The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted migration and mobility in the Asia Pacific region in multiple and complex ways. Over the course of 2020-’21, various restrictions on public health grounds to halt the spread of the virus were placed on many of the available pathways for mobility.
Such pathways included visas for the temporary entry of non-citizens, labour migration programmes, humanitarian entry schemes as well as refugee resettlement programs, family unification mechanisms and other measures by which states manage the entry and stay of people in their territories.
Across the region, borders were closed, often abruptly, and lockdowns in urban and rural centres confined millions to their homes for indefinite lengths of time. Forced into unemployment by business closures and contracting economies, and usually unable to carry out their jobs remotely, many migrants were forced to return to countries which struggled to reintegrate them and to include them in fragile health systems.
Many faced stigma and even violence having been portrayed as “disease carriers” in the countries in which they lived and worked, as well as when they returned home. This picture is rendered bleaker by the harsh fact that for many people on the move, the pandemic only exacerbated the exclusion and discrimination they routinely faced before.
The Asia Pacific region hosts and is home to a significant proportion of the world’s international migrants. According to official data, roughly one in three of the 282 million international migrants in the world originated from the region and one in seven are living in the region.
To these numbers must be added a sizeable but usually uncounted population of migrants with irregular status.
The region is also the world’s most populous (home to 60% of the global population) and among the most rapidly developing, yet it has some of the highest levels of wealth and income inequality within and between countries, some of the largest and fastest ageing populations per country, and sizeable youth populations.
It is highly vulnerable to climate change and natural disasters – half of the region’s people live in low-lying coastal areas.
Migration is therefore an inevitable reality for the Asia Pacific, embedded in livelihood and risk-reduction strategies and part of the day-to-day life of millions of people who have moved in different ways and with varying motivations, as well as for the families and communities that they leave behind.
Societies and economies across Asia have been built by migrant workers, and it has been well recognised that many were essential to the Covid-19 response in the region and beyond.
Yet, international migration governance has largely been inconsistent and often fragmented, particularly in relation to the protection and promotion of the human rights of migrants in situations of vulnerability.
In general, regional discussions of mobility have been slow to consider the need for regular migration pathways, with some exception being made for temporary low-wage labour migration programmes.
A “pathway” in this context has been understood as a legal, policy and/or administrative mechanism that enables regular travel, admission and/or stay in the territory of a State.
In a recent report which maps national practices on entry and stay pathways in 17 countries of the Asia Pacific region, the United Nations Human Rights Office contends that the region needs to devise and implement pathways that respond to a range of protection-sensitive imperatives.
These include the impacts of environmental degradation and climate change; health status and lack of access to health care (including the effects of pollution and other environmental threats to health); protection of the right to family life; the occurrence of torture and failure to provide rehabilitation after torture; protection from gender-based violence; situations in which migrants are witnesses to or victims of trafficking or of other crimes; and in the context of statelessness.
Despite protection-sensitive pathways being relatively nascent in the region, particularly those that are adjacent to or entirely outside the asylum space, it is interesting to note that of the 17 States that were covered in the study:
· 11 provide pathways that are explicitly based on human rights/humanitarian grounds.
· 16 have a form of family unification in their laws.
· 10 have comprehensive anti-human trafficking laws.
· 17 offer visas for education purposes.
· 13 provided visa amnesties to foreign nationals due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In addition, every State included in this study granted wide-ranging residual discretionary powers to government authorities to authorise the entry and stay into the country of certain migrants or groups of migrants.
Such discretionary mechanisms can be an expression of compassion or international cooperation and solidarity and are able to render flexible responses to entry and stay needs. However, the United Nations Migration Network has recommended that decisions to grant admission and stay should be based on clear and transparent criteria and not be taken solely at the discretion of the official in charge of the case to avoid discrimination and abuses of power.
As the study shows, the Covid-19 pandemic both reinforced the focus of States in the region on international borders as a site of visible control (including through border closures, enforced returns, quarantine policies and enhanced methods of surveillance and scrutiny) but it also provided an opportunity for governments to understand and demonstrate the flexibility and the tools that are available to them to provide regular status to migrants, particularly those who are in vulnerable situations.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, many states in the region put in place innovative measures to ensure continued stay and to respond to individual situations of vulnerability, and they should seize the opportunity to embed the practices and lessons learned in this turbulent period.
Indeed, the United Nations Secretary General has suggested that the pandemic offers an opportunity to reimagine human mobility for the benefit of all while advancing the central commitment of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda to “leave no one behind”.
However, the unfortunate reality in the Asia Pacific, as in other regions, is that migration policy is often made not primarily with a view to improving migration governance, but rather to influence domestic political narratives.
Migrants and migration have long been held up as scapegoats in times of uncertainty and societal stress, and the Covid-19 pandemic has been no exception. Yet, the call to expand and diversify such pathways is not an argument for “open borders”, but rather that such pathways are a concrete demonstration of every State’s sovereign responsibility to manage their borders in a way that upholds legal obligations and principles of solidarity.
Expanding and diversifying regular pathways for the entry and stay of migrants in vulnerable situations on the one hand and upholding the security and well-being of communities on the other is not a zero-sum game: enhancing the former will not lead to a diminution of the latter.
Evidence-based arguments for better migration governance will only lead to concrete and sustainable policy change if we are willing to reimagine the ways in which we speak of migration.
Can we replace narratives of fear and exclusion with those of hopefulness and inclusion? Is there place in these narratives to imagine a more inclusive and resilient future for our communities? In the spirit of “building back better” in the aftermath of Covid-19, governments in the Asia Pacific region must reflect on the lessons learned from the pandemic and commit to a rights-based reimagination of human mobility.
A longer version of this article was published by Melbourne Asia Review, Asia Institute.