Through the Cracks: How Migrants Cope during the Pandemic

By The Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies (NTS Centre)
S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS)
Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore

Since its emergence in December 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted almost every part of modern life – from the way we work to travelling – severely affecting already vulnerable communities. With pandemic responses significantly disrupting human mobility in particular, migrants have been one of the hardest hit communities. Although vaccines against COVID-19 have been made available, not everyone has equal access to COVID-19 vaccines, thereby making any protection incomplete at best.

Travel (or the lack of) during the pandemic

Worldwide travel has since slowed to a trickle with 228 countries, territories and areas still with various forms of restriction and/or conditions for entry. This has affected the ability of migrants to travel, with some estimates suggesting that the pandemic may have slowed the growth of the number of international migrants by around two million by mid-2020, 27 per cent less than expected since mid-2019.

The restrictions and conditions placed on travel and entry have particularly affected labour migrants, irregular or otherwise, with their ability to earn limited. A major fear during the beginning of the pandemic was its effect on remittances, with 33 per cent of migrant workers in 2019 and three of the top five remittance recipient countries are from the Asia-Pacific. Any significant decrease in remittances could be disastrous – especially to poor households. With most migrants in the region being temporary migrant workers, the loss of jobs and wages among them have been particularly high. This will further endanger progress made in poverty reduction. According to World Bank estimates, the global extreme poverty rate has increased for the first time since 1998 due to the likelihood of between 71 million and 100 million people being pushed into extreme poverty in 2020.

Access to healthcare

Another troubling issue facing migrants is their access – or lack of – to vaccines. Although migrants face the same health threats from COVID-19 as their host populations, they are particularly vulnerable due to potential discriminatory measures. This is further heightened for low-skilled, low-paid migrants. With most of them drawn to urban centres in search of work, they also tend to live in overcrowded facilities with poor sanitation – making them more vulnerable to the spread of disease.

While these migrant workers are vital to the overall infrastructure of the countries in which they work, their low status among the community, language barrier and high costs limit their ability to access services such as legal services and especially, healthcare.

As such, equitable vaccine distribution is especially vital to these communities. Although there has been constant emphasis to vaccinate the entire population in a jurisdiction in order to avoid a small cluster of non-vaccinated people undermining herd immunity, not all countries are including regular migrants in their national vaccination campaigns – let alone refugees, asylum seekers or irregular migrants. Moreover, even in countries which grant migrants access to vaccines, in-practice inclusion may differ from official policy. This could be due to a number of reasons including a lack of clarity in national vaccine deployment plans, policymakers avoiding publicising this access to avoid xenophobic reactions from the public, and the inability of migrants to have the required documents.

However, in some countries, migrants – particularly those working in front-line, high-risk areas – have been prioritised. For example, in 2020, Singapore experienced a sudden massive surge in COVID-19 cases among its migrant worker population. In order to prevent another similar situation, Singapore included migrant workers in the early parts of its national campaign along with other workers in critical functions.

COVID-19 has exposed the gaps in our system. It has highlighted the critical role of migrant workers in the region as well as the vulnerabilities they are subject to. While the creation of effective vaccines has offered us a cautious glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel – of finally emerging from this pandemic – it is important to keep in mind the need for equity in any response to the pandemic. After all, COVID-19 has taught us that until all people – including those most vulnerable – are well-protected, the journey towards a ‘New Normal’ will be slow and frustrating.