Where to go?: COVID-19 and migration

May 15, 2020

Margarita Vaca Cuevas
Data Researcher

May 15, 2020 

International migration has always been a topic of debate that addresses, on the one hand, the sovereignty of a country and the well-being of its citizens, and, on the other, respect for the rights and human development of any person. There are complex aspects such as social discontent, cultural shocks, the redistribution of national resources or the lack of political will that create an inhospitable environment for both migrants and nationals.

Migration is “an expression of a person’s will to overcome adversity and live a better life“, as the former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, proclaimed at the 60th UN General Assembly n 2006. During his speech, he also stressed that globalization was a catalyst to seek new opportunities in other countries and that migratory flows started to present significant changes: between 2000 and 2005, the number of international migrants had risen by 10.4% (GMDAC – IMO, 2019).

Since then, migratory flows accelerated and soon each country had more than one migrant. The rate increased to 56,4% in  the last 19 years (2000-2019). In 2019, the number of international migrants reached 271,6 million people, that is, 3,5% of the total world population (IOM, 2019).

Although it is a small percentage and includes labor transfers (almost two thirds), it also represents hundreds of families who for various reasons had to leave their home country, such as conflicts and extreme violence (for example, the violence episodes at the Democratic Republic of Congo, which caused the displacement of more than 200,000 people in less than two months); economic and political instability (more than 5 million Venezuelans have been forced to seek a new life throughout the American continent); natural disasters (3,8 million Philippines had to leave their homes before the ravages of heavy floods), among others (IOM, 2019).

In 2018, the world population of refugees was equal to 25,9 million people of which 52% were under 18 years. At the same time, the Syrian Arab Republic (6,1 million), Colombia (5,8 million) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (3,1 million) were the countries with the highest number of internally displaced persons (UNHCR, 2018).

The vulnerability to which migrants are exposed is evident, especially those who have had to face difficulties and trauma in trying to protect their lives. Unfortunately, the health crisis caused by COVID-19 deepens the challenges to which they are exposed and threatens both their security and the future, making it one of the most affected populations by the pandemic.

Refugees and migrants live in temporary camps without water or soap, a few meters from each other, experiencing overcrowding in tents/rooms, being exposed to sudden changes in weather and restricted to cross borders, due to mobility restrictions. These factors create an ideal environment for the virus to spread rapidly. According to UNHCR (2019), only 43% of the camps in the world have 20 liters of water per person per day, when the optimal average access to the resource should be 100 liters of water to meet both consumption and hygiene needs (World Health Organization, 2003).

Furthermore, despite border restrictions, several migrants have decided to return to their own country, which includes traveling on foot. In the case of Colombia, more than 50.000 Venezuelans have left the country (Revista Semana, 2020). This causes alarm, given the probability of contagion and the risks to which these groups are exposed, particularly in the border area, which is quite congested itself, and where there are limited permits to cross into their country. In other cases, some groups have considered moving along non authorized trails , which implies that children and adolescents, as well as women, become an even more vulnerable population.

Likewise, there is a high concern for the access migrants have to the health system, particularly those without documentation. Although several countries have considered providing indiscriminate care to all migrants in three cases —possible contagion, infected by the virus and emergency medical services—, challenges persist such as the fear of this group of being deported if they go to medical centers, their lack of knowledge regarding how the the health service works, the long distances they must travel to reach a hospital and, in some cases, the  poor help they could receive  due to their migrant status.

The reality of this population, like that of many other vulnerable groups, is a call to remember and recover the premise of the 2030 Agenda: “Leave no one behind.”

COVID-19 does not discriminate and the truth is that nobody should do it either. The migration crisis has represented one of the greatest challenges of recent years for the world and, even more, in the midst of the current health crisis where the rights, freedoms, and capacities of migrants are at risk. It is worth noting that different international organizations and governments, in most cases, have acted under the premise of protecting the rights and health of all people, regardless of their immigration status, to stop the spread of the virus. However, the challenges multiply every day and with them the setbacks in education, health, food, housing, quality of life, and, above all, the opportunity for migrants to have a voice, vote and a territory to call home.

It is important to remember that protecting the life of this population implies reducing the spread of the virus. Helping them maintain a source of employment or income will be part of the solution to face the economic recovery that will result from this health crisis.

Therefore, it is necessary to establish a multi-stakeholder coordination mechanism which includes  the public sector, civil society and the community, to facilitate joint and collaborative efforts to reduce the dangers faced by this population. Likewise, the formulation of public policies or regulations in response to COVID-19 must consider migrants as an integral part of this process. 

Bibliographical references

Annan, K. (September 2006). Speech by the Secretary-General of the United Nations on the High-level Dialogue of the General Assembly on international migration and development.  Obtained from United Nations [online] available at https://www.un.org/es/events/pastevents/migration/sg-speech.html

UNHCR. (February 29, 2020). Respuesta a los VenezolanosColombia. Obtained from Coordination Platform for refugees and migrants from Venezuela [online] available at https://data2.unhcr.org/es/situations/platform 

UNHCR. (2019). Climate change puts the water supply for refugees at risk. Obtained from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) [online] available at https://www.acnur.org/noticias/historia/2019/3/5c957ed54/el-cambio-climatico-pone-en-riesgo-el-abastecimiento-de-agua-para-las-personas.html

UNHCR. (2018). Population Statistics. Obtained from the Statistical Database [online] available at http://popstats.unhcr.org/en/overview#_ga=2.208224594.118737719.1589337792-116310448.1583265554 

GMDAC. (2019). International migration statistics. Obtained from the IOM World Data Portal – IOM World Data Analysis Center on Migration (GMDAC) [online] available at https://migrationdataportal.org/en?i=stock_abs_&t=2019 

IOM. (2019). World Migration Report 2020. Geneva: International Organization for Migration – IOM [online] available at https://publications.iom.int/books/informe-sobre-las-migraciones-en-el-mundo-2020 

Revista Semana. (12 de mayo de 2020). Por coronavirus en Colombia más de 50.000 venezolanos han vuelto a su país. Obtained from Semana [online] available at https://www.semana.com/nacion/articulo/por-coronavirus-en-colombia-mas-de-50000-venezolanos-han-vuelto-a-su-pais/670899 

WHO. (2003). La cantidad de agua domiciliaria, el nivel del servicio y la salud. Obtained from World Health Organization (WHO) [online] available at https://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/diseases/wsh0302/es/ 

An additional 54,902 cases and 3,716 deaths were reported in the past 24 hours, representing a 3% relative increase for cases and deaths respectively, compared to the previous day.”

PAHO, May 17, 2020.

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