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Ashraful Azad 

It has already become a cliché to say that the COVID-19 pandemic is having unprecedented impacts on many areas of our lives, including for refugees and migrants. But beyond the immediate human impacts, the coronavirus crisis is showing us who is – and is not – included when we respond as a community. For the non-citizens – including migrants, refugees and asylum seekers – the pandemic is revealing something deeper about the nature of modern state and its membership.

Some things are readily clear. Many, if not most, countries affected by this coronavirus lack sufficient medical resources to deal with the crisis. On the economic front, they face a severe shock. Vast spending is required to support millions of unemployed citizens, while revenues dry up in now-stagnant economies.

Before the virus attacked, non-citizens in many countries had been contributing to government revenue in one way or another, but government safety nets have largely ignored these ‘non-members’. Take Australia, for instance, where the government declared unprecedented income support measures for unemployed citizens, but has done little for the migrants and international students who had been substantial contributors to the economy. Muted protests have not moved the government to reconsider. 

As COVID-19 has spread across boundaries, it has prompted a rising protectionism and nationalism. In many places, the pandemic has rejuvenated the dormant hatred and xenophobia against groups considered ‘outsiders’ because of their religion or ethnicity, irrespective of their citizenship status. There are countries where specific groups of people have been targeted by the majority population. For instance, many Muslims faced renewed stigma, threats and boycotts in India, accused of spreading the virus. The virus has intensified existing tensions in India, where increasing anti-Muslim policies, emboldened by Hindu nationalism, have often been supported by the current national government. 

During the pandemic, some countries have justified violent deportation measures and even refoulement without any strong domestic opposition. Non-members of the political community have easily become disposable. Malaysia has been a preferred destination of many Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, who mainly arrive in the country by taking dangerous boat journeys through the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. Previously, the Malaysian government either did not severely police the border or reluctantly accepted the refugees. However, during this pandemic, several boats of refugees have been sent back to sea by Malaysian authorities, In one boat allegedly turned away by Malaysia, at least 30 people had died of starvation before the survivors were rescued by the Bangladesh Coast Guard. The government has sought to justify its actions on the ground that it is protecting Malaysia from the spread of pandemic, even though there have been no reports of infection on the boats. Its drastic actions have received little criticism from local civil society. Moreover, Rohingya already living in the country have faced increased hatred and xenophobia

There is a clear disparity between the luxury cruise vessels that have been allowed to dock in some ports, and the rickety boats carrying refugees, which lack the cruise ships’ fuel, food, safety and means of communication. The COVID-19 restrictions are often said to be equalising everyone in the society, but such cases show that the global hierarchy of mobility is still alive and well. 

In such times of global crisis, when national governments are often unashamedly focused only on serving citizens – excluding people seeking asylum, refugees and migrants – intergovernmental organisations such as the United Nations and international NGOs must play a key role. What the pandemic is making evident is that non-members of modern nation states need support from beyond the borders of the traditional political community. 

Ashraful Azad is an affiliate with the Kaldor Centre and PhD Candidate in the Law School at UNSW Sydney


Read Kaldor Centre Director Jane McAdam introducing COVID-19 Watch with ‘The impacts of COVID-19 on the world’s displaced people: A watching brief’, and find all the analysis in COVID-19 Watch. Don’t miss any new posts, follow the Kaldor Centre on TwitterFacebook and LinkedIn and subscribe free to our Weekly News Roundup, delivered to your inbox every Monday. 


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