All over the world, we are struggling to adapt to the ‘new normal’ brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. As a project focusing on the impact of migration on local development of rural and mountain regions, the work of MATILDE has also been affected by the virus and lockdown measures, in terms of both the way we carry out the research and our specific areas of interest. Therefore, as a consortium with 25 project partners and 19 supporting partners in 10 European countries, we wanted to ask our stakeholders about the impact of this ‘new normal’ on the lives of immigrants and what it means in terms of local development.

We continue our ‘New Normal in MATILDE Migration’ interview series with Caritas Diocese Bolzano-Bressanone from South Tyrol, Italy.

Caritas Diocese Bolzano-Bressanone is a non-profit charity institution operating in the Autonomous Province of Bolzano-South Tyrol, situated at Italy’s northern border with Austria. Embedded in a vast network of local and international partners, Caritas focuses on people living in social exclusion or with health problems, such as homeless persons, people with addictions and mental problems. Hosting and advocating for migrants and refugees is one of its main area of work since 2015. Responsible of the welcome houses for asylum seekers and Caritas consulting offices for migrants called ‘Moca’, Marion Rottensteiner, says that they expect a sharp rise of migrants in need of support after the pandemic.

How has your work with migrants changed after the spread of COVID-19 and the following emergency measures?

Marion Rottensteiner: Our work has changed several times: first, we basically stopped working with migrants in our consulting office ‘Moca’ for a short period of time; then, we started to work from home, without meeting anyone. In that period, many migrants could not or did not use our services remotely. Now, our work is more regulated: we do meet migrants physically, but only after appointments.

For migrant community, the pandemic has diminished their chances of getting a job. Companies who received governmental help for wages cannot employ new workers. When it comes to life in residence Casa Aaron, where 70 migrants live in Bolzano, their daily life changed completely: no hand shaking, no football games and work out. People are inside their houses during the day because of unemployment. Most of the communications take place by phone.

What are the common challenges faced by migrants and refugees living in South Tyrol in times of pandemic? How do they differ from the ones of the local population?

M.R.: Generally, migrants and refugees represent a big share of those struggling with the impact of the crisis, either they are employed in high risk jobs or they are unemployed or have been moved to public short-time work schemes. Many migrants live with a decreased income or no income at all and need financial assistance or even food donations.

In our consulting office for migrants, we encountered a group of migrants who requested help when looking for a job and accommodation. The difference with the local population is that they lack local networks, local work experiences, local languages and local diplomas.

Migrants who live in Casa Aaron residence have difficulties in accessing public help programs. Some migrants, depending on their individual situation, immediately asked local NGOs like Caritas for financial support and bureaucratic processes.

What about the migrants who are living in urban areas? Do you recognize any positive or negative aspect of living in a rural and mountainous region?

M.R.: We observe that there are some possible advantages for a migrant living in rural and mountain areas: local networks are more accessible; jobs and accommodations are easier to find. On the other hand, social isolation and hard living conditions are more affective in urban areas, especially for vulnerable groups.

Looking to the future, what long-term impact do you think the situation triggered by COVID-19 will have on the population of South Tyrol?

M.R.:  Many migrants used to be employed in sectors like tourism and local enterprises. Will these sectors be fully operational and be able to employ low-skilled workers again? We will see that in the future. The risk is that the crisis will further weaken the situation and hope of migrants. People with no savings, minimized income, no or just limited access to education, will continue to remain marginalized for sure. As Caritas, we expect a sharp rise of migrants in need of support.