Falling through the Cracks: COVID-19 and undocumented people in Europe

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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.

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The coronavirus pandemic has exposed our intense reliance on low-wage workers — those who continuously put themselves at risk to keep our societies going and our lives convenient.

Among these are undocumented people who care for our elderly and our children, clean our homes, cook and serve our meals in restaurants, pick our fruit, build our office towers, deliver our takeaways. They work in sectors defined by informality or under-regulation, doing jobs that cannot be done from home and where they have few rights and benefits.

For many of them, losing their source of income simply isn’t an option because they are excluded from most government financial support. This means they have no choice but to continue to go to work, exposing themselves to greater risk of infection. And when that work is suspended, they rely on communities to provide the safety net where the government is absent. Those communities in turn are already facing difficulties in providing services due to the crisis.  

New: 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.

The Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM) surveyed its members to learn more about the impact of lockdown measures on themselves as well as the communities they work with. Forty members responded, based across the European Union as well as in neighbouring countries (Albania, Israel, Morocco, Norway, Switzerland and the United Kingdom). The survey shows that the main concern for undocumented people during the early period of the pandemic (80% of those surveyed) was loss of income due to the interruption of work. This collides with the impossibility for undocumented people to access state support, including unemployment benefits.

Recognising the chaos that would result from widespread loss of permits and residence status, several countries automatically renewed those at risk of expiring during the pandemic. Italy went further, adopting a measure that opened the door to a major regularisation for undocumented workers in the domestic and care, and agri-food sectors, with a view to addressing labour shortages due to the closure of borders. 

For undocumented people, the risk of infection and the enormous mental health burden of the pandemic exist in a context where, in most parts of Europe, primary health care is inaccessible to people with insecure residence status. This means, in many cases, limited or no access to a general practitioner and no right to subsidised care except in the case of emergencies.

It is notable then that Portugal temporarily regularised the status of all people with a pending residence application, so they could have access to state support, including full access to health care; and that Ireland has granted safe access to health care to undocumented people, ensuring no data is shared with immigration authorities. Elsewhere, municipalities in several member states took steps to facilitate access to health care and shelter.

For undocumented individuals and families in situations of acute vulnerability, such as those who are homeless, living in encampments, reception centres, or in immigration detention, the risk of infection is great because of proximity and poor living conditions. It is even more difficult to contain the spread of the virus in such precarious and overcrowded settings.

In part based on public health concerns, the pandemic has led to numerous countries releasing people from detention facilities. Spain, for instance, nearly emptied its immigration detention centres to avoid uncontrolled COVID-19 outbreaks in them, while relying on civil society to provide alternative accommodation. These actions were also — and mainly — taken because prohibit immigration detention if there is no reasonable prospect of removal. In the early period during lockdown, deportation was impossible to carry out due to border closures. At the same time, in some cases people were reportedly released from detention onto the streets with no provision by the authorities for shelter.

Also on the Forum Network: Shifting Dependencies: Migrant essential workers in the health and social care sectors by Mariña Fernández-Reino and Carlos Vargas-Silva of the Migration Observatory, University of Oxford

The reality faced by undocumented people in the context of COVID-19 reinforces the need for universal health care that reaches the most marginalised in our societies to ensure everyone’s health. It underscores the need for extending social protection systems to ensure a safety net for all workers, including those registered as self-employed and in non-standard employment. Future work permit schemes must resolve the contradiction in current policies, which make it incredibly difficult for people from outside the EU to get a permit to do these jobs in most countries, while in reality they are crucial jobs often done by migrant workers.

The pandemic has also shown that states can respond when there is the right incentive — to release thousands from detention, regularise the status of those in situations of precarity, find local solutions for those who need shelter. But we cannot be satisfied with ad hoc responses to a health emergency; there must be a longer-term strategy to fill the cracks in our societies that leave some people permanently in situations of vulnerability, while the rest benefit from their labour.

Banner image: Kieran Jones

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Alyna Smith

Advocacy Officer, PICUM

Alyna Smith is Advocacy Officer at PICUM, where she leads their work on access to justice, access to health and legal strategies. She is a licensed lawyer and has an academic background in criminal law, human rights law, bioethics, and the life sciences.

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