• misty

Updated: Sep 17, 2020

Author: François Gemenne

In an attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19, many governments have closed their borders, some with more force than others. A number of studies have questioned the utility of this, since countries that suspended flights to and from China, for example, did not report lower infection rates than those that did not. What is certain, however, is that such border closures have put many Europeans (and other westerners) in a situation they have never before experienced: they are not welcome.

Europeans have been forbidden to fly to the US, have been expelled from Tunisia or Mauritania, are personae non gratae in China, and have been quarantined in many other countries, including Australia. In normal times, a European passport enables its bearer to visit about 180 countries and territories without requiring prior authorisation. Now, Europeans’ mobility is restricted like never before. And ironically, such restrictions are comparable to those that Europeans have been imposing for years on people not fortunate enough to be born on the northern shore of the Mediterranean Sea.

The reason why Europeans – and most westerners – are not welcome is simple: they might bring the virus to places that have been spared so far, or worsen it in places where infection rates are slowing.

And it’s not just international movement that is affected; there are limits on moving within the borders of some countries. Before the lockdown was imposed across France, more than a million Parisians had fled to the countryside: they were accused of being irresponsible parasites. They were blamed in exactly the same way that migrants have been in the past: they were accused of bringing diseases, of being a burden on health systems, and simply of representing a danger to society as a whole. It does not matter that research shows that migrants are usually in better health than the population of their host country: diseases ought to be imported.

As a matter of fact, COVID-19 was not transported by migrants, but rather by those who feel at home everywhere: business travellers, tourists and exchange students. As for the migrants, no one has really paid them much attention in the midst of the crisis: they have been left to themselves, crammed in camps where the virus can spread more quickly than fake news on Facebook, often without access to health services. Immigrants, who have so often been accused of transforming their host communities, have become invisible again. That is, until one realises that refugee camps and migrant settlements are also potential infection clusters. Our blindness is the most powerful sponsor of extremism and nationalism.

This article was written by François Gemenne, and was first posted here on the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law website.

François Gemenne is a FNRS senior research associate at the University of Liège, where he is the Director of the Hugo Observatory, University of Liège, Belgium.

By Neil Adger, Emily Boyd, Ed Carr, Sonja Fransen, Dominique Jolivet, Anita Fabos, Maria Franco Gavonel and Caroline Zickgraf.

The COVID-19 pandemic is transforming the social world. It is, for example, producing substantial changes in the practices and experiences of migration and mobility. The significant opportunities and risks for people who move, and how such individual transformations affect the sustainability of societies, are being radically altered.

Research from the MISTY project shows how, when individuals move, they transform their lives and life chances, often in ways that contribute to the greater good and even to sustainability. Migrating from one place to another is a common means of personal transformation. Yet at the aggregate level, migration is intertwined with globalization and has been an engine for urbanization over the past few decades.

The COVID-19 pandemic is throwing up stark dilemmas for mobility and migration everywhere. There are clearly a variety of migrant situations and experiences, ranging from low-income migrants in city slums through to international hyper-mobile highly paid workers. Refugee camps, internally displaced people, and asylum seekers are themselves in highly risky situations.

Bola, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

There is a gulf of difference between the range of migrant experiences, but some elements are common. The COVID-19 pandemic has been framed as one of biosecurity, putting migration in the spotlight: the virus is perceived as coming from ‘somewhere else’, brought to each locality by travel and movement of people. Widespread economic shutdown and travel restrictions highlighted how human mobility initially enabled the spread of the virus globally. It is evident that the public health response affects marginalized populations, including migrant populations, in specific ways, sometimes putting stigma and blame on migrant populations through fear of the virus spreading, through international or local disease transmission.

The COVID-19 crisis and societal response has already highlighted the profound insecurity experienced by low-income migrants in particular. Perhaps the most visible example is given by the thousands of internal migrants in India, who having lost their jobs with the lockdown, try to return to their villages in conditions considered the antithesis of social distancing. Many migrant populations experience marginalization spatially and socially in the places they move to, especially in low-income settings. Socially excluded migrant populations experience negative mental health outcomes exacerbated by their limited labour rights, social stigma and inequality.

Yet the crisis also throws up alternative forces. A key question, for example, is whether the new places where migrants live enable coping and thriving through community action. Some initiatives such as the food distribution initiated by undocumented migrants in Barcelona to relieve hunger and food insecurity, already point in that direction.

What the COVID-19 pandemic means in the long term we cannot say. The idea of sustainability itself may be transformed, to focus on individual and collective elements of wellbeing, flourishing and community. The crisis inevitably changes the view of mobility and migration as part of that transformative story.

Our MISTY research can point to what we know is happening right now: economic limitations, reduced mobility, communities rapidly returning to rural areas or other countries, and the rapid, compounding effects of inequality. Social science can speculate on the post-COVID future, but it will very likely be something very different to what we know now. Social science can examine lessons learned from the past and contribute nuanced perspectives on how transformations occur. But the research process also needs to create space for an inclusive set of future imaginations on migration for sustainability.

This commentary was written in response to a call for contributions from the Transformations to Sustainability (T2S) programme on the COVID-19 crisis and was first on the T2S website.

By Neil Adger (University of Exeter), Emily Boyd (Lund University), Ed Carr (Clark University), Sonja Fransen (Maastricht University & University of Amsterdam), Dominique Jolivet (University of Amsterdam), Anita Fabos (Clark University), Maria Franco Gavonel (University of Exeter), Caroline Zickgraf (Liege University).

  • misty

MISTY partner and Co-I, Professor Sam Codjoe, outside the venue of the 8th Africa Population Conference in Entebbe, Uganda.

Under the theme “Harnessing Africa’s Population Dynamics for Sustainable Development: 25 Years After Cairo And Beyond,” the conference aimed to assess how Africa, 25 years after the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, can harness its unique population dynamics for sustainable development, using rigorous evidence to establish roadmaps to respond to these critical development challenges.

As outgoing president of the Union for African Population Studies (UAPS) Professor Codjoe chaired the opening ceremony and talked to an audience of nearly 1,000 participants about the rapid pace of Africa’s urbanisation. Professor Codjoe said that by 2050 the majority of citizens will out of rural areas and living in cities and he urged policymakers and all the stakeholders in Africa to come up with ways to deal with urbanization and to make sure Africans benefit from it.


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