The coronavirus in Europe has been par excellence a western European affair, in that the advanced democracies and economies of the continent have suffered the biggest blow in terms of cases and deaths compared with the less advanced countries of south and eastern Europe. As is well known, those countries worst hit by the virus are the most popular destinations for intra-European migration from the East and the South of Europe for the past three decades. Among these the UK, home to large numbers of European migrants was badly hit by the virus. The switching off of the UK economy, like in all other countries, led to an unprecedented economic contraction and a dramatic rise of joblessness across all walks of life. This opinion piece looks at the vulnerable European migrants who, having lost their jobs, were neither protected by the UK government’s furloughing scheme nor were likely to benefit, in the medium or longer term, by other financial measures aimed to save businesses and avoid mass unemployment.
Many of these migrant workers, for instance, were working in the hospitality sector of the UK economy, primarily in the accommodation and food industries, which were the very first to be hit by the coronavirus and are expected to be the last to recover from it. The overwhelming majority of these migrants in these sectors are young people, in their 20s and 30s, existing in highly precarious circumstances: many of them are in short term employment contracts, they are not members of trade unions, they don’t own their own property, they live in privately rented accommodation, away from their families, most of the time sharing a flat often in overcrowded circumstances, and they don’t have enough savings to last them long.
According to the Institute for Public Policy Research, in the UK around 9% of EU workers are employed in accommodation and food compared to 5% of UK workers. But the vulnerable European migrants include other categories as well, such as those who are self-employed with their own small businesses, those with temporary contracts which were interrupted, or those working in the informal economy. For all of them, Brexit makes their uncertainty even more agonising especially for the ones who have not yet applied for the settled or pre-settled immigration status and with the highly selective and controversial point-based immigration system on the near horizon.
These are the vulnerable European migrants who on March 23 were all of a sudden left out in the cold. Pushed by circumstances, these people were faced with two stark choices: to stay put, or to return to their homeland and their more caring family environment. The personal stories are countless. The first option, to stay in the hostland entailed the prospect of limited or no resources to get by, while the best-case scenario of finding some alternative job, among the few available jobs during the pandemic, included high health risks; some of them working in care homes, the gig economy, or supermarkets became even more vulnerable, with a few of them having to conceal their infection if the virus caught up with them, in order to continue working and pay their bills at the risk of infecting others.
The other option to return to the homeland was equally disconcerting. For a start, the actual repatriation process was an odyssey in itself; on the one hand travel opportunities were limited, often too expensive and conducted under uncertain and cumbersome circumstances. Upon arrival in their homelands, their own countries viewed them as bearers of the pandemic under the fear that they would spread the disease. Romania, with large diasporas in the UK and other western European countries, deliberately put its diasporic citizens off from returning to Romania and barred flights during Easter. In most east and south east European states, the UK was seen in their press as an outlier European country with the worst reaction to the coronavirus which made the perception of the threat even bigger.
Having arrived back in their homeland, all travellers would be put into quarantines usually for two weeks before they were allowed to circulate under the restrictions in the different national settings. Yet the biggest challenge for the vulnerable migrants is post-corona job rehabilitation, with virtually no work prospects in their countries, which was the main motivation to leave in the first place. Ironically, while most of the countries in south east, central and eastern Europe were much less hit by the virus, the economic implications of the pandemic are anticipated to hit their economies harder with unemployment and recession expected to rise exponentially and with much less capacity for swift recovery.
One is therefore left wondering whether the pandemic is creating a lost generation of young European migrants from the south and east of Europe; a lost generation in their working prime, who, having suffered from the first shock of the eurozone crisis, now have to sustain the second shock from the pandemic? For the most vulnerable migrants, the pandemic is evoking issues of trust, belongingness and personal security. On all these counts, the feeling is one of lack of trust in both the host and homeland systems, ambiguous belonging and lack of security for the future.
There is no doubt that this pandemic is bringing the state back in. In all countries, governments will have to step in to enhance the social welfare system, to finance the unemployed, to provide credit liquidity for small and medium sized businesses. At a more supranational level, the European Union has adopted a generous economic package to assist in the mitigation of the massive socio-economic impact in the EU member and EU candidate countries. This generates a second question for the vulnerable European migrants who decided to stay in Brexit Britain: will there be any provisions for the low paid or those who lost their jobs, those unprotected European citizens who cannot benefit from EU funds or other UK benefits and some of them who have not yet applied for the settlement scheme?
From a more hopeful perspective, there are voices urging the UK government to rethink its relationship with migrant workers and the lower skilled, considering their massive contribution during the tough times of the lockdown. The pandemic is putting the UK immigration debate in a different light from that of Brexit and calls for more empathy towards the lower skilled migrants and those who may have lost their jobs so abruptly. These were migrants who contributed to the wealth of the UK economy and some of them became the backbone of the corona economy. To many of these, the point system of the new Brexit bill threatens to strip them of their rights and lead them out of the country from January 1, 2021, for not fulfilling the income criteria to remain.
As for those who decided to leave the UK and return to their homeland, the pandemic may have brought the repatriation that their homelands were hoping to achieve, having lost a very energetic part of their working force during the past three decades. The question however is whether these weaker homelands in the post-corona world will have the capacity and resources to keep them or whether they will have to lose them for a second time in a row, to a different country this time.