By Ms. Maitet Ledesma, Secretary General, International Migrants Alliance in Europe, delivered during the Online Forum cum Protest of the April 28 Coalition for Migrants’ and Refugees’ Rights and Welfare, 30 may 2020
Migrants, immigrants, refugees and displaced peoples are the ‘collateral damage’ of the current and predominant neo-liberal social, economic and political structures. From big multinational corporations, the military industrial complex, the agro-industrial giants and big pharmaceutical corporations, these giants of industry and coming from the most industrialized countries of the North, have been responsible for the abuse and plunder of the earth’s finite resources that have debilitated the economies of majority of the world’s poor and developing countries.
Unjust neo-liberal economic policies such as privatization, deregulation, liberalization, austerity measures and reductions in government spending, have been imposed by rich countries onto the backs of struggling and poor nations, allowing the world’s richest 1%, those with more than $1M, to own 44% of the world’s wealth.
The wanton greed and plunder in chasing after super profits has created wasteful and throwaway societies, indecent and unconscionable inequality between rich and poor peoples and nations in a time of global prosperity and progress, and the untold deaths, suffering and misery wrought about by proxy resource wars – for oil, gas, mineral, forest, land, water. This was our economic legacy pre-Corona. In the time of the pandemic, the inequality, injustice, and repression wrought about by the neo-liberalism has become even more stark and glaring.
The wealth of rich nations, the progress they have achieved and which their citizens enjoy and benefit from are built on their heritage of colonialism, racism, and on the blood, sweat and tears of the poor, of workers, of migrants, refugees and displaced peoples. Exploited and underpaid, they are rich fodder for the need of big business and industries for cheap labour in their quest for super profits. Poor nations’ economies that are locked into supplying cheap raw materials for the production and manufacturing needs of highly industrialized countries has only bred abject poverty among majority of its populations.
In countries of origin of migrants, refugees and displaced peoples, wars, joblessness, low wages, landlessness, the lack of basic industries that can employ majority of the local workforce, these conditions force people to leave because they have no other option but to look for work overseas in order to survive. Regardless of the status of their stay and work permits, even if they become undocumented or fall prey to human trafficking, whether they receive wages lower than what they would get in their countries of origin, no matter if their working conditions are inhumane and life threatening, migrant workers, refugees and displaced peoples leave by land, sea or air, to brave the unknown and the uncertainty. They end up suffocating in containers, hanging onto the underside of lorries crossing borders, clinging on to makeshift rafts and dying in stormy seas, crossing snow-covered mountains in the dead of night, expecting to reach the other side…of HOPE.
But on the other side, they are greeted by steel barricades, handcuffs, men in uniform, street marches of hysterical and jeering crowds chanting hate, politicians spewing blame on them for the loss of local peoples’ jobs, the rise of criminality, the abuse of the social and welfare system by what they call scroungers and ‘low lifes’ who have bring disease and have nothing to contribute to the progress of their societies.
And yet, during this pandemic, these despicable ‘scroungers and low lifes’ are the real heroes on the frontlines of the fight against COVID-19. Migrants, refugees and displaced peoples continue to take on menial, dirty, dangerous and low-paying jobs to provide essential services and hold up the badly ravaged health care systems of countries affected by the pandemic in all regions of the world. Workers in essential services and industries, seasonal workers in agriculture, cleaners, nurses, midwives, caregivers, domestic helpers, orderlies in hospitals and care facilities, garbage collectors, logistics personnel, they all continue to turn up for work every day, putting their lives at risk because of the lack of government support for essential protective equipment that can save their lives and those of others.
They are also frontliners in becoming unemployed because many informal and service sector jobs are not even recognized as formal work, like domestic or household work, and are not covered by the laws protecting worker’s rights for job security and attendant social and welfare benefits. And because these workers are dependent on their stay and work permits, their docility and obedience are given premium. So they hunker down, grin and bear their circumstances for fear of being deported, or losing their jobs and their permits to stay in the country.
Frontline health workers have become one of the biggest casualties of the pandemic. Take the case of Filipino health workers in the United States, the current global epicentre of the pandemic. Today, according to census data, people of Filipino ancestry comprise about 1% of the U.S. population but more than 7% of the hospital and health care workforce in the United States — nearly 500,000 workers. An estimated 4%, or about 150,000 of nurses in the U.S. are Filipino, but in some regions they account for a much larger share of caregivers. And because they are most likely to work in acute care, medical/surgical, and ICU nursing, many “FilAms” are on the front lines of care for Covid-19 patients.
In the New York-New Jersey area alone, there have been at least 30 deaths of Filipino health care workers since the end of March and many more deaths in those peoples’ extended families. The virus has struck hardest where a huge concentration of the community lives and works. COVID-19 risks are magnified in people who are older or suffer underlying chronic conditions. Filipinos have very high rates of Type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease, both of which render the virus even more dangerous.
Government statistics also show an estimated 3.5 million Filipinos live in the US, with an estimated 300,000 considered irregular or undocumented. Filipino migrant groups say the number may be as high as a million.
This situation of vulnerability is more pronounced for communities of migrants, refugees and displaced peoples, wherever they are – whether they are working as frontliners, or suffering from underlying chronic health conditions and with little or no access to medical care because of the lack of universal and public health care systems, or living in the shadows as undocumented or irregular workers in the informal service sector, or forgotten and left to die in refugee camps. This is also evidenced by the disproportionately high number of deaths from among African-Americans, many of them living in poor and marginalized communities in the U.S.
With the pandemic, the long under-funded and neglected health care systems and the debilitating shortages of health workers even among industrialized countries, is putting an enormous strain on its already depleted resources and its capacity to provide urgent and quality care for all. But receiving country governments have suddenly discovered a pool of health workers from among migrant, refugee and displaced peoples’ communities who have medical training backgrounds. These are the same people they have chosen to systematically ignore in the past but are now calling on them to come forward and render their services in exchange for citizens’ rights that they have been denied pre-Covid.
Indeed, necessity is the mother of invention. So overnight, politicians have become miracle workers, adjusting and creating legislation to accommodate those willing to go to the frontlines and take the place of the fallen. When it is convenient, citizenship rights are again being recognized as universal! But we need to remember, that citizenship rights are not a matter of convenience. They are universal and must be protected and upheld. It is to be guaranteed and enjoyed by everyone at all times.
Neither must we forget the fundamental lessons learned from the rights movement throughout history – that peoples’ basic human rights have never been served on a silver platter to the marginalized and the oppressed by those who hold power. Because those who hold power have only ever pretended to be on their side, when it was politically correct and convenient for their own personal gain. That these rights, now being enjoyed by many, but still being denied to more, are hard-fought and hard-won. That only when they are organized in their numbers, in their communities, in the streets, in their workplaces, and now with the pandemic online and viral, can those who are most disenfranchised effectively mobilize for genuine social change and take to account those in power, for their abject neglect of society’s welfare and people’s well-being.
The pandemic has further exposed that inequality and injustice is at the epicentre of the current neo-liberal model of development. It has shown how it has unevenly affected peoples and their communities, within and among nations, across the gender, race and class divide.
The need for new metrics for defining human development, progress and prosperity is urgent. It can no longer be just about economic growth and profit for the interests of big business and a privileged few over the well-being of the people and the planet. It must no longer be about the 1%. The time and (dis)quiet of the corona has again ascertained what matters most – that we all live long, healthy, meaningful and fulfilled lives, among and with each other, in peaceful and prosperous societies that sustain life, uphold justice, promote equality for all, but especially for the 99% who have been denied for so long.
The International Migrants Alliance – Europe commends the initiative of the April 28 Coalition to gather together all friends and allies of migrants (documented and undocumented), refugees and displaced peoples to organize and mobilize protests for citizens’ rights and regularization for them not only but especially in the time of the pandemic. In the midst of the corona, we need to be as determined, resolute and united as ever to assert our rights and together, transform systems of inequality and greed into just, peaceful and prosperous societies of compassion, solidarity for all of humanity. MABUHAY! VENCEREMOS!
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