The Russo-Ukrainian war has begun with Russia using horrific force to threaten virtually all of the country. The estimates are that there will be millions of migrants, displaced people and refugees, and a number of European countries are offering refuge for Ukrainians fleeing their country because of this Russian incursion.
Millions have been displaced by past rivalries during the Cold War and millions more are likely to be displaced by the current big power confrontations between the West, Russia, and China and also by local war or natural disasters, and certainly by the ongoing Ukraine-Russia conflict. In every case, individual insecurity increased as the result of ineffective governance.
Yet, as we know from the past, people driven to displacement, those who are part of the diaspora or the stream of refugees are often the more energetic, entrepreneurial, and in some cases, better educated.
We have been and today are still in the worst infectious disease outbreak in a century, at least since the 1919-21 Spanish flu: the COVID pandemic. What is insufficiently recognized is that without refugee and immigrant innovation, readiness to do what is needed to succeed and take on the necessary work that local citizens refuse, the situation would be much worse. All of us need to appreciate what immigrants bring when they journey from home, the challenges they face, and refute negative claims often not based on facts.
Health issues affecting refugees or immigrants
Refugees or immigrants get hit hardest on multiple sides when it comes to health.
- First, they are seen as carriers of whatever is the latest infectious disease threat.
- Second, when vaccines, masks, or other lifesaving tools become available, they are frequently at the end of the queue if not last to get them.
- Third, they are accused of being a drain on the financial and human resources of the national public health system.
- Fourth, in many cases, because their status is not resolved – or perhaps even illegal – they are reluctant to get tested or go to health authorities when feeling ill, and they are likely to lack insurance or the resources to handle the costs of treatment in a hospital or outpatient facility.
As to the last point, according to Paul Spiegel, Center for Humanitarian Health Director at Johns Hopkins University, “The number of recorded infections and deaths is almost certainly an undercount, and there is a good chance that transmission rates have been much higher than reported, although it is difficult to tell because of limited testing and the absence of high-quality seroprevalence surveys that would show how many people in these settings have developed antibodies.”
This is not a “one country” problem but exists in the laws, regulations, and culture of many developed and developing countries, albeit some countries are worse at handling this problem than others.
While the world is still trying to recover and in a post-pandemic time to ‘build forward better,’ addressing migrant and refugee health is an essential task of health systems, the public health response, and acquiescence by the public.
Missing such an opportunity will not simply perpetuate the inequities and injustices that many migrants and refugees have long experienced – it will also make it much more likely that efforts to strengthen global health security and future infectious disease prevention and preparedness will continue to be inadequate, leaving the world at greater risk of severe health, economic and social impact from another pandemic.
COVID Science: International inputs into COVID vaccine development
This is a field where there is ready proof of the innovative benefits for everyone from efforts by non-citizen scientists. COVID science and vaccine development is replete with non-citizen critical contributions.
Katalin Kariko, a Hungarian biochemist at the University of Pennsylvania, co-invented the technology to modify mRNA which was key in developing mRNA vaccines. As we all now know, mRNA vaccines have become highly effective and have considerably shortened the time for a vaccine to get into arms. They are produced by several pharma companies that are headed by foreign-born researchers.
For example, in the case of Pfizer/ BioNTech, Turkish immigrants to Germany founded BioNTech and a Jewish child of refugees from Greece is the CEO of Pfizer; Moderna vaccines is headed by a Frenchman, Stephanie Bancel; Nianshuang Wang, a Chinese born scientist working at an NIH laboratory working day and night succeeded in designing COVID genetic sequences needed, critical for progress in finding vaccines.
Indeed, the long history of modern vaccines is replete with examples of non-natives who made the difference, as documented in the book A Shot to Save the World: Inside Story of the Life-or-Death Race for a COVID-19 Vaccine by Gregory Zuckerman, an investigative reporter for the Wall Street Journal.
But even before the race for a COVID vaccine could even start, gene-editing had to exist and it was developed by Jennifer Doudna, a California scientist in the early 2000s together with a fellow French scientist (and personal friend) Emmanuelle Charpentier.
They both won the Nobel in chemistry in 2020 and without their gene-editing technique, Covid vaccines would not exist. Walter Isaacson’s account of their discovery, The Code Breaker featuring Doudna in a key role is an eye-opener.
But Doudna herself in her own book A Crack in Creation (published in 2017) offers a different and refreshing view: “All told, we would be quite the international group,” she wrote of the team that produced the seminal 2012 paper about gene-editing, “a French professor in Sweden, a Polish student in Austria, a German student, a Czech postdoc, and an American professor in Berkeley”. Surely the bright side of globalization, the ability to make groundbreaking discoveries through international synergies.
Impact of COVID on jobs and migrants: The Global Picture:
In 2020 the UN International Labor Organization (ILO) reported that the COVID-19 crisis had an unprecedented impact on global economies, businesses, and workers, estimating that nearly 2.2 billion workers, representing 68 percent of the then global workforce, were living in countries with recommended or required workplace closures.
Migrant workers represented nearly 5 percent of the global labor pool comprising 164 million workers, with nearly half being women. These figures were early-on in the pandemic and have likely significantly increased over the last two years.
Some early data was also put together in 2020 by WHO in its ApartTogether survey that covered over 30,000 individuals from almost all WHO member states and identified the different impacts of the pandemic as experienced and reported by refugee and migrant individuals themselves.
The survey confirmed many earlier findings. For example, that lack of financial means, fear of deportation, lack of availability of healthcare providers, or uncertain entitlement to health care were the reasons cited most often for not seeking medical care in case of (suspected) COVID‑19.
Most refugees and migrants surveyed took precautions to avoid COVID‑19 infections and followed governmental preventive public health social measures. People living in more precarious housing situations (i.e. on the street, in insecure accommodation, in asylum centers, or in refugee camps) had fewer sources of information on COVID‑19. The survey found that nongovernmental and civil society organizations (NGOs), and other supporting organizations do play a key role regarding the dissemination of accessible information on COVID‑19 to refugees and migrants.
COVID hit hard the mental health of migrants. At least 50% of the respondents across various parts of the world indicated that COVID‑19 brought about greater feelings of depression, anxiety, loneliness, and increased worries. One in five respondents also increased drug- and alcohol use. Refugees and migrants living on the street, in insecure accommodation, or in asylum centers are especially at high risk.
The OECD also investigated the impact of Covid on migrants in Europe and OECD countries. The report titled “The impact of COVID-19 in the migration area in EU and OECD countries” was published in April 2021 and provided also some highlights of the migrant situation in the United States and Europe, confirming the findings of the WHO survey.
Impact in Europe:
The OECD report in particular provided information to the EU Commission that was useful to guide the formulation of contingency measures to mitigate COVID-19 impact on migrants. European statistics were further updated by Eurostat, also referencing the WHO ApartTogether survey.
With respect to asylum and irregular border crossings, Eurostat data showed that in the first 10 months of 2020 there was a 33% year-on-year decrease in asylum applications and a 6-year low in irregular border crossings. However, the decline in irregular border crossings was not uniform with some local communities receiving unexpectedly large new arrivals. Subsequently, the overall numbers have continued recovering after a large drop around April 2021.
However, the impact of the Russian invasion in Ukraine is already dramatically affecting these numbers. Just yesterday, thousands of Ukrainians are already reported to have crossed the border into neighboring countries.
The EU Commission was then quick to adopt a series of policy guidelines for member countries including recommendations to:
- provide COVID-19 related health care to be made available for all immigrants; and
- facilitate seasonal labor activities access for third-country nationals.
Other recommendations dealt with education, travel, detention rights all of which bear on the treatment of non-Europeans.
While not all of the recommendations were actually implemented by EU countries – several apparently do not, including Greece and Croatia that have been accused of abuse and neglect of migrants, even getting condemned by the UNHCR for violence on EU borders – it is telling how (most) of these nations consider the importance of addressing everyone within their borders.
Impact in the United States:
Migrants could potentially fill many jobs that are needed and yet not filled by the local workforce – a shortfall that in some cases has been made worse in specific sectors of the economy hard hit by the pandemic. In the United States, in 2021 nearly 11 million jobs went unfilled with many the largest recent increase in accommodation and food services (over 133,000).
Agriculture is another sector with major shortages and that is dependent on non-citizens in the U.S. For decades, farmers have hired seasonal foreign workers each year (mostly from Mexico), for planting, caring for, harvesting, and getting their crops to market. survival.
Reliance on the seasonal agricultural guest worker program has been the case for over 40 years when the government established a program to address the domestic agricultural worker shortage.
Migrant agricultural worker flows have been hampered further with the onset of COVID. The media has been replete with investigative reporting on living conditions by agricultural workers and the working conditions of food processing plants that provide harsh working environments and little health safety.
The Takeaway: Not enough is done for migrants
The Ukrainian invasion underscores the shock of an explosion of refugees in Ukraine and neighboring countries. Refugees, immigrants, and migrants are crucial to society on many levels.
ILO has developed recommendations to protect migrant workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, which include:
- Extend access to health services and social protection coverage to migrant workers. A number of countries have taken measures to ensure migrant workers are included in national social protection schemes and have free access to testing and screening irrespective of their status. Portugal, for example, has adopted provisions to treat migrants as permanent residents during the pandemic to ensure they have access to public services, including National Health Services.
- Address the special hazards of migrant workers living in communal or worksite housing (or for that matter in any other difficult surroundings). Some countries, for example, Bahrain, have established specific responsibilities of employers (and workers) in the private sector to ensure appropriate accommodations and facilities protective of migrant workers during the pandemic.
These are valuable measures but do not seem to be widely implemented. Nor are they, arguably, sufficient: They do not address a whole range of issues that ultimately affect migrants’ mental health, from education to job opportunities, training and recycling for job upgrades or even a more basic need like adequate housing – they all have an impact on an individual’s capacity for self-fulfillment and happiness.
To fail to recognize migrants’ contributions to the local economy – and to ignore their needs – is to do so at our peril.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com. — In the Featured Photo: seasonal workers picking asparagus Source: Screenshot from “Down on the farm” video