As the world continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, countries worst affected by it are witnessing a new phenomenon – the rise of pandemic refugees. In other words, a large-scale migration from COVID-ravaged countries to the United States in search of a better future.
According to a report in The New York Times dated 16 May, in the month of April alone, 1,78,622 people were encountered by the US Border Patrol. The recorded number – the highest in 20 years – not only consisted of refugees from Central and South American countries like Mexico, Brazil, Cuba, Venezuela, but also Indians.
Diversity in Migration
The NYT report focuses on the border town of Yuma, Arizona, where dozens of migrants trudge and paddle through the Colorado river, pass through gaps between the border wall erected during former President Donald Trump’s term, to seek refuge in the United States.
The far-reaching effects and the pursuit of a better life is also showcased through the following statistic – 30 percent of the families which were encounters along the border wall in the month of April hailed from countries other than Mexico and the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, compared to just 7.5 percent in April 2019, when the first wave of the pandemic hit the world.
According the report, US Border Patrol have stopped people from more than 160 countries and the geography coincides with where the virus has devastated the most.
The Route to US
The journey to the United States includes extensive and arduous travel, especially for Indians.
The report states that some refugees start their journeys in cities like Mumbai, travel to Dubai, from where they are connected to Moscow, Paris, Madrid and then finally make their way across the pond to Mexico City, where a two-day bus ride awaits them to reach the Mexico-US Border.
Signs of recent crossings are ubiquitous along the road heading south from Yuma county: water bottles, shirts, beanies, a rattle.
Unemployment A Reason
US Asylum laws grant protection to those to suffering persecution on account of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. US President Joe Biden, on 16 May, under political pressure, agreed to admit four times as many refugees this year compared do his predecessor.
A large number of migrants have been driven to the US Border by economic hardships in their home countries, and the pandemic has taken its own toll with several industries and businesses impacted across the world. The NYT report quotes Border Patrol officers, who have suggested that job collapse brought on by COVID-19 coupled with the Biden administration's more welcoming refugee policies, is driving the surge at the border.
In India too, the second wave has left over 75 lakh people jobless just in the month of April, taking the unemployment rate to a four-month high of 8 percent, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.
Upswing in Migrants
“So many people around the world saw their standard of living slide backward, it’s no surprise that they would jump at the chance to get into the US when they hear that others have managed to cross from Mexico successfully.”Andrew Selee, president of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute to the New York Times.
The uptick in the number of refugees and the fear of COVID-positive people trickling into the state also prompted Arizona Governor Doug Ducey to declare a state of emergency in several counties last month and to deploy the National Guard along the border.
Multiple parts of the border wall in Yuma country have been left open intentionally, to enable the Bureau of Reclamation to reach agricultural canals near the Colorado River. This has enabled migrants to cross the border according to the report. However, their journey does not end there.
At the border opening stands a Border Patrol agent, who directs them to a large tent in the parking lot behind the Border Patrol’s headquarters in Yuma.
Some migrants are transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention. However, the report states that most are released to nonprofit aid centres, where they spend a day or two before traveling to join friends and relatives elsewhere in the United States.