A Hopeful Perspective Towards Migratory Policies Shifts during and due to the Current Health Crisis: Grass Root and Top Down Case Studies

By Daniela Medina Poch

Some weeks ago, right when the corona outbreak exploded, I quickly understood we were entering a new normality which strongly motivated me to imagine other possible worlds for the so called A.C. time or the after Corona time.

Coronavirus is reaching every corner of the world. It is demanding an unprecedented effort from all of us. How are we supposed to fight it collectively, when not including everyone in this fight for life? Specifically, why are we excluding the 3.5 million irregular asylum seekers of the globe?

I gather three case studies from the Iberian peninsula to hopefully show other possible worlds in regards to migration policies. I include both bottom up and top down references.

Image by Juan Pablo García Sossa.

Over History, the pattern of blaming others for a disease and politicising the epidemic echoes through different occasions. From Yellow Fever to the Bubonic Plague, from Polio and Tuberculosis to Influenza in the early 20th century, foreign communities have been blamed in a repetitive process of making vulnerable the most vulnerable. In some ways COVID-19 is not an exception.

What is interesting now, is that while administrations such as the one of Donald Trump was establishing a European Ban and referring to the pandemic as the “Chinese disease” or Hungary blaming Iranian immigrants and pushing a totalitarian government, Portugal decided to treat immigrants and asylum seekers as citizens.

So, what happened here? Since March 31st until at least the 1st of July, all immigrants and asylum seekers who have pending cases at the Foreigners and Borders Service and who are in Portuguese territory, have been granted a temporary residence permit. This means that an estimated 35,000 people have now access to the same rights as other Portuguese citizens, including National Health Service, social support benefits, signing of employment contracts, opening bank accounts and contracting essential public services. This is huge and unprecedented, and actually quite fundamental.

What remains as an open question still, is what could happen with immigrants who are not in the system and how long will this measure last.

Certainly this policy along, with other intelligent measures adopted by the Portuguese, have brought positive outcomes to a nation with an underfunded and not-sufficiently-well-equipped health service, a nation with the third largest over 80s senior population in Europe, Portugal has been able to keep a mortality rate under 3% in contrast with neighbours such as 15% France, 14% UK and 11% in Spain.

Under a humanitarian lens, this has an enormous value and there’s certainly strong ethical reasons behind it, as Claudia Veloso, the spokeswoman for the Ministry of Internal Affairs, mentioned: “People should not be deprived of their rights to health and public service just because their application has not yet been processed.”

Also, under a pragmatic point of view, the inhumane and unsanitary conditions of refugee camps make them a highly contagious point for coronavirus spread. As the case of Singapore, where 88% of its 14,000 cases were linked to dorms housing migrants.

Other assertive measures from Portugal include the sense of national unity and understanding that this is a time for collaboration and not political opposition, also the tremendous solidarity and autonomy assumed by citizens while prioritising health before economy.

The second case study emerges through the inspiration of Portugal and it comes from below. It takes place in Spain. #RegularizaciónYa it is a trending topic and a media campaign that contains a letter addressed to the Spanish government. Launched on April 12 by anti-racist citizen organisations who gathered the signatures of 1130 relevant institutions, it claimed the urgent demand for the permanent and unconditional regularisation for all the 600,000 migrants and refugees in face of the health emergency.

“Regularisation is not a question of solidarity, but of social justice” said the letter which included 12 specific claims and demands. “Migration affects every dimension of human rights, including civil, social and economic rights and the exercise of citizenship, therefore migration policy must put at the center the care for life. It is the responsibility of the state to guarantee the rights of all the people who live in its territory and to develop the appropriate policies to achieve this goal. The Spanish State is asking us to stop this virus all together, but we cannot fight it starting from such an unequal position. In order for all of us to overcome this health crisis we have to do it all together, on equal terms.”

As I read about this campaign, I felt the impulse to start a similar campaign in Berlin. What does it take? On a practical level, a WordPress site which gathers ideals and demands from a collectivity which is then distributed by social media, but most importantly it requires the belief and the conviction that structural changes are possible, the imagination of such possibility, which is what references such as Portugal, #RegularizaciónYa and hopefully also Italy and France with their ongoing petition processes are able to offer us as examples.

Within social media, the campaign reached the realm of journalism and through it, the letter arrived to the government’s attention. Unfortunately, so far, there has not been a proper answer. When Jose Luis Escrivá the chief of social security and migration, was confronted with it, he gave a mercantilist answer which avoided the topic of irregularity and the petition for immigrants rights. Apparently some political parties are now supporting the claim, let’s see what happens.

The third and last reference, from an artist angle, does not specifically belong to COVID times, but I want to bring it along the other references to show the potential of bottom up initiatives which meet with top down policies. It is called Too much melanin by catalan artist Nuria Guell. It was a project developed for the Gothenburg Biennial (2013), where she used the loopholes to subvert the immigration law. She hired an asylum seeker with the only condition to play hide and seek with the public of the Biennale. The asylum seeker emigrated from Kosovo due to the local conflict and her asylum request had been previously rejected twice. In this way, through the labour contract with the Biennale, her permission to reside legally in Sweden was successfully processed and she could finally stop hiding. This is a good example on “thinking creatively how to use the law, allowing artworks to activate beyond symbolism, generating specific social transformations and expanding the political functions of art.” as the artist mentions.

Image by Juan Pablo García Sossa.

The world is changing very quickly but politics take too much time to change. Through top down cases as the one in Portugal or bottom up initiatives, as the one in Spain, we can begin to conceive the possible range of actions we can take in order to achieve our collective survival. The last reference, the work of Nuria Güell, can hopefully inspire us as artists, urbanists or architects, on how through the frame of our fields and acting beyond them, we can also influence the context in concrete and powerful ways. As #RegularizaciónYa mentions “we are currently facing a historic opportunity for social recomposition and for placing as priority social justice and the preservation of life”. Let’s assume this challenge in an inclusive, integral and human way.