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How is the Covid-19 pandemic affecting migrants with precarious legal status?

In this blog we reflect on how the Covid-19 pandemic is affecting migrants with precarious legal status in Europe, with a particular focus on Norway, Germany and France - countries in which we have been doing long term ethnographic fieldwork in the WAIT-project.

Closed door with signs stating "We are closed" and "Covid-19"
Photo:
Anastasiia Chepinska on Unsplash

Control and care

In this blog we reflect on how the Covid-19 pandemic is affecting migrants with precarious legal status in Europe, with a particular focus on Norway, Germany and France - countries in which we have been doing long term ethnographic fieldwork in the WAIT-project. The state of emergency declared in countries around the world has largely suspended everyday life, spreading uncertainty and unpredictability also to those who otherwise hold a privileged relationship to time (see our previous blogpost). Yet, as scholars working with irregular migration, we see that the pandemic also illuminates the many lines of differentiation which condition people’s lives. In the case of migrants with precarious legal status, the ‘pandemic condition’ adds a new layer of anxious insecurity as states close their borders, stop registering and processing asylum claims, postpone hearings in asylum courts, close down volunteer-run health care centres, and implement mobility controls and checkpoints within cities.

Scholars have, over the past decades, documented how irregular migration in Europe has largely been governed by the double imperative of security and humanitarianism. While access to legal status, and mainstream welfare arrangements have increasingly been circumscribed, substandard and exceptional care arrangements have also emerged. In this blog post, we highlight ways that the Covid-19 pandemic has affected people with a precarious legal status. We suggest that the double imperative of care and control is central to states’ responses to the Covid-19 pandemic and irregular migration. This means that care comes at the price of visibility, increased surveillance by the state, and prolonged legal uncertainty. 

Exceptional emergency measures and the proliferation of law

The Covid-19 outbreak has triggered emergency government powers across the globe. In some countries, like Hungary and the U.S., external border controls justified on grounds of public health risks have closed access to migrants, including those at risk of persecution in their countries of residence. Emergency measures taken in Norway, France and Germany, in contrast, so far maintain the possibility of seeking asylum. 

Within borders, the pandemic response has triggered a proliferation of new and rapidly changing rules and regulations. In addition to national laws to enhance executive powers, directives produced at a breathless rate have affected all aspects of society. For migrant populations, specific measures in some countries have included suspension of Dublin transfers and a stop to third-country resettlement. General measures to compensate people in the formal economy, meanwhile, exclude the many migrants who work informally. The suspension of informal work due to confinement measures in France for instance, for some equals a complete loss of income. 

For persons who are eligible for national schemes of salary support, the gap between what they receive and what they would have earned can have decisive consequences for their ability to escape a precarious residence status. In Norway, for instance, migrants will not meet the income requirement for permanent residence or family reunification if compensation for lost salary is not sufficiently high.

Status insecurity

The fact that police and immigration offices are closed means not only that asylum claims are left hanging, but also that appeals are postponed. Some applications, for example for work permits, permanent residence and travel documents, cannot be issued. This is particularly difficult for persons who need to visit dying relatives or have other urgent reasons to travel. For others, it means that they may not be able to work, study, or receive long-term housing.

As an imperative measure in the interest of avoiding contact, authorities in France, Germany and Norway have amended their procedures for the personal submission of applications and are accepting asylum applications in written form only. In Germany, the official asylum procedure counselling offered to asylum seekers has been suspended, while short deadlines for petitions have been upheld (in some cases 1 or 2 weeks). The ability to access necessary documents and receive legal advice from private lawyers and NGOs makes these deadlines almost impossible to meet. In France, many procedures related to asylum have been suspended due to the confinement regulations. However, the 3 weeks window to appeal a negative decision has been extended to six weeks. Time will tell whether this more generous timeline, which many have long argued is necessary, will be retained after the crisis is over.

While the suspension of deportation orders permits migrants to remain, they prolong containment in crowded detention structures and, often, an insecure status. The German decision to postpone Dublin deportations, for example, has stopped the clock on the six-month time limit after which Germany is responsible for making the asylum assessment. This leaves the so-called ‘Dubliners’ in a liminal condition for an uncertain and prolonged time, especially considering that Italy and France, hard hit by the pandemic, are the main destinations. This is not a marginal issue: in 2018, a Dublin procedure was initiated in Germany for nearly 50,000 people. Petitions have been made in several countries to release migrants from detention because deportations have been suspended and because of sanitary concerns. In Norway, the police have released some detainees from the detention centre Trandum. They are required, however, to remain in a reception center or a known private address. In France, judges have repeatedly decided to release detainees since detaining people awaiting deportation is no longer justified, but no general decisions to close down detention centres have been taken, despite the health risk that they represent. 

The politics and practice of sheltering 

Instructions from governments to inhabitants to ‘stay at home’, keep physical distance from others and uphold good hygiene, have been rightly criticised for assuming that everyone has a ‘home’ to stay in, and that it is of such a character that physical distancing and good hygiene is obtainable. This is not always the case for migrants with a precarious legal status. The overcrowded camps at Europe’s borders are high risk zones for pandemic outbreaks, and activists are mobilising to make Europe commit to evacuating the camps. In addition, several countries have both formal and informal camps at border-crossings and within cities. In addition, some people who lack a ‘home’ live in various temporary arrangements, including squats, emergency housing structures, at a friend’s place or on the street. 

In France, sheltering is one of the big challenges in facing the pandemic. Only a minority of those registered as asylum seekers are housed in asylum reception centres, and the waiting time for shelter is often long. Many asylum seekers as well as undocumented migrants live in makeshift camps or depend on temporary emergency housing structures (hospices, hotel rooms), which already before the pandemic were overfilled and in a bad sanitary state. In Marseille, there have been ambitions to expand the offer so that everyone can be sheltered. Despite the extension of emergency sheltering and the requisitioning of extra hotel rooms, many people remain without even a temporary home during the confinement. They are thus exposed both to severe health risks and at risk of being fined for violating confinement regulations. In Germany, particular challenges pertain to the large, regional reception centers where asylum seekers are required to live their first 18 months in the country. Protests have been reported in a reception center in Sachsen-Anhalt, where more than 800 people have been under lock-down from the 27 March due to the presence of Covid-19. Residents have been demanding enough supply of food, hygienic products and an immediate evacuation of elderly, people with a precondition, pregnant women and families.

The (non)-provision of health and welfare

The consequences of the pandemic for migrants must be understood in context of restrictive migration policies which have, for years, meant the dismantling of health and welfare services. In Germany, Norway and France, irregular migrants have restricted access to public health care, and thus are dependent on services provided by humanitarian organisations. In response to the pandemic, NGOs providing health services, shelter and food and clothing to people in precarious conditions have been suspending or limiting services. 

The breakdown of efforts by civil society has motivated calls for greater inclusion of people with precarious status into mainstream healthcare services. In Norway, the two volunteer-run healthcare centres for undocumented migrants had to stop their regular services as the healthcare providers that usually volunteered were no longer able to do so. The centres have instead worked hard to facilitate individual access for their patients into mainstream services, and to make local authorities accountable for this patient group. In France, some volunteer health care centres have managed to maintain some activities during the pandemic, while also petitioning the authorities about the particularly vulnerable situation of those excluded form regular health care provisions during the pandemic. Ten days into the lockdown, instructions from the authorities specified that vulnerable populations should not be further precarised due to the health emergency measures, and that competent actors, in cooperation with NGOs, should seek to provide shelter, health care and food to all regardless of their legal status. This illustrates the precariousness of the supplementary health and welfare arrangements that have been established as a consequence of the refusal of the state to provide care to certain migrant populations. 

Conclusion 

Pandemics have historically been occasions for implementing stricter border control and exclusive measures for foreigners. So far, the measures taken as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic seems to point in several possible directions. The closure of borders and privileging of protection of own citizens exist alongside calls for regularisation and to include all inhabitants in health and welfare arrangements regardless of their legal status. Pandemic conditions make irregular migrants visible and legible for measures of both care and control. The question remains: how will measures of care and control implemented under pandemic conditions affect migrants’ mobility, welfare, and legal security in the longer term?