Valuing life differently: migrants and the coronavirus crisis

by Felix Bender and Magdalena Ulceluse on 1st May 2020 @FEHBender
The coronavirus crisis has led many to revalue human life. But not, it seems, when the lives are of migrants.
A lot has been said and written on the trade-off between health and economic performance during the lockdown. The idea of sacrificing the health of the population so the economy could continue to operate normally has rightly been rejected. Instead, massive support packages have been rolled out for businesses and employees affected by the crisis. It seems as if we value the lives of human beings over the state of the economy. Returnees have been quarantined, employees have been redirected to work from home and governments have been spending big to keep them as healthy as possible. Yet, at the same time, states have been chartering airplanes to bring migrant workers from eastern Europe to help with the upcoming hop and asparagus harvests. What does this teach us about the value of human lives: those of nationals, some few select others and those of migrants?
Radically different approach
Western-European states have tried to safeguard the lives of their citizens in strict ways. They have returned their own nationals, using special flights, from their remote holiday destinations. Those returning, including those doing so individually off their own bat, have been received with medical check-ups and care, and had to go into quarantine for 14 days. They have had to register with the national health service and the state has reserved the right to check up on them and intervene for the sake of their health and that of the public. Finally, millions have been sent into homeworking, trying to stop the spread of the virus.
When it comes to migrants, however, the state seems to take a radically different approach. This is true with regard to all three phases: transport, reception and the working environment.
Contrary to the meticulous care that is afforded to their nationals when transporting them home, these same states have facilitated the transport of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in less than safe conditions. Polish and Romanian workers have gathered in their thousands in front of airport terminals, checked only superficially for fever symptoms—symptoms which only appear in some who are affected by Covid-19 and only in the later stages of infection.
The airplanes that take the migrants to desperate farmers in the Netherlands and Germany are cramped. The workers are not afforded the luxury of 1.5-metre distance from others. Even if individuals try to keep their distance once out of the plane, they gather together again at the baggage belts and in the vans and buses transporting them to their destination. These scenes—almost surreal in times of social distancing and strict immigration limitations—are accepted as a norm for these migrants.
Arriving in Western Europe, migrants are received differently from nationals. Both have to enter a fortnight of quarantine, but their quarantines take different shapes. Nationals are to stay at home, limiting their contact with the outside world, even if this comes at an economic cost. For migrants, however, states have created a paradoxical union between quarantine and work. The German minister of agriculture, Julia Klöckner, has called it a ‘quasi-quarantine’—one during which migrants can and are supposed to work.
Contact with the outside world is forbidden and migrants are not supposed to interact with locals. The same concern for health and safety does not, however, apply to relations among migrants themselves. They work in groups and are often housed in shared accommodation.
Our fieldwork in the Netherlands revealed that seasonal migrants were housed in dedicated facilities, segregated from host communities—so common that residents had begun calling them ‘Polish hotels’. Within these facilities, little room existed for social distancing. Migrants had to share living quarters with up to ten other individuals—hardly conditions manifesting concern for their health during this crisis.
Even in Germany, where farmers have purportedly built modular homes for seasonal workers, trade unions have expressed serious concerns about the ability to monitor and ensure compliance with hygiene standards, calling for proper quarantines. Working conditions are not much better. Images and testimonies from Romanian migrants working in western-European fields show hundreds working without protection in immediate proximity. The measures supposed to protect nationals do not seem to apply.
Regime of segregation
These policies result in a regime of segregation between members of the ‘host’ society and migrants. The former is to be protected, while the virus may circulate among the latter—as long as they are kept separate.
The corona crisis has revealed that we value human life. We seem however to value some lives more than others. We are ready to endure severe economic costs to safeguard our health but the same concern does not seem to apply to migrants. We appear to value their lives strictly in economic terms.
This is not to say that migration is bad in itself. For migrants, it provides a much-needed source of income, while for farmers it offers a much-needed source of labour. The problem is that a crisis such as this highlights the status of migrants as ‘second-class humans’—especially if they are low-skilled, seasonal migrants.
The answer is not to ban migration but to change the way we treat and value the lives of migrants.
(Magdalena Ulceluse is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Groningen exploring the interdependencies between migration and inequality. Felix Bender works on the political theory of migration and refugeehood at the CEU in Budapest.)
– Social Europe