The coronavirus pandemic exposes long-standing inequalities that range from differentiated access to passable health care and conditions for (im)mobility. It also exacerbates the volatility of certain labour market segments. Moreover, nationalist appeals expose how state governments have become principal actors in fighting the virus’ spread by resurrecting hard borders. Yet those appeals also highlight transnational inequalities and territorially bounded solidarities. At the same time, public narratives of “we are all in this together” suggests a strengthened sense of domestic community.
What do these contrasting reactions mean for societies’ least privileged groups? And what exacerbates or mollifies those existing social inequalities?
Our research on social protection for vulnerable migrant groups in Germany, funded by the Baden-Württemberg Stiftung, suggests a double dynamic: On one hand, legally precarious groups have become yet more vulnerable. On the other hand, however, we observe inclusive measures that extend solidarity to otherwise-excluded groups.
We spoke to social workers and migrant counsellors in welfare organisations (e.g., from AWO and Caritas) and local NGOs in Germany that advise migrants on questions of social integration. Those conversations revealed the pandemic’s social impacts on unprotected migrant groups. In particular, we inquired into access to social services and subsistence benefits for vulnerable EU migrant citizens with unclear residency status and for non-EU citizens with irregular status.
The double dynamic is evident in the homeless-care sector. Sleeping rough puts homeless populations at higher risk of infection and transmission, especially since some temporary accommodations, sanitary facilities and soup kitchens have temporarily closed. The latter also aggravates other problems, such as by leaving rough sleepers without food. These groups also struggle to comply with social distancing and stay-at-home orders.
Some COVID-19 policy responses include shifts towards universal treatment based on need rather than legal status. Homeless national citizens receive access to shelter before migrant EU citizens with no or uncertain residence rights. Berlin-based social workers now report that homeless migrant groups will receive temporary shelter for several weeks at a time, until the restrictions are eased – often in conjunction with medical care.
The Senate of Berlin has transformed hostels and hotels into temporary homeless shelters to increase capacity. Local initiatives now deliver donation-financed food packages to those shelters. Ordinarily, local social courts enforce homeless EU citizens’ entitlement to housing, but NGOs now report that their clients face fewer difficulties to access shelter.
The delivery of basic social subsistence benefits has also expanded. The German government has eased access to social-assistance benefits that local job centres administer. From March to August 2020, applicants will neither undergo a means-test, nor will accommodation subsidies capped. The state will instead cover full rents. As a result, migrant counsellors have noted eased communication and cooperation with job centre bureaucrats. Acceptances are increasing for applications that would normally be denied, such as for EU claimants in marginal employment.
There is an apparent shift to benefits leniency, irrespective of individual circumstances. Pre-crisis, job centre caseworkers questioned EU citizens’ benefit entitlement because they did not recognise precarious work as genuine employment. Nevertheless, eased access to social subsistence benefits does not change the situation for legally-excluded EU citizens. Benefit receipt requires that EU citizens be employed for at least six months in Germany or have resided legally for 5 years. Strenuous conditions such as these raise problems for those employed in atypical or short-term jobs.
Access to healthcare is even less inclusive. Social workers report that strained resources prompt a trend towards restricted access for vulnerable migrant groups. Migrant populations without health insurance encounter even greater barriers to emergency health care access than before the pandemic. Barriers include the need to request documentation from the Foreign Office as a condition of healthcare access, which passes responsibilities from one state bureaucracy to another.
More generally, civil society organisations point to increased barriers to accessing basic social support for the most vulnerable migrant groups. Regular outreach work by street teams is impossible, and migrant counsellors are contactable only by telephone and email. The shutdown makes direct communication with local bureaucracies almost impossible. The few exceptions where communication is possible are still obstacle-ridden: not everyone speaks German, and even fewer can hire a translator.
What will happen once the emergency subsides? The shift towards inclusion is temporary. Vulnerable migrant workers who lack needed social support will increase: they are especially vulnerable to economic shocks such as the one that COVID-19 has spurred. Seasonal and marginal employment in agriculture, construction, restaurants, hospitality and other service sectors have already been affected. Unemployment rates started surging as of April 2020.
Civil society organisations expect applications for social support to increase once borders reopen, not least because of a renewed inflow from EU countries whose economies have been even more severely hit. Migrant counsellors foresee a return by summer 2020 to restrictive and racist discretionary behaviour. Some social workers already note that decreased institutional capacity has left applications altogether un-reviewed.
Optimistically, NGOs note that exposed inequality creates a potential window of opportunity. For example, social movements like the “Leave no one behind” campaign shed light on marginalised migrant groups stuck in camps in the Greek borderlands. The realisation that certain industries are essential helps: Migrant workers are over-represented in sectors which have been discovered as critical, such as cleaning, logistics, delivery, agriculture, nursing or elderly care.
Social movements like Campact have increased lobbying efforts to revalue those professions. The German government is currently discussing changes to the wage structure in the care sector. Although those discussions do not extend beyond the horizon of a one-off payment, this could benefit migrant populations. Moreover, although the shifts towards greater inclusion described here are likely short-term, they offer a chance to reflect on the need for reform, and on the window of opportunity for how we think about who deserves what.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Social Policy Blog, nor of the London School of Economics.