What’s happening to undocumented people during the COVID-19 pandemic?

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all of us in our daily lives. However, different communities have been impacted in different ways. For undocumented people, one of the most marginalised communities in Europe, the pandemic and the lockdown measures have exacerbated pre-existing conditions of social exclusion and deprivation.

So what has this meant concretely for undocumented people? We surveyed our members to learn more about the impact of the lockdown measures on them and on the communities they serve. Forty members responded, based across the EU as well as in neighbouring countries (Albania, Israel, Morocco, Norway, Switzerland and the United Kingdom).

Our survey shows that the main concern for undocumented people during the pandemic (80% of those surveyed) was the loss of income due to the interruption of work, and the impossibility for undocumented migrants to access state support, including unemployment benefits. Another prevalent concern (50% of those surveyed) was the impossibility to keep social distances, as many undocumented people live in crowded precarious settings, including detention centres and informal camps.

At the same time, many PICUM members (41% of those surveyed) told us they’re less able to support undocumented people, as restrictions during lockdowns made it hard to carry out community work. Yet more than one-third of PICUM members surveyed also indicated that requests for support are on the rise (38%).  Our members reported (41%) that it has become harder to advocate towards their governments for inclusive policies, as in person meetings were largely discontinued and because the management of the health emergency is trumping other priorities.

Civil society organisations noted that numerous restrictive measures were adopted under the pandemic. In ten of the countries included in the survey, access to asylum and immigration procedures was suspended. In four countries, people rescued when crossing borders, including when undocumented, were denied access to the national territory. In four countries, undocumented people were detained for not respecting physical distancing and (de)confinement measures, which are often impossible to follow for undocumented people who don’t have any accommodation.

Despite the numerous challenges, the portrait is not entirely bleak. In fact, the pandemic has opened windows of opportunity for the rights of undocumented people in quite unlikely ways. Pushed by considerations about public health, some European countries have adopted measures which aim at reducing the exclusion of undocumented people from public services. For instance, Portugal temporarily regularised the status of all people with a pending residence application, so they could have access to state support, including full access to health care. Ireland granted safe access to health care to undocumented people, ensuring no data is shared with immigration authorities. Some other countries passed laws with an impact on migration management for other reasons. Italy adopted a measure that opens the door to a major regularisation for undocumented workers in the domestic and care, and agri-food sectors, with a view to addressing labour shortages due to the closure of borders. Spain nearly emptied its immigration detention centres, while relying on civil society to provide alternative accommodation, to avoid uncontrolled COVID-19 outbreaks in the centres. Detaining migrants if return is impossible to carry out due to border closures is also prohibited by international human rights law and jurisprudence from the European Court of Justice.

Civil society also observed some small openings allowing undocumented migrants to access specific services during the pandemic. Overall, our members found that several countries allowed for undocumented to access some form of emergency assistance. In ten countries, undocumented people were able to access COVID-19-related health care; in seven countries, they could access food and nutrition schemes; while in eight they could access emergency shelter.

Although many of these measures are not perfect and have been presented as temporary, civil society should seize the opportunity to show policy makers that change is possible and that more inclusion benefits everyone. Governments and other donors should recognise that these are long term efforts and should devise schemes to support and partner with civil society in a sustainable way.

Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

Albania, Cyprus, Italy and Malta.

Albania, Greece, Morocco and the Netherlands.

Belgium, France, Germany (only in Berlin), Ireland, Israel, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

Belgium, Finland, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland.

Belgium, the Czech Republic, Finland, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland and the UK.