Irregular Migration During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Author: Nasir Iqbal
Publication Year : 2020

In the wake of a debate on the migration-development-security nexus, the situation of COVID-19 has put irregular migrants into greater socio-economic and health vulnerabilities. The informal sectors of host countries absorbs most of the irregular migrants. Hence outlining their health, social, and economic crises during COVID-19 is a matter of academic and policy concern of current research.

Pakistan is an exciting space to study irregular migration in the contemporary and temporal settings, particularly COVID-19. Apart from legal migration (around 11 million people have proceeded abroad since 1970), there is massive irregular migration, especially to Europe, from Pakistan. For example, Iran deports over 20,000 Pakistani migrants every year, and in the last four years, it has expelled 80,040 migrants.

About 6,767 irregular migrants from Pakistan entered Europe in 2017. Turkey deported 10,476 individuals, and European Union as a whole exiled over 20,000 Pakistanis. The cost of transit from Pakistan to Greece via Iran and Turkey costs around USD 4,000.

We can explore the process entailing irregular migration, which drives people to opt for unlawful channels to migrate. How those who migrate illegally survive socially and economically in the wake of COVID-19? What adversities the pandemic has struck upon them.

We can use a qualitative research strategy to achieve the objectives described above. We conduct online interviews using purposive sampling with irregular migrants working in several host countries’ informal sectors, namely Greece, Germany, the UK, Italy, and North America.

Why Migrate Illegally?

We find three factors that explain irregular migration: i) The fundamental factors such as population growth, social disintegration, environmental disorder, and economic reorganization. ii) The proximate factors that trigger people to migrate, including migration, low income, unemployment, labor demand in host countries, social conflicts, and viable opportunities in foreign lands. iii) The sustaining factors such as network, resource and knowledge, travel possibilities, and home and host countries legislation.

COVID-19 and Economic Vulnerabilities of Irregular Migrants

COVID-19 has resulted in the loss of jobs by irregular migrants, though these have been restored at times. The issues of legality vs. illegality of their status, economic vulnerabilities, the role of governments of the host and origin countries, irregular migrants as vulnerably poor, and social capital as social security are some key findings of our survey.

Facilitating Irregular Migrant Workers During the Pandemic

Based on the survey results, the government needs to intervene to facilitate irregular migrants before the peak of the second wave of COVID-19 abroad. There are some appropriate intervention which can be operable in contemporary situational settings of the country.

First, the countries, including Pakistan, have estranged migrants in overcrowded spaces because of a lack of resources to self-sustain themselves. In the wake of this experiential reality, the origin and host countries must relax the stringent conditionality of documentation, formal employment, legal status, and work permits as qualifying criteria for recipients of such programs and packages.

Second, the impacts of lockdown have disproportionate effects on the vulnerable poor. The institutionalized policies and frameworks compounded by the precautionary measures under COVID-19 are already marginalizing the poor. In this situation, mapping the vulnerable poor and including irregular migrants into the policy ambit is mandatory.

Third, building alliances between the state institutions and civil society is also mandatory for devising socially responsive and contextual policies. Lastly, we must push for reconsidering the cases of failed asylum seekers, and host countries need to relax border-mobility restrictions.

Concluding Thoughts

The focus of research is on deconstructing existing stringent legal and spatial barriers in literal and figurative contexts to facilitate irregular migrants. The study also calls for adopting a more collaborative and sectoral approach to include the irregular migrants as vulnerably poor in host countries’ social security packages. The lack of data is another obstacle in identifying the irregular migrants; hence their geographic and social mapping is also critical. The role of networking and social capital can also be instrumental in the target population’s social mapping.