The Covid-19 pandemic as an opportunity to improve the EU's approach to migrants

12 April, 2021

In a recent article, Maria Nyman, the Secretary General of Caritas Europa, underlined how strongly Covid-19 has shown the importance of migrants’ integration in Europe. Undoubtedly, migration and the subsequent inclusion of migrants into societies and labour markets are generally not fully understood by the host societies, given the fact that the complexity of such issues are not often made clear to the majority of the population in the media or public debates. As the covid-19 pandemic has clearly illustrated the need for, but also vulnerability of migrants, now is the time to reconsider the EU approach to migration and strive for an inclusive labour market that triggers further integration.

The position of migrants in society

Data shows that, during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the contribution of migrants, especially those from non-European countries, has been crucial in keeping supermarkets, transport and healthcare services open and operational. The same study defined migrants as “key workers” with regard to the Covid-19 pandemic, given the essential functions they had in European societies. According to another recent study, migrants account for 14% of key workers in European countries, in particular in the biggest cities and in the most populated areas. While essential, the positions offered and the subsequent employment contracts have been noted to be rather disadvantageous and insecure, which has been an important problem for years, but rather accentuated due to the pandemic. As Fasani and Mazza have underlined in their recent research, migrants in Europe are more likely to be employed in fixed-term and non-standard contracts, they have shorter job tenure and they earn lower wages compared to the rest of the population. In general, migrants are also more likely to be considered for low-skilled and low-paid positions, for which they at times are clearly overqualified, meaning that they have more training than what is required for the jobs they commonly do. According to the 2015 OECD research, “an average of 35% of highly educated immigrants in employment are overqualified OECD-wide”. The statistics from Italy are also rather telling, as one study showed that only 6,7% of immigrants have a qualified or technical job, and only o,3% hold a managerial position. A longer stay in the destination country helps to some extent to solve this problem. However, even when they are long-term residents, the foreign-born individuals are worse off than their native peers when it comes to overqualification and working hours. This can have negative consequences for the migrants involved. Indeed, as a consequence of the skills mismatch, migrants earn lower wages and are surrounded by higher uncertainty when it comes to economic career perspectives. This situation, additionally, results in lower job satisfaction and aspiration.

There are several reasons for this phenomenon, including the huge challenges to socio-economic inclusion that migrants face in destination countries. Being new to the labour market can be hard, especially when you do not master the local language or when you do not understand all possibilities that the labour market offers. Given the characteristics of their occupations, the fact that they may be temporary, poorly secured by contracts, as well as poorly paid, migrants find themselves more affected by economic crises than many other groups in society. In particular, the economic shock that has been triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic has deeply impacted their lives. The World Bank has estimated that there will be “the sharpest decline of remittances in recent history”, nearly 20%. As the World Bank has expressed, this can be due to the fact that migrants are more vulnerable to loss of employment and wages. The President of the World Bank Group, David Malpass, stated that “The ongoing economic recession caused by COVID-19 is taking a severe toll on the ability to send money home and makes it all the more vital that we shorten the time to recovery for advanced economies”.

However, the efforts that European states make to protect migrants and their occupations are very poor. Policies have generally failed to ensure equity for the whole population. As Antonio Vitorino, the Director-General of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), has pointed out, “it is crucial to build back our mobility systems in a safe and inclusive way, ensuring health care access for all, and avoiding prejudice and stigmas associated with those on the move”. To give a concrete example, in future vaccination campaigns, it must be crucial to include, in addition to refugees – cited as a priority group – also undocumented migrants, who play a crucial role in our societies. This category of migrants is often employed in important sectors of local economies, such as the agricultural sector where they are often employed as pickers. The significance of migrants as a labour force has particularly been witnessed now during the pandemic where borders have been more difficult to cross, as there in some sectors have been a shortage in workers. In parallel to this, they must be guaranteed access to health care, not just to emergency care.  This would allow for deeper care for the most vulnerable migrants, especially in these unstable times.

A better Europe

As Nyman expressed in her article, “migration is the key to keeping our economies and societies working”. She suggests striving for a sort of “win-win situation”: a new administrative, political, and social approach, more inclusive and open to migrants given the paramount importance they play for our societies, which could also have positive consequences for the host societies. It certainly sounds strange to have to think about the good of migrants for one’s benefit, and this could indeed have been avoided if, in recent decades, European states had set up effective reception and integration policies. But if the moral obligation does not succeed in shifting European policies, arguing for the potential benefit to society as a whole could be boosted. It is certainly necessary for the national economies of the European destination countries to recover from the current crisis, so that the population can begin to have some economic and social peace again. However, it is also important for governments to show more awareness of the groups most affected by this crisis, one of which is migrants, and respond with timely and effective policies. For instance, one issue to address is the unfavourable administrative guidelines and rules in many European countries, which do not facilitate legal entry, document acquisition and regularisation. EU Member States generally have very strict regulations in terms of legal entry for migrants, meaning that it is very difficult for them to acquire documents and to obtain refugee or worker status. The agreements with third states, which aim to prevent migrants from entering EU territory is another illustration of the inclination to impede entry. In addition, states do not always recognize the former professional qualifications of migrants. A the UNCHR has reminded, “to ensure migrants’ and refugees’ inclusion, their qualifications and prior learning must be recognized so that they can continue their education and find employment that corresponds to their skills”. When this does not happen, migrants are forced to choose other jobs, in the majority of the cases underqualified and, as a consequence, low-paid. Migrants are oftentimes forced to accept jobs without a contract, and this results in the implementation of an informal economy, which in turn causes irregularity, precariousness, and exploitation. The failure to recognise the training and qualifications of migrants relegates them to undesirable, low-skilled occupations and thereby misses out on the great potential that migrants, through their skills, could bring to the country. This condition not only has a strong impact on migrants from a labour point of view, but also from a social one. For example, it is difficult to be forced to work in a profession where one is highly overqualified, only due to structural impediments to equal opportunities, especially knowing that one could have a much more qualified and therefore well-paid job with less precarious and exhausting working hours and greater guarantees if such impediments were addressed. All this also has considerate repercussions on the integration of migrants in host societies. Precarious jobs, longer working hours and shifts, low wages and the absence of contractual guarantees are significant obstacles for migrants to feel part of society, which add to the difficulties they already have to face.

The Covid-19 pandemic has openly shown the great inequalities that are reproduced every day in our societies. It showed how the already most disadvantaged groups suffer the most from crises. Further, it has made it clear that government policies should do more to level out these differences until they are eliminated.

Share this: