Migrants and shrinking regions in times of the COVID-19 pandemic: blog series

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on our daily lives. Suddenly, the world changed from a mobile world into an immobile one. In these blog posts, the WELCOMING SPACES team gives an insight into how the pandemic has affected the lives of migrants in shrinking regions across Europe, in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and Spain.

Dutch Welcoming Spaces in Covid-19 times

3 June 2020

By Rianne Hadders, Jana Finke and Marlies Meier

The Covid-19 crisis highlights inequalities and the position of lower-skilled migrants in the Dutch society. For example, due to the crisis, the harsh living and working circumstances of many seasonal workers in the agricultural sector was highlighted in mainstream media. The workers union FNV called for attention as workers often are placed by their employment agency in holiday parks where they have to share rooms with multiple people. Keeping the 1.5 metres distance is impossible there. Various agencies were also fined because they were transporting the people in full buses to their employment site.

The effects of such circumstances are reflected in the findings by the Statistics Agency Netherlands (CBS). They found that migrant’s health is more at risk during the COVID-19 crisis. The death rate for people with migration background (second and first generation) within the first six weeks of the pandemic (until mid-April) was 50 percent higher than the expected death rate. For those without migrant background the rate was only 40 percent higher than expected. Possible explanations are the relatively high number of migrants working in professions that require contact or cannot be done from home, such as the aforementioned example. Other factors may be a lack of access to official information in a language they understand, and the wider spread of risk factors among migrant groups (e.g. diabetes).

The effects of covid-19 measures on asylum seekers and asylum processes

In the Netherlands, everyone is restricted in their mobility; people are asked to stay home as much as possible. However, it is allowed to go out for a walk and relax at the park. For people living in asylum seekers’ reception centres, the mobility is far more restricted and everyday more intensely affected by the restrictions. This is because asylum seeker accommodation (AZC) in the Netherlands mainly takes place on a large scale with many people living in one place. As contamination might happen easier due to the shared facilities and limited space per person, measures for them are even stricter than for the broader population.

For asylum seekers in particular, the impacts go beyond their living situation in the asylum centres. The Dutch immigration authorities halted all operations (the processing of asylum procedures) except for emergency ones. Those who intended to claim asylum during the Covid-19 crisis are provided with emergency accommodation, which is collective accommodation.

In the midst of halted and delayed admission processes two interesting exceptions can be observed, related to the interest of the Dutch society in the current crisis. Specifically, migrants working in the agricultural sector as well as migrants with a medical professional background receive special treatment. The Dutch farming sector depends to a large extend on the labour of seasonal workers from Eastern European countries. While at first the possibilities for workers to enter the Netherlands for the asparagus and strawberry harvest season seemed limited due to border closing and the cutting of transportation, access has in the end been allowed and suitable transport has been arranged widely so that hundreds of migrant workers could cross into the Netherlands’ fields. While the recognition procedure of diplomas for migrant medical professionals from countries like Syria and other non-EU countries is rather complicated and lengthy , it seems to become easier for doctors were not yet officially allowed to get to work, as the Covid-19 regulations that led to exemptions in the regulations. While there are still quite some requirements that have to be met, working under supervision of another registered doctor is possible for asylum seekers with a medical professional background who are still in the recognition procedure. Even some people who are still in their asylum request procedure were admitted to work in hospitals temporarily (COA).

Thus, in addition to the acute negative health impacts for migrants, some have speculated that this crisis underlines their importance to keep the economy afloat, which can lead to better treatment for those who are seen to be of immediate use for the economy. 

Responses in shrinking regions

At the moment it is difficult to identify how depopulating regions will be affected by the Corona virus. Projects that stimulate interactions between migrants and other inhabitants of these regions have been put on hold, and also meeting places (community centres) have been closed. However, some activities have successfully shifted to online support. Our students working on welcoming spaces in shrinking areas have also observed a shift in the functions of the welcoming initiatives. For example, an initiative in the Limburg region signaled that the migrants they were supporting did not understood the messages from the government and took up the task to translate all statements to Arabic and opened a helpline. Currently, they are hosting online language-cafes, but volunteers identified they mainly use these interactions to check on the wellbeing of the refugees in the current crisis.

Nevertheless, for many initiatives the Covid-19 crisis causes immediate financial problems, and their future is unsure. This implies that possibilities for interactions, casual encounters and meeting each other more in structured ways have become very limited. Migrants can be affected in negative ways, as their ties within the local community are often less strong; or they may be advantaged, as their online ties are stronger. Both hypotheses have been raised.

Additionally, some argue that the countryside is the future: less crowded, more (socially) cohesive, and potentially thriving with a renewed interests in local food production. Also living in lower densities is advantageous: currently the (predominantly rural and sparsely populated) North of the Netherlands is hardly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Rural communities are believed to be more resilient in a lock down situation. Neighbors always have been more dependent on community care, as formal and commercial services are distanced or absent. Green space is nearby and accessible. Generally speaking, people living in rural (and shrinking) areas are less affected by a lockdown, than those living in urban areas.

Photo by Matt Seymour on Unsplash

Living conditions of non-EU migrants residing in Germany during the Covid-19 pandemic

2 June 2020

Sabine Meier and Laura Foelske (University of Siegen)

In Germany, 19.3 million people (of the 83.1 million inhabitants in total) has a so-called ´migration background´ while 10.1 million people do not have German nationality. 57 percent of the population without German nationality are non-EU migrants. The measures taken against the spread of the Covid-19 virus highlight social inequality between a number of non-EU migrants and those who are established regarding their secure employment relationships, housing situation and social inclusion in local networks.

As regards the employment situation during the pandemic, according to the figures of the ´Immigration Monitor´, published in May 2020 by the German Institute for Employment Research (IAB), the number of unemployed among people with foreign passports rose four times as strongly in March and April 2020 as among those with a German nationality. A further analysis shows that people who flee from war and crisis countries are most affected by job losses during the pandemic. While unemployment among migrants with an EU passport increased by 0.9 percent, it rose by 5.1 percent among people from war and crisis countries. This is because the largest share of jobs of non-EU migrants is temporary work. If marginal employment is added, the main sectors in which they work is catering and restaurants, trade, maintenance, repair or cleaning sector, domestic work and seasonal harvest help.

With respect to the housing situation, many non-EU migrants have been able to move into independent apartments over the last years while some still rely on collective accommodations. These accommodations are often located in converted schools, hotels or military barracks, where approx. 50 to 400 people live in private rooms with shared kitchens and sanitary facilities. In particular in shrinking regions, collective accommodations are often located in some miles distance to city centers. Since a few weeks, the daily press regularly reports about collective accommodations in shrinking areas, where the migrants are not only are exposed to an increased health risk. In addition, bus lines to remote collective accommodation have been discontinued. As a result, they are unable to reach a supermarket or other services with public transport. Besides complaints and hunger strikes by the migrants themselves a number of German refugee councils and also students of the Fridays-for-Future movement have repeatedly drawn attention to the conditions through protest actions.

In relation to social inclusion in local networks and communities, especially in shrinking regions, non-EU migrants depend on voluntary help because of the absence of old established migrant organizations. By the ´volunteers-government-migrants´ co-production, for instance, housing maintenance and regular visits has been combined with mutual assistance of all kinds, translations during doctor’s visits and visits to authorities or finding solutions together to overcome administrative hurdles.

Photo of apartments of non-EU migrants in a rural area in Germany

Moreover, a number of migrants organize themselves in sport or other leisure clubs. Both, everyday social interactions between volunteers and migrants as well as the participation in clubs and associations, were restricted during the pandemic. In addition to this restriction, right-wing groups use the pandemic not only to defame the government as a scapegoat, but also the newcomers. They blame the newcomers either to be the “carrier” of the virus or being part of a militant group, that wants to take over – with the German government – the Germans. These groups use the current crisis to spread their conspiracy theories and to stir up hatred against newcomers. Therefore, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution considers a high risk of right-winged attacks on refugees and newcomers. They also consider radicalized loners as dangerous. Therefore, a number of migrants became not only isolated and lonely, but got mental problems in particular reinforced by the pandemic.

Besides these negative impacts, there are few initiatives developed to improve migrants´ living conditions during the Covid-19 pandemic. With respect to the employment situation, e.g. the federal state Schleswig-Holstein has simplified the rules in order to allow newcomers to take up jobs as harvest workers. The refugee council of Schleswig-Holstein endorses this development in the first instance but warned against suddenly discovering asylum seekers as cheap labor in the crisis: To grant them rights now, but which they would quickly lose again when the crisis ended. Addionally, the Federation of German Trade Unions demand for more offers for (further) qualification, training, recognition of qualifications acquired abroad, demand-oriented career guidance and labour market placement in general to improve the access to regular work for (non-EU) migrants.

In addition to these demands, volunteers and migrants themselves organize to support migrants by searching for new ideas and engagements by the blog “GoVoluneer”. With this blogs people were informed about living conditions of migrants and concrete advice is given how to support migrants and other social groups in weak social positions. This publicly available website shows some examples:

COVID-19 Crisis impact on migrants in Spain: New challenges and opportunities in the shrinking regions

2 June 2020

María García Tarancón, Adolfo Patón (Cepaim Foundation
Obdulia Taboadela, Laura Oso (ESOMI; Universidade da Coruña)

Impact on immigrant’s employment: some hit boats, another ones coming up

In Spain, COVID-19 is having devastating effects on the economy and the labour market. In just fifteen days in March, the GDP has fallen by more than 5 points, and it is expected that in the next quarter our economy will fall by a further 14%, according to data from the European Commission and the INE (Spanish Statistics Institute). Logically, this collapse has had its correlation in the labour market, with a spectacular fall in employment and the hiring process. Such loss of employment does not affect all groups equally; it is precisely the weakest and most unstable who suffer most from job loss: young people, women and immigrants.

The hotel, restaurants industry and commerce, where there is a very significant number of immigrants, are some of the sectors where employment has fallen the most, because of the paralysis of activity and the closure of establishments due to confinement. However, there are three other sectors of activity with a high concentration of foreign workers, and where their employment levels have not fallen so much, or even their demand has increased during the COVID-19 crisis. These are agriculture and livestock farming, domestic employment and residential assistance (Ministerio Seguridad Social; SEPE). In the case of agriculture, this is due to the greater domestic demand for food and to the fact that it coincides with the harvest season. Residential care has increased due to the very nature of the pandemic and the need for care for the elderly.

However, this pandemic has also brought to light the existence of two new social classes, in the words of Antonio Izquierdo: those who can be confined and those who are exposed out of necessity. The immigrant population is part of that battalion of “exposed” who, from the fields, the supermarkets, transport, care, have to take more health risk.

New opportunities in the rural areas

With the Covid-19 pandemic, the need to reformulate the current socio-assistance model has been more than confirmed, where an increase in the number of workers per resident or even the creation of new assistance figures such as “the personal caretaker”, can be an option and a source of employment that manages to attract a large number of migrant population to the shrinking regions. Many migrants are caregivers for older people living in our villages and thanks to them, they can continue to reside with care and attention in their homes. Without relatives and with the desire to take care of the health of our elderly, their needs for attention and care should be alleviated through people who want to work as caregivers or home assistants, being a great employment opportunity for migrants who want to live in rural areas.

This global health crisis has also brought to the table some important aspects, key to rural development. It has demonstrated that nowadays it is perfectly possible to telework, avoiding unnecessary polluting journeys, facilitating conciliation and allowing for decongestion in large cities. This leaves a new opportunity for the rural environment, as professional development can be carried out anywhere by means of new technologies. All these reasons make possible and offer a great opportunity as a means of living in the rural environment for immigrants who are in situations of special vulnerability in urban areas. On the other hand, the sale of products on the Internet has grown exponentially during the health crisis. There are many people who have bought for the first time through the Internet during this period, this upturn in commercial activity on the Internet is also a great opportunity for people who want to market their artisan products through the Internet, living and working in rural areas.

Some political responses

More institutional support and mechanisms that provide the labour market with greater flexibility would be advisable in order to be able to move some of the unemployed foreign labour to those sectors of higher demand, particularly agriculture. It is now harvest time, and in the situation of border closures, the option of hiring seasonal workers from outside is not available. At this time, the need for some 150,000 workers is estimated. Of the 300,000 seasonal workers in the field, about half are foreigners. That is where, with institutional help, there may be an opportunity for immigrants. The Government had relaxed requirements and extended work permits, but perhaps it could do more by granting work access to irregular immigrants or asylum-seekers.
On the other hand, in Spain the pandemic has accelerated the implementation of the minimum vital income for households in a situation of vulnerability and poverty. Nationality will not be an eligibility criterion, only one year’s residence in the country, so those immigrants who meet the requirements will be able to access this aid, which will undoubtedly alleviate the situation of the weakest and most vulnerable

Victims or resources? Migrants and shrinking areas in the post-Covid-19 society in Italy

31 May 2020

Irene Ponzo and Ferruccio Pastore (FIERI)

New obstacles (and some opportunities) for migrant integration. The pandemic generates both new risks and opportunities for migrant integration. Higher-than-natives propensity to mobility (both across and within national borders) is a key resource for many migrant workers.

Hence, mobility restrictions are likely to affect migrants more than the more sedentary strata of the population. Irregular status of a share of the migrant population may create further difficulties in moving across localities and in accessing health services and social benefits. Living in poor housing conditions, informal settlements, squatted buildings or collective accommodations is more frequent among migrants than among natives, thus exposing the first to comparatively higher risks of contagion.

On the other hand, new integration opportunities can open up, as it is here and there with more or less extensive regularisation procedures that were hardly imaginable until just a few months ago. This is the case of Italy where, to cope with labour shortages, an amnesty of irregular agricultural, domestic and care workers was adopted at mid-May . Regularisation applications can be submitted by employers or irregular foreigners. In the first case, the employer can regularise Italian and regular foreign persons employed on irregular basis or recruit irregular foreigners already present in Italy before March 8 2020 by paying 400 euro for the bureaucratic procedures and an additional amount to be defined as a compensation for evaded taxes. In the second case, foreigners whose residence permits expired before October 31 2019 and who, while still regular, had worked in one of the sectors targeted by the amnesty, can apply for a job seeking permit by paying 190 euros. This type of permit will last 6 months and will have to be converted into a work permit within this time span, otherwise the person will fall back into an irregular status. Around 200,000 migrants are expected to be regularised through one of these two channels, far less than the estimated 500-600,000 irregular migrants living in Italy. This is the result of the amnesty’s exclusive focus agriculture, breeding and fishery, domestic work and care work. Moreover, the amnesty could not offer a good value for money in agriculture where a large share of workers are hired for just a few weeks or months.

A further positive side-effect could be a mitigation in the level of exploitation of migrant (and native) workers due to the strengthen controls over working conditions to ensure the respect of safety rules could produce.

Finally,  if domiciliary care will become a key component of the public health systems to contrast the pandemic, care workers, a large share of which, especially in southern Europe, are immigrants, may gain recognition by assuming a pivotal role in connecting the health services with families. Such role might result even more crucial in peripheral non-urban areas more difficult to reach and monitor on regular basis for the public health services.

Migrants as pioneers of revitalisation of shrinking communities? Covid-19 has turned proximity into an economic and social asset, much more than it used to be. Creatively exploiting proximity (for instance to shorten food supply chains, and or touristic trajectories) is becoming a key condition for recovery, especially in countries, such as Italy, where agriculture and tourism are crucial sectors.

If rural shrinking areas have to become tourist destinations and large-scale production sites for zero-kilometer food (i.e. produced, sold and eaten locally), migrants may turn out to be a critical resource for them. In fact, if such a productive upgrade of inner, peripheral and shrinking areas is adopted as a strategic goal, we can hardly expect that the necessary workforce will come from young natives  flocking out of the cities . An example of this kind of development is Barikama, a cooperative of young African migrants in Campagnano di Roma, that is growing, packing, and delivering boxes of fresh food to the residents of Rome during the Covid-19 outbreak. This kind of initiatives are multiplying in Italy. The current pandemic could turn them from praised small avant-garde experiments into mainstream solutions for a post-Covid-19 proximity society.

Unfortunately, the outlook is still very bleak and no positive outcome is to be expected unless it is painstakingly and strategically pursued. Opposite scenarios are all too plausible: the massive asymmetrical crisis unleashed by Covid-19 could give a final blow to shrinking, economically and demographically fragile areas by further reinforcing urbanisation trends. In the meantime, there are clear symptoms that it could widen gaps and deepen inequalities between (less protected) migrants and (more sheltered) natives. Much will depend on politics and policies, on whether and how they will be able to steer a rethinking of our modes of production and our way of living together.

For the full version of the contribution click here.

Reflections on the consequences of Covid-19 pandemic on shrinking areas in Italy

31 May 2020

University of Bologna

The Covid-19 outbreak has brought new attention and new conceptual and practical challenges for Italian shrinking regions. The pandemic stages an imaginary polarisation between a city suddenly demonised as a place of settlement density and excessively compressed sociality and an idyllic vision of rural areas, suddenly relaunched as romantic, healthy, and safe places to live. However, as Chiodelli points out, it is necessary first to verify whether residential density is a problem. The data currently available do not clearly confirm this. In fact, also areas characterised by residential dispersion can be highly affected by Covid-19 emergency.

Furthermore, even if we embrace the idea of a possible “urban shrinkage”, rural areas are still characterised by too many limits, from inaccessibility, to the lack of essential services and jobs, often combined with  poor infrastructures and limited technological connections. These points are even more important if we think that in Italy these rural territories represent a quantitatively non-marginal area. In these areas, 23% of the Italian population settle, covering a large area of the national territory, equal to 60% and about half of its almost 8,057 municipalities. In this context, the impending crisis linked to the Covid-19 pandemic reopens a debate already existing in Italy, offering new opportunities for revitalisation of “old” problems.

In particular, Covid-19 crisis has boosted the reflection on shrinking areas on a double level.

The first level refers to the narratives and the representation of internal areas, gaining a renovated place in mediatic and political discourses. In Italy, a turning point is represented by a newspaper article where the archistar Stefano Boeri, famous for the “Vertical Forest” project in Milan, suggested to consider small villages as central places for our future. This article led to further public discussions, such as the online event “Riabitare i Piccoli Borghi” (“Re-Inhabit Small Villages”), where academics, writers, civil society organizations, mayors and experts in local development, discussed together on the future of internal areas, while considering the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic for shrinking regions. Similar debates are supported by the Association “Dislivelli”, which dedicated its last publication to the topic of Covid-19 pandemic and Italian mountain areas.

Moreover, public discourses are now re-framing certain characteristics of internal areas, transforming them from limits to opportunities. It is, for example, the case of the possibility to work in isolated contexts, such as in the agricultural and pastoral sector, among the few productive fields that did not stop due to the coronavirus outbreak. Or the case of the very interesting discussions about the reconfiguration of the public health system through what is called “a community-centered care” approach.

The second level refers to policies and concrete projects that have been supported since the pandemic scenario was wide-spreading. Through the development of bottom-up initiatives, for instance, rural areas are showing different signs of active resistance (and resilience). An example concerns the “cooperativa di comunità di Biccari” (Biccari community cooperative), that has activated a voluntary service of home delivery for the elderly and lonely people. An experience that shows the importance of social capital and solidarity in shrinking regions, also confirmed by the fact that this exchange is not based on money but on mutual trust. Similar initiatives are developing in different Italian villages, confirming that Covid-19 emergency is (also) a tool to activate solidarity and reflect on replicable models, even considering the differences related to specific local contexts.

Among some of the numerous initiatives promoted by public institutions, we report the recent call launched by the region Emilia-Romagna to sustain with 10 million euros a total of 119 municipalities, and in particular those individuals or families who intend to buy or renovate a real estate in the Apennines area. Another interesting initiative was promoted by the Ministry for Culture and Tourism, which is supporting non-repayable financing for the re-development and renovation of the historic centers of municipalities with less than 10.000 inhabitants in the regions of Basilicata, Calabria, Campania, Puglia and Sicily.

Numerous initiatives aim to sustain forms of local and sustainable development through the support of slow and responsible tourism.

Indeed, as Covid-19 has highly impacted on the mobility of people, restraining international tourism flows – both in terms of incoming and outcoming –, tourism destinations within national borders are gaining a renovated political and entrepreneurial attention. In this scenario, tourism in internal areas is not only seen as a possibility for tourists to enjoy alternative leisure experiences far from the crowded – and, therefore, “dangerous” – urban centers, but also as a viable and sustainable strategy for endogenous development of shrinking regions. This idea is supported by initiatives such as the replacement of the “tourist tax” with the “tourist award”, a creative idea promoted by the mayor of Valle dell’Angelo, the smallest municipalities in Campania.

Supporting sustainable tourism and agriculture is, instead, the aim of the call launched by Regione Puglia to sustain start-ups that provide innovative services for the sustainable use of rural and coastal areas in the territory of Alto Salento. However, as many experts suggest, tourism cannot be considered the only strategy to boost local development of internal areas. First of all, because of the risk of a “tourism monoculture”, namely the risk that the development of these areas starts to depend on a highly unpredictable sector such is tourism. Secondly, because tourism, if not developed through a responsible approach, has often showed its “dark sides” (e.g., pollution, social/cultural conflicts, unequal access to resources, etc.). It is therefore necessary to consider as a priority the needs of local inhabitants, promoting their active participation in decision-making processes. Thirdly, shrinking areas urge systematic interventions to respond to a fragile situation in terms of lack of services, jobs and infrastructures.

To conclude, the COVID-19 outbreak is leading both to new challenges and opportunities for shrinking regions. Surely, it can represent a reflexive node to understand better the mechanisms at the basis of territorial inequalities and exclusion, but, at the same time, the processes of successful revitalisation through inclusive and sustainable development.

The changing situation of migrants and refugees as a result of “freezing the Polish economy”

12 June 2020

Katarzyna Kubińska (Ocalenie Foundation)

The situation of non-EU migrants in Poland has been affected in different ways through COVID-19 epidemic. Migrants working in the service sector face unemployment, there is limited access to public social assistance (access varies depending on their legal status of the migrant) and also delays in access to legal support have impact on the living conditions of migrants.  

Economic challenges

It is estimated that there are about 1 million migrants in Poland. Most of them are labour force from Ukraine, but there was also a growing number of Belarusians, Moldovans, Georgians, Indians, and Nepalese. In mid-March, the Polish government ordered the closure of all sales and services outlets, except for pharmacies and grocery stores. As a result, thousands of migrants lost their work and the right to social assistance. About 150,000 Ukrainians left Poland in March, which is about 10% of the entire Ukrainian community in Poland. There is no data on how many of them lived in Warsaw. It is also difficult to estimate how many people of other nationalities have left. For many of them leaving for their home countries became impossible due to the suspension of international flights.

One of the examples can be found in the Georgian community. Many Georgians came to Poland on the basis of visa-free travel and, after their period of legal stay expired, they could not legalise their stay and had to work without a work permit. Many people in this situation were employed in Georgian restaurants, popular in Poland. After the economy “froze”, many of them were dismissed immediately, sometimes without getting paid and without any legal basis to claim their rights. Their return to Georgia was not always possible. The Georgian government organised a return plane, but it turned out that the number of seats was insufficient for all interested and the prices exceeded the financial capabilities of those in crisis.

Difficult situation of asylum-seekers

Asylum-seekers who decide to live outside foreigners’ centres receive financial aid, but the money is not enough to cover the cost of living in Warsaw (the aid is less than an average monthly cost of renting a single room). Asylum-seekers have the right to apply for a work permit after 6 months from their application (unless they receive the decision earlier), and most of them find at least part-time employment. When this group of foreigners lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic, the Foreigners’ Office suggested they should return to the centres. However, the centre where the Warsaw based asylum-seeker could return to is several hundred kilometres away from their current location. Asylum-seeker families in Warsaw do not want to return to these centres, because their children would have to change school. In addition, after restrictions are lifted, these families would like to return to Warsaw. Moving back to a centre would mean looking for a flat, work, and school in Warsaw again. The Ocalenie Foundation has stepped in to support migrants through food aid, 391 people in Warsaw with food coupons or food.  

Łomża: Urban area within a shrinking region

The situation of migrants living in Łomża, which is situated in a shrinking region in North-East Poland, is different and to some extent better. Almost all clients of the Ocalenie Foundation are refugees (about 60 families). Only few have lost their right to social assistance for various reasons. As Łomża does not have such a well-developed service sector, which was most affected by the lockdown, people did not lose their jobs as was the case in Warsaw. Migrants working in Łomża usually work in the construction and transport sectors, which have suffered less from the freezing of the economy. Due to the fact that the cost of living in Łomża is much lower, loss of jobs or reduced income have not led to such extreme situations as in Warsaw. The only families who have found themselves in a critical situation are those who have lost their right to social benefits and work due to protracted procedures, delayed court cases or other legal causes.

Poor legal support for refugees

Already before the lockdown, legal assistance to deportees was restricted by physical and administrative barriers and those marked as deportee were taken to an airport or locked in a guarded centre without prior notice. Contact with a lawyer was impeded. Now, the situation has become even more difficult, because the restrictions on contact with a lawyer are explained through epidemiological regulations. The legal situation of people who before the epidemic applied for the extension of their residence card has also become complicated, as border guards in charge of the applications decided that there are reasons to refuse further residence. Their cases must be considered by a court, and from mid-March courts proceed at a slower pace and postpone many cases. This means that some refugees live in a legal vacuum. Their stay permits in Poland are no longer valid, they have lost ability to take up legal work, and they fear deportation.

COVID-19 and the situation of migrants in Poland: Challenges in home schooling and the work situation

15 May 2020

Ewa Jastrzębska and Paulina Legutko-Kobus (SGH Warsaw School of Economics)

In his position dated 13 May 2020, the Commissioner for Human Rights stressed that the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects did do not affect everyone equally. Regularly excluded persons and groups, including refugees and immigrants, are particularly exposed to the consequences of pandemic-related restrictions, such as closed borders and the inability to apply for international protection. In the case of Poland, we see challenges for migrants in home schooling and in the work situation.

One of the areas of exclusion of foreigners, especially children, is home (remote) schooling (which started in Poland on 25 March). Access to home schooling is hindered for children staying in foreigner centers, guarded facilities and those applying for international protection. The main challenge, especially shortly after switching to distance learning, was the lack of computer hardware and equipment for video and audio communication with the teacher. The situation has improved over time owing to citizens’ campaigns and not as a result of systemic solutions. The pandemic has also prevented a significant number of foreign children from participating in extra Polish language classes provided for in the relevant regulations (this is partly managed by cultural assistants, most often volunteers from community or civil society organisations). The deepening of the educational gap among foreign children is also attributed to the lack of or inadequate support from their parents in home schooling. The possible reasons are:

1) the lack of ICT skills and competences (moreover, online communication tools provided by teachers are only in Polish),

2) language barrier: parents do not speak Polish well enough to support their children’s remote education. Parents’ digital exclusion and insufficient conduct of the Polish language also translate into the lack of communication with teachers.

Another challenging area for migrants during the pandemic is the situation on the labour market (especially since many of them operate in the shadow economy, and obtaining work permits during the pandemic is much more difficult).

In March, at the beginning of the pandemic, when the government announced the freezing of the economy and the sealing of state borders, migrants, especially Ukrainians working in Poland, started to leave the country in great numbers. Reasons for leaving Poland were the loss of a job, uncertain future, and vague and unclear communication and information from the government (including the lack of information in languages other than Polish at the beginning of the lock down) coinciding with unclear government messages from Kiev.

It is common property that the “defrosting” of the economy without migrants returning will not go smoothly (about 90% of Ukrainians who left Poland after the lockdown work in catering, services, and the hospitality industry). This is already evident in the agricultural sector which is lacking workforce. For this reason, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Chief Sanitary Inspector issued Guidelines for Agricultural Producers Employing Foreigners for Seasonal Work in the Face of SARS COV-2 (Warsaw, 8 May 2020).

Entrepreneurs are encouraged to get acquainted with the document by the IRIS Ethical Recruitment, COVID-19: Guidance for employers and business to enhance migrant worker protection during the current health crisis. The Responsible Business Forum, a renowned organisation promoting the subject of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), has also drawn up guidelines on how business can support employees from Ukraine.

In a sociological study conducted on 9-15 April, foreign employees, who stayed in Poland for the period of the pandemic, clearly respond (85% of respondents) that they prefer to stay in Poland because of their earnings and work opportunities. 26.6% of them admit that they were forced to change their sector of employment because of the pandemic. The surveyed foreigners feel safer in Poland than in their own country (72.5%) and, just like Poles, they are mostly concerned about losing their job due to the COVID-19 pandemic (57.8%).

In conclusion, the situation in the country is dynamic and it is worth waiting for further government decisions regarding restrictions on mobility, especially considering the important role of foreigners (e.g., from Ukraine) for the domestic labour market.