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.