United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) data indicates that there are approximately 281 million people living outside of their country of origin and they represent 3.6 percent of the global population. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that by mid-2020, the world’s population of forcibly displaced people and refugees surpassed 80 million. International migrants and the forcibly displaced have been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic due to border closures, travel restrictions, unemployment, and xenophobia, racism, and stigmatization. They have been among the world’s most vulnerable persons to the pandemic and its socio-economic consequences.
Although UN Secretary-General António Guterres made an urgent appeal in March 2020 for a global ceasefire while the world fights the pandemic, conflicts and violence persist in several countries, including Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, Somalia, and Yemen, where people were newly displaced in the first half of 2020. For forcibly displaced people, COVID-19 compounded their protection and livelihood crisis. In addition, some measures to curb the spread of the virus made it more difficult for the forcibly displaced to reach safety. In 2020, with the support of the UNHCR, 111 countries implemented solutions to ensure their asylum systems were fully or partially operational, while taking necessary public health measures. However, new asylum applications dropped by a third worldwide, compared to the same period in 2019, and only 17,400 refugees were resettled, a 50 percent drop from 2019.
Migrants have been acutely vulnerable to layoffs and unemployment caused by the pandemic. Due to job loss and higher risk of infection because of overcrowded living conditions, many migrant workers attempted to return to their countries of origin but wound up stranded in other countries due to border closures and destitute due to their loss of income. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) identified nearly 3 million stranded migrants who were unable to return to their countries of origin as of July 2020. It reported that migrant workers living in countries like Australia, New Zealand, Qatar, Russia, Singapore, and South Africa are living in precarious situations after losing their jobs due to COVID-19. This leaves them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, such as human trafficking, sexual violence, xenophobia, and health-related issues such as mental health challenges.
In early 2020, IOM launched the Global Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan to address the unique circumstances of migrants during the pandemic and to ensure they are included in efforts to mitigate and combat COVID-19. The plan sought to:
- Ensure a coordinated response through mobility tracking systems and strengthened partnerships and coordination structures;
- Contribute to global, regional, national, and community-level preparedness and response efforts;
- Make sure that affected people have access to basic services and commodities including health care, protection, and social services; and,
- Support international, national, and local partners in response to the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19.
So far, IOM has: played a leading role in COVID-19 coordination forums in 58 countries; tracked the mobility impacts of COVID-19 in 173 countries; procured delivery of personal protective equipment (PPE) in 10 countries; reached 3.5 million people through awareness campaigns on COVID-19; facilitated six million COVID-19 tests and health screenings for travelers; and trained 3,500 people on COVID-19 measures, such as enhanced hygiene practices and continuation of essential services.
In 2021, the UNHCR committed to maintain the same levels of responsiveness, adaptability, and flexibility in response to COVID-19 as it did in 2020. It will continue to provide public health services, critical health, water, sanitation, hygiene and shelter needs, regular cash assistance programs, education, and advocacy for inclusion of refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) in national health, social, and education systems. The impact of COVID-19 altered the profile of global poverty and pushed millions into poverty. In the December 2020 study, Compounding Misfortunes, the World Bank and UNHCR estimate that 1.1 million refugees and IDPs in Lebanon, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, and Jordan have been driven to poverty due to the pandemic. In December 2020, UNHCR requested an additional $455 million to focus on the exceptional socio-economic and protection needs created by the pandemic, committing funding specifically to newly vulnerable people due to loss of income or livelihood and those whose financial situation deteriorated further.
In 2020, Venezuela was the country of origin of the third-largest number of IDPs, and the migrant population in Latin America and the Caribbean more than doubled between 2000 and 2020. The UNHCR and IOM jointly launched the 2021 Refugee and Migrant Response Plan (RMRP), a $1.44 billion regional initiative to respond to the growing needs of approximately 5.4 million refugees and migrants from Venezuela and their host communities. COVID-19 has strained national and local capacities across the Latin American and Caribbean region and many refugees, migrants, and their host communities are facing new challenges. The 2021 RMRP intends to strengthen national and regional responses of host governments by supporting health, shelter, food, water, sanitation, and hygiene interventions. The plan will also improve access to education, protection, and integration where assistance and expertise are required or if the host government’s own response capacities are overwhelmed.
On December 11, 2020, in a joint press release, IOM and the UNHCR directors stressed that there is an urgent need for universal health coverage that includes migrants, refugees, and internally displaced and stateless people due to the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 vaccine distribution is underway worldwide and it is apparent that vaccine access for migrants is disproportionate. Many countries are determining vaccine eligibility based on factors such as place of residence and migration status, leaving many migrants vulnerable to COVID-19. Some countries and organizations have prioritized vaccinations for refugees and asylum seekers. The UNHCR helped coordinate vaccinations for Iraqi refugees living in Jordan, which was the first country to administer the vaccine to refugees. Germany also prioritized vaccinations for asylum seekers, putting them second in line to receive the vaccine behind health care workers and people over 80 years old. In Djibouti, UNHCR joined a national committee that was set up for the COVAX vaccine to identify target populations for the vaccine. UNHCR Nepal coordinated with the World Health Organization (WHO) to include 20,000 refugees in their vaccine roll out and the Ministry of Health and Population issued instructions to treat these refugees the same as Nepalese nationals. UNHCR also strengthened its partnership with Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, to ensure refugees and other forcibly displaced people can access vaccines at the same rate as nationals in their host countries.
Despite mobility constraints posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, migrants continue to embark on dangerous journeys along irregular migration routes to flee violence and poverty in their home countries and seek a better life. There were more than 3,000 reported migration-related deaths in the first half of 2020 according to data from the IOM’s Missing Migrants Project. COVID-19 has increased the risks and uncertainty of irregular migrant routes, such as crossing oceans on insecure rafts and perilous journeys on foot. Migrants risk contracting the virus on route and humanitarian support and rescue may not be available.
Finally, it is imperative that the United Nations and states continue to make efforts to protect migrants amid the COVID-19 pandemic and include them in efforts to curb the spread of the virus.