Could the policy responses to the coronavirus emergency break down the categorical distinction between forced and voluntary migration?

The policy response to the pandemic affected migrants and refugees in some similar fashion; they are either forced to migrate or stay put and find themselves in a more vulnerable position than before. During this period, it is revealed that refugees and migrants are systemically disadvantaged by societal arrangements in similar ways, which favour the sedentary. Because ‘force’ became the defining characteristic of most im/mobility the recent developments query the categorical distinction between forced and voluntary migration and support the call for a reappraisal.


The coronavirus emergency and the subsequent policy responses affect people very differently along class, race, age, gender lines as well as different migratory statuses. It accelerates economic, political and social change and undermines human rights and freedoms as Goldin and Jones argue. The crisis subsequently not only lays bare the vulnerability – of the poor, powerless and discriminated, notably of refugees, migrants and their families, ethnic minorities, the lower classes and in particular women and generally the world’s shocking inequalities, to paraphrase Pilkington and Rao (2020) – but it exacerbates these existing inequalities even further.

Travel bans and national lockdowns brought almost all mobility such as commuting, travel, tourism and international migration to a complete and sudden standstill. Also, basically all the various labour markets which are so crucial to the geographically mobile shut down. This affects refugees and migrants in contrasting ways.

Refugees and other forced migrants, in reality these are often mixed flows, are denied access to protection in other countries, either because they cannot travel, because landing is not allowed, as in Malta, or because asylum procedures are suspended, as in Greece. Across Africa, many migrants and refugees who were in transit and are now stranded in places such as Mali or Djibouti. In Turkey, Syrian refugees are even compelled to consider returning because they lost all sources of income. Those confined to camps and detention centres are locked in, as in Greece, exposed to elevated risks of infection due to overcrowded conditions, as reported from Bremen/Germany or are even starving due to interrupted food supplies, as in Libya (as reported by BBC World service on 13/5/2020).

Globally, millions of migrant workers including the most vulnerable, irregular immigrants, lost access to jobs, labour markets and thus their income. Some got stuck in the destination countries, like millions of migrant workers in the gulf countries who due to the lockdown cannot go home. Others got stuck in their home countries because they can no longer reach the labour markets in other countries. In one of the most privileged regions, Europe, even cross-border commuting was partly prohibited, as between Poland and Germany and Belgium and Germany. This is further aggravated by the usual restrictions that are placed on migrants’ eligibility to social benefits. Only the more privileged migrant workers in secure and better-paid jobs might enjoy the same or similar benefits as the citizens.

In contrast, the European Union ‘has managed to bring home over half a million of its citizens who were affected by coronavirus travel restrictions across the world’, as the EEAS reported. In addition, many national governments repatriated another hundreds of thousands of traveller, holidaymakers and citizens working abroad. Germany, for example, organised transportation for over 240,000 people to get back home, or the British government, which flew over one million people back to the UK. Much of this was probably not quite initially intended. However, this illustrates that whereas citizens were often privileged third country nationals who only hold permanent residence permits were nevertheless sometimes discriminated and prevented from returning home, as in the UK.

India too announced to bring back only 15,000 privileged nationals whilst abandoning many others. Some countries were rather afraid of ‘importing’ the virus and either did not implement initial return plans, or told its emigrants and travellers to stay where they were or even denied them returning home, such as China. Whereas some Gulf countries aim to remove large numbers of migrant workers, Germany, instead, flew in tens of thousands of agricultural workers from south east Europe despite otherwise closed borders.

For instance, in India, ‘the lockdown has proved catastrophic for India’s millions of migrant and daily wage workers, who earn their salary hundreds or sometimes thousands of miles away from home and live a hand-to-mouth existence’. As a consequence, they were often starving and left with no other choice but to return to their home towns and villages where they were hoping to be able to survive with the help of their families and from agricultural subsistence economies. However, because of the lockdown most public transport was shut down; many managed to get out of the major cities on the last trains and busses. Later on, whilst some were smuggled in lorries allowed to transport goods, but no people. Hundreds of thousands were even compelled walking home, often hundreds of kilometres, for days and even weeks. Some images resembled the images last seen in summer 2015 on the Balkans. This has been described as ‘a reverse migration, forced upon people by the loss of their livelihoods – itself the result of the lockdown enforced’, as some media vividly reported. The Guardian described this as the ‘greatest exodus’ since the partition of the country and maybe even globally since the end of World War II.

Finally, the ending of all migration as well as the loss of income of refugees and migrant workers not only affects these individually. In fact, it also impacts on the hundreds of millions of their family members worldwide who no longer receive essential remittances. The World Bank estimates a global drop of 20%, in some of the poorest countries, such as Nepal; this amounts to up to 10% of their GDP, which comes on top of the drop of the GDP due to the corona-driven recession.


Forced im/mobility is the key characteristics of the current period

By political decisions implemented top-down by governments, migrants and refugees alike were coerced either into mobility or immobility. Refugees and migrants were either forced to stay put, stranded in the host country, got stuck in some transit situation or were even compelled to return to the situation they wanted to escape; in addition, both categories in the meantime are only granted limited access to state support. Neither of both categories was left with many choices, both found their agency severely restricted and both were exposed to state powers. The very same political decisions also deprived millions of people of their sources of income and resulted in situations of economic hardship. Both measures ─ migration restrictions and the social and economic lockdown ─ combined highlight as well as exacerbate the discrimination and vulnerability of migrants and refugees as well as those family members who were left behind. Coercion became the key characteristics of all human mobility patterns; it was demonstrated that states have the power to determine almost all migration.


The lockdown further reveals the blurred distinction ‘forced’ and ‘voluntary’ migration

Forced mobility as well as forced immobility have become characteristic of this specific historic episode (also see Biao Xiang for this argument). This challenges even further the already blurred distinction between forced and voluntary migration or between refugees and migrants, as Crawley & Skleparis recently argued. Instead, probably the majority of the people in both categories are characterised by being vulnerable, discriminated and powerless with their agency severely limited and thus forced by politics into mobility or immobility. Only a small faction at the top of the global hierarchy of mobility seems to be privileged and well catered for.

Some scholars had previously argued that it does not matter much whether ‘vulnerability comes from poverty or a political situation within a society’ as McGrath & Young suggest by quoting an anonymous scholar from the global south. This implies that not voluntariness respectively forcefulness but invincibility respectively vulnerability should be the key parameters in distinguishing categories of migrants. To this end, I understand vulnerability as being systemically discriminated and thus prone to attacks on one’s rights or integrity. Accordingly, an altogether different set of parameters might be required to address the humanitarian dimension of contemporary migrations, which does not take the cause of migration, the prime motivation and the type of movement but the level of vulnerability as its distinct feature. In fact, the UNHCR (2017) referring to the 2016 New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants had actually already acknowledged that ‘migrants may find themselves in vulnerable situations requiring protection’ not dissimilar from the vulnerabilities and needs of protection, which is conventionally mostly associated with refugees.


This blog post is part of the series Consequences of COVID-19 for Forced Migration and Refugees on the FluchtforschungsBlog.


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