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COVID-19: the backlash against migrants

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit migrants harder in almost every country. With borders closing, all mobility has been almost instantly criminalized and migrants were doomed to stay in unhygienic settlements where it is basically impossible to keep the necessary social distancing. More vulnerable to virus and without access to immediate healthcare, the fear of the “infected migrant” came to replace the far-right boogeymen of the “terrorist migrant”.

Here is a short summary of how COVID-19 has led to a backlash against migrants and what is going on in countries across the world when it comes to migrant rights:


Hungary’s far right leader Viktor Orban has seized the pandemic to pass restrictions and policies tightening his grip on power. Since the start of the virus, Orban has repeatedly blamed foreigners and mobility for its spread. In early March, for example, Hungary suspended the admission of asylum seekers in the transit zones and took advantage of infected Iranian refugees to keep all migrants from entering Hungary due to health and security reasons.

Orban’s statements are very clear about his priorities for Hungary during the crisis. In mid-March, he stated “We are fighting a two-front war, one front is called migration, and the other one belongs to the coronavirus, there is a logical connection between the two, as both spread with movement”.


Restricting migrants’ mobility for the general well-being seems to be a popular way of managing migration during the pandemic. Bosnia transferred thousands of migrants to a remote makeshift camp. Although the new premises do not seem to have the necessary conditions to halt the spread of the virus, especially when it comes to hygiene and social distancing, but local officials maintain that it is important to keep migrants in one place to keep them from being carriers of the virus.

The lack of resources of the Bosnian government to care for its own population – specially in terms of tests and quarantine facilities – has prompted officials to isolate migrants in favor of the Bosnian population.


The situation was already critical in Greek refugee camps due to Turkey’s break with the agreement with the European Union. Hundreds of refugees passed the border and in late February, early March, there were echoes in the press about a new “migrant crisis 2020”.

The pandemic and all the border restrictions imposed by it managed to stop the flood of refugees coming from Turkey. But far-right groups in Greece did not stop attacking refugee camps. The solidarity of the local population was already running out and people were starting to turn against migrants themselves. The virus made the desperate situation in the Greek islands painfully clear for everyone to see, but except for some unaccompanied minors, most refugees are still left without answers.

Although the pandemic has at least stopped deportations, but Greece is also not receiving new asylum requests. The refugees of the Greek islands are now in limbo.


France has its own share of migrant camps, especially in the north of the country. In Calais and Dunkirk, the pandemic has turned the migrants into pariahs. Migrants have reported police violence and hostility of the local population, including having their tents removed and being denied access to supermarkets and public transportation. Aid workers have been reduced by half and the conditions of the illegal camps go completely against all the hygiene requirements to contain the virus.

These migrants are stranded waiting to reach the United Kingdom, but such dreams are impossible during the pandemic.


One of the most affected countries in the world, Italy is also struggling to manage migration during the pandemic. Despite border closures, boats of migrants continue to arrive on Italian shores, leading to heightened tensions and conflicts between migrants and the local population.

Although migrant rights have not been the priority during the pandemic, Italy might soon temporarily legalize migrants in order to ensure agricultural production. Without the usual seasonal workers, Italy


In the United States, President Trump’s rhetoric of blaming the pandemic on a “foreign virus” has increased xenophobia across the country. Several Americans and immigrants of Asian descent suffered hate crimes and unlike other countries, the U.S. did not halt deportations during the pandemic, including unaccompanied minors from Central America. Although such deportations usually involved a longer process that included the intervention of social workers and other professionals, now they are much faster. It seems the administration is taking advantage of the pandemic to expel migrants at unprecedented rates.

2020 inaugurated the new “Remain in Mexico” program of the Trump administration to manage asylum requests. Instead of the asylum-seekers waiting in the United States, they are forced to remain in Mexico even if they are nationals of other countries. This policy has stayed the same during COVID-19, which means there are now thousands of asylum-seekers in unhygienic camps and shelters in the border cities.


The plight of Rohingya refugees has only worsened with the pandemic. The lockdown measures enforced by Bangladesh effectively cut the number of humanitarian workers by 80%. There are almost a million Rohingya refugees living in southern Bangladesh and although the cut down of humanitarian workers might help to stop the virus from spreading, it is also keeping humanitarian aid below minimum standards.  

As for Rohingya’s who have been found infected, the Bangladeshi authorities have forced 29 of them to quarantine in dangerous conditions, without appropriate access to health care in an island prone to floods and cyclones.


Although there are many more countries exploiting the pandemic to trample on migrant rights, there are already some clear guidelines from this list: neglect, hostility, and violence continue to permeate the experiences of migrants around the world. The crisis could have been an opportunity to explore new and solidary migration policies, as was the case of Portugal, but instead most countries are contributing to the backlash.

Human rights groups are extremely concerned with the aftermath of the pandemic and whether countries will feel emboldened to enforce harsher migration policies in the same of public health.

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