Protecting Migrants’ Civic Freedoms Amid COVID-19

"Donatien Voungoukpala, 13 (solid blue t-shirt), with his brothers Fleuri Rodrigue Hipai, 17, and Aime Bera-Mbolikia, 10, go to fetch water at a a nearby spring, their principle water source. Rounga Village, Bangassou, Central African Republic." Photograph by Sean Sheridan/Mercy Corps submitted in the 2016 InterAction Photo Contest.

Protecting Migrants’ Civic Freedoms Amid COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has been called the “great equalizer.”

However, its trajectory has hit certain populations more than others. Migrant groups, in particular, are being devastated. While experts have warned of dire humanitarian crises if governments do not take swift action, we must consider the long-term effects that the pandemic could have on migrants’ civic freedoms.

The Pandemic Will Impede Migrants’ Exercise of Civic Rights

Too many governments are using the pandemic as a chance to impose excessive new legal restrictions on peoples’ rights. This opportunistic response—coupled with the extreme pressures the pandemic puts on migrants—means that COVID-19 is likely to have the following dire consequences on their ability to exercise freedoms of assembly, association, and expression.

  • To the extent that migrant populations become even sicker and poorer because of the pandemic, they will have even less of the time, energy, and financial resources needed to organize and self-advocate.
  • New travel restrictions and greater economic hardship will push migrants into even more insecure legal and financial situations, which will have a chilling effect on their exercise of civic freedoms. It is difficult to advocate in opposition to powerful interests where doing so may result in loss of livelihood or status, detention, or deportation.
  • The pandemic will complicate migrants’ ability to access information. Policies restricting access to information about COVID-19 will have a disproportionate impact on migrants, who already find it difficult to obtain information, given linguistic barriers, isolation, and a common lack of internet access.
  • As many governments moved quickly to respond to COVID-19, some leaders find expedited, non-participatory procedures appealing. Limiting opportunities to participate will disproportionately exclude migrants, who already face significant barriers to participation in policymaking in destination counties.
  • Quarantines and social distancing make digital connectivity crucial for accessing information and participation in policymaking. But here, too, many migrant groups are excluded—especially women and refugees—as they tend to have much lower levels of digital connectivity than host populations.
  • Migrants’ access to justice and due process are being hindered. Lockdown orders and other restrictions on public activity have given police more leeway to control individuals’ movements. Migrants can face aggressive clampdowns, especially if they are in irregular situations. Furthermore, many governments have enacted more restrictive migration and asylum laws and closed immigration courts, leaving many without judicial mechanisms to challenge decisions regarding detention, deportation, etc.
  • Despite the increased needs of migrant communities, several countries continue to repress civil society organizations that provide services to migrants (migrant-allied CSOs), closing the space for civil society to provide support at a crucial time.

Restrictive measures rolled out in the name of public health could stay in place long past the end of the pandemic, entrenching resistance to the exercise of rights and freedoms by migrants and their allies.

The Crisis May Offer Ways to Enhance Migrants’ Civic Rights

Although the pandemic poses a crisis for migrants’ rights, it also offers reasons for optimism.

  • Governments and the public increasingly recognize the expertise of migrants, particularly in the medical field, and their contribution as essential workers.
  • A growing understanding of ways in which communities are interconnected during health crises could lead to more consideration for societies’ most vulnerable members.
  • The pandemic offers the opportunity for migrant-allied CSOs to demonstrate how their grassroots efforts serve communities in need, which could bolster trust in civil society and lead to a more welcoming environment and more significant donor support.
  • Some governments have moved to protect the health and legal status of migrants, which will have the additional benefit of supporting their ability to exercise their civic freedoms by removing their vulnerabilities.
  • A few national and regional authorities have also taken innovative steps to address the obstacles that migrants face in accessing information, such as setting up multi-lingual online information hubs or working with local migrant-allied CSOs to disseminate material.

If retained after the COVID-19 crisis recedes, the positive steps that some governments have taken to expand health and safety nets for migrants, ensure their access to information, and regularize their legal status could lead to long-term gains in migrants’ ability to exercise civic freedoms.


To safeguard migrants’ civic freedoms during the pandemic, civil society should monitor all COVID-19 related measures, raising the alarm about any undue restrictions. Special attention must be paid to:

  • Any restrictions on movement, access to information, or the rights of free assembly, association, and expression that are not strictly necessary, proportionate, and time-limited to the duration of the pandemic or are applied discriminatorily to migrants.
  • Measures that impact border crossing or asylum rights that may push migrants into unsafe situations with few due process remedies.
  • Measures that limit access to information or participation in policymaking efforts.
  • Measures that enable harassment and criminalization of migrant-allied CSOs.
  • Measures that could perpetuate stigmas and xenophobia affecting migrants, such as government statements that tie COVID-19 to a particular nationality.

Civil society and governments should also enable the exercise of civic freedoms by:

  • Making information about public health or health-related restrictions accessible to migrant communities, particularly information about mitigating health risks and accessing care, social security benefits, and financial aid available to them.
  • Connecting migrant groups with opportunities to participate in relevant policymaking processes on virus response and reaching out to migrants who may have limited internet access.
  • Working to mainstream migrant-specific concerns into response policies.

For more details, please see The International Center for Non-Profit-Law’s in-depth analysis HERE.