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.

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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.