The three words that stand out from the ongoing pandemic are ‘front-line workers’. Those three words have not been heard or read as much before. Amongst other things, the pandemic has made everyone view the challenges faced and roles played them in our society in a different light, a more vociferous light, and rightly so. Before the pandemic, we all knew of them and some even watched TV shows based on their lives, but we still did not see them. Their role in our society before the pandemic was similar to The Dark Knight- a silent guardian, a watchful protector. The pandemic changed that. We now see their efforts, feel their fatigue and hear the cheer to celebrate them. To put it bluntly, we are more mindful of their existence.
An abstract of a policy paper authored by Francesco Fasani and Jacopo Mazza in May 2020 on behalf of the European Commission, notes that on an average 13% of key workers are immigrants in the EU. The conclusion of the paper reads ‘The overarching picture that this note paints is that of a migrant workforce that acts as an integral part in keeping basic and necessary functions of European societies working amidst periods of forced closure. It is worth stressing how, among migrants, the low skilled workers are especially over-represented in a number of key occupations that are vital in the fight against COVID-19, underscoring their often neglected value within European economies.’
In the United States, six million immigrant workers are at the frontlines working for the safety of U.S. residents. Collectively 12 million immigrant workers are at the leading edge of the response to and impacts from the pandemic. In the Unites States, 30% of doctors and 27% of farm workers are foreign born.
Should then, the efforts of frontline workers turn into policy change?
Portugal has temporarily granted all migrants and asylum-seekers citizenship rights; in Italy, the regularization only applies to some sectors. Still, these are all steps in the right direction. Spain and Ireland are considering similar moves.
Canada too took the first step in that direction when the Honourable Marco E. L. Mendicino, Canada’s Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, on August 14 announced a temporary measure, in recognition of their exceptional service, to provide a pathway to permanent residency for asylum claimants working in the health-care sector during the COVID-19 pandemic. Through the temporary measure, asylum seekers can get an early chance at permanent residency.
To apply for residency now, they must have claimed asylum in Canada prior to March 13 and have spent no less than 120 hours working as an orderly, nurse or another designated occupation between the date of their claim and Aug. 14. Applicants must also demonstrate they have six months of experience in the profession before they can receive permanent residency and have until the end of Aug. 2021 to meet that requirement. Quebec will select those qualifying for this special measure who wish to reside in Quebec. In- Canada family members of the principal applicant would be included in the application and granted permanent residency, if the application is approved. Those who have been found ineligible to make an asylum claim, or who have withdrawn or abandoned their claims, would be excluded from applying.
Applauding Canada’s move for the temporary measure, Rema Jamous Imseis, UNHCR’s Representative in Canada said “This is an exemplary act of solidarity which recognises the service and dedication of some of the most marginalized and vulnerable members in society. It is a reminder of the exceptional contributions refugees and asylum-seekers make to the communities that welcome them”.
Some have also criticized the move saying it is discriminatory to other front-line workers not working in the health sector such as farm workers, security guards and cooks and janitors working in long-term care centres. Mendicino said the emphasis of the special program was on “those who put themselves at greatest risk by working in hospitals, by working in retirement homes where COVID-19 was ravaging through like a wildfire.”
Whether the government will expand the temporary measure to include other front-line workers is something only time will tell but for now, it seems like it is a step by the government to acknowledge the efforts of asylum claimants and have them viewed more as a boon than a burden on the system.
 Fasani, F and J Mazza (2020) “Immigrant Key Workers: Their Contribution to Europe’s COVID-19 Response” IZA Policy Paper No. 155, May 23, 2020- https://ec.europa.eu/knowledge4policy/sites/know4pol/files/key_workers_covid_0423.pdf  Ibid at Pg. 11  Julia Gelatt, Migration Policy Institute, March 2020- https://www.migrationpolicy.org/research/immigrant-workers-us-covid-19-response  Marta Foresti, May 22- https://www.brookings.edu/blog/future-development/2020/05/22/less-gratitude-please-how-covid-19-reveals-the-need-for-migration-reform/  Helen Dempster, July 28, 2020- https://www.cgdev.org/blog/regularizing-migrant-workers-response-covid-19  Government of Canada, August 14, 2020-https://www.canada.ca/en/immigration-refugees-citizenship/news/2020/08/pathway-to-permanent-residency-recognizes-exceptional-service-of-asylum-claimants-on-front-lines-of-covid-19-pandemic.html  UNHCR, August 14, 2020- https://www.unhcr.org/news/press/2020/8/5f3708f44/unhcr-applauds-canadas-commitment-grant-permanent-residency-asylum-seekers.html  Stephanie Levitz and Jillian Kestler-d’Amours, August 14, 2020- https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-asylum-seekers-working-on-front-lines-of-covid-19-pandemic-to-have/  Alex Ballingall, August 14, 2020- https://www.thestar.com/politics/federal/2020/08/14/ottawa-offers-permanent-residency-to-asylum-claimants-working-in-health-care-during-covid-19-pandemic.html