Impact of COVID on access to services for irregular migrants

Published 11 November 2020 / By Nicola Delvino, Marie Mallet-Garcia

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Migrants with irregular status during the COVID-19 pandemic: Lessons for local authorities in Europe

This working paper was prepared under the auspices of the City Initiative on Migrants with Irregular Status in Europe (C-MISE), a project supporting knowledge-exchange between European cities discussing local responses to the presence of migrants with irregular status. Despite relatively limited resources and competences in the field of migration, local authorities are at the forefront of responding to the social needs of society, including migrant communities and informal residents with irregular migration status. In 2019, a C-MISE working group comprised of 11 European municipalities facilitated by the University of Oxford’s Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) and chaired by the City of Utrecht prepared the first ever Guidance for Municipalities on local responses to irregular migrants filling a gap left by national and European Union (EU) policies on how municipal service providers should respond to the social needs raised by the presence of (non-returned) third-country nationals without residency rights, work authorization, and restricted access to public services, including healthcare, housing, education, legal counselling and so forth.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdowns of European societies posed unprecedented challenges to European cities in their responses to new and old social needs. Only about a year after the publication of the Guidance, the pandemic dramatically overturned the social, economic, policy, migration and welfare landscapes of Europe. On the one hand, it exacerbated sanitary, social and economic vulnerabilities and exposed the risks of having groups of informal residents at the margins of society with limited or no contacts with the authorities. On the other, the new context revamped the policy debate over the opportunity of formally including (certain) irregular migrants into European societies, as a consequence of both public health considerations in relation to access to treatment for communicable diseases, but also reflections on the essential contribution to local economies and societies made by migrants, including those with irregular status, and particularly in the agricultural and care sectors.

This paper aims to give a snapshot of how the pandemic impacted irregular migrants residing in European cities, analyse the new policy scenarios impacting irregular migrants, and explore local authorities’ initiatives and practices addressing the social challenges posed to this group of migrants by the pandemic and related lockdown measures and economic fallouts. As this paper was prepared (August-October 2020) only a few months since COVID-19 hit Europe and the situation is constantly and rapidly evolving, the aim is not to offer an exhaustive analysis, but rather the basis for cities to develop an evolving body of evidence. The current paper builds on both desk research and conversations between COMPAS researchers and city officials in C-MISE, including two dedicated online city exchange (April and October 2020). The ultimate aim is to update and contextualise C-MISE expertise on city responses and governance of irregular migrants; foster inter-city dialogues and knowledge-exchange on best practices that reflect the new social, economic, mobility and policy scenarios; and ultimately draw from the crisis longer-term lessons for policy on how to best govern the presence of irregular migrants.


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