“We must act now to strengthen the immunity of our societies against the virus of hate.” – United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres
11 May 2020 — As instances of hate speech, stigma, discrimination and xenophobia continue to rise as a result of COVID-19, the United Nations and its partners are working to ensure that solidarity prevails during the pandemic. Migrants and refugees are among those who have falsely been blamed and vilified for spreading the virus.
When 14,000 Mozambican migrants returned home from South Africa, concerns grew that cross-border movements could potentially spread COVID-19 in their home country.
To tackle this head-on, community health workers at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) immediately started making phone calls to returned migrants, checking in on their wellbeing and that of their family members.
“I was surprised when I got the call from an IOM community health worker, wanting to know if I'm okay,” said returned mine worker Laissane Tivane from Mozambique’s Inhambane province. “They explained the symptoms of COVID-19, prevention measures and told me to stay home until completing the mandatory 14-days quarantine and to call in case of any symptoms. I am grateful for the attention to our health and families.”
Among the 850 migrants phone-screened over the course of 4 weeks, none reported COVID-19 symptoms, IOM said.
According to IOM, stigmatization of certain groups during crisis situations is not new. From terrorism to disease outbreaks, migrants have often been scapegoated for endangering native populations. “Diseases have at times been perceived as ‘foreign’,” IOM said, as was the case with cholera in the 1830s, HIV/AIDS in the 1980s or, more recently, with H1N1 influenza.
COVID-19 is no exception, as people of Asian and European descent - and migrants more generally - have been stigmatized for spreading the coronavirus. Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories have spread, and COVID-19-related anti-Muslim attacks have occurred. Many have endured verbal and physical assaults, and at times, institutional exclusion from the receiving society.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), stigma can drive people to hide their illness to avoid discrimination, preventing them from seeking immediate health care.
In the longer term, stigmatization and discrimination can negatively impact the ability of migrants to integrate into society. This not only undermines their wellbeing, but more broadly, that of receiving communities which benefit from their diverse contributions to social cohesion.
To tackle this aspect of the crisis, IOM has issued a toolkit for strengthening the design, delivery and evaluation of migration communications campaigns, placing strong emphasis on participatory approaches that increase interaction and involve audiences throughout the campaign cycle.
It aims to ensure that rapid, accurate and balanced information reaches those most in need. “We are seeing an alarming increase in anti-migrant rhetoric, in particular the scapegoating of migrants and others in the public domain and online,” said IOM Director General António Vitorino. “The toolkit provides clear, proven approaches to address and reduce the impact of misinformation.”
Complementing these efforts, the United Nations itself has issued guidance to address COVID-19 related hate speech, offering recommendations to UN entities, Member States, technology companies, media and civil society.
“We must act now to strengthen the immunity of our societies against the virus of hate,” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said in his recent message, appealing for an all-out effort to end hate speech globally.
At the same time, COVID-19 crisis has sparked an outpouring of solidarity from people around the world, including migrants and refugees themselves, keen to help in the countries where they now live. By doing so, they are proving that they are assets to host countries.
#COVID19 does not care who we are, where we live, or what we believe.— António Guterres (@antonioguterres) May 8, 2020
Yet the pandemic continues to unleash a tsunami of hate and xenophobia, scapegoating and scare-mongering.
That’s why I’m appealing for an all-out effort to end hate speech globally. pic.twitter.com/ojh957xhQq
Fatima, 43, is one such example. She fled to Niger when armed groups came to destroy her village in neighbouring Mali. Today, she is one of the many artisans and dressmakers trained by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), who now stitch up to 40 washable and stylish mouth masks per day, protecting wearers and those around them.
Mohamed, 39, worked as a doctor in Libya and was training to become a surgeon until violence forced him to flee to France in 2016. He passed the French language exams required to start the process of registering as a doctor and completed internships where he shadowed senior doctors at hospitals. “My dream is to work as a doctor,” Mohamed says. When the COVID-19 crisis began in France, he immediately registered on the emergency roster set up by the Ministry of Health to support medical staff in hospitals.
In Guinea, returned migrants are helping their communities prevent the spread of COVID-19 - and misinformation around the pandemic – through the IOM “Migrants as Messengers” community engagement project. “A lot of people think that if they are sick, they will face stigmatization,” said Elhadj, a volunteer. “We are going to help people understand that if someone is sick, they have to go to the hospital.”
Eleven volunteers across Guinea will be equipped with hygiene kits and focus their outreach on raising awareness around COVID-19 with female community members in local languages.
“We know that it is through women that good practices can be conveyed in the home, particularly handwashing,” said Mariama, a project volunteer. “This is why we want to target them in our awareness-raising.”