared that she had to take public transportation to get to the “stores that sell food more cheaply” and that there were days when she had to go hungry due to a lack of money to buy food or a tram ticket. Not having money meant she was also not able to buy masks and hand sanitizers to protect herself from getting sick.

Many migrants also told us that they experience social isolation, loneliness, and vulnerability. 

Seydou, another migrant from Mali who had been living in a tight container with two other men for the last seven months, shared, “If one of us gets sick, what will happen to the rest of us? Where will we go? Where will they put us? Who will help us? Many of us are here alone with no one to help us if we get sick.”

When they do begin showing symptoms of infection, many of the migrants, fearing arrest and deportation as “sans-papiers” or undocumented individuals, do not leave their crowded quarters to obtain a COVID-19 test or to seek treatment.

“Without my papers, I am excluded. I am afraid of going outside. I could get stopped. I am scared of getting deported,” said Mohamed, a recent migrant from Congo.

With government offices shut down due to the lockdown, many of the migrants were in limbo.

Tabish, an Afghan man reflected: “When will my asylum application be processed? I have been waiting for 13 months already and now, there will be even more of a backlog of applications. I feel even less confident about my future.”

To control the COVID-19 pandemic, migrants must not be left behind.

Helping Refugees and Migrants During the Pandemic

How can France and other wealthy host nations, including the United States, assist these desperate men and their families who are living in precarious situations? 

First, any national plan for mitigating the infectious disease must specifically include refugees and migrants.

Second, migrants must have immediate access to safe living conditions and cost-free health care, including vaccination, testing, and new therapeutics. 

Third, migrants must no longer be invisible. Public-health agencies must report COVID-19 data that is broken down by country of birth, migration status, and self-reported race and ethnicity to ensure that services are available to the people who need it the most – and who can least afford to pay for it.

In addition, public health messaging and interventions must be adapted to the specific linguistic, cultural, and social circumstances of migrants to effectively prevent transmission within and beyond these communities. 

And, finally, we need to address the social determinants of health that disproportionately impact migrants in every aspect of their physical, mental, and social well-being, far beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the world enters the third year of this pandemic, we must engineer a global response that includes migrants. In our interdependent world, “no one is safe until everyone is safe.”

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