Stranded Migrants
Farhiya and her eight-month old son await return assistance to Ethiopia at a reception centre in Bossaso, Somalia. IOM Photo/Muse Mohammed

Effective international cooperation is urgently needed to address the circumstances of millions of migrants stranded worldwide due to mobility restrictions imposed to contain the spread of COVID-19, the International Organization for Migration said today.

A three-month-long COVID-19 Impact on Migrants (read here) effort by IOM’s Returns Task Force reveals for the first time the scope and complexities of the challenges facing governments and people on the move at a time when at least 2.75 million* migrants are stranded (13 July) worldwide.

“The scope and subsequent enforcement of tens of thousands of mobility restrictions including border closures and nation-wide lockdowns related to COVID-19 requires states to reach out to their neighbours and to migrants’ countries of origin to address their needs and vulnerabilities,” said IOM Director General, António Vitorino

“It should be clear that migrants can be returned home in a safe and dignified manner despite the constraints imposed by COVID-19.

Where governments have taken action, tens of thousands of migrants have been able to return home in a manner that takes into consideration the significant health challenges the pandemic poses.

Labour corridors have been re-opened, helping to reanimate economies in both source and destination countries and dampen the economic impact of the pandemic. These are all positive steps, but we must move now to replicate these good practices more widely.” 

For the purposes of the report, stranded migrants are defined as individuals outside of their country of habitual residence, wishing to return home but who are unable to do so due to mobility restrictions related to COVID-19. This snapshot, based on data collected from 382 locations in more than 101 countries, “is considered a large underestimation of the number of migrants stranded or otherwise impacted by COVID-19” the report states.

IOM has been tracking global mobility restrictions and their impact since early March. The most recent data reveals some 220 countries, territories and areas have imposed over 91,000 restrictions on movement.

As a result of these global containment measures, IOM has received hundreds of requests to assist nearly 115,000 stranded migrants to safely and voluntarily return home.

Once stranded, some migrants are at a higher risk of abuse, exploitation and neglect. The loss of livelihoods can increase vulnerabilities and expose them to exploitation by criminal syndicates, human traffickers and others who take advantage of these situations.

IOM has repeatedly called for migrants to be included in national COVID-19 response and recovery plans. Too often, however, they are excluded from or, due to their irregular status, unwilling to seek health and other social support services, a situation exacerbated by rising anti-migrant sentiment in some countries.

“Migrants often face stigma, discrimination and xenophobic attacks but the extent to which social media in particular has served as an incubator and amplifier of hate speech is a deeply-troubling phenomena,” Director General Vitorino said.

“The violence we have seen directed at migrants and other vulnerable people is inexcusable. It is essential to criminalize extreme forms of hate speech, including incitement to discrimination and violence, and to hold the perpetrators accountable.”

Additionally, measures such as the use of quarantine to manage the spread of COVID-19 have regrettably also resulted in migrants being warehoused in unsanitary conditions where basic hygiene and physical distancing measures cannot be met, creating a breeding ground for the spread of potentially fatal diseases and a situation where migrants are at risk of facing further discrimination.

The circumstances people find themselves in vary enormously. In a recent joint statement UN agencies highlighted the critical situation of some 400,000 seafarers who are currently stranded at sea, many of whom have been onboard their vessels for up to 17 months – six months longer than the maximum of 11 months. The backlog is a humanitarian crisis which threatens the wellbeing of seafarers and maritime safety.

Nonetheless, it is clear that dialogue and cooperation can produce concrete results. An IOM Issue Brief on Stranded Migrants notes that some governments have been proactive in addressing vulnerability issues, allowing migrants regardless of their migratory status or insurance, to have access to medical facilities, particularly those dedicated to COVID-19, and providing food and accommodation to others.

Canada, Portugal, Italy and Germany and many other states have adjusted the visa arrangement for seasonal workers in light of the mobility constraints posed by the pandemic.

The government of Qatar also announced that migrant workers in quarantine or undergoing treatment will receive full salaries, while the Slovak Republic has extended residency permissions for non-citizens as an exceptional crisis measure.

While mobility restrictions continue to impede the movement of migrant workers globally, exceptions are being made.

In recent weeks the first of an expected 3,400 Mozambiquan miners have been allowed to cross back into South Africa to resume work after being medically screened and informed about the risks posed by COVID-19 by IOM. Discussions are progressing about providing the same facility to thousands of agricultural workers.

International cooperation has also paved the way for IOM to provide voluntary return assistance to more than 15,000 vulnerable, stranded migrants in recent months, in a manner that addresses public health concerns related to COVID-19.

Note *This figure of 2.75 million represents known cases of migrants stranded abroad, from public or official sources and direct requests to IOM, in need of different types of assistance including food, water, shelter and/or return assistance.

It includes migrants that have been either identified by IOM missions, referred to IOM for assistance by Governments including by Diplomatic and Consular offices, civil society partners, other UN agencies or which have approached IOM for assistance individually. 

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