COVID-19 policies need to be inclusive of undocumented people

European countries have not done enough to ensure safe access to vaccines and certificates for undocumented migrants.

Migrants walk while police officers stand guard as they dismantle a makeshift migrant camp at Loon Beach, near Dunkirk, France
Migrants walk while police officers stand guard as they dismantle a makeshift migrant camp at Loon Beach, near Dunkirk, France, November 30, 2021. REUTERS/Juan Medina

In July 2021, the European Union implemented a COVID-19 vaccination certificate mandate for intra-EU travel. Subsequently, a growing number of countries across Europe have adopted COVID-19 certificates as passes granting access to a host of spaces and services.

These measures are justified as a tool to boost vaccine uptake, limit the spread of infection, and ultimately lift restrictions on travel, movement, and gatherings.

But they also create a genuine risk of deepening mistrust and exclusion for undocumented people, while failing to address the underlying reasons for disparate vaccine uptake. Just as worrying, the heightened policing that inevitably comes with the widening use of certificates is likely to push undocumented people further into the margins.

Barriers to accessing COVID-19 vaccines

For people living in Europe without regular status, registering for COVID-19 vaccines is itself a challenge. To sign up for a vaccine, authorities typically require a social security number or national identification document, which undocumented people most likely do not have. Some countries, like Hungary, require proof of a home address, which may be difficult to obtain for undocumented migrants.

Even when they can in principle get vaccinated, for instance because booking systems are more flexible – as is the case in Portugal or France – in many countries, like Poland, there are no assurances from the authorities that medical personnel would not inform the police of undocumented people’s status when they get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Another critical barrier is the lack of clarity in most EU member states about whether undocumented people qualify for the vaccine in the first place, and if so, how they can obtain it.

Non-profit newsroom Lighthouse Reports has found that at least nine countries in Europe have vague policies about vaccine entitlements for undocumented people.

Barriers to accessing COVID-19 certificates

For undocumented people, even getting vaccinated does not guarantee they will get a digital COVID-19 certificate. One obstacle can be poor access to digital technology, as some undocumented people may not have devices with an internet connection or be able to navigate the online systems for vaccination registration,  particularly where no effort has been made to translate them.

Health databases themselves in some cases restrict undocumented people’s ability to obtain digital certificates. In Italy, the code issued for undocumented migrants to get health care is not always recognised by the health ministry as valid for obtaining the country’s “Green Pass”, which is now needed to access most public spaces and services – including workplaces and public transit (enforcement of the “Green Pass” in public transport is done through random checks by the police). The inability to get a pass, therefore, has enormous consequences for nearly every aspect of a person’s life.

Concerns over data protection and immigration checks also deter undocumented people from registering for the certificate. In the Czech Republic, for instance, it is still unclear if data submitted when applying for the certificate would be transmitted to immigration authorities. Even when there are clear safeguards in place, data security breaches – such as in Germany recently – may feed existing fears and dissuade people from getting the certificate.

COVID-19 certificates and increased policing

Beyond questions of accessibility, the increased policing of certain spaces linked to the COVID-19 certificates – by law enforcement, security guards and various other actors – creates a risk of greater exclusion and discrimination. In Austria, for instance, the government is increasing random certificate checks by police in public spaces, which civil society fears will go hand in hand with ID checks – with related fears of immigration consequences for undocumented people.

Some public health experts also worry that increased policing could encourage vaccine hesitancy even more among marginalised groups. It has already been established that pre-existing inequalities affect certain ethnic groups and people with lower income and have an effect on vaccine uptake. A recent study in the UK shows that vaccine certificates are making certain groups, including Black British communities and non-English speakers, less likely to get vaccinated.

For undocumented people, these underlying inequities are compounded by barriers to vaccine registration, distrust of authorities and risks of immigration enforcement – not to mention, in most countries, a longstanding exclusion from national health systems due to their immigration status. COVID-19 certificates restrict undocumented people’s fundamental rights without actually addressing the factors that undermine their access to vaccines.

We know what could work to address vaccination rates among certain marginalised groups and it is not more policing. It is investing resources and effort in a targeted approach that reaches these groups, including undocumented migrants and partnering with local organisations to develop and implement programmes that proactively address the systemic barriers they face. This includes channelling reliable, clear information about the pandemic, the vaccines and their rights, from sources they trust, and adopting measures to reassure people that vaccination is thoroughly delinked from immigration enforcement.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.