Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

Like many others, my days are consumed with COVID19 news, adapting to remote working and soon to home-schooling my kids for the foreseeable future. With my family and friends all in lock down in Milan, my doctor sister doing daily shifts at the front line in COVID19 isolation units, the reality of the pandemic feels very real and close to home.

As a result, I struggle to keep on top of migration debates and news, like I normally would do as part of my (very interesting!) day job. I have of course followed with apprehension the events on the Greece/Turkey border and I have been horrified, but not surprised by the EU response: ‘I thank Greece for being our European aspida in these times’ said President von der Leyen, normalising the idea that a border, an island, a country, can be ‘shields’ between ‘us’ and other, different, foreign, human beings.

Soon enough, we all turned our attention to the Corona virus. Where shielding acquired a whole new meaning.

As the enormity of the COVID19 pandemic started to emerge, so has the commentary on its implications for refugees and other migrants. There is no doubt that the risk of the virus spreading in crowded refugee camps or migrant detention centres is huge. It is also very likely that those affected will have limited access to the vital information, care services and medical equipment needed. Once again refugees and other migrants are vulnerable to unimaginable risks, that we are not necessarily ready to mitigate. Refugees and other migrants risk losing their lives more so than many others.

Yet as usual with migration, there is another side to the story, one that is perhaps less likely to make the headlines. This is also related to COVID19.

As of last night the UK government has (finally) decided to close schools except for children of ‘key workers’ who will continue to attend lessons thus getting much needed childcare support.

So who are these ‘key workers’? In the UK employees who provide a vital service, especially in the police, health, or education sectors, are commonly referred to as ‘key workers’. In the context of the COVID19 response, these are of course first and foremost health and care professionals providing front line services. But importantly today the government clarified that delivery drivers were also to be considered key workers and thus will be able to send their kids to school as their work is essential in these unprecedented times. Or in Angela Merkel’s words: “Those who sit at supermarket cash registers or restock shelves are doing one of the hardest jobs there is right now’

Heroes, in other words.

And yet. Only a few weeks ago the UK Home Secretary unveiled plans for a new post Brexit immigration bill aimed at reducing low skill migration from Europe. And more broadly, low skilled migrants are referred to as the least desirable, even disposable, in many countries.

Now pause. Some of these ‘low skilled workers’ are precisely those who are now vital, essential, fundamental ‘key workers’ who will save our lives, often risking theirs. Where they come from, where they were born, is the least of our concerns. They, the key workers, the heroes, are migrants, are all of us.

So here is to an unprecedented opportunity to change the mood music on migration, on ‘us’ and ‘them’, once and for all. What matters is putting our skills, all of them, to the service of the collective good. No more shields to humanity.

Director, ODI Europe. Migration, European affairs, international cooperation. @martaforesti @odidev

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