Global Migrantophobia and Coronavirus

The pandemic has shown that, despite all the measures taken, migrantophobia, both in those countries that are taking steps to eliminate it, and in those countries where a solution to this problem is not a priority, can quickly grow and become a reliable weapon in the arsenal of populist politicians seeking to gain popularity, writes Dmitry Poletaev, Leading researcher at the Institute of Economic Forecasting of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Director of Migration Research Centre 

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, migrantophobia has had a “second wind” in many countries. The pandemic has provided a formal reason for a global wave of intolerance towards “strangers” and “aliens”. They are now deemed “responsible for the spread of infection”, but this antipathy isn’t new; it’s often caused by xenophobia and migrantophobia. Now, these long-established phobias have manifested themselves along with fears caused by the rapid and global spread of the infection. At the same time, public manifestations of migrantophobia are becoming sharper and more frequent.

Unfortunately, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, xenophobic and radical nationalist slogans, supported by individual political parties and associations, and accompanied by attacks on refugees and the like, have been observed in countries throughout the world, including Britain, Greece, Germany, Italy, Spain, the USA and France. 
The most striking manifestation of migrantophobia around the world has been the wave of spite directed at the Chinese, which during the pandemic has been demonstrated by the media, residents of countries which receive large numbers of migrants, and top-level officials. In response to anti-Chinese sentiments on social media, the victims of this unwarranted antipathy began to share personal stories with the hashtag #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus (“I’m not a virus”), criticising the current situation. Anti-Chinese sentiment and Sinophobia have a complex nature, but reflect long-standing prejudices, reinforced by foreign policy and economic rivalry, and fuelled by today’s pandemic-related fears.

In connection with the Covid-19 pandemic, migrantophobia, racism and xenophobia, especially against foreigners and immigrants from Asia, are growing all over the world; heads of international organisations and international associations, as well as public figures and human rights organisations, have declared that the further escalation of hatred is unacceptable and needs to be eliminated. UN Secretary General António Guterres has implored national governments to address the problem, saying “we must act now to strengthen the immunity of our societies against the virus of hate.” The EU leadership, realising the danger of a new wave of migrantophobia, has emphasised the positive role of migrants in the economic and historical development of Europe, and Human Rights Watch promotes the idea of developing new national action plans in connection with the pandemic, based on mechanisms already developed by the UN, such as a guide for fighting racial discrimination published by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. But the strengthening of efforts to combat migrantophobia on a joint and integrated basis has been a slow process and it can’t be said that the world community considers it a high-priority task.

Even on the eve of the pandemic, migrantophobia in Russia had potential for growth, but when Russians began to lose their jobs en masse, this potential began to be realised. According to the forecasts of experts and top-level Russian officials, the number of people in Russia who are unemployed, calculated according to the methodology of the International Labour Organisation, could grow from 5 million people to 9 million people. A significant number of both Russian and foreign citizens have been left without work, and unable to leave Russia because of closed borders (as of late May 2020, when this article was written). In economic crises, labour migrants are traditionally considered to be competitors for jobs; although this is true only with a significant number of caveats and mainly applies to unskilled labourers, the narrative is being actively promoted by populist politicians.

But today in Russia, in addition to the migrantophobia that has already set in, in recent decades, towards external labour migrants, the pandemic has worsened wary attitudes towards Muscovites; their presence outside the nation’s capital is now viewed with open hostility. 

Muscovites are now not just written off as an annoyance, they are viewed as potential vectors of the coronavirus infection, constituting a direct danger and providing a new target for migrantophobia. Popular hostility towards Muscovites has a long history and has its roots in regional inequality that has persisted since the times of the USSR, as people from the capital enjoy higher living standards and a superior quality of life. At the same time, it is clear that the number of coronavirus infections in Moscow was the highest in the country due to the frequent overseas trips made by the wealthiest Muscovites, as well as the large transit flow of foreigners from countries where coronavirus had already spread, which resulted in it being exposed before the healthcare system was prepared for the pandemic, a problem compounded by the high density of the population.

In the coming years, the growth of migrantophobia and xenophobia in Russia is unlikely to lead to large-scale inter-ethnic conflicts, but the popularity of political parties and movements which make use of anti-migrant rhetoric among some Russians can be predicted now. Russia has not yet created a comprehensive system for the integration of migrants, although there are some of its elements (free education for migrant children in public schools, free emergency medical care for foreigners and free maternity care for foreign women giving birth). The lack of such a system of integration in Russia, where natives and newcomers alike strive to build the “glass walls” of alienation rather than embrace mutually beneficial interaction, has yielded a stable level of migrantophobia. At the same time, migration is perceived not as a development resource, which has its pluses (which are greater) and minuses (which can be minimised), but as a serious challenge to national security. Under such conditions, when the economy takes a turn for the worse, there is a political upheaval, or in situations of force majeure (including the coronavirus pandemic), bursts of migrantophobia are constantly observed.

On the global stage, the states which are the most attractive to migrants have tried to approach migration as a development resource, while at the same time minimising the negative effects of migration by prioritising integration, as this significantly reduces the level of migrantophobia within host communities. Despite this approach, migrantophobia as a phenomenon could not be completely eradicated, although it has been possible to smooth out and neutralise its negative consequences. For this work, the active efforts of taxpayer-funded government agencies have been supplemented by civil society initiatives, stimulated by significant financial resources, allocated on a competitive basis by private and state funds and organisations, as well as cultural and art institutions, which have also received significant state and private financial support. It seems that it was this approach that yielded long-term and sustainable results in the strengthening of unity and good neighbourliness, increasing these countries’ attractiveness to migrants.

Unfortunately, the pandemic has shown that, despite all the measures taken, migrantophobia, both in those countries that are taking steps to eliminate it, and in those countries where a solution to this problem is not a priority, can quickly grow and become a reliable weapon in the arsenal of populist politicians seeking to gain popularity. Time will tell whether international institutions, interstate associations and the states themselves won’t run wild in a “crumbling world”, where migrantophobia threatens to become one of the components of a new “war of all against all”, where everyone is out for himself.
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