Across Europe, the pandemic has had a disproportionate negative impact on people with a migration background, not only in terms of health but also jobs, education, language training and other integration measures.
Because immigrants live in overcrowded housing conditions and are concentrated in jobs where physical distancing is difficult, among other reasons, they are at much higher risk of coronavirus infection than the native population.
Data on registered cases by origin in countries, where available, usually show a significant over-representation of immigrants in the incidence of coronavirus infection and Covid-19 hospitalisation.
In Portugal, 24 per cent of the coronavirus-infected persons in Lisbon are immigrants (mainly from Africa) while foreign-born people represent only about 11 per cent of the city’s population.
Even though immigrants are younger on average than the native-born population and therefore theoretically less susceptible to developing serious health effects from coronavirus infection, higher Covid-19 mortality rates for immigrants, exceeding those of the native-born population, have been recorded in several European countries.
In the United Kingdom, both death rates and hospital admission rates are more than twice as high for Black people or people from a south Asian background than they are for White people.
For example, age-adjusted mortality rates were 3.3 times higher for Black men compared with their White peers; the corresponding figure was 2.4 for Black women, according to a study.
In France, between March and April 2020, excess mortality – the difference in mortality compared with the same period in 2019 (an indication of deaths owing to Covid-19) – among the foreign-born was twice that of native-born.
The immigrant groups worst affected by the excess mortality were from sub-Saharan Africa (+114 per cent deaths compared with the same period in 2019), Asia (+91 per cent) and North Africa (+54 per cent), compared with 22 per cent excess mortality for the native-born.
A teacher delivers a German language lesson virtually. The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees has approved some 7,000 online tutorials and so-called virtual classrooms with lessons via video conferencing. However, such online learning has proved difficult for low-educated immigrants, especially at early stages of language learning, say experts/Photo: Screenshot/ BAMF
Data on infection and morbidity by origin is currently not available in Germany but the situation will most likely not be different from other European countries as a result controversial report in the mass-circulating BILD-Zeitung shows.
In Germany, federal and state governments reached out to migrant organisations early in the pandemic to seek their support for the containment efforts.
The African Network of Germany (TANG), for example, carried out an awareness and sensitisation campaign about the Covid-19 disease in the Black community. The campaign, which kicked off on 17 March, mobilised community associations to inform their members properly about the coronavirus pandemic.
According to TANG, the campaign reached more than six million people by phone, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, spreading information about the disease and efforts to contain it, including government regulations, advice and recommendations.
The federal government launched an online portal to provide information about the pandemic in English, French, Turkish and 16 other languages to reach as many migrants as possible.
Worst-hit sectors and migrants
People with a migration background are disproportionately represented in low-paid or lower-skilled professions and many have lost their jobs or are suffering financially because of the public health crisis.
Migrants often work in sectors particularly affected by the economic consequences of the pandemic, the Minister of State for Integration, Annette Widmann-Mauz, noted at the 12th Integration Conference on 19 October, chaired by Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Retail trade, health and social care, logistics, security, cleaning services and the hospitality (restaurant and hotel) industry are some of the sectors where people with a migration background often work, “keeping the country running”, in the words of Ms Widmann-Mauz.
While job retention schemes such as the Kurzarbeitergeld (short-time work allowance) have cushioned the immediate impact of the lockdowns on employment, analysts are still unsure about what long-term effect the pandemic will have on unemployment among immigrants.
For example, migrants account for about 40 per cent of those employed in the hospitality industry, which has been one of the sectors worst affected by the lockdowns. Many restaurants, for example, will most likely not survive the pandemic, analysts say.
“It must be expected that 30 to 35 per cent of the businesses [in the sector] will go bankrupt,” Bernd Niemeier, president of the hotel and restaurant association Dehoga in North Rhine-Westphalia, said in December. Congresses, trade fairs and business travellers have been an important sales factor for restaurants; whether all this will still exist to the same extent as before the pandemic is questionable, Niemeier explained.
Integration courses for immigrants have also been adversely affected as many were cancelled because of the pandemic, Widmann-Mauz reported at the integration conference. It was attended by about 120 representatives of migrant organisations and focused on the effects of the corona pandemic on integration in Germany.
For many migrants, in particular recent arrivals, the pandemic meant a disruption to language courses they were receiving. Most providers were forced to end in-person integration courses as restrictions were imposed.
“With the National Action Plan on Integration, we are focusing on a digital offensive – with digital integration courses, language support and targeted advice in social networks, in order to support women in particular in their entry and integration into the labour market,” Minister Widmann-Mauz said after the conference.
A digitisation offensive is necessary in all areas of integration, said Dr Sylvie Nantcha, chairman of TANG, at the virtual conference. “In language courses, in guidance, in training.”
Germany has meanwhile invested 40 million euros in digital offerings to bridge the interruption of integration and language courses caused by Covid-19. There are about 220,000 migrants in Germany taking part in integration and language courses and the investment is to enable them to continue the courses in a digital format.
The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge or BAMF) has approved some 7,000 online tutorials and so-called virtual classrooms with lessons via video conferencing. However, such online learning has proved difficult for low-educated immigrants, especially at early stages of language learning, leading to delays in both language learning and broader social integration, experts note.
The school closures and distance learning measures put in place to slow the spread of Covid-19 have also put children of immigrants at a disadvantage. Their parents aren’t able for various reasons to help them in their homework as native-born parents would their wards. Such children are also less likely than pupils with native-born parents to have access to a computer and an internet connection at home or to a quiet place for learning.
This situation could further aggravate the existing gaps in educational attainment levels between immigrant children and peers with native-born parents, experts warn.
Existence of businesses threatened
Migrant business owners have also been disproportionately affected by the pandemic as their businesses tend to be smaller and have a weaker capital base. Moreover, immigrant businesses are traditionally concentrated in the sectors worst hit by pandemic containment restrictions, such as small retail trade, personal care (barbers and beauty salons), restaurants and travel agencies.
“Despite the short-term emergency aid and easier access to basic income benefits, many have acute problems and fear for their existence,” said Next Mannheim, a research group at the University of Mannheim focusing on minority business owners in Germany.
“According to studies by the Institute for SME Research at the University of Mannheim, the number of self-employed migrants rose by 50 per cent from 2005 to 2018. The growth in total start-ups in Germany, on the other hand, remained almost unchanged over the years.”
This shows that migrant entrepreneurs – there were 773,000 of them in 2018 (the most recently available figure) – have been the main driving force of new businesses in Germany in recent years.
No emphatic prognosis can yet be made about the long-term effect of the pandemic on minority-owned businesses. The fact remains that the crisis threatens the existence of many small and medium-sized enterprises generally. And particularly threatened are small companies that do not yet have a solid financial basis and those in specific sectors such as retail and gastronomy.
Germany has implemented several specific support measures for migrant entrepreneurs, including an online platform with information on available crisis support scheme in five languages and a network of dedicated caseworkers to support ailing migrant business in all federal states, including with respect to the filing of applications for state aid.
Negative integration prospects
Experts believe that the pandemic can result in long-term negative integration prospects for immigrants and their children, especially regarding education, employment and social and economic status. They therefore suggest that government should monitor the situation of immigrants closely to be able to adopt appropriate policy responses.
An OECD report warns: “Given the growing population shares of immigrants and their children, the spectre of widening gaps and unequal opportunities is ultimately also a threat to social cohesion – unless appropriate action is taken.”