Between (Im)mobility and Resistance: ‘Low-Skilled’ Migrants in the Pandemic

Published 30 April 2020 / By Domiziana Turcatti

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This blog is part of the COMPAS Coronavirus and Mobility Forum.

Last week I received a call from a retired health worker in London, originally from Colombia, whom I interviewed earlier for my research. He asked me how I was doing and how my family were in Italy. He reassured me he was fine but that was worried about his loved ones. While some of his friends work for the NHS, others are struggling to feed their families due to the lock down. After the call, I couldn’t stop thinking about the paradox my friend was pointing to: while some migrants are forced to keep moving, others are confined to a state of immobility. This blog post attempts to unpack this paradox and highlights some of the ways migrant communities are resisting such forced im/mobility.

From mobilisation…

Professor Biao Xiang recently remarked that: “‘work from home’ is now a requirement, but not everyone can afford to do so. Immobility is a privilege, and self-isolation a luxury”. At the moment, immobility is certainly not the privilege for those working in the health, care, and transport industries. These industries are staffed by large proportions of migrants. In the UK in 2019, according to the Migration Observatory, migrants made up for 20% of health workers, 18% of care and social workers and 26% of those in the transport and storage sectors.

These migrants are defined as ‘low-skilled’ and are often undervalued. The austerity measures of the UK government from 2010 to 2015 considerably reduced not only welfare benefits, but also the resources available to the welfare system. Post-Brexit Britain may have undervalued migrants’ contributions even further. As Maya Goodfellow recently remarked, the ‘Brexiting’ government was putting together a new immigration system strongly favouring highly skilled migrants and limiting the entry of the low-skilled.

Yet, at least for now, the tables seem to have been (partially) turned. People are starting to re-appreciate the ‘low-skilled’ and the British government has extended the visas of NHS frontline workers, which include doctors, nurses, and paramedics. Where the British government was trying to limit low-skilled immigrants, now it is desperate to make sure that they are here and they remain mobile.

…to forced immobility but with less resources

While some are being mobilised and increasingly appreciated, others are confined to immobility. I have been thinking about some of the people I interviewed last year. As cleaners, some are in zero-hour contracts. I wonder what they have been doing now, how have they been able to support their families, what kind of strategies and networks they have been mobilising. Concerns have also been raised about forced immobility and domestic violence among (migrant) women. Yet, NGOs run by migrants and supporting migrants have been closed, as part of the lockdown. These NGOs play crucial roles in supporting migrants to access welfare benefits, health care, and their employment rights in addition to protect migrant women at risk of domestic violence. It seems that forced immobility is coming with less resources.

But forced immobility is more than not being able to work. Some are immobilised because of their legal status. The British government has recently adjusted its asylum and resettlement procedures as a result of coronavirus. Screening and ‘assessment’ interviews have been paused. Among other changes, there are not going to be face-to-face appeal hearings. Instead, appeals will take place via telephone calls. Video calls will be used only if “full hearings need to go ahead”. I wonder how these changes will affect the transparency of asylum procedures.

EU citizens may also be at risk of forced immobility. The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants and the Migratory Observatory recently raised concerns about how the prioritisation of the coronavirus response may make EU citizens in UK at risk of becoming undocumented. EU citizens have until June 2021 to apply for the EU settlement scheme. However, the fact that key NGOs supporting migrants to apply for the EU settlement scheme are closed prevents them to reaching out to the most vulnerable EU citizens to make sure they apply for (pre)settled status, which is fundamental to prevent them from being at risk of future immobility.

Migrant communities’ resistance: Hope in an uncertain future?

It is clear that there is the need to understand how the pandemic is exacerbating past forced im/mobilities and creating new forms of stratifications. A comparative lens that considers the role of national and supranational governments in shaping migrants’ im/mobility is also needed, as governments are reacting in different ways. For instance, while Portugal has granted temporary citizenship rights to migrants who were in the process of applying for residency, the UK has not yet lifted the No Recourse to Public Funds (a condition imposed to some migrants that prevents them from accessing benefits), although it has introduced some form of support for those who cannot access benefits.

Meanwhile, we might place our hopes in migrant communities. In the UK, The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants early on launched a campaign demanding for the suspension of the No Recourse to Public Funds; the assurance that no one is made 'overstayer’ and that no one will be penalised for missing welfare or immigration appointments, reporting or court dates due to illness. Other migrant and human rights organisations have written to the UK government demanding additional funding so that they can continue reaching out to the most vulnerable. I also see smaller migrant organisations in London with little resources, like the one where I conducted fieldwork last year, attempting to continue delivering their services online and divulgating information as they can.

It will be interesting to see how these migrant organisations will coordinate with local governments and the civic society at large and with what outcomes. I also hope this coronavirus situation will become an opportunity to rethink the way migration and integration policies have been designed.

Only time, and research, will tell.

Domiziana Turcatti is a D.Phil Candidate in Migration Studies at the University of Oxford.