Migrants and Refugees in the MENA Region: Where are they now in the COVID-19 pandemic response?

Webinar in Commemoration of December 18 International Migrants Day in the Framework of the PSI Project on Human Rights, Trade Unions and Quality Public Services for Refugees and Migrant Workers in Covid-19 Crisis Response

PSI affiliates in the Arab region and in Sweden, other trade unions, civil society organizations, Jordanian government representatives, and the International Labor Office gathered online to examine the situation of migrants and refugees since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in the Arab Region. Speakers and participants shared the challenges they faced in promoting migrant and refugee rights in the face of the pandemic, as well as the strategies and actions they undertake to deal with the challenges, mainly from the perspective of labor rights, social protection and access to health services.


"Still today, when I walk on the street, people avoid me and whisper behind my back: “She tested positive” … I ask you to see yourself in my shoes.”

Migrants and Refugees in the MENA region

All speakers emphasized that, in the MENA region, the pandemic has serious impacts on public health and unprecedented shocks to economies, food systems and labor, threatening the income and food security of millions of workers and marginalized groups, including migrants and refugees who are among those most affected by the crisis. The webinar was organized into two sessions, with the first session focusing on labour rights and social protection and the second session devoted to access to health services.

During the first session, Rosa Pavanelli, PSI General Secretary, began her remarks by paying tribute to the many migrant workers across the world who have continued to work hard, and very often unprotected, in front line services during the pandemic. She highlighted how the Covid-19 pandemic is shedding light to the inequalities and injustices, with the poor and vulnerable becoming poorer and more vulnerable, while continuing to face more problems and challenges as compared to the wealthy. She referred to the conditions of migrant workers and people on the move, highlighting that in most countries, we rely on migrant health workers to care for our patients. Yet we do not ask why these migrant workers are coming. It is because the conditions that they face in their home countries are much worse. Pavanelli says:

“The first point I would like to make is that, we need to make migration a choice and not an obligation to survive. We need to address in every country the fundamental needs of all people, their livelihoods and working conditions, and to fight for environmental and sustainable development for the well-being and survival of our communities. Secondly, as trade unions, we have an important role in shedding light to the human rights situation of migrants: those who are put in detention, or rounded up in overcrowded camps, those who are stranded on the borders, or hidden in our communities, the homeless, and the undocumented migrants, among them are essential workers who are working in highly precarious conditions. We need to continue to raise these issues in our negotiations, in our social dialogue, and at the international level. And thirdly, massive vaccination campaigns will begin in the upcoming months. There are huge profit-making interests in this campaign, along with the stigmatization, racism and xenophobia directed at migrants. We, as advocates of human rights, must stress that vaccines be available for all. Migrants, regardless of status, must be part of the vaccination programme. Otherwise, any effort we do will be useless if we leave a portion of the population uncared for. We are committed to continue this work, and we will make our voice stronger for the recognition of human rights for everyone.”

Dr. Maen Katamine, Minister of Labor in Jordan, highlighted the policies adopted by the Jordanian government in response to the covid-19 pandemic, which includes, the creation of an electronic platform to facilitate the mobility of migrant and refugee workers, issuance of a decree exempting them from fines on the renewal of their working and residency permits, and implementation of policy to combat forced labor. Katamine says, “We welcome any recommendations, and we are ready to cooperate with all the components of national and international community in the interest of all workers.”

Mazen Al‐Maaytah, President of the Jordanian General Federation for Trade Unions (JGFTU), shared the challenges faced by the trade union movement and the responses carried out by the federation. The federation is sponsoring the work permits of the Syrian refugees. During the pandemic, the federation was able to issue 30,000 work permits to Syrian refugee workers. Syrian refugee workers also benefit from an education project supported by the ILO aimed at raising awareness on their rights and obligations. Currently, negotiations with the Ministry of Labor are taking place to extend the period of overdue payment for the renewal of the work permits. Al‐Maaytah says, “The pandemic is very big challenge, new to us, but with the coordination with stakeholders we are managing to mitigate the risks.”

Frida Khan, Senior Gender Equality Specialist for the Arab States and the Coordinator of ILO Jordan Office, presented the “ILO Inclusive Social Protection Programme’’ as a response to the covid-19 crisis. The programme focuses on health care, labor rights, and social protection for migrants, refugees and internally displaced persons.

Further to ILO’s work, Mr. Mustpha Said, ILO Senior Specialist in Workers Activities (ILO ACTRAV) for the Arab States, stressed on Social Dialogue as a critical component for an inclusive social protection response to the Covid-19 crisis. Unfortunately, only 42% of the Arab world use the Social Dialogue platform in addressing workers’ issues. It is because many workers do not have the right to organize, like the civil servants and workers in the informal sector. A majority of migrant and refugee workers work in the informal sector. Said says, “The fact that most of the migrant and refugee workers are hired by the informal sector and do not have the right to organize, effectively deprives them of the right to social dialogue. Social dialogue is a crucial condition for the creation and the strengthening of an inclusive and sustainable social protection system. Moreover, another important challenge in the Arab region is that the responses to deal with pandemic crisis come in the form of a reaction. These are partial responses, with no accompanying long-term strategy.”

Hind Benammar, Office Coordinator of the Arab Trade Union Confederation (ATUC) stressed the inadequate response in terms of social rights and the right to health for migrants and refugees, in addition to the absence of statistics on the Covid-19 patients from among the workers in the informal sector. She shared the studies and research conducted by ATUC on issues of women migrant workers, freedom of mobility and social protection for migrant workers. She mentioned that ITUC and ATUC will be launching a programme for a new social contract post-covid19. Benammar says, “We need to ensure that this new social contract includes migrant workers. Thus, we reiterate the importance of Social Dialogue, as reiterated by our ILO colleagues. The voice of trade unions must be heard loud and clear on the protection of all migrant workers.”

Nassira Ghozlane, General Secretary of the autonomous syndicate for civil servants in Algeria (SNAPAP), shared that her country, Algeria, despite its ratification of the UN Migrant Workers Convention, does not respect its provisions. With the PSI’s support through the project, PSI affiliates in Algeria have carried out field work and interviews with migrant and refugee workers. Ghozlane says, “These workers are afraid whenever somebody approaches them. They are afraid that they will be sent back to the border.” Migrants rounded up by authorities are left to fend for themselves in the desert, on the border with Niger, Mali and Mauritania. Ghozlane recounted an one interview they did with a migrant working in a company employing 2,000 workers. The worker described how their living conditions were not even appropriate for humans. The workers were not paid their wages for the past 2-3 months. Instead of paying the workers, the employer connived with the authorities to raid the migrant workers and deported them. Ghozlane adds, “What added insult to injury was the pandemic. Migrant workers refused to be tested for covid19 because of fear of deportation. Likewise, the cost of testing is very expensive. When a worker is infected, he or she will lose the job. Those infected have been removed from work. When we visited the hospitals, we asked our union representatives in the hospitals about infected migrants. They said that even when migrants get the virus, they do not approach the hospital. Thus, not one infected migrant has approached the hospital.”

The second session was opened by Genevieve Gencianos, PSI Migration Programme Coordinator. Gencianos presented PSI’s policy on the right to health for refugees and migrants. She explained that while every human being is entitled to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. In reality, this right is often not attained, more so for migrants and refugees. She explained how the right to health is intrinsically linked with other issues, such as migration status, living conditions, access to jobs and working conditions, as well as the drivers of forced displacement, namely, conflicts and climate change. She added how the Covid-19 pandemic has become another driver of displacement, given its adverse socio-economic impact on the population. She argued for a holistic approach to framing the right to health by integrating human rights, the gender perspective, labour rights, social policies, macro-economic policies, and the broader issues of climate and prevention of conflicts. She explained how PSI is advancing this holistic approach from two perspectives, namely, (1) as public service workers being the providers of health services and (2) as trade unions advocating for inclusive access to quality public services. She concludes, “Our undertaking is guided by our shared conviction. That migrants’ rights and refugee rights are human rights. No one is safe unless everybody is safe. And that in our approach, we have to begin by reaching out to the farthest behind first.”

Nina Bergmann, International Secretary of the Swedish Association for Health professionals (Vardforbundet) and representing the four Swedish affiliates supporting the project, namely, Vardforbundet, ASSR, ST and Vision, shared the Swedish unions’ experience in promoting access to health care for refugees and migrants. She said that while the law guarantees the right of asylum seekers to primary health care and access to immediate health care to everyone present in Sweden, there are gaps in the implementation of the law. These gaps include the absence of care or prevention for chronic diseases, the lack of clarity in the definition of ‘’immediate health care,’’ the fact that undocumented migrants have to bear the full cost of treatment and medicine, and the various physical and indirect barriers that migrants face in accessing care. In response to these challenges, she shared examples of trade union initiatives to promote the right to health of migrants and refugees, such as through political lobby, enforcement of ethical codes, responding to and exposing gaps in government policies, and providing support services to undocumented migrants, such as through the Trade Union Centre for Undocumented Migrants. Referring to the PSI project, Bergmann concludes, “Your commitment to this project is a constant reminder for all of us of the importance of solidarity and human rights in times of extreme challenges.”

Linda Kalash, Director of Tamkeen (Empowerment) Center for Legal Support, a Jordanian NGO, stressed that Jordan has made great strides towards improving the conditions of migrant workers in terms of legislation. However, from time to time, it issues decisions, regulations, or instructions that somehow reinforce discrimination. As examples, the permit fee is determined by the Cabinet provided that it is collected from the employer. However, in the event that the employer does not comply, the worker will be severely punished through deportation and not allowed to return until after three years. In addition, some practices are considered as discriminatory and are applied only to Egyptian migrant workers. The principle of equal pay for equal work is not applied. Also, the regulation related to domestic workers and its amendments no. 90 of 2009 prohibits workers from leaving homes without the consent of the employer, which is a violation of workers’ freedom of movement, which is guaranteed by international law.

Nisreen Al Masry, a social worker and member of the Syndicate of Social Workers in Lebanon, a PSI affiliate, related her experience from the field and her work with migrants and refugees who have been tested positive for the virus. She said that refugees and migrants in regular situation have access to health care centers and public hospitals. Their protection is coordinated between the Ministry of Health and the UNHCR. Isolation centers are offered by the municipalities and financed by the UNHCR. In these centers, refugees are provided with food stuff and have access to all services. However, this is not the case for undocumented migrants and unregistered refugees. Those who are infected are afraid to reveal their situation and are in constant fear of being deported by the Lebanese authorities. She described their living conditions in the camps, which are overcrowded and lacking in clean water and sanitation. Al Masry says, “As the union of professionals in social work, we are raising awareness on covd19 prevention and providing psychosocial support for migrant and refugee families. As a trade union, we serve as a focal point between the migrant workers, the refugees, and other organizations helping them.”

Najwa Hanna, PSI Subregional Secretary for Arab Countries, concluded the webinar with a summary and wrap-up of the interventions and the discussion. She thanked the speakers and participants for the fruitful sharing of experiences and strategies, and re-emphasized PSI’s continued commitment to improve the situation of migrants and refugees, while at the same time advocating for the rights-based approach to migration and refugee issues.