Health and Healthcare Systems

The coronavirus pandemic could be devastating for the world's migrants

Members of the Syrian Civil defence sanitize the Bab Al-Nour internally displaced persons camp, to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Azaz, Syria March 26, 2020. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi - RC2TRF9PRG3F

Syrian White Helmets sanitize the Bab Al-Nour internally displaced persons camp Image: REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi - RC2TRF9PRG3F

Marie McAuliffe
Head, Migration Research, International Organization for Migration (IOM)
Céline Bauloz
Senior Research Officer, International Organization for Migration
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  • The pandemic could exacerbate the existing vulnerabilities of the world's refugees and internally displaced persons.
  • Travel bans, closed borders and living conditions in camps all amplify the risks to migrants.
  • This crisis is an opportunity for the world to display empathy and solidarity with these groups.

It is right that our collective concerns are first and foremost for people who are at greater risk of dying from COVID-19. However, we must also recall that this pandemic is also on track to exacerbate the vulnerabilities of some of the 272 million international migrants worldwide. Persons displaced internally and across borders are particularly at risk - and the majority of the world's 25.9 million refugees and 41.3 million internally displaced persons are in developing countries that are only starting now to be affected by the pandemic.

Numbers of refugees in the top-5 host countries
Numbers of refugees in the top-5 host countries Image: IOM’s World Migration Report 2020
Numbers of internally displaced persons by country
Numbers of internally displaced persons by country Image: IOM’s World Migration Report 2020

Governments are increasingly introducing measures to 'flatten the curve' as infections are detected in a growing number of countries. As of 26 March, over 180 countries, territories and areas had passed travel restrictions due to COVID-19, including prohibitions of entry of nationals from other countries. These measures are complemented by the closure of borders in several countries, as well as the temporary suspension of labour migration from South Korea to Argentina.

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Migrants living in camps at the doorstep of Europe or the US face the possibility of a devastating virus outbreak given their proximity to highly affected countries and their often cramped living conditions, coupled with already stretched healthcare services. Social isolation is not an option. While the coronavirus pandemic has eclipsed a recent crisis at the border between Turkey and Greece, the situation of facilities in the Greek islands is alarming, leading some to call for the immediate evacuation of migrants. Similar fears of a COVID-19 outbreak have been expressed over a makeshift migrant camp at the US-Mexico border.

The plight of migrants in camps is not only at stake in those regions worst affected by the pandemic. As the virus progresses, it will endanger the lives of many in countries that host a large number of displaced persons, such as Jordan, Lebanon, Syria or Bangladesh. Resettlement is even more remote as the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have been forced to temporarily suspend refugees’ resettlement travels due to states’ mobility restrictions and concerns over exposing refugees to COVID-19. Developing countries will need the support of the international community to combat the virus for all who live in their communities.

Coronavirus is also exacerbating the vulnerabilities of migrants working in destination countries. Questions are being raised about the risks for migrant workers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, as most of them live in highly populated migrant labour camps with insufficient sanitary conditions and pre-existing health issues caused by their work. In addition, irregular migrants detained adminsitratively in cramped facilities are at greater risk of becoming infected. Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom have released some irregular migrants from administrative detention given the inability to proceed with deportation under the current state of emergency.

More generally, the lockdown of some countries is impacting all state services, slowing down both migration processing and assistance provided to asylum seekers. Some essential migrant support services are simply being closed until further notice due to the prohibition of social gatherings, as is the case with a migrant kitchen at Colombia’s border that normally feeds around 4,500 Venezuelan migrants every day and offers basic medical services.

Migrants’ socioeconomic status may negatively impact their ability to take all precautionary measures against COVID-19 and to receive medical care if contaminated due to lack of or inappropriate health insurance and insufficient financial resources. Among these migrants, those in an irregular situation are often uninsured and may be reluctant to enter medical facilities for fear of being reported if no appropriate firewalls exist regarding data sharing with the immigration and law enforcement authorities. From China to South Africa, calls are being made for inclusive COVID-19 responses to ensure migrants are incorporated into public health strategies and planning around the world.

But a longer-term impact of COVID-19 may be on the future of migrants’ integration and social cohesion. Feelings of distrust and instances of discrimination exacerbated by fake news, misinformation and the politicization of the issue have already emerged. The spread of the virus in some countries in Western Africa has even been referred to as the ‘coronization of populations’ - that is, a new form of colonization through the coronavirus.

Uncertainty and anxiety should not become justifications for scapegoating migrants, but rather should be an opportunity to better display empathy and solidarity. The loss of control being felt across communities in Europe and elsewhere – related to the inability to cross borders, the restrictions on freedom of movement, displays of extreme panic buying, and feelings of social isolation – provide insights into the daily struggles faced by displaced persons around the world every day. Let’s use this understanding to ensure migrants are not left behind.

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