As the COVID-19 crisis continues to grip the planet, travel restrictions have become the de-facto method of control. Nearly 80 countries have now locked down their borders to curb the spread of the virus. Restrictions range from a full ban on all travel like in India and Italy to a ban on people from certain nations as imposed by Croatia, Sri Lanka, Uruguay and many others.
There are around 272 million migrants across the world according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. The sudden and global nature of the travel ban has left many of these migrants stranded in countries where their visa is due to expire. With visa-related work being halted in some countries, these stranded citizens are left with little ability to manage their future. The uncertainty of the virus added to the uncertainty of their legality has left some very stressed.
To help traumatised immigrants and tourists, some nations have turned to automatic visa extensions. For example in France, the Préfecture de Police has announced a three-month extension of all visas and residency cards. The European Commission (EC) has said anyone unable to leave at the expiry of their short stay visa can get a 90-day extension. Anyone who crosses the 90-day threshold “should be issued a national long-stay visa or a residence permit, in the country in which they have been stranded,” an EC spokesperson told SchengenVisaInfo.com. However, the details on how to extend are unclear, which is a big problem for many migrants. Mariette, an Indian student in France, who like many others finds herself trapped, says “the website where I book appointments for visa extensions does not work, so I just have to wait and see.”
In the UK, the government has said that “most people in the UK whose immigration status is affected by the coronavirus outbreak will get an automatic extension of their visa until 31 March 2020.” The deadline is approaching fast and the Home Office is yet to issue any announcements about what comes next. Without any clarity on whether the scheme will be extended or not migrants like Rucha, an NHS worker, have been left in a state of confusion. The Indian High Commission put out a statement on the 22nd of March, with a statement from the Home Office. “The Home Office is urgently working on guidance for Indians and those of other nationalities in the U.K. whose visas are due to expire… no one will be unfairly penalised for events beyond their control.”
For some, like Rucha this statement isn’t very reassuring. She is currently working in the UK’s National Health Service on a Tier 5 visa (temporary worker) and is attempting to apply for a Tier 2 visa (long-term work permit for skilled immigrants) to remain in the UK. Under normal circumstances, she would have to leave the UK for the conversion to take place. However, with Indian borders now closed and unable to travel anywhere else, she hopes that her visa gets converted immediately but has not received any communication on how the Home Office plans to proceed. She is left worried about whether she will legally be allowed to remain in the UK when her visa expires.
Around the World
Around the World, other nations have been slow to respond to this immigration crisis. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has built its economy on the millions of migrants from around the world, is yet to announce a plan of action for visa extensions. This official vacuum has allowed travel agents to cash in as stranded tourists and desperate migrants turn to them for help.
Kunal Chattopadhyay is an Indian tourist who finds himself stranded. He is in the UAE on a tourist visa and cannot return home after India closed its borders on March 22. He attempted to contact the Indian embassy in the UAE but was denied help. “The Indian consulate is not even ready to entertain you,” he said, highlighting the confusion and chaotic nature of the immigration system in the UAE.
Left without any options, he had to turn to a private travel agent to extend his visa on March 23. Taking advantage of the confusion, the agent charged him an exorbitant fee of £543, rather than the £65 he paid initially. He describes the situation as “….. a coronavirus money-making system….Everyone is scared of being fined and is ready to pay any amount to the agent to extend the visa.”
On March 25, the UAE government announced that residency visas and labour permits would be automatically extended, without the need for medical fitness tests, which are usually mandatory. The fee for visas has not been waived though.
Singapore, which is home to 2.16 million immigrants, is another nation that is yet to introduce visa extensions. Lavanya is currently based in Singapore. Her situation is even more complex since her husband and children are British nationals, whilst she holds Indian citizenship. Their visas are due to expire on 30 March and their employment pass has been delayed due to the current situation. As a result, she and her family face a fine if Singapore doesn’t offer an automatic extension.
The family is stuck in limbo. They cannot travel to India, due to the ban on travel and she does not wish to travel to the UK as they do not have a home there. However, that might be their only option. She said “…. we’d rather go to the UK than overstay. We don’t even have the support of the UK high commission to make sure my very young kids aren’t separated from me at this time,”. Despite repeated attempts to get in touch with the UK embassy, she is yet to hear back from them, a complaint that many stranded Brits have echoed.
The Quick Fix
There is also a big question around who will bear the visa costs for migrants. In the UK, sponsoring the visa for a worker in the UK can cost anywhere from a minimum of £2,000 to a maximum of £38,000 or more, depending on a range of factors. Normally, this is a cost that companies pay on behalf of their employers. As more and more countries seek to impose even more draconian travel restrictions, many countries are using visa extensions as a quick-fix solution. They seem to be based on the assumption that the pandemic is a temporary issue that will subside within a few months. That’s far from the truth, however. The best estimates say it could take 16 months to develop a cure, and vox.com reported that scientists expect social distancing measures to be in place for a year or more. If we are in this for the long haul, then will governments continue to extend visas at no extra cost, as some are currently doing or will they take advantage of the situation by imposing unreasonable costs?
It is not just Indian nationals caught in such a situation, citizens of other countries like the UK, USA, Germany and Malaysia to name a few are also stranded around the world. While thousands are desperate to return home, travel restrictions have made it impossible for them to make their own way back. In response, some countries have turned to repatriation flights as a solution.
However, due to the sudden collapse of the travel market, this is not an easy move as flights are becoming increasingly expensive. Germany has set aside 50 million euros to help repatriate stranded German nationals. The government has struck a deal with airlines, targeting tourists in Morocco, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, the Maldives, and Egypt. “We will do everything we can to enable the thousands of German travellers stranded abroad to return to Germany in the next few days. To this end, we agreed yesterday with commercial flight providers to launch a unique program,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass tweeted.
In contrast, the UK is struggling to do the same. Dominic Raab, the UK Foreign Secretary, seemed to offer hope to the 400 British citizens stuck in Peru. “Amidst all the challenges of tackling coronavirus, we committed to working together in the coming days to enable UK nationals in Peru and Peruvian nationals in the UK to return home” he tweeted. However, the British government has made it clear that the stranded tourists would have to pay for their tickets. According to the BBC – the only commercial carrier to have offered to help is charging $3,000-$3,500 (£2,570-£3,000) for a one-way ticket – almost 10 times the normal price.
When announcing travel measures, Raab said “No one should be under any illusions. It (repatriation flights) is costly, it is expensive to coordinate.” An example of just how expensive it can be, when Thomas Cook went bust, the National Audit Office (NAO) estimated that the UK government spent around £83 million on the 746 repatriation flights to bring stranded Brits back home. Despite the costs, the British government has pledged £75 million to help bring UK nationals home from nations where commercial travel is not possible. Most nations do not have this kind of cash though, with the focus now on combating the economic fallout.
The Economic Challenges
Economic stimulus packages promised by some governments to keep companies afloat promises to pay businesses for worker’s wages. Migrants in non-traditional roles, however, face a huge challenge when it comes to income. A report by the Migration Observatory at Oxford University estimated 17% of UK’s employees to be migrants in 2018. It said, “Migrant workers were more likely to work during night shifts and in non-permanent jobs than the UK born, in 2018.” While the UK government has promised to pay incomes for those on the payroll, gig economy and freelance workers will have to wait till June at the earliest to see benefits.
A working paper by Thor Berger, Carl Benedikt Frey, Guy Levin and Santosh Rao Danda for the 68th Panel Meeting of Economic Policy in October 2018 reviewed the situation of migrants in the gig economy sector, like Uber drivers. The paper notes that: “We document that drivers overwhelmingly are male immigrants often drawn from Black, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani ethnic groups.” The paper also found that Uber drivers, with a median gross weekly income of £596, were at the bottom half of the London income distribution.
People who work for companies like Uber, Deliveroo and the like, are often classified as independent contractors. With social distancing and quarantine measures, such workers are almost guaranteed to lose their incomes since they aren’t officially on the company payroll and therefore don’t enjoy the protections recently offered to employees. Self-employed people thus face bigger hurdles in getting access to the same economic relief measures as full-time staff. On March 26, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a scheme for the self-employed, to provide up to 80% of their profits up to a value of £2,500 per month. However, the devil is always in the detail and the flexible and complex nature of self-employment means that many will be left at the mercy of Universal Credit.
A Place Called Home
Homeownership is another area migrants face issues in. The Migration Observatory found that “in 2018, migrants were almost three times more likely to be in private rented accommodation than the UK born.” The report also noted that migrants are more likely to rent in the private sector, as opposed to buying homes or live in government-run social housing. In the UK, the government bowed to public pressure and said that, during the crisis, it would ban evictions in both social and private housing. To address the issue of rent holidays, a UK government announcement read: “At the end of this period, landlords and tenants will be expected to work together to establish an affordable repayment plan, taking into account tenants’ individual circumstances.”
The long term dangers are clear, without proper oversight, there’s no way to ensure that tenants are treated fairly once the crisis ends. The temporary mortgage holiday won’t help homeowners in the long run, as their monthly payments will go up once the crisis ends. This could force a sharp rise in housing costs, which is in turn passed on to tenants. The government is yet to take this issue into consideration.
The above challenges are already a huge hurdle for legal immigrants. For undocumented or illegal migrants though, life is even tougher. Whether people like it or not, migrants, even undocumented migrants are now part of the social fabric of a country and remain highly susceptible to catching and spreading the coronavirus. The economic measures announced cannot provide absolute protection for everyone, and with the current trend of anti-immigration policies by a number of governments, there is a real possibility that migrants may be left out in the cold. Not only does this leave millions potentially homeless and stateless, but it could also be disastrous should the pandemic return. The issue of undocumented migrants affects most countries, especially in the West and repeated attempts to criminalise them have clearly not worked.
A report by the Boston Eater in the USA highlights one of the common challenges faced by undocumented immigrants across the world. The publication highlighted how the crisis has affected two workers in the foodservice industry. They do not have an Alien Registration Number, so they were unable to access unemployment insurance benefits, effectively leaving them destitute.
The situation is no better in the UK, where there could be between 800,000 and 1.2 million undocumented migrants according to the Pew Research Centre. Charities like the Public Interest Law Centre and Migrants’ Rights Networks have published open letters to councils pleading with them to establish a COVID-19 homeless task force. Without work and income, many of these people face homelessness and hunger. Mohammed, a 30-year-old asylum seeker told The Guardian: “I’m not worried about coronavirus, I will accept whatever comes into my life with the virus. But I am worried that I will die from hunger.”
Without access to the basics, people in similar situations are likely to be forced to abandon social distancing measures, just to survive in the short term, and this could severely undermine the fight against the virus. May Bulman writing in the Independent stated: “More than 30 human rights organisations are warning that the government’s attempts to control the spread of the disease and protect public health is being undermined by policies designed to prevent undocumented immigrants from accessing public services.” To ensure that such migrants are protected, we will have to radically rethink the current immigration system.
All these issues pose serious questions about the immigration process in many countries – whether legal or illegal, how can migrants be protected and ensure that they aren’t stranded in a time like this? WIll governments rethink their social safety programmes? Will they realise that immigrants can no longer be second-class citizens? Even undocumented migrants and refugees will need to receive better protection and opportunities. Criminalising them does little to stop the flow of migrants, nor does it help them stay safe and secure. The scary thing is that because of conflict and the effects of climate change the scale of migration in the coming decade is only going to increase.
Currently, most nations are busy tackling the pandemic as if it is an economic threat. The reality is that it is, but it is also a social one. And now is the best time to rethink how we understand global migration and immigration.