While parts of the world are beginning to open up after lockdown, the global number of new cases of Covid-19 is growing faster than ever, and governments have been scrambling to find scapegoats. Some countries are holding migrants responsible for the virus. Though UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres made it clear on June 3 that migrants are no more likely to carry the disease than anyone else, it is, nonetheless, being used as an excuse to intensify anti-immigration measures.

Around the world, countries are closing their borders to asylum seekers and implementing harsh immigration policies. During a video call for this piece, Susan Fratzke of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington D.C. explained that “many of the restrictions we have seen being put into place are due to longer-term political dynamics.”

On Europe’s southern border, the coronavirus is being used as justification to intensify an already existing EU blockade of migration via North Africa. As the pandemic has spread, civil war in Libya has continued, and many migrants are still trying to cross the Mediterranean to nations such as Italy to seek asylum in Europe.

After an NGO rescue vessel docked in the Sicilian port of Pozzallo in February, the far-right Italian politician Matteo Salvini said that “the government had underestimated the coronavirus. Allowing the migrants to land from Africa, where the presence of the virus was confirmed, is irresponsible.”

At that time, however, there was only one reported case of the coronavirus in all of Africa — in Egypt — while in Italy the disease was already widespread. Blaming migrants was a way for Salvini to divert attention away from an inadequate government response to the pandemic.

Jerome Tubiana, a freelance researcher on migration, told me that European administrations have long tried to curb migration in the Mediterranean, including via the funding of the Libyan Coast Guard, which has been involved in egregious human rights violations

During the pandemic, the Italian government ruled that migrants must be quarantined at sea and refused to let them dock in its ports, citing the danger of Covid-19 transmission. Italy’s decision was echoed by the Maltese government, which effectively blocked NGO vessels from carrying out migrant rescue operations at sea.

Elsewhere, the coronavirus outbreak has functioned as an excuse to suspend the right to asylum. The United States and Hungary are among 90 countries, Fratzke said, that have used the pandemic as an excuse to not consider asylum applications and deport people without letting them make claims. These policies, Fratze argues, have been long in the making.

Covid-19 has, she said, “provided a public health justification for border closures.”

Peter Kreko, the director of Political Capital Institute, a research organization based in Budapest, told me in a telephone interview that Hungary provides one of the most extreme examples of such policies. Initially, Kreko said, Prime Minister Viktor Orban was dismissive of the threat posed by Covid-19, and concerned that it might “divert attention away from his favorite topic, migration.”

After Hungary’s first cases of the virus were diagnosed in Iranian students, Orban changed tack, and conflated the two issues. At the beginning of March, he gave an interview in which he stated that Hungary is “fighting a two-front war: one front is called migration, and the other one belongs to the coronavirus. There is a logical connection between the two, as both spread with movement.”

There is no evidence, Kreko said, to suggest that Covid-19 spreads through irregular immigration. The virus, Kreko said, rather follows the pathways of international business. Orban’s government instead used a public health rationale to intensify anti-migrant rhetoric. It claimed that the reason Western European countries were suffering more than those of Eastern Europe was because of the presence of migrants — again, a theory without any factual basis —and used this claim to justify closing Hungary’s borders.

Part of international anti-migrant rhetoric has been to elide the differences between lockdowns designed to limit the spread of Covid-19, and lockouts designed to prevent migrants entering a country.

Which migrants are blamed depends on which country one is looking at. In the U.S., asylum processing has been suspended and many forms of worker visas have been suspended. President Donald Trump’s administration has frequently sought to blame China for the virus. In mid-May, White House trade advisor Peter Navarro claimed that China sent hundreds of thousands of its nationals around the world to seed Covid-19 — despite the fact that most early cases in America were found in people who flew in from Europe, not Asia. At a time when the close proximity of other human beings is being viewed as a mortal danger, the bodies of migrants are being cynically portrayed as biological weapons.

Meanwhile, in China, African migrants are being targeted. In April, all African nationals in the city of Guangzhou were forced to undergo a 14-day-quarantine — even if they had tested negative for Covid-19. Many were subsequently evicted from their apartments by landlords. Such policies represent an intensification of long-standing and already harsh migrant-management tactics used by the Chinese government.

In Malaysia, which had previously received Rohingya refugees from Myanmar positively, the pandemic has catalyzed a shift in attitude, and there is now intensified xenophobia towards refugees. This development has also been mirrored in Thailand and Bangladesh, the other main destinations for displaced Rohingya. Since May 1, Malaysia has refused entry to more than 22 boats, and on June 8, detained 269 people, who arrived in a damaged vessel off its coast.

Paradoxically, the very measures taken by host governments against migrants, under the guise of protecting citizens from the virus, increase the risk of the virus to migrants. Forcing people together in cramped conditions, as the Malaysian government has done, means they do not have sufficient access to water and sanitation to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Other countries have taken similar approaches. In March, Amnesty reported that Bosnia had forcibly confined thousands of migrants to camps. This move has led to heightened tensions between police and migrants this month. In Greece, while the rest of the country is lifting lockdown restrictions, such measures remain in force at five closed migrant camps in the Aegean islands, where confinement is to continue until at least July 5.

Eve Cosse, a researcher with Human Rights Watch in Athens, stated that confinement has exacerbated previously poor conditions in the camps.

In reality, far from being vectors of infection, refugees and migrants in camps worldwide are some of the populations most at risk of Covid-19. Kutupalong shelter in Bangladesh, the largest refugee camp in the world, is home to 600,000 Rohingya, who fled a military crackdown in Myanmar in 2017. Following the first death from Covid-19 in the camp on May 31, there is now real concern that its inadequate health services will quickly be overwhelmed.

There, as in many refugee camps around the world, the response to Covid-19 — rather than the virus itself — has exacerbated existing problems. Many countries have closed their borders and shut down international travel, leading to acute shortages of both resources and international staff, including doctors and medical personnel. 

The Kenyan government has banned movement in and out of the country’s two main camps — Dadaab and Kakuma — home to half a million people, and will evaluate the movement of aid-workers on a case by case basis

While Covid-19 is a genuine global public health crisis, the virus has been used as a tool to ratchet up anti-migrant feeling in host countries, and to justify repressive anti-immigrant policies. As such, the virus has functioned like an X-ray, making the existing xenophobia of societies around the world even clearer to see.

Rachel Sherman contributed research. 

Illustration by Sofiya Voznaya