Migration and Hidden Discrimination in the World of COVID-19

26 May 2020

On May 14, the Geocase research fellow Bacho Tortladze delivered a speech at Migration and COVID-19 - an international mini-conference organized by the Academician Levan Aleksidze Foundation. The event was organized within the framework of the European Union-funded program, ENIGMA-2, which is implemented by the International Center for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD). The following text was derived from his remarks.

It is clear that COVID-19 has dramatically changed the world in many ways from individual behavior to countries’ political, economic and social policies. This unique challenge has led to substantial global transformations in every field. We can firmly ascertain that the crisis induced by COVID-19 will be long, deep and pervasive. 

Closed borders and lockdowns have practically halted migration—one of the widest global transboundary activities. Among its many other horrific consequences, COVID-19 has contributed to the division of countries into the categories of safe and unsafe, responsible and irresponsible, trustworthy and untrustworthy. States are demonstrating prejudice against each other, sometimes without evidence-based arguments. Despite numerous cases of states supporting each other, the pandemic has succeeded in triggering self-centeredness, an insufficiency of mutual empathy and the dissolution of global solidarity. 

Countries have had to deal with the painful conflict between state sovereignty and human rights. The world has not experienced a crisis of this scale since WWII, and it will test states’ commitments to human rights. COVID-19 will reveal not only individual states’ positions, but the sturdiness of the human rights-centered global order in place since WWII. In the first phase of the pandemic, while most countries’ borders are still closed, mistreatment of foreigners has not yet peaked. However, with the gradual opening of the borders, the threat of increased discrimination against foreigners looms over. States will likely apply public health arguments to justify the application of discriminatory approaches to different categories of migrants. Instead of adopting a holistic approach to managing migration in the pandemic and post-pandemic world, some countries may introduce a general ban on accepting citizens from certain countries, without examining individual cases, denying admittance based solely on a migrant’s nationality.     

Already, reports from around the world warn of an increase in discrimination and even violence against people who are perceived as foreign. Civil society actors are mobilizing against this wave of verbal and physical abuse. One example is in the Netherlands where an anti-discrimination organization launched an online campaign to encourage people to speak out against prejudice and discrimination arising from the pandemic. The trend extends to Georgia as well, where the group No to Phobia is working to combat prejudice sentiments against the country’s minority ethnic Azerbaijani population. 

This pandemic has brought to the forefront the responsibility of international and non-governmental organizations to hold states accountable, to ensure they uphold human rights and to prevent discriminatory approaches towards all migrants, especially migrant workers and asylum seekers.