Twenty-one-year-old Afghan migrant Morteza Mohammadi lives in a destroyed factory in Bosnia-Herzegovina. He is waiting to make his seventh attempt to cross into European Union (EU) via Croatia, where he can seek asylum from the conflict ravaging Afghanistan.

On the other side of the Mediterranean Sea, Ahmed, an unemployed Tunisian, is also planning to make an illegal crossing into the EU. His home country, Tunisia, suffers from high unemployment rates, and he hopes to find a job in Italy.

Mohammadi and Ahmed are just two of the many migrants who make a perilous journey away from home in search of a better life. Yet, this already-difficult journey is made more arduous by the pandemic, in ways that the world is only beginning to understand.

A pandemic-worsened plight

COVID-19 has severely crippled the resources available to migrants, and exposed their precarious position in their adopted country.

Asylum shelters are turning away migrants like Mohammadi out of fears of infection. Yet, migrants already in refugee camps, like the Rohingyas in Bangladesh, are also reporting increased violence and hunger because of COVID-19 lockdowns.

Additionally, a study by the World Bank found that migrants are almost twice as vulnerable to unemployment during economic crises as non-migrants.

In these dire circumstances, migrants like Ahmed, desperate to escape poverty, make the difficult and illegal trek into richer countries where they face even more hardship. Other migrants have lost their jobs and are forced to return home, creating a “backflow” of migration to home countries ill-equipped to reintegrate them.

Sources: BBC, NPR, Reuters, The Straits Times (1, 2, 3)

Returnees Unwelcome

Undocumented Migrants Detained

Refugees in Limbo

The economic fallout of COVID-19 in Singapore was mostly borne by foreigners. As a result, over 17,000 Indian expatriates in Singapore returned home.

1

Yet, back in their home country, these returnees are shamed for losing their jobs, and cannot access proper medical care.

2

Thus, many want to go back abroad, but the process is more expensive and onerous because of COVID-19.

3

During Malaysia’s COVID-19 lockdown, thousands of undocumented migrants were rounded up and detained.

4

Many of them are victims of trafficking and forced to work in the country’s “dirty, dangerous and difficult” industries.

5

Many of them are victims of trafficking and forced to work in the country’s “dirty, dangerous and difficult” industries.

6

Over 8,000 migrants are fleeing to the EU to escape conflict and instability in their home countries.

7

Stuck in Bosnia-Herzegovina, many are turned away by humanitarian shelters to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

8

As they await an opportunity to attempt illegal border crossings, these migrants seek shelter in abandoned houses devoid of heating or electricity.

9

Sources: BBC, NPR, Reuters, The Straits Times (1, 2, 3)

Exposing existing divisions

Even before the pandemic, migrants have always faced discrimination from citizens of their host countries.

It manifests in a myriad of ways, such as anti-immigrant protests and the rise of far-right, nationalistic politicians who view migrants as economic and cultural threats.

This reveals a human tendency towards an “us-versus-them” mentality that pits people against each other based on nationality.

Migrants are seen as thieves of our jobs, competitors for housing, healthcare and public transportation, and terrorists capable of inciting violence and instability. Yet, a 2020 study by the IMF revealed that an increased flow of migrants into advanced economies increased economic output by almost one per cent after five years.

Nonetheless, this biased perception of migrants as a threatening “Other” has been on the rise. The Gallup Migrant Acceptance Index, which polled 145 countries in 2019, found that the world has grown less accepting of migrants since its first measure in 2016.

Embracing our fellow sojourners

Despite the widespread exclusion of migrants around the world, Colombia provided a rare show of empathy in 2021. It granted legal status to one million Venezuelan migrants, even giving them the potential to be residents after 10 years. The two countries have close historical ties, with many Colombians seeking refuge in Venezuela during Colombia’s civil war.

In Singapore, the Welcome in My Backyard (Wimby) initiative was launched by a group of volunteers during the Circuit Breaker. It encourages Singaporeans to be more welcoming to migrant workers, many of whom were relocated to housing estates from crowded dormitories to curb the spread of COVID-19. The campaign, which created an online platform for Singaporeans to write welcome notes to migrant workers, received over 700 responses.

These accounts demonstrate our capacity to embrace, rather than exclude, those who are continuing the grand human tradition of journeying across borders, even amidst the complications brought upon by the pandemic.

Indeed, COVID-19 has been impartial in its spread, infecting everyone, migrant or non-migrant. It is a reminder for us to be similarly impartial with our empathy.

Sources: The Diplomat, Gallup, The Guardian, IMF, NPR, The Straits Times, Today, UNHCR, World Bank