In every crisis it is the poor, sick, disabled, homeless and displaced who suffer the most. The COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. Migrants and refugees, people who shed one life in search for another, are among the most at risk. This is because they are often confined to sub-standard and overcrowded homes, have limited access to information or services, lack the financial reserves to ride out isolation and face the burden of social stigma.
Emergencies often bring out the best and the worst in societies. Some of the most enlightened responses are coming from the world’s governors and mayors. Local leaders and community groups from cities as diverse as Atlanta, Mogadishu and Sao Paulo are setting-up dedicated websites for migrants, emergency care and food distribution facilities, and even portable hand-washing stations for refugees and internally displaced people. Their actions stand in glaring contrast to national decision-makers, some of whom are looking for scapegoats.
Mayors and city officials are also leading the charge when it comes to recovery. Global cities from Bogotá to Barcelona are introducing measures to mitigate the devastating economic damages wrought by the lockdown. Some of them are neutralizing predatory landlords by placing moratoriums on rent hikes and evictions. Others are distributing food through schools and to people’s doorsteps as well as providing cash assistance to all residents, regardless of their immigration status.
Cities were already in a tight spot before COVID-19. Many were facing serious deficits and tight budgets, and were routinely asked to do ‘more with less’. With lockdowns extended in many parts of the world, municipalities will need rapid financial support. This is especially true for lower-income cities in Africa, South Asia and Latin America where migrants, refugees and other vulnerable groups risk severe hunger and even starvation. They also risk being targeted if they try and flee. International aid donors will need to find ways to direct resources to cities and allow them sizeable discretion in how those funds are used.
Philanthropic groups and city networks around the world are rapidly expanding their efforts to protect and assist migrants and refugees. Take the case of the Open Society Foundations, which is ramping up assistance to New York City, Budapest and Milan to help them battle the pandemic while bolstering safety nets for the most marginal populations. Meanwhile, the Clara Lionel and Shawn Carter Foundations in the US have committed millions in grants to support undocumented workers in Los Angeles and New York. And inter-city coalitions, like the US Conference of Mayors and Eurocities, are also helping local authorities with practical advice about how to strengthen preparedness and response.
The truth is that migrants and refugees are one of the most under-recognized assets in the fight against crises, including COVID-19. They are survivors. They frequently bring specialized skills to the table, including expertise in medicine, nursing, engineering and education. Some governments are catching on to this. Take the case of Portugal, which recently changed its national policies to grant all migrants and asylum seekers living there permanent residency, thus providing access to health services, social safety nets and the right to work. The city of Buenos Aires authorized Venezuelan migrants with professional medical degrees to work in the Argentinean healthcare system. New York, New Jersey and others have cleared the way for immigrant doctors without US licenses to provide patient care during the current pandemic.
There are several steps municipal governments, businesses and non-governmental organizations should take to minimize the impacts of COVID-19 on migrants and displaced people. For one, they need to clearly account for them in their response and recovery plans, including ensuring free access to healthy food and cash assistance. Next, they could strengthen migrant associations and allow qualified professionals to join the fight against infectious disease outbreaks. What is more, they could ensure access to basic services like housing, electricity, healthcare and education – and information about how to access them in multiple languages – as Portugal has done.
Mayors are on the frontline of supporting migrants and refugees, often in the face of resistance from national authorities. Consider the experience of Los Angeles’s mayor, Eric Garcetti, who recently called on the US Congress to provide rapid relief to roughly 2.5 million undocumented immigrants in California. Or the mayor of Uganda’s capital Kampala, Erias Lukwago, who has resorted to distributing food himself to poor urban residents despite bans from the central government. At the same time, Milan’s mayor, Giuseppe Sala, wrote to the European Union to urgently request access to financial aid. These three mayors also lead the Mayors Migration Council, a city coalition established to influence international migration policy and share resources with local leaders around the world.
The truth is that refugees, asylum seekers and displaced people are not sitting idly by; in some cases they are the unsung heroes of the pandemic response. Far from being victims, migrants and displaced people reflect the best of what humanity has to offer. Despite countless adversities and untold suffering, they are often the first to step up and confront imminent threats, even giving their lives in the process. The least we can all do is protect them and remove the obstacles in the way of letting them participate in pandemic response and recovery. Mayors have got this; it’s now time for national and international decision-makers to follow suit.