Migrants and Refugees Are Being Forgotten in the COVID-19 Response
Mayors Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, Bruno Covas, and Eric Garcetti share what their cities know — and why nations must act now
By Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, Mayor of Freetown, Sierra Leone; Bruno Covas, Mayor of São Paulo, Brazil; and Eric Garcetti, Mayor of Los Angeles, United States
The scapegoating of immigrants and refugees during a crisis is an old tactic used by far too many countries and their governments. But attacking foreigners amid an unprecedented global pandemic is not just cruel and wrong; it is short-sighted. This willful blindness to the norms of human rights and the needs of our economies betrays what our values demand, what our consciences dictate, and what this stunning moment requires.
As we confront COVID-19, the last thing we should do is shut out immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees. To the contrary, these extraordinary individuals fill vital roles in our societies — as essential workers in our hospitals, public transit systems, manufacturing facilities, grocery stores, and more.
Yet despite their contributions, migrant families are too often overlooked — or overtly excluded — in COVID-19 relief plans.
Our three cities are diverse crossroads of international commerce and culture. We know true recovery from the catastrophic economic and health damage of COVID-19 will only occur when the needs of every member of society are met, regardless of legal status. Yet we see a disturbing reality emerging: some national governments are opting to implement discriminatory pandemic responses.
We know this unjust approach will only prolong the crisis. We are therefore stepping into the void left by national leaders and advancing smart, fair, moral policies that ensure response efforts account for everyone in our cities, no matter where their journeys began. As members of the Leadership Board of the Mayors Migration Council — a group of mayors from across the globe dedicated to improving migration policy and governance — we call on national and international decision-makers to join us in our commitment to an equitable pandemic response and recovery.
The evidence of inadequate national relief plans is everywhere. The good news is that cities are taking charge to undo the damage inflicted by deficient policies. São Paulo transitioned its elected Municipal Council of Immigrants and Refugees to online forums to remain responsive to migrant community needs. Freetown formed a partnership with the European Union to ensure that the 350,000 people who live in the city’s informal settlements, many of whom are internal migrants, receive support. And Los Angeles established the Angeleno Fund to provide direct financial assistance to those excluded from federal pandemic relief.
National leaders and the international community should take our cue. Cities are developing and deploying innovative COVID-19 response strategies worldwide that can be scaled up and adopted far beyond our municipal boundaries. But our actions cannot take place in a vacuum. Nations control visa regimes, labor laws, and access to public services that affect how well — and how fast — we can recover from this crisis.
The Mayors Migration Council has engaged in global diplomatic efforts from the beginning of the pandemic to elevate local solutions that assist internal and international migrants in cities around the world. A truly successful response must see parallel efforts at all levels of governance. We urge national and international decision-makers to build on our work by taking three essential steps:
First, ensure safe, equitable access to services regardless of migration status, including healthcare and economic relief.
Second, empower migrants and refugees to be part of the solution to COVID-19, including through the regularization of immigrant essential workers.
Third, combat misinformation, racism, and xenophobia to strengthen community solidarity in all COVID-19 response and recovery efforts.
The pandemic has revealed that integrating voices from city leadership into international decision-making is crucial for effective crisis management. Mayors and the cities we represent possess insight vital to multilateral deliberation and diplomacy. In order for society to recover, our global institutions and national governments must include migrant and refugee communities in COVID-19 response efforts, adopt our policy recommendations, and provide direct access to flexible funding sources so we can scale and sustain our efforts for years to come.
As members of the Mayors Migration Council, we stand ready to expand our diplomatic mission and create a unified coalition to catalyze bolder, smarter global action on migration. Together, as cities, nations, and an international community, we can establish a new standard for inclusive and pragmatic crisis response that leaves no one behind now and in the future.