COVID-19 leaves few lives and places untouched. But its impact is harshest for those groups who were already in vulnerable situations before the crisis. This is particularly true for many people on the move, such as migrants in irregular situations, migrant workers with precarious livelihoods, or working in the informal economy, victims of trafficking in persons as well as people fleeing their homes because of persecution, war, violence, human rights violations or disaster, whether within their own countries — internally displaced persons (IDPs) — or across international borders — refugees and asylum-seekers.
The disproportionate impact of the COVID19 pandemic on people on the move presents itself as three interlocking crises, exacerbating existing vulnerabilities.
First, a health crisis as people on the move find themselves exposed to the virus with limited tools to protect themselves. In addition to their often poor or crowded living or working conditions, many people on the move have compromised access to health services due to legal, language, cultural or other barriers. Particularly impacted are those migrants and refugees who are undocumented and who may face detention and deportation if reported to immigration authorities. Many people on the move also lack access to other basic services – such as water and sanitation or nutrition – and those in fragile, disaster-prone and conflict-affected countries are facing higher risks owing to weak health systems, which is compounded by travel restrictions constraining delivery of lifesaving humanitarian assistance.
Second, a socio-economic crisis impacting people on the move with precarious livelihoods, particularly those working in the informal economy with no or limited access to social protection measures. The crisis has also exacerbated the already fragile situation of women and girls on the move, who face higher risks of exposure to gender-based violence, abuse and exploitation, and have difficulty accessing protection and response services. Meanwhile, loss of employment and wages as a result of COVID-19 is leading to a decline in migrant remittances, with devastating effects for the 800 million people relying on them.
Third, a protection crisis as border closures and other movement restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19 have a severe impact on the rights of many people on the move who may find themselves trapped in deeply dangerous situations. Asylum-seekers may find themselves unable to cross international borders to seek protection and some refugees may be sent back to danger and persecution in their country of origin. In other instances, migrants may be forcibly returned to their home countries with fragile health systems, which are ill-prepared to receive them safely, while returning IDPs may face a similar predicament in their home localities. Additionally fear of COVID-19 is exacerbating already high levels of xenophobia, racism and stigmatization and has even given rise to attacks against refugees and migrants. In the long-run there is a risk that COVID-19 may entrench restrictions on international movement and the curtailment of rights of people on the move.
COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on people on the move contrasts with their outsized role on the frontlines of responding to the crisis - highlighting their broader contributions to societies around the world - while caring for the sick and elderly or keeping up food supplies during lockdowns.
Against this background, the COVID-19 crisis presents us with an opportunity to reimagine human mobility for the benefit of all while advancing our central commitment of the 2030 Agenda to leave no one behind. In the pursuit of this objective, this Policy Brief offers four basic tenets to guide our collective response:
1. Exclusion is costly in the long-run whereas inclusion pays off for everyone: Exclusion of people on the move is the very same reason they are among the most vulnerable to this pandemic today. Only an inclusive public health and socio-economic response will help us suppress the virus, restart our economies and stay on track to reach the Sustainable Development Goals.
2. The response to COVID-19 and protecting the human rights of people on the move are not mutually exclusive: COVID-19 has not stopped people from fleeing violence or persecution. Many countries have shown that travel restrictions and border control measures can and should be safely implemented in full respect of the rights of people on the move.
3. No-one is safe until everyone is safe: We cannot afford to leave anyone behind in our response and recovery efforts, especially those people on the move who were already most vulnerable before the crisis. Lifesaving humanitarian assistance, social services and learning solutions must remain accessible to people on the move. For all of us to be safe, diagnostics, treatment and vaccines must be universally accessible, without discrimination based on migration status.
4. People on the move are part of the solution: The best way to recognize the important contribution made by people on the move to our societies during this crisis is to remove barriers that inhibit their full potential. This means facilitating the recognition and accreditation of their qualifications, exploring various models of regularisation pathways for migrants in irregular situations and reducing transaction costs for remittances.
There are encouraging steps already taken by many governments in this direction, some of which are highlighted in this Brief. The four basic tenets offered by this Brief are underpinned by our collective commitment to ensure that the responsibility for protecting the world’s refugees is equitably shared and that human mobility remains safe, inclusive, and respects international human rights and refugee law, as envisaged not least by the Global Compacts on Refugees and for Safe, Regular and Orderly Migration. They also reinforce the notion that no one country can fight the virus alone and no one country can manage migration alone. But together, we can do both: contain the virus’s spread, buffer its impact on livelihoods and communities and recover better.