COVID-19 and Migrant Communities: Challenges and good practices

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. It aims to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge. Opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

To keep updated on all of the OECD's work supporting the fight against COVID-19, visit our Digital Content Hub.


By Isabelle Chopin and Carmen Clemente, Migrant Policy Group

At this point in 2020, COVID-19 has impacted all of us in different ways. It has affected our physical and psychological health, economic situation, social life and much more. It has also disproportionately affected the world’s most vulnerable communities, such as migrants. Newcomer Entrepreneurship Support, which has analysed the effect of COVID-19 on migrant businesses, has produced some interesting findings on this. In Sweden, for instance, the social and economic position of migrant and refugee business owners is less resilient than that of their Swedish-born counterparts. In many other countries, too, migrant and refugee-owned businesses have been shown to be more vulnerable to the economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis.

­We must remain aware of the specific challenges COVID-19 has created for migrants. At the same time, it is also important to shine a light on the many good practices that countries, organisations and individuals are implementing to mitigate the effects of these challenges. Promoting positive and inclusive initiatives can help inspire hope among both receiving populations and migrants themselves.

The European Web Site on Integration (EWSI), coordinated by MPG, has been tracking the extraordinary efforts of EU countries and migrant communities in dealing with the effects of the pandemic. The full coverage suggests that while many states introduced restrictions on migrants’ ability to enter their territories, other measures have simultaneously served to alleviate the administrative burden on migrants. Many of these measures focused on residence or work permits, especially for workers in essential sectors. The real impact of all these changes is currently under investigation, and the lessons learned will be useful as the EU tackles a second wave of COVID-19 cases. 

A key issue has been the continuation of education services for migrants during the pandemic. Terremondo, an Italian organisation and a member of the SIRIUS Policy Network on Migrant Education, said that “some students and families have a low level of digital literacy or struggle in the language of instruction and in some cases are unable to sign-up to the various services offered [during the pandemic].” Upon realising this, Terremondo telephoned students, parents and teachers to ensure clear communication around school closures. This simple initiative addressed the risk of migrant students missing or dropping out of school, as has been seen in many other countries.  

From the OECD: International Migration Outlook 2020

The 2020 edition of International Migration Outlook analyses recent developments in migration movements and policies in OECD countries and some non-member countries, and looks at the evolution of the labour market outcomes of immigrants in OECD countries. It includes a special chapter on the impact of migration on the structural composition of the economy. It also includes country notes and a statistical annex.

Civil society and migrants themselves have also made an important, positive impact.  It was often they who played an important role in communicating vital information to migrant communities, around such issues as sanitary measures, healthcare rights and services. Inevitably, integration activities have been impacted by the pandemic, so civil society organisations explored ways to shift their work into the digital realm rather than cancelling their services altogether. As a result, funding opportunities aimed at harnessing the adaptability of civil society actors to this pandemic have also started to emerge at the national or EU level.

It is important to remember that real integration of migrants is not just about receiving communities and government-provided protections. It is also about the potential, skills, diversity and values that migrants have to offer. The Vietnamese community in Poland, for example, is sharing essential information with other migrant communities, sourcing and donating protective gear for healthcare workers and distributing free meals. Their work demonstrates how integration is a win-win situation for migrants and locals alike.

If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we must pause and re-evaluate many of the deeply-rooted dynamics that shape our lives (an enormous achievement in this fast-paced world in which we live). In the labour market, for example, migrants often work in roles typically considered ‘low-skilled’. This could be as fruit-pickers, care assistants or hospital cleaners. Usually poorly paid, people in these positions are now considered ‘essential workers’, keeping us all as safe as possible in times of pandemic. This shift should lead to a re-evaluation of labour migration policies to focus on the rights of migrants, especially those working in low-paid but ‘essential’ jobs.

Also on the Forum Network: Falling through the Cracks: COVID-19 and undocumented people in Europe by Alyna Smith, Advocacy Officer, PICUM

MPG’s Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX), launched this autumn, shows that the way a country approaches integration through its policies and politics influences how integration works in practice. These policies and politics influence two factors that serve to make integration a reality: the population’s willingness to accept and interact with migrants, and the extent to which migrants feel they belong in their new home country.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown us into a very delicate situation where we can see both the very best and the very worst in our fellow human beings. We must remember that our responses to it will undoubtedly affect the success of integration in the future.

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Isabelle Chopin

Director, Migration Policy Group

MPG’s Director since 2016, Isabelle joined MPG at its inception in 1995. She was the Director of the Starting Line Group campaign that led to the adoption in 2000 of the two European anti-discrimination directives (Council Directives 2000/43/EC and 2000/78/EC). She has led many trainings and projects in the fields of non-discrimination, citizenship, hate speech, data collection and integration. Isabelle is a French lawyer specialised in anti-discrimination law and is also the Specialist Coordinator in non-discrimination law of the European network of legal experts in gender equality and non-discrimination.