Refugees and migrants to provide support in the medical and agricultural sectors amid COVID-19 labour shortages

As many European countries continue to struggle with the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis, the Council of Europe and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) encourage member states to benefit from the support refugee and migrant health professionals can provide to national health systems at this critical juncture. In addition, the lack of agricultural workforce due to the closure of borders to seasonal workers remains a potential threat to the entire European food supply chain, according to the European Commission. As a solution, countries like Germany, Italy, UK, Belgium and Ireland are exploring the opportunities for granted working permits. This article gives a brief look into the different solutions and remaining challenges.


UNHCR and the Council of Europe 

The UNHCR and Council of Europe are emphasizing the potential of refugees and migrants amid the current labour shortages due to COVID-19. Many countries are looking for emergency solutions to allow people that may lack documentation to step in where most needed. Refugees and migrants with “proven professional competencies and relevant experience” are able to step in and contribute in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, said Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Marija Pejčinović Burić, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, stated that “[r]efugees, their host societies and their home countries all benefit from the European Qualifications Passport for Refugees [EQPR]”. The EQPR can help establish a qualified pool of pre-assessed refugee and migrant health practitioners because it “helps the authorities speed things up by providing some of the background needed”, according to Burić. This will enable the national health authorities of the EU member states to determine how best to deploy refugee and migrant resources, if and when needed.

 Grandi said that several EU member states have “publicly appealed for refugee health professionals to join in national responses to the virus”. The Council of Europe and UNHCR support such initiatives and hope for further expansion across the continent.


German Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner suggested that employment bans for asylum seekers should be relaxed to prevent a food supply crisis in Germany due to COVID-19. Germany closed the border to seasonal workers from eastern European countries. This leaves Germany short of hundreds of thousands of workers needed for this year’s harvesting and planting.

Klöchner said that more than 16.000 people, including asylum seekers, refugees and migrants, have already responded to online appeals for help in the medical and agricultural sectors. Klöchner believes that there is “a great deal of willingness on the part of many people who are asylum seekers finally to be able to work here”.

Germany is temporarily changing some of its labor laws for asylum seekers and people from third countries living in Germany without a work permit. 

The Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) agreed with the Federal Employment Agency (BA) that asylum seekers without a work permit will be allowed to work in agricultural jobs between April 1 and October 1. This is due to high demand for labor in agriculture, as the COVID-19 pandemic is severely impacting the industry in the midst of the harvesting season. 


 In Italy, the campaign “I Was a Foreigner” is calling on the Italian authorities to give undocumented migrant and refugees work permits. This would ensure that there are enough farm workers to secure the harvest, without “under-the-table labor, illegal gangmastering, and exploitation”. 

 Numerous mayors and dozens of organisations that belong to the migrant rights campaign “I Was a Foreigner” want the Italian government “to legalize non-EU foreign citizens already in Italy, by issuing of a stay permit on the condition of a work contract in the agriculture sector or in other sectors, starting with care services for the elderly, sick, and not self-sufficient”.

 After numerous appeals from union organizations, MPs, and members of the government, Italy is considering legalizing migrant workers. Italy may soon have a draft law that legalizes foreign workers; this was pressed by Teresa Bellanova, the Italian minister of agriculture. 

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, hundreds of foreign-born doctors, including migrants and refugees, have signed up to become medical support workers as part of a new scheme aimed at helping the National Health Service (NHS) tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. The NHS plans to deploy the workers, who have passed an English language exam, in small numbers initially.


 In Belgium, a small Council of Ministers together with the representatives of ten Belgian political parties decided that asylum seekers are granted access to the labour market on condition that they have submitted their application to the Office of the Commissioner General for Refugees and Stateless Persons (CGRS). They will have the possibility to work for the duration of the procedure, including during the period of possible appeal before the ‘Conseil du Contentieux des Etrangers’ (Aliens’ Litigation Council). The aim is to make up for labour shortages, particularly among seasonal workers and healthcare personnel. 


The Irish Medical Council said that during the COVID-19 pandemic, “[r]efugees and asylum seekers who trained as doctors and nurses in their home countries, but who are not registered to work in Ireland, may be able to provide essential support”.

The Council’s spokesman Alan Gallagher said that refugees, migrants and asylum seekers with medical training may be taking up roles including healthcare assistants. The Council has “requirements in place and standards which must be met and verified” to gain entry to the medical register and practice in Ireland.

 A Department of Justice spokesman said it planned to make contact with asylum seekers living in direct provision centres shortly about the opportunities available to them to help in the effort against the coronavirus.


The initiatives in European countries to grant refugees and migrants a working permit to fill the labour shortages often meet with resistance. The initiatives are subjected to political attacks; the opposition in Italy, for example, barricades the idea of giving undocumented migrant and refugees workers permits. Matteo Salvini called the idea a “maxi-amnesty for 600,000 illegals to work in the fields”. 

The German Farmers’ Federation (DBV) reacted rather reluctantly and stated that they “need our experienced and reliable seasonal workers from abroad who have come to us for years”.  

Many who are willing and able to help, meanwhile, are still waiting for an answer to their application. The EQPR remains the best tool in place, for now, to quickly vet skills within this crisis, states UNHCR. This may bridge the gap caused by a lack of documentation, but it requires coordinated national efforts.