Here to stay: the challenge of resettlement after COVID-19

BOSTON – Even before the pandemic closed borders and disrupted the movement of people across the globe, millions of refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants were already struggling to find safe harbor. But COVID-19 placed an unprecedented hurdle in their way, limiting not only their ability to cross borders, but the available opportunities to build a life for themselves and their families.

The pandemic exposed migrants to new dangers, prolonging their stays in camps intended to be temporary, where basic services are limited and conditions precarious.

“I got [to Matamoros] and I’m still in the same situation. Life here is not easy, I don’t have anyone to help me. To survive, I make things to sell. I make donuts, empanadas, and go on with life. I have been here at this border for 13 months. Here we have suffered a lot from the cold, from not being able to sleep, the fear that we are going through from so many tragedies,” said an asylum seeker in a makeshift camp in Matamoros across the border from Brownsville, Texas interviewed by GroundTruth fellow César Rodriguez. Like her, thousands of Central American immigrants waited for months for an audience with the U.S. government.

In February, the camp was dismantled and most of the asylum seekers were allowed to cross the border to make their case, in the first step of President Joe Biden’s pledge to dismantle the Migrant Protection Protocols enacted by the Trump administration. Since then, and after pressure from activists and the public, Biden has agreed to raise the annual cap of refugee admissions from 15,000 refugees to 62,500. But even that increase is just a drop in the ocean of displaced people worldwide.

The need for an increase in the quantity and quality of resettlement opportunities is higher than ever, as the number of displaced people worldwide has more than doubled in the last decade, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

Over 80 million people, or 1% of the world’s population, have been forced to flee their homes, 2020 data from the agency shows. Of those, more than half are internally displaced within their own borders, but 26.3 million are classified as refugees and 1.4 million were estimated to be in need of resettlement. However, only 63,726 were relocated to a new country in 2019 and the number went down even further in 2020, to 22,770, due to the movement restrictions across borders. 

Thousands of refugees, escaping from gang violence and drought, were stranded over a year in makeshift camps on the U.S.-Mexico border, waiting for an audience. (Photo by Cesar Rodriguez/GroundTruth)

These numbers represent only part of the picture: The refugee category doesn’t include the 4.2 million asylum seekers worldwide, including those arriving at the U.S.  border with Mexico, or the 3.6 million displaced Venezuelans that have crisscrossed the Americas in search for work and stability and the millions of recent and long-term immigrants who have also seen their options narrow as businesses close and governments limit movement.

The pandemic created increasingly adverse conditions for migrants at every stage of their journey: It hit the economies of entire regions hard, pushing more people to leave their countries and undertake risky voyages by land or sea. Between March 2020 and February 2021 more migrants lost their lives at sea, trying to reach European shores, than in the same period of 2019-2020, according to The Missing Migrant Project.

Those already on other shores found themselves at higher risk of contagion. Data released in December 2020 indicated that 152,000 migrant workers in Singapore, almost half of all foreign workers in the country, had contracted COVID-19, compared to only 4,000 native workers, and several reports revealed widespread contagion among migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, held in detention centers in inhumane conditions.

Even in countries that are more open to migration, like Canada, migrant workers have been disproportionately affected – not only in the number of cases, but also by the economic consequences of the virus.

At the same time, the tribulations brought by COVID-19 have also energized and mobilized immigrant communities across the world to provide assistance, educate their members and fill the gaps left by governments and agencies. In some cases, pushing them deeper into activism and even political participation, as they look to claim more of a say in the policies and programs that affect them.

In this environment, our Global Migration fellows set out to cover the changes that COVID-19 imposed on migration, focusing on an often overlooked aspect: Integration. Normally, the debate is centered on whether or not to receive immigrants and whether those without documents should have a path to citizenship, but little is said about what happens after immigrants enter a country.  What are governments doing to provide opportunities to thrive in a new land?

The increasing urgency of resettlement

In 2019 UNHCR launched the Three-Year Strategy on Resettlement and Complementary, a global initiative aimed at expanding the size of resettlement programs and other safe pathways, with the goal of increasing the number of resettled people to 1 million by 2028. But then pandemic arrived and upended not only the flow of arrivals, but the programs that governments were building to receive refugees.

“Think of the challenges of either state- or community-sponsored refugee reception and integration process where you’re trying to help a refugee family build local connections in the community, learn how to navigate social services, get the medical support they may need, prepare them perhaps for job interviews to seek employment, all of these things could not be done in person,” said David Manicom, Special Advisor, Resettlement and Complementary Pathways of the UNHCR.

Traditionally, resettlement has been thought of as an emergency measure, reserved for those immigrants who can’t return to their homes because of war. But the rising number of people being displaced by other reasons, like economic hardship and natural catastrophes caused by global warming is challenging that definition and putting more pressure on governments and agencies to address the problem.

For a large number of the people who have been displaced returning home is not an option. At the start of the pandemic, approximately 100,000 Venezuelans returned to their country, many of them on foot, as job opportunities disappeared because of the lockdowns, only to discover that their own government didn’t want them back: “I want the Venezuelan family to listen to me well. The Trocheros (as people who cross the border through country roads and other unofficial paths are known) are the main transmitters of the virus in the last eight weeks,” said Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro in a televised address in June, blaming his own people for the increase in COVID-19 cases in the country, and labeling it “The Colombian Virus,” in a page taken from “The Authoritarian’s Playbook.

Realizing that the situation was worse than when they left, many of these would-be repatriates decided to migrate for a second time, saying goodbye to their home country for good. Like them, millions of refugees have abandoned the hope of ever going back. Now, they are here to stay.

Venezuelan migrants walk on the Pan-American Highway after crossing the Ecuadorian border into Tumbes, Peru. (Photo by Martin Mejia/Associated Press)

Like Maduro, politicians around the world have sought to paint immigrants as threats to public safety and to the economic futures of their populations, arguing that they become a burden for the public safety net. But there’s mounting evidence of the benefits for countries where immigrants resettle.

A recent meta study conducted by UNHRC analyzed the outcomes of refugee integration strategies from six countries, including the U.S. and found that, given time and support, refugees not only can adapt, but thrive: “Employment and income increase and tend to approach parity with other immigrants and the native population over the longer term. Importantly the fiscal costs of refugee resettlement appear to be outweighed by the economic contributions of resettled refugees. This milestone, however, may only be realized over several years or even decades,” wrote the researchers.

That kind of timeframe is out of step with most relocation policies. Many countries have resettlement programs in place that help the recent arrivals transition into their new society, but they are designed to be temporary. After a maximum of 90 days, immigrants are on their own. The shortcomings of this approach became more evident when the pandemic struck. Such was the case of Spain, where the government decided to empty all their detention centers early in the pandemic, releasing the detainees into a society in lockdown with very few jobs available for undocumented immigrants.

Some of these detainees were placed in programs run by nonprofits and financed by the government, providing housing, legal advice and language classes to immigrants for up to 90 days, helping them sign up for the healthcare system and effectively giving them a head start in their search for a job. But as GroundTruth fellows Majo Siscar Banyuls and Laura Herrero Garvin report, the organizations that provide these services recognize that it’s not enough: “Three months doesn’t give them the tools they need to integrate. The (program’s) time should be extended, at least for those who don’t have a network here. In the case of those we took in during the lockdown, they left with the State of Alarm still in force and with many restrictions that do not favor integration,” said Gemma Miñarro coordinator of the Valencia chapter of Fundación Cepaim, a nonprofit that houses recently released detainees.

Migration advocates point out that governments could easily invest more in integration, instead of deportation. A study conducted by the Spanish nonprofit Fundación Por Causa found that between 2014 and 2019 Spain spent eight times more money expelling migrants ($119 million) than in their social integration ($13.6 million) a reflection of the contradictions of a government frequently gridlocked and where the anti-migration party Vox has surged in popularity in recent years.

Even when there’s political will to accept more refugees there are logistical challenges to overcome, points out Manicom: “If (a country) has a reception center that can handle X number of refugees per month, the fact that not as many as expected arrived in 2020 doesn’t mean they can simply do double the number in 2021. They probably could with enough goodwill, but then you see they’d be building a structure double the size they had planned, which means more staffing, maybe more physical facilities which can’t be created instantly. And then perhaps only to go back to what their normal planned flow the next year. That’s challenging institutionally and structurally.”

Spain is hardly alone in their conflicting responses to the challenges the pandemic has created for its immigrant populations. Canada, long considered one of the most welcoming countries for immigrants, faced criticism when the COVID-19 contagion rates skyrocketed among asylum seekers and other immigrants, who were often employed in essential jobs that risked higher exposure.

It took almost a year and three waves of COVID-19 for the Canadian government to create a program that provides a path to citizenship for asylum seekers in essential occupations, but as GroundTruth fellow Sadia Rafiquddin reports, provinces with high immigrant populations like Quebec have put up obstacles that effectively block that door to citizenship to most applicants.

Successful approaches

The Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS) has resettled almost 20,000 Syrian refugees in the UK in the last five years. (Photo by Aloha Bonser-Shaw/GroundTruth)

Along with misfires and confusing policies, there are examples of promising approaches. In the United Kingdom, a program of resettlement of Syrian refugees in smaller towns is close to its goal of resettling 20,000 people after five years, despite delays imposed by the lockdowns. A good part of its success comes from the active involvement of the local community in the welcoming and social integration of the new arrivals.

Research in other parts of the world shows the importance of  family and community networks in the adaptation of immigrants. A study of refugees in Australia reported that immigrants who relied on help from friends and relatives were more likely to have found a job after six months than those who only got help from humanitarian organizations. There are other factors at play here, like educational levels and language skills, but having local “guides” can help navigate those obstacles more effectively.

Some of the vacuum left by governments is being filled by immigrant-led organizations, who are drawing from their own experience and networks to address both the immediate and structural problems of immigrant communities, in the process creating models that can be replicated elsewhere.

Italy has experimented with migrant councils that advise local governments on matters related to their communities. While the results of these councils have so far been mixed, it’s an approach that the European Union has encouraged as part of its official immigration policy. Palermo is perhaps the clearest example of their potential, but also of their limitations: The council worked hand in hand with the city mayor to reject the anti-immigration policies of former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini . While the council also created successful cultural programs that showcase the contributions of immigrants, it fell short of sustaining its influence and converting cultural capital into political power.

Others have focused on grassroots initiatives that connect immigrants with the existing systems. In San Diego, a Somali refugee frustrated by the lack of funding for small ethnic-based organizations that serve the immigrant communities of the area, gathered the leaders of 11 groups representing 15 different ethnic communities and proposed they join forces.

The collaboration led to a new coalition fusing community knowledge and local health expertise. This allowed them to apply and obtain grants that they wouldn’t have accessed on their own. 

Inside the Barcelona workshop of "Top Manta" the fashion label launched by the street vendor union. (Photo by Majo Siscar/GroundTruth)

The hardships brought by the pandemic have motivated other immigrant groups to assume a more active role in helping their peers, from organizing food banks to expanding their advocacy efforts and connecting with like-minded organizations to push for reforms.

In some cases, like Spain’s immigrant street vendors, known locally as manteros, they’re taking an extra step and entering the political arena. “After many years of violence in the streets, the pandemic has brought with it the time to build a political subject that makes the situation of migrants visible. To this end, we have joined forces with all the groups that fight so that no one is excluded. We cannot wait for help from governments, from outside —  we have to build a world where we can live with dignity by ourselves”, said Aziz Faye, spokesperson for the Street Vendor’s Union at an event last fall.

Serigne Mbayé, a representative from the Union in Madrid was elected in May to the Madrid Assembly as part of the Unidas Podemos Party, a big victory for their group, despite the overall defeat of the party in the elections. Mbayé, a Senegalese immigrant who has lived in Spain for 15 years, denounced the systemic racism of the city during the campaign, only to be threatened by Vox with deportation in a post on Instagram, despite being a citizen.

With governments unable, or unwilling, to help immigrants adapt, community and advocacy organizations are gaining more influence on the policy decisions that affect them. According to UNHCR adviser Manicom, one of the silver linings of the pandemic has been the increased interaction and collaboration between policymakers and those working directly with communities, thanks to virtual work environments: “It is easier now to put together a virtual meeting of people involved on the ground doing community sponsorship in New Zealand, and Spain and the UK, and Germany and Canada, to share how they’re actually making it work during the pandemic, or to work on advocacy approaches to government to grow more programs,” he said.

Much of this work is focused on the medium and long term, improving education and employment opportunities for the new arrivals, as well as advocating for more inclusive societies to make resettlement sustainable and scalable. “We understood that (with the Three-Year Strategy) we would be doing something like infrastructure building,” said Manicom. “We would be building new communities of practice and new ecosystems to try to overtime mainstream and therefore scale these other solutions for refugees.” 

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