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COVID-19: the migrant experience

Updated: Apr 9, 2021

Currently, there are more than 244 million international migrants, equating to about 3.3% of the global population (1). 75% of migration occurs within national borders, only a quarter of migrants actually cross borders to another country. Immigration is a process by which non-nationals move into a country for the purpose of settlement. While most immigration to Europe occurs legally, one of the greatest anxieties for migrants as well as an issue of huge public concern within the European Union is ‘illegal’ migrants (1).


Migration is a component of the internationalisation of the world economy as the majority of international migrations occur from low and middle income countries (LMIC) to high income countries (HIC); creating somewhat of a cultural transformation in the past century (1). A key component of this transformation is globalisation which has increased labour movements from the global south to the global north; with this, cultural identities have become even more dynamic, fluid and situationally constructed (3). But what is culture? There is no exact definition, and this haziness is how politicians can often claim legitimacy for their discourses against migration in order to preserve national ‘culture’ (3). In more recent times, culture has become a symbol for different ways of life. Evoking cultural relativism; that no culture is right or wrong, emphasising diversity as a strength is supposedly predominant in the more cosmopolitan global north/Europe which hosts a large diversity of immigrants; more than 13 million immigrants that live in the European Union come from LMIC (4).

The last two years have seen the rise of a global pandemic of ill-predicted proportions, where migrants were among those hit first and the hardest- dealing with the largest challenges in accessing health services.

The pandemic is contributing to the invisibility of migrants, an already invisible population in mainstream narrative.

Since 2020, search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean have been suspended, many sub-saharan africans who migrate through Libya were stuck there in inhumane conditions due to land and air closures- forcing them to take more dangerous routes to their intended destinations. Abusive employers and their families have been spending more time at home with live-in domestic workers. Live-in domestic workers in Gulf countries especially, are exposed to the worst conditions.


Many governments have used the pandemic to push anti-immigration and anti-reproductive agendas. Sexual violence is commonly perceived as collateral damage of migration and is most often, not addressed in policies. Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) policies in transit countries for migrants are next to non-existent and migration professionals are mostly not skilled to discuss SGBV. Male migrants are often perceived as sexual predators and are not allowed to be victims in the legal or social sense. To make things worse. legal status hampers access to sexual violence services, further ignoring victimisations of all migrants and exacerbating the systemic injustices, structural and legal determinants of health inequities in migrant populations (5-7). Often, the money for humanitarian interventions are going to governments or large NGO’s that are far removed from migrant experiences and the intersection of othering that occurs leads to an accumulation of trauma that is left untreated. We need to take it more seriously.

There have been numerous ominous reports about suicides, hunger strikes and increased transmission of COVID-19 resulting from the inhumane conditions asylum seekers are having to endure in the UK Napier Barracks (former military barracks in Kent) (8). Napier Barracks has 16 blocks to house 400 asylum seekers (120 of which have confirmed COVID-19 cases). Three of these have separate private rooms but the 13 others are housing around 28 people each (9). A harrowing account from an asylum seeker stuck at the facilities still, can be found here.(10). As recent as January this year, the residents protested against these oppressive conditions with the support of a number of charity and campaigning organisations, but to no avail. Furthermore, this isn't just a UK problem- the consistent physical, psychological and medical abuse towards people detained in the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities has also created a huge COVID-19 vulnerability crisis. 16,037 people were held in ICE Detention Centres in January 2021. (11)

“ICE practices did not comply with CDC COVID-19 prevention guidance... creating unacceptable health risks which violate the constitutional and human rights of detainees”

Nearly all of the migrants interviewed by the researchers at Physicians for Human Rights (11) were unable to maintain social distancing in the conditions they were kept in. Many didn’t even have access to basic hygiene and sanitation amenities (soaps, hand sanitisers, disinfectants). Out of the 21 people who suffered from COVID-like symptoms, only 3 were isolated and tested. It is clear that migrants are seen as a burden on social/health systems and carriers of diseases that take advantage of social rights in destination countries, although these views aren't backed by research (12). At the same time, they are seen as vital to economic development, as resources to exploit without any agency.

Ultimately, more needs to be done to advance the rights and reduce the morbidities of migrant populations, especially in global crises' like the one we have all been struggling through for the past year. The lockdowns of 2020 exacerbated existing population inequalities on national and international levels and most times, migrants were excluded from this discourse.

"Those people who do not belong (yet or not anymore) to the state are neglected and utilised to foster one’s own state and threaten the states of others." (13)

Contact the author: @ludic.n

Disclaimer: the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Identity International.


1. McAuliffe, M. & Ruhs, M., 2018. World Migration Report 2018, Geneva. Available at:

2. Zimmerman, C., Kiss, L. & Hossain, M., 2011. Migration and Health: A Framework for 21st Century Policy-Making. PLoS Medicine, 8(5).

3. Wright, S., 1998. The Politicization of “Culture.” Anthropology Today, 14(1), p.7. Available at: [Accessed February 9, 2018].

4. Lopez-Vélez, R.L., Huerga, H. & Turrientes, M.C., 2003. Infectious Diseases in Immigrants from the perspective of a Tropical Medicine Referral Unit. The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

5. Haj-Younes J, Strømme EM, Igland J, Kumar B, Abildsnes E, Hasha W, Diaz E. Changes in self-rated health and quality of life among Syrian refugees migrating to Norway: a prospective longitudinal study. Int J Equity Health. 2020 Oct 27;19(1):188. doi: 10.1186/s12939-020-01300-6. PMID: 33109202; PMCID: PMC7590794.

6. Sacchetti E, Garozzo A, Mussoni C, Liotta D, Novelli G, Tamussi E, Deste G, Vita A. Post-traumatic stress disorder and subthreshold post-traumatic stress disorder in recent male asylum seekers: An expected but overlooked "European" epidemic. Stress Health. 2020 Feb;36(1):37-50. doi: 10.1002/smi.2910. Epub 2019 Dec 21. PMID: 31769207.

7. Sturrock S, Williams E, Greenough A. Antenatal and perinatal outcomes of refugees in high income countries. J Perinat Med. 2020 Sep 1;49(1):80-93. doi: 10.1515/jpm-2020-0389. PMID: 32877366.

8. Grierson, J. Home Office accused of cover up at camp for asylum seekers. The Guardian. 2020 Nov 23. Available from here

9. Williams, S. Asylum seekers at Napier Barracks share open letter to all British Citizens. Kent Online. 2021 Jan 21. Available from here

10. Folkestone’s Napier Barracks asylum seekers stage protest. BBC. 2021 Jan 12. Available from here

11. Physicians for Human Rights. Praying for Hand Soap and Masks: Health and human rights violations in US immigration detention during the COVID-19 Pandemic. 2021 Jan 12. Available from here

12. Visalli G, Facciolà A, Carnuccio SM, Cristiano P, D'Andrea G, Picerno I, Di Pietro A. Health conditions of migrants landed in north-eastern Sicily and perception of health risks of the resident population. Public Health. 2020 Aug;185:394-399. doi: 10.1016/j.puhe.2020.06.004. Epub 2020 Aug 3. PMID: 32758763.

13. Jauhiainen JS. Biogeopolitics of COVID-19: Asylum-Related Migrants at the European Union Borderlands. Tijdschr Econ Soc Geogr. 2020 Jul;111(3):260-274. doi: 10.1111/tesg.12448. Epub 2020 Jul 1. PMID: 32834144; PMCID: PMC7361417.

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