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To build “resilient and inclusive” societies, standing together with migrants is essential

11 June 2020

Picture of Pia Oberoi


The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected the vulnerable and marginalised, including migrants. Pia Oberoi, Senior Advisor on Migration and Human Rights in our South-East Asia Regional Office, explains more.

How has COVID-19 affected your work and what are the biggest lessons learned thus far in the pandemic?

The daily reality that many of us are now experiencing looks a lot like the ‘normal’ daily reality faced by many migrants in situations of vulnerability or precarity. COVID-19 has made many of us acutely aware of borders, and introduced challenges for many who were previously able to navigate borders with ease because of the privilege that comes with a secure identity.

Unfortunately, these challenges are familiar to many migrants. That where you were stranded when the borders closed determines your access to healthcare. That you can only communicate with loved ones across the phone or internet, and you don’t know when you might be able to see and hold them again. That the physical distancing we are being asked to carry out echoes the social distance many migrants are compelled to keep from the rest of society.

The biggest lesson I can hope that we have learned from this pandemic is empathy. Not sympathy or pity or even charity for those poor, other migrants who live in far-away places and are strange or unknowable. But empathy and compassion, because you have (almost) walked a mile in their shoes, and you realise that in the end we are one human family.

What are the main human rights issues at stake in the Covid-19 response and what has UN Human Rights been doing to protect the rights of migrants in the Asia Pacific region during the pandemic?
While we have seen some commendable examples of good practice, for the overwhelming majority of migrants in the region who suffer marginalisation or exclusion because of their legal status, because they live in poverty, or on other grounds, the pandemic has deepened existing structural inequalities.

Responses to the COVID-19 virus have in many ways exacerbated and intensified existing patterns of exclusion and structural violence against migrants across the region. Governments are continuing to arrest and detain migrants in unhygienic and overcrowded detention centres despite the health risks. Migrants continue to struggle to access healthcare if they are undocumented or if they cannot pay for it, despite the public health challenge this creates. Migrants in situations of vulnerability are being seen as expendable, even when they have literally built the infrastructure that countries rely on to develop and progress. In several countries in the region, migrants are being relocated to desperate, inadequate conditions simply in order to safeguard the national population. Political voices continue to scapegoat migrants as carriers of the disease.

The UN Human Rights regional office has supported Resident Coordinators, UN country teams and our colleagues in the region to advise and guide their governments on responses to migration that uphold public health imperatives as well as human rights standards. Calling for alternatives to immigration detention, for example, or a moratorium on forced returns. Spearheading advocacy on safe disembarkation for migrants in distress at sea who are being pushed back by governments using COVID-19 as a pretext. We are working with national human rights institutions, parliamentarians and civil society partners to try to change the narrative on migrants and migration.

Why is it important to stand together and stand up for human rights during this crisis?

Reflecting on the last few months has made me realise that the public response to the crisis has revealed both the best as well as the worst in us. While there has been an increase in exclusion, hate speech, xenophobia and violence against migrants, there have also been inspiring examples of solidarity by citizen groups, civil society organisations and migrants’ rights defenders across the region.

Governments and local authorities have shown that it is possible to protect migrants’ rights during the COVID-19 response, whether this is by implementing ‘firewalls’ between health authorities and immigration enforcement, or by granting extensions of stay so that migrants do not fall into an undocumented or irregular situation.

Our message, that we have more in common than that which divides us, is so relevant to this situation because simply put, the virus does not discriminate. Our health is only as protected, only as secure, as that of the weakest members of our society. And migrants are often those weakest people. Not because they themselves are fragile or prone to disease or unable to follow health rules. But because of structural inequalities and discrimination in the way migration is governed in the region and across the world.

So for those of us who care about building resilient and inclusive societies, societies that are kind and compassionate, for those of us who are concerned about what our societies will or should look like in the aftermath of this pandemic, including and standing together with migrants is an essential part of “building back better.”

Listen to Pia speak more on migrants and COVID-19 in the video below

11 June 2020