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COVID-19 spotlighted European migrants’ vital role; the EU must tell their story

Six years ago, British author Hanif Kureishi wrote searingly of Europe’s fear of migrants who “invade, colonise and contaminate”. Migrants, he mused, had “no face, no status, no protection and no story”

By: EBR - Posted: Tuesday, May 19, 2020

“COVID really opens our eyes to how much our societies depend on migration,” and the contribution migrants and refugees make to European societies, Ylva Johansson, European Commissioner for Home Affairs, said.
“COVID really opens our eyes to how much our societies depend on migration,” and the contribution migrants and refugees make to European societies, Ylva Johansson, European Commissioner for Home Affairs, said.

by Shada Islam*

Six years ago, British author Hanif Kureishi wrote searingly of Europe’s fear of migrants who “invade, colonise and contaminate”. Migrants, he mused, had “no face, no status, no protection and no story”.

Kureishi’s angry reflection still resonates. But another more encouraging migration story may – finally – be emerging.

True, COVID-19 hasn’t seen a let up in European populists’ xenophobic rants. Plans for a new EU ‘Migration Pact’ are on hold not just because of the challenges posed by the pandemic but due to continuing intra-governmental in-fighting on resettlement, relocation and conflicting definitions of solidarity.

It isn’t a pretty picture. Anti-refugee forces have seized the opportunity to suspend asylum applications, increase push-backs at sea and impose forced returns. Risks of contracting the virus remain rife in cramped detention centres.

The outlines of a bold, new and encouragingly positive European narrative on migrants and migration can be discerned

So much for protecting European values and the European way of life.

Still there is room for hope. Amid the chaos and devastation caused by COVID-19 the outlines of a bold, new and encouragingly positive European narrative on migrants and migration can be discerned.

“COVID really opens our eyes to how much our societies depend on migration,” and the contribution migrants and refugees make to European societies, Ylva Johansson, European Commissioner for Home Affairs, said at a recent Friends of Europe event.

Questions related to migration need to be tackled with “cool heads and warm hearts”, she said. “There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’, it’s only ‘we.’”

Europe’s need for foreign skills and talents – and less-skilled workers – is well known albeit rarely acknowledged

The Commissioner is stating the obvious. But words matter. Given the current mood across Europe – and within EU institutions – Johansson’s public recognition of migrants as important and migration as normal is ground-breaking.

Migrants’ economic contribution to EU coffers and pension systems, creaking under the pressure of ageing populations, is no secret. Start-ups and businesses set up by migrants are the backbone of many European economies. Europe’s need for foreign skills and talents – and less-skilled workers – is well known albeit rarely acknowledged.

And yet, no mainstream European politician from the left or the right has – before the pandemic or during it – publicly recognised migrants as essential to Europe’s present and future. EU business leaders and trade unions are similarly silent.

As a former German defence minister, European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen sees migration as a war to be won. Hence her embarrassing references earlier this year in Greece to the need to protect and “shield” European values against the incoming hordes.

On average 13% of all key workers in Europe are migrants

But the Commission chief and her PR consultants may be out of sync with public opinion and their own researchers.

A new report by the EU’s Joint Research Centre underlines that Europe’s lockdown has finally put migrants and refugees in a positive spotlight. While many people worked from home, “essential functions” needed to keep European citizens healthy and safe and have continued access to basic services, were performed by “key workers” – from doctors to nurses and drivers – who also happen to be migrants.

On average 13% of all key workers in Europe are migrants, says the JRC. In some specific sectors – key low-skill jobs, such as personal care workers in health services, drivers, transport and storage workers as well as food processing workers – the share of migrants is much higher.

“The fight against coronavirus has unveiled the relevance of migrant workers in many occupations, and not just the importance of attracting high-skilled migrants,” says the Centre.

But narratives are hard to change. And the construction of legal pathways into Europe will not be easy

To be fair, many EU governments aren’t sleeping at the wheel. Faced with shortages of essential health workers several countries, including Portugal and Italy, have introduced temporary amnesty schemes. Others are fast-tracking work permits or allowing asylum seekers to work throughout their application process.

As harvests remain unpicked, some countries are allowing undocumented people and asylum seekers to work. After weeks of wrangling, Luxembourg and Germany have received unaccompanied children from overcrowded refugee camps in Greece. Others have said they are ready to do so.

It’s a two-way street. All over Europe, asylum seekers and refugees are volunteering to cook meals, deliver food, make masks, and clean hospitals. The first doctors to die of COVID-19 in Britain were migrants or children of migrants.

But narratives are hard to change. And the construction of legal pathways into Europe will not be easy. Johansson will have to work hard to craft a new Migration and Asylum Pact, not just because of Far Right opposition but because negative attitudes towards migrants have leaked into Europe’s official and institutional domains.

As in the past, migrants will be desperately needed to rebuild Europe’s devastated economies

To make the new, more uplifting migration story stick beyond the current crisis, Johansson and her small number of like-minded policymakers will have to challenge their own colleagues’ fallacies and prejudices, engage with business leaders and trade unions and listen to the voices of migrants and refugees.

There can be no let-up in combating hate speech, anti-migrant disinformation and fake news on social media or mainstream outlets. As Europe heads for a depression and anti-globalisation siren songs become even louder, the case for building a more inclusive Europe will become increasingly harder.

A sustained European and global recovery, however, demands all hands on deck. As in the past, migrants will be desperately needed to rebuild Europe’s devastated economies.

This time they should be able to do so with their heads held high and their efforts recognised. Europe’s future depends on it.

*Director of Europe and Geopolitics at Friends of Europe
**first published in: www.friendsofeurope.org

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