This blog is part of the COMPAS Coronavirus and Mobility Forum.
What does the COVID-19 crisis mean for aspiring migrants who are planning to leave home?
In late April 2020, I decided to document the experiences of aspiring nurse migrants from the Philippines, where the government had imposed a one-month quarantine in many parts of the country. With two colleagues based in Manila, we recruited interviewees through Facebook, and then spoke to Filipino nurses “stranded” in different provinces within the Philippines – all with pending contracts in the UK, Singapore, Germany, and Saudi Arabia.
Initially, we thought that our project would help paint a broader picture of how COVID-19 creates an “unprecedented” form of immobility for health workers (to borrow the language of so many news reports and pundits in the media). True enough, our interviewees’ stories were marked with the loss of time, money, and opportunity.
Lost time, money, opportunity
Most striking was the case of Mabel in Cebu City. Mabel began to worry about her impending deployment to the UK when the Philippine government cancelled all domestic trips to Manila, where her international flight was scheduled to depart. Her Manila-based agency tried to rebook her flight to leave from Cebu to the UK. Unfortunately, the agency had taken Mabel’s passport when processing her papers, which is a common practice among migration agencies, and there was no courier service that could deliver it to her in time. Eventually, Mabel’s British employers put her contract on hold because the UK had gone on lockdown as well.
As nurses grapple with disrupted plans, recruitment agencies offer limited support. Joshua, a nurse from IloIlo, flew to Manila with all his belongings, only to find out that his next flight to Singapore was postponed indefinitely. His agent refunded his placement fee but provided no advice on what to do next. “All they said was, ‘Umuwi ka nalang’ (Just go home),” Joshua recalled. “I told them that I’m already here. I resigned from my job…Don’t tell me to go home.” With 10 other nurses, Joshua asked the agency to appeal for financial assistance from their employer in Singapore. “We signed a contract. Aren’t we their employees already?” They received no response from either party.
Mabel and Joshua’s futile efforts to get through the closing of both internal and international borders reflects the unique circumstances of the pandemic. However, as we spoke to more interviewees about their interrupted migration journeys, I couldn’t help but wonder: how different is pandemic-related immobility from the other forms of immobility that aspiring nurse migrants have faced in the past?
Pandemic as just another form of immobility?
Again, Mabel’s story is illuminating. Even before she applied to the UK, Mabel was no stranger to cancelled opportunities. In 2015, she applied to work as a nurse in Manitoba, Canada. Yet, after passing the necessary exams, Mabel was told that Manitoba’s policies had changed and her work experiences were no longer regarded to be good enough for immigration. Still hoping for a chance to leave, Mabel applied to an employer in Quebec instead, devoting two years to learn French and prepare for the language exam. However, once again, her application was withdrawn because recruiters decided to prioritize nurses with “more experience.”
One might argue that the barriers to mobility caused by the pandemic is incomparable to the setbacks created by shifting immigration policies. However, in thinking through Mabel’s story and that of our other interviewees, it seems that the emotional distress experienced in both cases are not all that different.
As migration scholars now reflect more deeply on questions of immobility, it might be useful to consider how the experiences of immobility are differentiated. Immobility is not a single thing. How does a virus alter aspiring migrants’ perception about their inability to leave the country? As noted in a previous blog post from Xiao Ma, the COVID-19 pandemic may bring about new regimes of immobility, different from the immigration regimes that have blocked nurses’ plans in the past. It might also lead to more intense moral judgments on those who do eventually leave.
April, a nurse bound for Saudi Arabia, recounted a conversation with a neighbor who found out that she was a “stranded” nurse. Instead of commiserating, the neighbor told April, “Dito ka nalang muna. Kailangan ka ng Pilipinas” (Well you should stay here first. Your country needs you). April said she felt a mixture of annoyance and pity. “I feel sorry for Filipino patients. I do want to serve…But I also need to provide for my family.”
Now, my collaborators and I realized that our ongoing research must also work to differentiate pandemic-related immobility from the barriers that nurse migrants have faced in the past. For our interviewees, the pandemic seems more unpredictable and limits the options they can take. For now, all of our interviewees have been resigned to waiting at home, in the hope of borders opening up once again.
Immobility among migration scholars
More broadly, perhaps this is also a time to reflect on our own immobility as scholars whose travels for field work and conferences have been put on hold. Having the university shut down and international activity frozen is truly unprecedented. However, in some ways, many scholars have long experienced other forms of immobility as well.
While the COVID-19 crisis had forced me to cancel two conferences in the last two months, one of my Manila-based collaborators has never attended an academic event beyond Asia because his applications for tourist visas have always been rejected (twice by the Canadian embassy, once by the US embassy). Another friend, a Filipino PhD student, had to wait two months for approval to conduct research in Lebanon, prompting her to write a “back-up proposal” for her dissertation in case her visa application was declined.
Browsing through social media, it is interesting for me to observe an increasing number of American and British scholars ruminating on their current “immobility.” Living in this moment of pandemic, I can understand that it is tempting to think of our current constraints as exceptional. However, we also need to pause and consider how immobility is not a new experience for many others.
Yasmin Y. Ortiga is an Assistant Professor in Sociology, Singapore Management University