The Unprecedented Crisis of COVID-19 and the Shrinking of Democratic Spaces for Migrants and Refugees


COVID-19 is just another crisis we have been facing. In the past, we got used to the crisis from Asian financial crisis to global crisis. It is the type of crisis that migrants and refugee communities have been facing in the past years, even decades. I want to emphasise on the reality of migrant workers on the ground.


Migrants and refugees have always been in crisis


According to the UN currently there are 258 million of migrants; among them are 164 million of migrant workers. These are people who fall into the temporary type of employment: domestic workers, construction workers, plantation workers, and so forth. The remaining number are those who are migrating in a permanent based or those who are becoming undocumented in the process. On top of that, there are also 65.3 million people displaced from their homes to other countries, including 21.3 million refugees with over half of the aged under 18 years old and 10 million of stateless people. The number of people who are being displaced is actually bigger without status, we call them stateless refugees. The drivers of forced migration are impoverishment and unemployment, war and violence, and disaster and climate change.

The type of job we performed in foreign countries are what we called 3D Jobs: dirty, difficult and dangerous. We know the stories that when migrants work overseas we do not become ‘expats’. Very small elements in our society who are migrated on a voluntary basis. Those who are in the CEO status, or management, or students. But hundreds, millions of us are actually falling under the category of forced migrants.

If we go back to the history, particularly the impact of the Asian financial crisis when it hit Asia, Indonesia was hardly affected. Unemployment was high; companies laid off the workers without any pay, people who had just graduated could not even find a job. It was very chaotic situation. Because of that, there was a push factor where millions of young men and women from Asia were forced to migrate within Asia and other region. Asian financial crisis was one of the push factors in the increase number of migrants. The 2008 global crisis also pushed migrants to a bigger number. Even the UN had been advising governments to decrease the number of unemployment, to provide decent jobs and decent pay.

In reality, every decade we see the increase of this number because what we have today is an economy that was built on top of the profit for the corporate. We do not have the economy that serves the interest of the people. So if we asked, “how can our government create a job when our economy is really meant to serve the profit of the foreign corporates?” that is why we keep seeing the unemployment issue, social unrest, and starvation.

We see the government do not do anything much. What they do is they continue doing a lot of development projects in the name of development and globalisation, but in fact they are displacing people, increasing prices, taking away people’s land and livelihood. The migrants and refugees are actually the consequences of these kinds of action.

This global and Asian financial crisis was not only pushing people to work abroad but even people who already abroad were also suffering from these different types of condition. First, our condition became worse, we are overworked, the wages decreased – of course there might be an increase but when we purchased things we could not bought much. Our rights is getting less and less such as citizen rights. This includes shorter visas, immigration policies and stricter border control. Now the European Union is paying the Turkish government to police the border, to stop the refugees at the border. In Asia, Australia is paying Indonesian government to be the controller at the border so all the refugees who are currently stranded at the Indonesian border will not be able to take a boat to Australia.

Further, it is not only immigration but also the mobilisation of countries to be the safe guard for the most advance countries in the world. Another case is the increase of numbers of undocumented migrants, more violence by authorities, traffickers, and even employers, along with the increase of human trafficking.


What are we for the government?


A lot of people are asking, “how do we change the government where we are working and even our own government to be more humane? To do more obligations to their people?” because for years we have been doing advocacies but they do not want to listen to us. Of course, in front of us they said that they are listening, “yes we will do our part, yes we will do our obligation” but in reality, after the meeting, negotiation or dialogue, nothing really happens.

When we seek for a deeper meaning, what are the migrants for the sending countries, for our own countries? Why they do not even bother to see the numbers of people died abroad and being sent back home? Why they do not even bother to see their people who had been physically tortured and abused? Why they do not even bother when their people were being trafficked and died in the sea? These kinds of questions really bother us as migrants ourselves but also as survivors. Thus, we become to realise because of this globalisation, economic system, for our own government, the people including us are a commodity or cheap labour – anything to enrich the rich. This is our status for them. This remittance-driven development is promoted as economic strategy to hide the truth that migration is a product of underdevelopment under neoliberal economic system.

So when they see migrants, it is not human they are seeing, but a commodity to be exported, where the money will come to their countries, where the corrupt officials earn their corrupt money. We have been facing many challenges even in telling our governments to do more for their own people. Even education has been designed to serve the need of the global corporates. In Asia, Philippines is the model. They create super maids, super doctors, super nurses, simply because they are telling the world that Filippinos are cheap and poor so you can exploit them. That is why we are asking the accountability of our government to the point of almost impossible.

Now what are we for the receiving government? We have been doing a lot of advocacies but for them we are just source of cheap labour. We are used as scapegoats in the intensified crisis caused by monopoly capitalist production and neoliberal globalisation causing to discrimination, xenophobia and limited space of democracy.


Health impact: exclusion from protection


Baca Juga:

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19, the rate of infection and death have been increased particularly among frontline workers as health workers, domestic workers, caregivers, among others. Even when the government said lockdown and social distancing we keep working. Many of us died in the process and almost none of them received compensation. In the case of Singapore, they live in very dense or cramped dormitories and companies do not mind that they do not have sufficient health facilities or accommodation. So many of them were infected because of this.

We are also being denied to protection tools. Most migrants in Asia are not given face mask and hand sanitisers. Many of us are forced to buy it with our own salaries and it created another financial stress, because now out of our expectation we have to spend 10-20 percent of our income to buy mask, sanitisers and healthy food. Psychological stress also added by overworked. The majority sector of migrant workers in Asia are in domestic care. Government has been telling the employers and workers to prohibit us from going out during holiday. That creates stress because for two to three months now we cannot go out in the name of social distancing.

Another problem is the lack of health services. There are some COVID-19 testing but you cannot get it until you pay. In Malaysia, they will use free testing to arrest undocumented migrants. The lack of information is not only because it does not reach out sufficiently to the migrant workers, but also because many of the information are in English or Chinese. People do not understand what they are talking about, so we are the ones who translated, printed, and disseminated.


Social impact: shrinking of democratic spaces


ILO projected that 250 million of workers will lose their jobs worldwide and 125 million are in Asia Pacific. Many of them are in low paid and low skilled jobs, which will include migrants. There are seven sectors that will be retrenched or closed down: garment, restaurant, transportation, hotel and tourism, construction, trading and manufacture. Most migrants work in these areas. This caused the cases of termination and deportation as commonly found from the United States, Europe and Asia with many of them are forced to take unpaid leaves because the companies or employers do not want to take responsibilities.

Many governments such as United States and Australia do not want to process any visas.  Our rights have been cut down because we are exclude from relief programs. Governments give money to their people but not to migrants and refugees, while they are perpetrating open crackdown and arrest against us. All of these reflected a shrinking of democratic spaces. We can see this in the Philippines, Indonesia and Hong Kong, where militarisation are apparent including in the form of social distancing policing.


Way forward


What we have done in the past months as a grassroots organisation is that we tried to address the immediate needs of migrants and refugees by translating and disseminating information without any funding, gathering relief (mask, food, sanitisers), and defending our rights by providing legal assistance and safe repatriation. However, the main question is, “how would our life be in post-COVID-19?”

Many people are so afraid. Nowadays there is already a prediction that 20 percent of our remittances would be cut down. Our families would not receive enough money during this pandemic, yet they are also heavily affected by the COVID-19.

Today there is a growing support for migrants and refugees grassroots communities to speak up in a national, regional and international level. We really appreciate all parties, interfaith communities, and NGOs who have been really finding a way to support us to be in the frontline to speak up. While we recognise this growing numbers of support, we must remember that the presence and voices of the grassroots migrants and refugees are not well accepted by the government. You can see that at the national, regional and international level the government as much as possible not to speak to us. They find ways to go around and coming up with different policies that are not really engaged and worked with us in terms of implementation and monitoring. It is still a struggle. In fact, now with COVID-19 the shrinking spaces of civil society organisations in various platforms has proven to be difficult.

What we believe in International Migrants Alliance is that migration is no longer a mere economic issue. It is really a political issue. Government is heavily dependent on migrants for political purposes to subsidise their so-called economy. Thus, it is clear that they are on the intention to create this condition among the migrants and refugees. We are not very surprised when the government do not even look at us in the time of COVID-19. They do not even bother asking the refugees “what do you need?” again, we are not their people. They take for granted because of our immigration status, our skin colour, our ethnicities, and our type of jobs. They just leave us behind.

The strategy that we need to develop within the urgency of COVID-19 is how the solidarity between migrants and other supporters whether you are in the receiving countries, transit countries, or sending countries, whether you are interfaith communities, NGOs, or other. Those who want to help voicing out, the strategy is there even before COVID-19. Be our voice in places where we could not speak out. Talk to us, ask us what do we need, and tell all the governments and policy makers what we need. Often it is not about who speaks, but what are you saying. I really appeal to all of you to keep supporting us because this crisis is going to be very tough. The defenders of migrants and refugees are also at threat now. In Malaysia, they had been threatened by right-wing politicians and conservative communities. Everyone is really unsafe now, but the solidarity is there for us to help each other.




This article is presented at the webinar series ‘Faith Communities Working with Migrants Amidst COVID Crisis’ organised by Interfaith Network for the Rights of Migrants (INFORM)-Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants on 18 June 2020. To watch the full version of the video visit  

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