Brussels silent on vaccinating undocumented migrants

Often working in frontline jobs, and therefore among those most exposed to and likely to transmit COVID-19, undocumented migrants are also the least protected.

Expert comment Updated 7 July 2021 Published 16 March 2021 3 minute READ

During the last few weeks, the European Union (EU) has been widely criticized for its ‘failed’ vaccination strategy. But with all the focus on the general slowness of the EU in vaccinating the populations of its member states, another aspect of the EU’s public health crisis has been ignored.

Undocumented persons are being left out of COVID-19 national vaccination programmes and Brussels remains alarmingly silent about it. This should come as no surprise as migration is a toxic issue and governments in EU countries are now under immense pressure to vaccinate their own citizens as soon as possible.

Undocumented migrants are the least protected, but similar challenges extend to individuals without residence or secure legal status, such as asylum seekers, homeless, and Roma people – making the true number of people being left behind much higher

But the race towards herd immunity cannot afford the luxury of another EU standstill. It is past time for member states and EU institutions to unequivocally include all who reside within EU territories in their pandemic responses, irrespective of legal status.

Comprising at least 4.8 million – one per cent of the EU’s population – undocumented persons are a significant proportion of the workforce in the care service, domestic work, and hospitality sectors, and therefore among those most exposed to and likely to transmit COVID-19.

Undocumented migrants are the least protected, but similar challenges extend to individuals without residence or secure legal status, such as asylum seekers, homeless, and Roma people – making the true number of people being left behind much higher.

Europe should vaccinate undocumented migrants not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it is in its interest to do so. Leaving these people unvaccinated will pose a serious obstacle to herd immunity so it is imperative undocumented migrants be vaccinated. Simply put, the EU cannot beat COVID-19 if it does not account for everyone, including the most vulnerable.

Only as strong as the weakest link

When it comes to global vaccine justice, the EU has been quick to take a stance against inequality. The EU Commission has claimed a leading role in the COVAX facility to help vaccinate the most vulnerable in low-income countries. EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen even stated the EU will ‘do all in its power to ensure that all peoples of this world have access to a vaccine’.

Similarly, the European Parliament has repeatedly called for fair vaccine distribution, underlining that ‘the EU has a responsibility for the rest of the world’. But EU support for global equitable vaccine access risks falling short when looking inwards.

Surely, vaccine equity efforts cannot begin and end with generalised pledges to global solidarity – pledges which have yet to be substantiated given half of the world’s vaccine supply has been reserved for just 15 per cent of its population.

Ignoring undocumented populations domestically while promising to vaccinate the whole world is inconsistent at best, and violates human rights at worst. So what can the EU do next? Ultimately, vaccine distribution is a national competence. It falls on member states – not the EU itself – to ensure ‘vaccination for all’.

But as COVID-19 infections spike across Europe yet again, vaccine supplies are an urgent and politically sensitive issue for national leaders. At the same time, viruses transcend borders and ignore legal statuses. Without consistency across member states, beating COVID-19 across the EU remains impossible.

Spain and the Netherlands’ recent commitments to vaccinate undocumented migrants will suffer if other countries, such as Poland, continue to systematically exclude this group. Against this tense backdrop, the EU can play an important role in promoting dialogues on vaccine equity and supporting member states to achieve inclusive vaccine rollouts.

The Commission’s EU vaccine strategy already lists equity as one of its three objectives. But actions speak louder than words. The Commission should endorse recommendations put forward by the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN Refugee Agency, and the Council of Europe Committee on Bioethics on equitable access to COVID-19 vaccinations for all people in the EU irrespective of their legal status.

A clear statement by the Commission in favour of vaccine inclusivity would, in turn, help bring the issue to the March Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council meeting, which is set to convene health ministers from the EU’s 27 national capitals. Dialogue at the EU Council among member states should push for a common approach to shared public health risks.

Neglecting to vaccinate millions of undocumented persons – a population equivalent in size to Ireland – risks jeopardizing the EU pandemic response and harming everyone; European citizens and foreigners alike

Mobilization within the European Parliament is also key. MEPs have so far focused on issues of transparency, accountability and global solidarity around vaccines supply. Strikingly, the absence of undocumented persons from the member states’ vaccination strategies has not been raised by parliamentary committees or featured on the agenda of its political groups.

Finally, the biggest challenges to vaccination-for-all policies start with their implementation at local level. People with insecure legal status face practical barriers to accessing immunisation services. These include lack of trust in local authorities, systematic exclusion from public services, fear of immigration control repercussions, data sharing, xenophobia, geographic distance, and language.

Overcoming these barriers requires massive, unprecedented on-the-ground efforts. Coordination between member states, civil society, and marginalized communities will be crucial. The EU can leverage its role as a convener to support the sharing of best practices for equity and inclusion across national vaccine rollouts.

Politicized debates on migration must not compromise equitable vaccine access, nor deter EU countries from adopting an evidence-based position of inclusivity. Neglecting to vaccinate millions of undocumented persons – a population equivalent in size to Ireland – risks jeopardizing the EU pandemic response and harming everyone; European citizens and foreigners alike.

It also risks prolonging the grip of the virus on member states’ healthcare systems and compromising their socio-economic recovery, while discrediting the EU’s stated ambitions to lead in global vaccine justice. Europe needs to stop pretending that it can afford to leave undocumented people behind. The sooner it realises this, the better for everyone.

This article was originally published in EU Observer.