Solidarity among strangers: recognizing migrants and minorities as ‘us’ instead of ‘them’

An opinion piece by Violette Kanyemesha and Renée ‘t Hart (current GMD students)

It was a beautiful moment of solidarity that quickly went viral: quarantined people in Italy singing together from their balconies[i]. Shortly thereafter, people in other countries found ways to express their solidarity. Initiatives such as clapping for healthcare professionals, creating banners or donating flowers to hospitals united people to express a shared gesture of support. During times of social distancing, we feel connected to others through shared experiences that seemingly everyone is going through. Could the COVID-19 pandemic bring out the best in us and in its consequence create new forms of solidarity? Or are these solidarity gestures not more than that, a gesture of goodwill that fail to address structural problems that are caused and worsened by the pandemic?

Optimists see the possibilities that  the COVID-19 pandemic could realize. The shared experience of being in a (partial) lockdown gives us tools for better understanding of our fellow citizens. Taking this point further, sociologist Godfried Engbersen states that today’s neighborly trust is increasing[ii]. This aim is reflected by policy responses to the pandemic such as of the Dutch administration. Their slogan ‘together, we can beat Corona’ calls upon all Dutch citizens to help each other in these uncertain times. According to American philosopher Richard Rorty, the “imaginative ability to see strange people as fellow sufferers’ is what creates human solidarity” (Rorty, 1996, pp.xvi)[iii]. Contrary to armed conflict, this virus does not target specific groups or adhere to borders, implying that all humans are affected by COVID-19 and no one is exempted. This means that one common ‘enemy’ would unite all people. Would a global health crisis be able to bring us closer together as world citizens? The plethora of solidarity initiatives and economic aid packages seem to be a sign of this.

Different aftereffects along social markers

However, it would be presumptive to measure everyone’s exposure to the virus by the same standards. While everyone is affected by this pandemic, we are not all affected in the same way. To some, consequences mean having to work from home or not being able to visit relatives. To others, it means losing their jobs and income, living in isolation from the world, or falling significantly behind on their education. The aftereffect of a pandemic manifest differently along the lines of class, ethnicity and other social markers. Several media sources report that ethnic minorities have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 in countries such as the United Kingdom, South Africa and United States[iv]. For many citizens with a migration background, who are affected by worse medical-, social-, and structural preexisting conditions, this virus has more severe consequences[v].

One of these affected groups are children with a migrant background. Mark van Ostaijen states how distanced education actualizes its literal meaning, as indirect education pushes students away that need external motivation of their teachers the most. Children from a higher socioeconomic household receive more support from their parents in home schooling, which results in greater differences in educational development along the socioeconomic lines[vi]. Another example of measurements that will have a negative effect on equality is cancelling the final school exams[vii]. In the Netherlands, the final exams for elementary schools, CITO, have been cancelled. This means that decisions regarding the level of secondary education for 12-year old’s will be solely based on the advice of the teacher. The children ombudsman of Rotterdam expressed her concerns about this, as children from families of lower socioeconomic status, in which families with a migration background are overrepresented, often receive a lower school advice than other students while having equal CITO test scores[viii]. This seemingly neutral measure will have negative consequences for vulnerable children as they will not be able to compensate the given advice by their CITO test score. In a multi-diverse society, it is important to take the situation and needs of all citizens into account.

Another particularly vulnerable group is the one of migrants and refugees without a legal status. Undocumented migrants who live and work in the Netherlands irregularly are strongly affected by the crisis. Many lost their jobs and therefore are not able pay their rent. Additionally, this group is unable to request government assistance due to their undocumented status. Moreover, as a result of government measures against the spread of COVID-19, reception centers were not allowed to take in any new asylum-applicants[ix]. Newly arrived asylum-seekers were refused entrance without any information or other options for accommodation, as the government initially did not plan to offer emergency shelter. Currently, an emergency shelter has been established. Despite this, conditions remain deficient as facility users are not allowed to leave the terrain and are requested to stay in their rooms. For those quarantined in crowded asylum-centers and emergency shelters, keeping physical distance from others is simply impossible[x]. Similar and worse circumstances are visible in the overcrowded refugee camps on the Greek Islands where migrants live without adequate access to hygiene, sanitation or medical care[xi]. Poor conditions strongly increase risks of contracting and spreading the virus. Before the outbreak of COVID-19, migrants and refugees were vulnerable groups, often living under difficult circumstances. This pandemic has exacerbated their situation and increased the need for protection and support.

Solidarity as an act of inclusion?

As these examples show, the solidarity expressed, is not a solidarity that structurally helps everyone. These emerging forms of solidarity are not necessarily inclusive and can have nationalist and protectionist tendencies. Solidarity creates a sense of ‘us’ but simultaneously creates a ‘them’ as well. People feel inclined to take care of their ‘own’, members of their community. We tend to act in solidarity with people with whom we share personal ties, a common identity, and a sense of belonging, while we exclude others based on cultural, social or geographical differences. And Rorty, as cited in Wilde, states that ‘’solidarity among strangers is possible when experiences of shared suffering become more important than traditional differences between people, such as nationality, class, religion, and ethnicity” (Rorty, 1996, pp.192)[xii].

Therefore, this is not an appeal to pity the less fortunate in society. Solidarity should be an act of inclusion, whilst being aware of the structural differences that cause this virus to affect people disproportionally. Often migrants and refugees are supported through acts of charity, which victimizes them and denies them their agency. Though well-intentioned, charity can create a hierarchical structure and emphasize a sharp division between ‘us’ - the benevolent helpers - and ‘them’ - the poor victims. In contrast, supporting migrants as equals, by acting in solidarity is empowering because it acknowledges them as fellow humans, connected through a common interest and facing the same global health emergency. In sum, if we can learn anything from the COVID-19 pandemic, it would be that we should see migrants and refugees not as a threat nor victims, but as people who face similar challenges as all of us.

This pandemic is teaching us that we are all connected and that caring for one another is in everyone’s best interest. Since the outbreak, people have shown a strong willingness to help each other. Nevertheless, it is important to realize that solidarity can be selective and exclude many vulnerable people. In order to realize true human solidarity, we need to look beyond helping and supporting our own circle and our own community. Instead of resorting to nationalist sentiments, we can seize this as an opportunity for cooperation, on a local and international level. We can contribute to this by helping the people who are close to us, as well as people that we usually do not have much in common with. We should act in solidarity with others, not because they are victims but because we are members of the same global community with a shared responsibility for its well-being. This threat can bridge social and cultural differences and help us realize that despite our physical isolation from one another, we are still connected.


[i] Kearny, C. (2020, March 14). Italians sing patriotic songs from their balconies during coronavirus lockdown. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/14/italians-sing-patriotic-songs-from-their-balconies-during-coronavirus-lockdown

[ii] Engbersen, G. (2020, May 8). Stadsbewoners helpen elkaar meer dan voor corona. Hoe lang blijft dat zo? De Volkskrant. Retrieved from https://www.volkskrant.nl/nieuws-achtergrond/stadsbewoners-helpen-elkaar-meer-dan-voor-corona-hoe-lang-blijft-dat-zo~be488338/

[iii] Rorty, R. (1989). Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. pp. xvi. Cambridge University Press.

[iv] Barr, C., Kommenda, N., McIntyre, N., & Voce, A. (2020, April 22). Racial inequality in Britain found a risk factor for COVID-19. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/22/racial-inequality-in-britain-found-a-risk-factor-for-covid-19

[v] Mendenhall, E. (2020, March 27). Why Social Policies Make Coronavirus Worse. Think Global Health. Retrieved from https://www.thinkglobalhealth.org/article/why-social-policies-make-coronavirus-worse

[vi] Remie, M. & Velduis, P. (2020, May 08). Vijf lessen die we hebben geleerd van twee maanden thuisonderwijs. NRC. Retrieved from https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2020/05/08/de-vijf-lessen-na-acht-weken-thuisonderwijs-a3999153

[vii] Ostaijen, M. van (2020, April). Onderwijs op grote afstand. Mr. Hans van Mierlo Stichting. Retrieved on May 30, 2020, from https://vanmierlostichting.d66.nl/content/uploads/sites/296/2020/04/idee208-bijlage-%E2%80%94-Reflecties-op-onderwijs-in-tijden-van-Corona-Mark-van-Ostaijen.pdf

[viii] Rooijen, M. van, Winter-Koçak, S. de, Day, M., & Jonkman, H. (2019). Is het schooladvies gekleurd? Kennisplatform Integratie & Samenleving. Retrieved from https://www.kis.nl/sites/default/files/418134_schooladviezen.pdf

[ix] NOS (2020, March 17). Asielzoekers toch weggestuurd bij aanmeldcentrum Ter Apel. NOS. Retrieved from https://nos.nl/artikel/2327466-asielzoekers-toch-weggestuurd-bij-aanmeldcentrum-ter-apel.html

[x] Vluchtelingenwerk (2020, April) Gevolgen coronacrisis voor vluchtelingen en asielzoekers Nederland. Retrieved from https://www.vluchtelingenwerk.nl/nieuws/gevolgen-coronacrisis-voor-vluchtelingen-en-asielzoekers-nederland

[xi] Lindsay, F. (2020, April 8). In Moria detention center refugees fear the catastrophe of a coronavirus outbreak. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/freylindsay/2020/04/08/in-moria-detention-center-refugees-fear-the-catastrophe-of-a-coronavirus-outbreak/#6e5e2e0e3197

[xii] Wilde, L. (2013). Global Solidarity. Edinburgh University Press.