Fri. Jan 21st, 2022

In July 2021, the European Union implemented a COVID-19 vaccination certificate mandate for travel within the EU. As a result, a growing number of countries across Europe have adopted COVID-19 certificates as passes that provide access to a myriad of spaces and services.

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

But they also create a real risk of deepening mistrust and exclusion for undocumented people, while not addressing the underlying reasons for divergent vaccine intake. Equally worrying, the intensified policing that inevitably accompanies the greater use of certificates is likely to push undocumented people further into margins.

Barriers to access to COVID-19 vaccines

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

Even when they can be vaccinated in principle, for example because reservation systems are more flexible – as in Portugal or France – in many countries, such as Poland, there is no assurance from the authorities that medical staff will not inform the police about undocumented people’s status when they get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Another critical obstacle 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.

Nonprofit newsroom Lighthouse Reports has found that at least nine countries in Europe have vague vaccine rights policies for undocumented people.

Barriers to access to COVID-19 certificates

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

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

Concerns about data protection and immigration controls also prevent undocumented people from registering for the certificate. In the Czech Republic, for example, it is still unclear whether data submitted during the application for the certificate will be transferred to immigration authorities. Even when there are clear precautions in place, breaches of data security – as recently in Germany – can fuel existing fears and deter people from obtaining the certificate.

COVID-19 certificates and increased policing

In addition to accessibility issues, the increased policing of certain spaces linked to the COVID-19 certificates – through law enforcement, security guards and various other role players – creates a risk of greater exclusion and discrimination. In Austria, for example, 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 are also concerned that increased policing may encourage vaccine hesitation even more among marginalized groups. It has already been established that pre-existing inequalities affect certain ethnic groups and people with lower incomes and have an effect on vaccine uptake. A recent study in the UK shows that vaccine certificates make certain groups, including Black British communities and non-English speakers, less likely to be vaccinated.

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

We know what can work to address vaccination rates among certain marginalized groups and that is no longer policing. It invests resources and effort in a targeted approach that reaches these groups, including undocumented migrants and partnerships with local organizations to develop and implement programs that proactively address the systemic barriers they face. This includes channeling 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 disconnected from immigration enforcement.

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

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