This paper is released by Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants (APMM) to share its position and analysis on how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting migrants, particularly in the region; how migrant organisations and advocates can intervene to uphold the human rights of migrants, and; how migration can be viewed post the crisis that the world is now experiencing.

In Defense of Migrants’ Rights to Health, Livelihood and Life Amidst the COVID-19 Crisis
Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants (APMM)
13 April 2020


To date, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has recorded a total of 1,696,588 COVID-19 infections around the world. 

While there is no disaggregated data on the number infections and deaths of migrants, immigrants and refugees, verified reports of infections are happening in various countries as well as among seafarers. The spread of infection in the United States, in many parts of the Europe region with concentration of foreign workers or refugees, and in the receiving and sending countries of migrants in Asia Pacific, indicates that migrants are also very much exposed to the risk.

That the world is being shaken by the pandemic is evident.

In his message, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for the world to rebuild better and that “Everything we do during and after this crisis [COVID-19] must be with a strong focus on building more equal, inclusive and sustainable economies and societies that are more resilient in the face of pandemics, climate change, and the many other global challenges we face.”

Even before COVID-19 hogged international headlines, the pandemic is already a disaster in the making as the world continues to sink into crisis way before the first case hit in China. Economic slowdown was already present with many countries, led by the more powerful and richer ones, holding on to the failing – or already failed – neoliberal doctrine in order to restart the stalled development engine.

When COVID-19 surfaced, the world was definitely not ready as development strategies remained centered on liberalization of economies, deregulation of industries, and privatization of public utilities, services and facilities. Even countries with national industries are being pressed hard to revert state ownership to the private sector. Private finance reigns supreme and even development strategies are being hinged on the interest of private capital and are more oriented towards private profit.

Public healthcare is a mess; wages are pegged to the minimum and labor standards are in a mad race to the bottom; flexible labor policies are refined and expanded to squeeze the maximum profits; social services are offered to the altars of businesses and the user’s pay mantra is pushed as the normal narrative, and; resources are siphoned off continuously to big businesses and more developed countries.

Wars and conflicts further pinpoint to the competition for resources, territories and spheres of influence. Such result to displacement of people and the massive movement of refugees.

Meanwhile, still under the neoliberal framework, migration is deodorized to cover up displacement and the creation of a huge army of unemployed and underemployed, the need for cheap but skilled workers, heightening border constriction, and the continuing underdevelopment of many source countries of migrants. Migration for development, as embraced by the Global Compact for Migration (GCM) and the discussions on sustainable development including the Agenda 2030 and the Financing for Development, is now further proven to be a pipedream amidst the crisis-ridden world.

It is truly imperative that the world should be rebuilt better. Its rebuilding must stand on genuine development for the people, respectful of human rights in all its spheres, caring of the environment and finite resources, and where migration is not driven by a need for survival and not oriented towards the perpetuation of exploitation.

COVID-19 and Migrants 

Migrants, immigrants and refugees are present in all countries recorded with COVID-19 infection. As part of the national economic, political and socio-cultural life, they are also part of those affected by the pandemic.

There are multiple impacts of the COVID-19 to migrants (as well as immigrants, refugees and other displaced peoples). These impacts should be understood in the pre-existing living and labor situation of migrants. This situation is presented by the existing and worsening economic and financial crisis in the world that intensifies the exploitation of the working people everywhere. In the months following the spread until it reached pandemic levels, migrant workers commonly reported these impacts even though they may differ in breadth and degree in particular countries. 

1. High risks and negative impacts to health and life of migrants in the frontline

There are many migrants and immigrants who are frontline healthcare workers. This is very true in the United States and many countries in Europe. In the United Kingdom, the eight doctors who died due to COVID-19 were all immigrants. There are also many nurses who either succumbed to the virus or are now fighting for their lives.

Aside from those in healthcare, there are many other jobs where migrants have significant presence that can be considered as frontline workers such as those working in restaurants, supermarkets, groceries, medical and health supply shops, service centers, and other types of work that are crucial to continue despite lockdowns and other restrictions. Foreign domestic workers are also frontline workers as they have to perform duties of care to entire households including going out every day (for marketing, errands, etc.) and exposing themselves to risk of infection.

The living condition of migrants who are forced to live in cramped and unsanitary dormitories also poses risk of infection for migrants. In Singapore, at least three clusters of infection in migrant dormitories have already been identified and regarded as isolation areas.

With the healthcare compromised in many countries, these migrants and immigrants work amidst the shortage in crucial protective equipment, the deluge of COVID-19 cases, the rigors of taking care of infected patients, the testing that have to be conducted, and the care of non-COVID-19 patients. The outbreak highlights how crucial they are in the societies where they work and live. Their being made as scapegoats for crisis in employment and social services is now further belied by the fact that they too risk their health and life in order for communities, cities and countries to weather the outbreak.

2. Grave impacts to livelihood

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the COVID-19 pandemic threatens the livelihoods of 1.25 billion workers worldwide. Work hours were already lost and such will continue to increase with Asia Pacific alone projected to lose 125 million jobs in the next three months. This is projected to be more drastic in low-paying and low-skilled jobs.

More than half a million Filipinos are expected to lose their work and be forced to go back to without employment in the Philippines. Reports in Thailand said that more than 3,000 migrants from Myanmar cross the border back to their country daily due to job loss. Five countries (Kuwait, Maldives, Qatar, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) have asked Bangladesh to take in their undocumented migrants. There are an estimated 75,000 undocumented Bangladeshi migrants in Kuwait and Maldives, alone.

Migrants are shaped by neoliberalism to be cheap workers, relegated to 3D (dirty, difficult, demeaning) jobs, and readily disposable as the army of unemployed and underemployed is ever on the rise to replenish the migrant labor market.

The COVID-19 pandemic further revealed this as migrants were some of the first to have their income eroded or their jobs completely lost as lockdowns were implemented, factory activities contracted, services and working hours reduced, and the whole economy further slowed down. 

Many migrants are in a no work, no pay situation and work stoppage meant loss of livelihood. These include international students (or education migrants) who are allowed to work for a number of hours per week in order to sustain their needs. Due to lack of work now, they don’t have means to secure food, pay utilities and pay rent. Many of them also paid a huge amount (many incurred debts) to agencies to get a student/education visa.

Meanwhile, the disruption in flights also resulted to some getting “trapped” in their country of origin with no means to go back to their employment. This is worse for those who were about to start their employment – after paying the exorbitant fees especially to recruitment agencies – but were unable to fly due to lockdown. They now must rely on their employer to pursue employing them when the situation normalizes.

It is even worse for undocumented migrants whose lack of legal status impedes further their mobility to look for or go to their jobs. Usually, undocumented migrants work in small- and medium-scale businesses whose operations have been crippled more than the big ones in this crisis period.

There are also documented migrants now whose status is in danger as their visa cannot be extended due to travel restrictions.

Forced repatriation has also happened in the past months. There has also been “voluntary” repatriation because the loss of jobs meant more insecurity for them in the host country. Return, however, brings more worry for migrants as they do not have jobs in their home country and they are uncertain if and when they can migrate again.

Repatriation also included those working in cruise ships that have been reported to carry COVID-19 infected passengers and/or crew members such as what happened to the MV Diamond Princess. Aside from repatriation, many seafarers – whether they work in cargo or cruise ships – face fear and uncertainty. Many of the ships are refused docking and thus, seafarers are forced to endure days and weeks in a condition that is risky to their health and wellbeing.

3. Exclusion from economic relief in host countries and insufficient assistance from sending governments

Migrants, due to their status, are discriminated from economic relief. Assistance packages are only made available to citizens and permanent residents, and migrants are forced to fend for themselves or seek other means (e.g. borrowing) in order to sustain their needs as well as send support to their families in their home country who, themselves, are experiencing difficulties due to the lockdown and loss of employment of other working household members.

Foreign posts of sending countries are also not active in reaching out for economic, and even food relief, to their nationals. Some foreign posts even closed for a time or reduced the range of services to their nationals.

The Philippine government excluded a large section of migrants from its cash assistance program while their families were also not included in the relief program back home. Such bring more pressure to migrants who are now, not only the main, but the sole breadwinner responsible to sustain the needs of the family.

4. Insufficient or total lack of access to public health assistance and PPEs

Before the COVID-19, neoliberalism has increasingly made public healthcare a privilege and not a right. “Users pay” became the norm in health with cutbacks on the budget of healthcare or transfer of responsibility to private entities that are more concerned with profits rather than sufficient care.

As the economic condition of migrants is more dire, their access to health services is also more limited. The fear of total inability to work also creates the condition of hesitation for migrants to seek medical assistance for health concerns they may have at this time.

Migrants also have to shoulder the expenses for their protective personal equipment. Making the situation more difficult for undocumented migrants is the requirement to present proper identification documents when traveling or buying PPEs such as facemasks and alcohol.

5. Discrimination and xenophobia

Racial attacks have been reported in the more developed countries. The prejudice against migrants who have routinely been made as scapegoats for jobless or shortages in public social services has been reinforced with Chinese or Asians pictured as virus carriers.

During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Challenges to migrant organisations and advocates

In this heightened crisis condition of migrants, it is even more imperative to mount timely and effective service delivery to meet the most urgent needs of migrants while pursuing tactical and strategic campaigns and advocacies for the rights and wellbeing of migrants.

Multiple services are needed by migrants – from sufficient and suitable information to assistance to their labor and visa concerns; from food provision to making PPEs available for them; from helping them access repatriation services to accessing health services. While limitations are there due to lockdown imposition and other prohibitions, creative ways can be employed to still make available and actually deliver essential services to migrants. In a number of countries, this is already being done.

Services should be especially made available to migrants who are in the margins such as undocumented migrants, those with precarious visa status, and even international students who shoulder their own financial needs for schooling and living. Special efforts must be undertaken to reach out to them.

In a number of countries, migrant organisations and advocates have already taken up the cudgel of providing services to migrants who fell through the cracks of government’s assistance programs. Relief campaigns – form PPEs to food – have been conducted in Malaysia, Australia, South Korea, Hong Kong, New Zealand and in other global regions by members of the International Migrants Alliance (IMA), the Alliance of Marriage Migrant Organisations for Right and Empowerment (AMMORE) and the Interfaith Network on the Rights of Migrants (INFORM). Other forms of services have also been stepped up including information dissemination and online counseling.

While services to answer urgent needs of migrants are essential, these should also be complemented by vigilant monitoring of policies and realities on the ground that further put the rights and even life of migrants, at risk. Advocacies and campaigns should be creatively mounted on immediate policy concerns that actually pertain to standing and longer-term advocacies on decent work, against exclusion and discrimination, and comprehensive human rights of migrants.

Despite the difficult condition that COVID-19 poses, migrant organisations and advocates cannot let their guard down as it is even more important now to make migrants visible in national and local discussions to keep communities safe, address needs of the people, and reflect on existing systems and structures that let crisis as the COVID-19 reach pandemic level and ravage the life and livelihood of many people.

Campaigns have already been conducted in a number of countries with calls revolving around the following: (1) Effective health responses like Mass Testing and Free distribution of PPEs; (2) Inclusion of migrants, immigrants and refugees in economic relief packages; (3) Repatriation services for those who wish to return home voluntarily; (4) Respect for labor, health and human rights of migrants in COVID-19 response policies including migrants in detention; and (5) Protection against racism and xenophobic attacks.

In the conduct of the above, it is crucial that migrant community organisations themselves are mobilized from the identification of service delivery needs to actual conduct of service delivery, and; from crafting their advocacy demands to the conduct of campaign and advocacy in the context of various and increasing limitations in mobility and social gathering.

Service delivery and advocacy and campaign are not mutually exclusive with both serving to strengthen and expand grassroots organizing and network building among migrants. Bigger challenges are in the offing when the COVID-19 crisis is over as the people will face the fallout from economic, political and social impacts of the pandemic. To face such challenges, the strength of the grassroots movement of migrants is paramount.

Solidarity is also integral to the conduct of service delivery and advocacy: solidarity among migrants of various nationalities and solidarity of migrants and the local people. Collectivism and community building and actions must be promoted to combat individualism and absolute individual protection. Neoliberalism thrives on protection of private profit and private wellbeing foremost of the elite, while destroying the collective consciousness of workers. False division among the ranks of the people especially the workers – between migrants and locals – should be persistently challenged. Instead, social and class solidarity should be promoted. 

Beyond COVID-19: Heighten the struggle against forced migration and exploitation of migrants

It is the hope that by the next few months or by the next year, the COVID-19 pandemic will be greatly reduced. However, the whole economic and political system in the world should not revert to the “business-as-usual” mode as the pandemic shows that there are fundamental flaws in the system that enable the pandemic to accelerate the displacement of millions and the death of tens of thousands.

For migrants, the COVID-19 aggravated the difficult and vulnerable situation of migrants, immigrants and refugees that has been shaped by decades of neoliberal policies. While development has been a by-word even before the Agenda 2030 was approved in 2015, the realization of the right of people to development will continue to be elusive for as long as neoliberal prescriptions define development policies.

Fundamental barriers to development are still very much intact and are sustaining the condition of poverty, inequality, class and gender oppression, and even the destruction of the environment. These are barriers that the Agenda 2030 has refused to acknowledge in the past five years of implementation leaving the people vulnerable to the impacts of COVID-19.

Gaps on the protection of the rights of migrants and the care for their wellbeing must be identified including job security, health services and security, conditions in the workplace, condition in detention centres and refugee camps, legalization of undocumented migrants, social inclusion and cohesion, and sustainable return.

Serious rethinking of the migration for development framework must also be pushed in various arenas as the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) and the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM). As exhibited by the impacts of the COVID-19 to migrants in the past few months alone, such promotion of migration has not brought real and sustainable development on the ground. Instead, the precarious condition of migrants has remained essentially unchanged. They have remained as disposable, as vulnerable, as excluded and as exploited as before.

The real narrative of forced migration and exploitation and commodification of migrants must again be highlighted over the migration for development framework. Developing decent domestic jobs, enabling free and accessible services, and resolving conflicts that displace people must become the development priorities as these would ensure that migrants will not be put in a vulnerable position should crisis as the COVID-19 appear again. Real resilience of migrants does not rely on migration itself but on ensuring that they do not forcibly migrate and continue to be migrants just for their survival.

Alongside the resolution of forced migration must be the ensuring of the prioritization of the rights of all workers in migrant-receiving countries over private profits. Reversal of policies that are skewed towards the interest of big businesses have sacrificed worker’s livelihood and capacity to withstand the ripples created by crises such as COVID-19. People must be prioritized over profit.

The peoples’ struggle to overcome the COVID-19 crisis and its impacts is urgent; but it must also be made to serve the bigger struggle of addressing the roots of the crisis and the persistent struggle of the people for their health, livelihood and life. # 

Note: More details of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic can be read in the website created by the APMM together with the International Migrants Alliance (IMA), Interfaith Network on the Rights of Migrants (INFORM), and the Alliance of Marriage Migrant Organisations for Rights and Empowerment (AMMORE). A Facebook Page named COVID-19 Migrant Monitor was also set up for information sharing. Aside from the website, APMM and its national, regional and international partners are conducting service delivery for migrants in the margins, and advocacy on the health, labor and human rights of migrants.

About APMM

The COVID-19 Migrant Monitor is an urgent action campaign providing timely and appropriate information relating to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak and its impact on migrants.