The effect of COVID-19 on European migration

13th May 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered lockdowns in nations all around the world to stop the spread of the virus, an impact of which has seen increased border controls to prevent the movement of people between countries. However, migration is a perfectly normal part of a thriving global economy and transmitting COVID-19 has been a side-effect of people’s movement that has now locked down the passage of a large part of the world’s workforce. Many people that move between countries may also be fleeing conflict or poverty with some refugees getting caught in transit as a result of enhanced border controls, being unable to travel to their destination or to return home.

The difference between migrants and refugees is the reason for which they are leaving their country and determines their ability to return to their home nation. However, the current global pandemic has meant that it is not possible to differentiate between populations when imposing a blanket ban on travel. Migration is a necessary part of sustaining a workforce for countries with seasonal employment needs where the host nation does not sustain the workforce itself. However, refugees can impose a logistical and economic burden on a country already suffering from severe restrictions.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has highlighted that refugees and migrants are particularly at risk from COVID-19.1 They typically live in overcrowded conditions without adequate sanitation facilities, medicine or access to healthcare. Social distancing is often impossible, with a high risk of transmission and the camps with which they live becoming breeding grounds for disease. There are often language and financial barriers to accessing healthcare and the stigmatisation of illness will often mean it goes unreported.

All countries now face the decision whether to ease lockdown restrictions and face an influx of potentially COVID-19 infected individuals, or keep borders closed but lose a vital workforce. Italy and Germany have provided differing examples of what may happen if the normal influx of migrant workers does not flow from Eastern Europe to their countries in time for spring and summer work on their farms.

The seasonal work that happens at these times requires a specific type of workforce: large in number but low skilled and temporary. This suits a certain type of workforce often only filled by migrant workers or students, as resident populations are unwilling to work for an irregular income. Germany is currently allowing 80,000 seasonal workers from Eastern Europe, split over April and May to enter their country to prop up their workforce; acknowledging the commercial benefit to counteracting the economic effects of the pandemic.2 Not only does the effect of plugging a workforce gap help businesses survive and provide a boost to the economy, it also continues a vital supply chain, ensuring food provision is not impacted.

This has become a contentious issue, with the European Commission itself issuing potentially controversial advice over the past month. Initially it had argued the need of an economic recovery, recommending the European Union (EU) keep its borders open to migrant workers, suggesting countries are dependent on this ‘vital’ labour cycle, after farmers had warned of ‘the devastating impacts of labour shortages’.3 It has now narrowed its stance by suggesting that the EU keep its ‘external’ borders closed to non-EU citizens until at least June 15th to prevent a second wave of infections.4 How a continent the size of Europe could avoid a second wave this way, given the level of infection already in the Eurozone is greater than the US,5 smacks of self-interest rather than practicality. Spain alone has reported a drop in farmworkers by 40%, due in part to the lack of Moroccan workers allowed into the country.6

Italy, however, has opened up political divisions in their coalition government with their decision to try and enable Italian nationals the chance to work on jobs normally filled by a migrant workforce. As Italy has chronic levels of unemployment and suffering serious economic hardship, thoughts are that Italian workers should be filling the unemployment gap.7 There is a justified fear that allowing the migrant workforce access to farm working exposes an unwell population into the food chain. This threatens to undermine any hard work achieved through lockdown and risks a second peak in infections. There is also the problem of increasing competition in the labour market in direct conflict with recruiting Italian nationals. However, the social welfare system in Italy does not allow them to receive benefits as well as a low paid job, making it an unattractive proposition, and a continued burden on the state. Italy is dependent on around 400,000 migrant workers from North Africa and Eastern Europe and also has a responsibility to those migrants already in the country. There is also the case for immigrant’s workers’ rights as well as the humanitarian effort of making sure this specific population group are able to survive and provide for their own families during this pandemic. Teresa Bellanova, a union leader in Italy, has put it in stark terms: “Workers including immigrants have made sacrifices so we can still have fresh food on the table and eat the same foods as always. They allow us to have moments of normality.” If there are no workers then food will go to waste and Italy, representative of any other nation, cannot afford for there to be food shortages, given the level of unrest seen so far.

Migrant workers also face some difficult choices given their jobs or accommodation in their host countries. Often, they work on the social care frontline and so risk themselves becoming infected or facing returning to their homes jobless and stigmatised. Many people from Europe’s poorest regions that took advantage of freedom of movement are now caught in a no man’s land of unemployment, limited to no repatriation flights, few savings, and limited access to the state safety net. However, rather than face an increased burden on his country’s own health and social system, the Romanian President has told 5 million Romanians living abroad not to come back. 8 Austria has taken advantage of the opportunity for these low paid employees to prop up their health sector by poaching Romanian workers, even sending over chartered flights to collect them.

Migrants constitute a significant share among sectors that are critical, as well as sectors that are most affected by this crisis. Nearly 37 per cent of all services and sales workers in Switzerland and 17 per cent of skilled agricultural, forestry and fishery workers in the United Kingdom in 2015/16 were foreign-born.9 Migrant worker populations living in poverty, despite being in employment, are greatest in Italy, Spain and Greece. France migrant population has 21.9 per cent made up of the over 65 age group, the most at-risk group for COVID-19 infection.

The Schengen Convention enacted in 1995 that regulates the abolishment of border controls among 26 EU members is meant to guarantee passport-free travel and goods transport across the inner European borders.10 Though the Schengen Border Code gives member countries the choice of temporarily reintroducing border controls “in the event that a serious threat to public policy or internal security has been established,” governments are resorting to national self-interest rather than looking at the problem collectively. The reinstallation of intra-European borders could have a lasting impact on the EU as a whole. One country cannot enact a migration and employment policy in isolation.  If EU leaders carry on in this vein it will see some countries advance ahead of others, while neglecting a large and at-risk population of migrant workers. They must see the universal connectedness and dependence that the EU has on migration. To suddenly neglect this in times of crisis could be considered unhumanitarian and is likely to have profound significance on the future of EU economies and relations.