Migrants, especially from outside of the EU, have played a vital role in keeping supermarkets, public transport, homecare and healthcare services working during the pandemic – all sectors that already faced labour shortages before the pandemic, often because of low pay and poor working conditions.
Migration is key to keeping our economies and societies working. Nevertheless, migrants typically experience serious challenges to socio-economic inclusion, partly because they may be new to the host country labour market, but also because of structural hurdles, such as discrimination and administrative obstacles.
Migrants could contribute a lot more, but challenges all too often hamper both their full potential and their contribution to society. A study has shown that in Austria, for example, one in three migrants is employed below his/her formal education level, compared to one in ten among natives (Arbeiterkammer, 2020). Migrants across Europe are more likely to be employed in fixed-term and non-standard contracts, to get shorter job tenure, to work in seasonal sectors and to earn lower wages (Fasani and Mazza, 2020). Migrants are therefore amongst the first ones to be hit by economic shocks, such as the one triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. This is clear in the most recent forecast by the World Bank, which expects that migrants will send 20% less money in remittances to their countries of origin this year (World Bank 2020).
Through its social work with migrants in vulnerable situations, the Caritas network is witnessing an increase in demand for food support and housing. We are also experiencing a peak in aid demand from migrant students who have lost their part-time jobs, on which they relied to finance their daily lives. Though asking for governmental social help might be an option for nationals, this is not always the case for migrants. Particularly migrant students could risk losing residency permits, and interrupting their right to remain and their educational pursuits if they ask for governmental help.
Let’s protect migrants’ human rights and work for a win-win situation
Europe needs and depends on migration to sustain its own development and the well-being of its citizens. Yet, it makes limited efforts to guarantee migrants decent and stable living conditions, social security and access to the job market. Such guarantees would not only satisfy a moral directive, it would benefit society as a whole.
This limited recognition of migrants’ contributions and lack of solidarity is also reflected in negotiations happening across the EU level, and especially in the EU’s collaboration with third countries. This is evident in the new EU Migration and Asylum Pact, the new Agreement between the EU and the group of African, Caribbean and Pacific countries, and the new EU-Africa partnership. Despite the essential role that migrant workers play in the face of the pandemic, proposals from the EU side in the context of these negotiations show very little progress from previous frameworks and lack concrete steps to facilitate regular migration. Instead, these proposals overwhelmingly focus on securitisation and short-term measures that aim primarily at strengthening border control and reducing migrant arrivals in Europe – often at the cost of migrants’ human rights.
This continued lack of solidarity not only shows that we are sadly stepping away from European core values, but also that the EU and its Member States have been failing to foster an enabling environment that can boost migrants’ positive contributions to their home countries. The more migrants are welcomed and are empowered to thrive, the more their host countries and communities can benefit from their contributions. The COVID-19 crisis is the moment to give a push to this much needed win-win situation, not to put a halt to it.
Drawing on its long experience as a service provider for people in need, including migrants, the Caritas Europa network calls for policies that enable and strengthen the social and economic inclusion of migrants. We also believe this would benefit everyone, whole communities alike.
Migrants should have access to jobs that reflect their formal educational level, should receive official contracts, fair working conditions, and the same salary as natives in the same position. More broadly, Europe needs a rights-based, human-centred, and long-term approach towards migration, focused on harnessing its positive aspects and ensuring that the skills and contributions of migrants are valued publicly. Such an approach is as important as ever – our political leadership can no longer afford to miss valuable opportunities to address the socio-economic impact of COVID-19 by engaging in policy-making that is shaped by harmful misperceptions of migration. It is high time to take actions consistent with human rights, EU values, and the vital contributions migrants make to our societies.