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Sustainability and the migrant experience in the COVID-19 crisis

30 April 2020

3 minutes to read

Sustainability and the migrant experience in the COVID-19 crisis

By Neil Adger, Emily Boyd, Ed Carr, Sonja Fransen, Dominique Jolivet, Anita Fabos, Maria Franco Gavonel and Caroline Zickgraf.

The COVID-19 pandemic is transforming the social world. It is, for example, producing substantial changes in the practices and experiences of migration and mobility. The significant opportunities and risks for people who move, and how such individual transformations affect the sustainability of societies, are being radically altered.

Research from the MISTY project shows how, when individuals move, they transform their lives and life chances, often in ways that contribute to the greater good and even to sustainability. Migrating from one place to another is a common means of personal transformation. Yet at the aggregate level, migration is intertwined with globalization and has been an engine for urbanization over the past few decades.

The COVID-19 pandemic is throwing up stark dilemmas for mobility and migration everywhere. There are clearly a variety of migrant situations and experiences, ranging from low-income migrants in city slums through to international hyper-mobile highly paid workers. Refugee camps, internally displaced people, and asylum seekers are themselves in highly risky situations.

Bola, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

There is a gulf of difference between the range of migrant experiences, but some elements are common. The COVID-19 pandemic has been framed as one of biosecurity, putting migration in the spotlight: the virus is perceived as coming from ‘somewhere else’, brought to each locality by travel and movement of people. Widespread economic shutdown and travel restrictions highlighted how human mobility initially enabled the spread of the virus globally. It is evident that the public health response affects marginalized populations, including migrant populations, in specific ways, sometimes putting stigma and blame on migrant populations through fear of the virus spreading, through international or local disease transmission.

The COVID-19 crisis and societal response has already highlighted the profound insecurity experienced by low-income migrants in particular. Perhaps the most visible example is given by the thousands of internal migrants in India, who having lost their jobs with the lockdown, try to return to their villages in conditions considered the antithesis of social distancing. Many migrant populations experience marginalization spatially and socially in the places they move to, especially in low-income settings. Socially excluded migrant populations experience negative mental health outcomes exacerbated by their limited labour rights, social stigma and inequality.

Yet the crisis also throws up alternative forces. A key question, for example, is whether the new places where migrants live enable coping and thriving through community action. Some initiatives such as the food distribution initiated by undocumented migrants in Barcelona to relieve hunger and food insecurity, already point in that direction.

What the COVID-19 pandemic means in the long term we cannot say. The idea of sustainability itself may be transformed, to focus on individual and collective elements of wellbeing, flourishing and community. The crisis inevitably changes the view of mobility and migration as part of that transformative story.

Our MISTY research can point to what we know is happening right now: economic limitations, reduced mobility, communities rapidly returning to rural areas or other countries, and the rapid, compounding effects of inequality. Social science can speculate on the post-COVID future, but it will very likely be something very different to what we know now. Social science can examine lessons learned from the past and contribute nuanced perspectives on how transformations occur. But the research process also needs to create space for an inclusive set of future imaginations on migration for sustainability.

This commentary was written in response to a call for contributions from the Transformations to Sustainability (T2S) programme on the COVID-19 crisis and was first on the T2S website.

By Neil Adger (University of Exeter), Emily Boyd (Lund University), Ed Carr (Clark University), Sonja Fransen (Maastricht University & University of Amsterdam), Dominique Jolivet (University of Amsterdam), Anita Fabos (Clark University), Maria Franco Gavonel (University of Exeter), Caroline Zickgraf (Liege University).

Republished from  and

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