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Author: Eóin O’Keeffe

Key points 

  • Refugee and migrant camps and the movement of migrants are a key concern as they are particularly vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19.
  • Access to universal health coverage for all is in everyone’s interest.
  • Plans must be made to deal both with the public health crisis and the serious socioeconomic implications of this crisis
  • Some countries have recognised the need to incorporate migrants and asylum seekers into the economic, social and legal response to COVID-19.
  • The global community cannot allow a multi-tier system of mobility to emerge in reaction to COVID-19.

Mr Vitorino outlined the challenges facing the IOM in dealing with the Covid-19 crisis.


On Dangers in Camps 

Thankfully, COVID-19 has not yet arrived in the camps for refugees, migrants and internally displaced people (IDPs) in any meaningful way, however, in Mr Vitorino’s view, it is just a matter of time before this happens. This is particularly concerning, because camps are always prone to outbreaks of disease as social distancing is impossible. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) is working hard to prevent outbreaks of COVID-19 and to inform people about the disease. However, there are now a confirmed case of infection in a number of camps.

The IOM is very concerned about COVID-19 in areas of instability and conflict. They are particularly concerned about the underreporting of cases in Yemen as well as the IDP camps in Western Africa and the Sahel. In the last month alone, the IOM has seen a growth of 33% of IDPs in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso equating to 370,000 new internally displaced people.

The IOM is also very concerned about the possible spread of the virus in slums in the developed and developing would where social distancing is impossible. COVID-19 is able to spread extremely quickly throughout these communities and there have already been large numbers of casualties. This is also true of migrants held in detention and or gathered for collective deportation and expulsion. The IOM recently published their guidelines on alternatives to detentions for migrants and on temporarily stopping collective deportations in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.


Access to Healthcare 

During the negotiations on the Global Compact for Migration,which was signed in December 2018, one of the most controversial areas of discussion was on the need to guarantee migrants access to basic services in countries of destination and countries of transit. These discussions focused on the need for ‘firewalls’ in the access to basic services, so as to prevent them from being used as a migration enforcement mechanism. These firewalls were not adopted.

This discussion then re-emerged during the United Nations General Assembly in 2019, when the concept of universal health coverage was discussed and whether migrants should be entitled to universal health coverage. Thankfully, on this occasion, migrants were included.

The COVID-19 crisis has since highlighted the importance of universal health coverage and its provision to migrants, irrespective of their legal status. The need for the provision of healthcare, health services, testing, treatment, tracking etc to the migrant communities has become increasingly clear as vital to the community as a whole.

For example, Singapore was extremely effective in controlling the spread of COVID-19, managing to keep the number of cases low with minimal disruption to working life and it was held up as an example of best practice to other countries. However, Singapore failed to focus on one of the most marginalised communities, the migrant workers. There was an outbreak of the virus in this community resulting in a second wave of cases, rising ten-fold since early April. Singapore has had to impose a partial lockdown that will remain until 1 June.


Economic Implications of COVID-19

Loss of jobs in sectors which typically are areas of work for migrants, such as construction, the tourism sector and home care, are particularly vulnerable to major crises such as this global health pandemic. The loss of these jobs has two significant implications: the first is the stranded migrants, either those who are in their country of destination and want to return home, or those who were in transit and who have been blocked by new border closures. These people are often grouped together very densely in precarious conditions and can be difficult to reach to provide healthcare.

The second major implication is the loss of remittances. The World Bank has forecasted a drop of 20% in remittances this year as a result of the coronavirus. Some countries are hugely dependent on remittances, which can comprise a significant share of their GDP. For these countries of origin, the damage is twofold: the direct socioeconomic impact of COVID-19; and the indirect impact due to the drop of remittances coming from migrants around the world. Therefore, it is essential that people consider this to be both a public health crisis as well as an economic crisis and plan accordingly.


Good News – Enlightened responses by Portugal and Italy

Several countries have reacted positively and in an enlightened way to the challenges posed by migration and coronavirus in their territory. For example, Portugal granted automatic authorisation to those migrants and asylum seekers who were waiting for a decision on their case, to stay in Portugal on a legal basis for the duration of the pandemic. The Italian Government took the decision to regularise 600,000 irregular migrants who were needed to help the agriculture sector and other industries as a response to the economic impact of the coronavirus.

Interestingly, many countries have classified migrants as ‘essential workers’ who are employed in areas such as public transport, the delivery sector and working in supermarkets. They are often working in the frontline to deliver basic necessary services. The healthcare sector is the best example of a sector in which there is a very large proportion of doctors and nurses with a migrant background, and which is working together towards the health and well-being of the whole community.



Despite, openness on the part of the two countries mentioned above with regard to migrants and asylum seekers, Director General Vitorino highlighted three concerns about (i) the politicisation of the migration debate, (ii) the image used of migrants as ‘virus carriers’ and (iii) the potential profitability of the migration crisis for populists. In his view, it is vital that that a multi-tier system of countries for mobility is not allowed to develop out of this global crisis.

Furthermore, there is the need for an open discussion on the future of mobility which will seek to reconcile legitimate health and security concerns with the principle of the free movement of people. This open discussion on the future of mobility must take into consideration how mobility can positively contribute to both the countries of destination but also the countries of origin.