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Migrants challenging returns amidst the COVID-19 pandemic

Some 9,000 displaced people from Nagorno Karabakh will receive medical services from an IOM mobile clinic over the next six months. Photo: IOM/Merri Sahakyan

Bayarmaa* has been stranded in Viet Nam since losing her job due to COVID-19. Hungry and facing challenges with her accommodation, the Mongolian national was unable to afford the medical treatment she needed for a recurring chronic disease. Deeply worried and frustrated about being unable to help her daughter, Bayarmaa’s mother back home too became ill.

Day by day, Bayarmaa’s situation worsened until she decided to seek assistance from the Mongolian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

The widespread impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on global human mobility due to travel restrictions, border closures and lockdown measures to curb the spread of the virus left millions of migrants, including Bayarmaa, stranded across the world.

In a September 2020 report on COVID-19’s Impact on Migrants, IOM’s COVID-19 Return Task Force detailed the plight of nearly 3 million migrants stranded worldwide. Many more migrants are believed to have been stranded in the subsequent months. The Task Force was created in response to the complex challenge of organizing voluntary returns during the pandemic, and to help missions to address challenges effectively.

In 2020, IOM facilitated the voluntary return of more than 50,000 migrants worldwide. Over 1,000 migrants (53% female and 47% male) were supported by the COVID-19 Return Task Force to return home in a safe and dignified manner globally.

Each return was unique in its own way and highlighted the different and extreme conditions the migrants faced amidst the COVID-19 pandemic prior to their return.

Among those returning were migrant workers and their families, travelers, international students, unaccompanied children, pregnant women, elderly persons, persons with disabilities, others seeking medical attention, and victims of human trafficking.

READ  Eight African migrants drown,  several others injured off the Horn of Africa 

In China, Ronica’s* situation was no different from Bayarmaa’s. She was a young migrant woman from Jamaica, who had been working as a kindergarten teacher in China until she started experiencing mental health problems and was hospitalized. She lost her job, leaving her with no option but to return to Jamaica. Her illness was made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, rendering her incapable of travelling the long route back to Jamaica unescorted.

Anna*, a Jamaican migrant in Curaçao, had health complications as well. She had overstayed her residency permit, and had a leg amputated due to diabetes as the situation deteriorated around her. This left her in a wheelchair, stranded with no source of income, no paperwork and no way home.

Humanitarian assistance including medical and psychosocial support, shelter, food, hygiene kits, and protective gear was provided to each returning migrant prior to departure, while following the strictest health recommendations depending on the country’s requirements.

“…IOM guaranteed migrants to carry out COVID-19 tests …from Managua to Belize,” said Ana Cecilia Solís, project coordinator at IOM Nicaragua.

Labour migrants in the Middle East found themselves in an increasingly dire situation with fewer options for safe and dignified work, leaving them unable to afford their rent, food or health care. An assessment of migrant workers in Lebanon conducted in mid-2020 by IOM’s Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM) found that roughly 70 per cent of those surveyed were making plans to return home in the next three months.

Twenty-five-year-old Kame*, a domestic worker from Sierra Leone, experienced several months of hardship at the hands of her employers that led her in February 2020 to jump from the third floor of the house she worked in, to the street below. She survived, but alone and without work she faced destitution as the coronavirus pandemic compounded Lebanon’s economic problems.

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“After jumping I thought I would die, but God made it possible for me. I’m very happy to be going back to Ethiopia and to finally get the chance to see my family,” she said before boarding her flight.

She is one of many migrant workers who, with the support of IOM, managed to return home safely.

In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), 75 Malagasy women migrant workers were stranded for close to nine months. Some had lost their jobs, finding themselves overnight without accommodation, while others exceeded residencies. Through the support from IOM, they managed to return to Madagascar in December, via a chartered flight. This return movement was the third one of Malagasy nationals supported by IOM, after IOM previously supported the return of 177 nationals from Kuwait (June 2020) and 54 nationals from Lebanon (October 2020).

Some of the migrants, like 23-year-old Joy*, were victims of trafficking who were stranded after escaping. She left her home in West Africa, after being coerced with the promise of steady employment with benefits in Lebanon. In an attempt to gain employment opportunities to support her elderly parents, she and her sister moved to Lebanon, where they were mistreated, forced to work extra hours, paid poorly and, at times, not at all.

She managed to escape and met her sister who was left homeless by her employers after the Beirut blast in August 2020. Joy and her sister were exhausted and wanted to return home to see their father who had suffered a heart attack.

READ  Inconsistent Nigeria evacuates citizens from China after announcing suspension of exercise

For two Somali students, Geedi* and Warsame*, the pandemic meant that they could no longer attend classes nor return home, leaving them stranded in Tehran, where they were pursuing their studies.

The COVID-19 mobility restrictions compounded the vulnerability of some migrants and the challenge of returning home. Partnerships with host and transit countries have gone a long way towards facilitating their return, by ensuring that health checks and other measures are incorporated into border management systems.

“Following the migrants’ registration with IOM to voluntarily return – and thanks to the cooperation with government authorities in Cyprus and Nepal – everyone was ready to help the stranded migrants to voluntarily return to their homes,” said Natasa Xenophontos Koudouna, Head of Office for IOM Cyprus.

Joy and over 1,000 other migrants stranded as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic have been reunited with their families back home through the generous contribution from the Government of Germany to the IOM COVID-19 Return Task Force, as well as the support from other donors such as the US Government, European Union, Governments of Switzerland, Norway, the United Kingdom and Denmark.

* The names of the migrants in this story have been changed to protect their identities.

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Netherlands, IOM launch Global Migration Initiative to protect people on the move

COMPASS will provide vulnerable migrants including victims of trafficking and unaccompanied or separated children access to a broad range of protection and assistance services.

 The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands launched the Cooperation on Migration and Partnerships for Sustainable Solutions initiative (COMPASS) at the beginning of 2021. COMPASS is a global initiative, in partnership with 12 countries, designed to protect people on the move, combat human trafficking and smuggling, and support dignified return while promoting sustainable reintegration.

The initiative is centred on a whole-of-society approach which, in addition to assisting individuals, will work across all levels – households, communities, and the wider communities – and encompasses the following partner countries: Afghanistan, Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, and Tunisia.

“We want to mobilize families, peers and communities to encourage informed and safe migration decisions, protect migrants, and help those returning home reintegrate successfully,” said Monica Goracci, Director of the Department of Migration Management at IOM.

READ  Asylum seekers and migrants not respecting lockdown

“One key component is also undermining the trafficking and smuggling business models through the promotion of safe alternatives and information sharing to reduce the risks of exploitation and abuse by these criminal networks.” Vulnerable migrants, including victims of trafficking and unaccompanied or separated children, will have access to a broad range of protection and assistance services such as mental health and psychosocial support, while migrants in transit who wish to return home will be supported with dignified return and reintegration.

Community level interventions will focus on improving community-led efforts to address trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants, and support sustainable reintegration of returning migrants. COMPASS will work with national and local governments to enable a conducive environment for migrant protection, migration management and international cooperation on these issues.

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is pleased to launch the COMPASS programme in cooperation with IOM, an important and longstanding partner on migration cooperation,” said Marriët Schuurman, Director for Stability and Humanitarian Aid of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands.

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“The programme is a part of the Dutch comprehensive approach to migration with activities that contribute to protection and decreasing irregular migration. Research and data gathering are also important components, and we hope that the insights that will be gained under COMPASS will contribute to broader knowledge sharing on migration and better-informed migration policies.”, added Schuurman. The initiative has a strong learning component, designed to increase knowledge and the uptake of lessons learned, both within the programme and beyond its parameters. COMPASS will actively contribute to global knowledge that supports countries in managing migration flows and protecting vulnerable migrants such as victims of trafficking. The implementation of COMPASS is set to start soon.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, as the donor to the COMPASS initiative, pledges its active support to partner countries to improve migration cooperation mechanisms within its long-term vision. 

IOM, the leading inter-governmental organization in the field of migration, contributes its expertise as the technical implementation partner to the initiative. IOM works closely with governmental, intergovernmental and non-governmental partners in its dedication to promoting humane and orderly migration for the benefit of all. 

READ  Inconsistent Nigeria evacuates citizens from China after announcing suspension of exercise

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A child, 40 others drown in shipwreck off Tunisia

Photo: Mediterranean Sea

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are deeply saddened by reports of a shipwreck off the coast of Sidi Mansour, in southeast Tunisia, yesterday evening. The bodies of 41 people, including at least one child, have so far been retrieved.

According to reports from local UNHCR and IOM teams, three survivors were rescued by the Tunisian National Coast Guard. The search effort was still underway on Friday. Based on initial information, all those who perished were from Sub-Saharan Africa.

This tragic loss of life underscores once again the need to enhance and expand State-led search and rescue operations across the Central Mediterranean, where some 290 people have lost their lives so far this year. Solidarity across the region and support to national authorities in their efforts to prevent loss of life and prosecute smugglers and traffickers should be a priority.

Prior to yesterday’s incident, 39 refugees and migrants had perished off the coast near the Tunisian city of Sfax in early March. So far this year, sea departures from Tunisia to Europe have more than tripled compared to the same period in 2020.

READ  In the 21st century, we are all migrants

UNHCR and IOM continue to monitor developments closely. They continue to stand ready to work with the national authorities to assist and support the survivors, and the family members of those lost.

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Ethiopian migrants return home from Yemen with IOM support in wake of tragic boat sinking

Yemen: Stranded Ethiopian migrants prepare to board an IOM-facilitated flight from Aden, Yemen, to fly home to Addis Ababa. Photo: IOM/Majed Mohammed 2021

One hundred and sixty Ethiopian migrants have returned home safely from Yemen today with the assistance of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), just one day after a perilous journey across the Gulf of Aden claimed the lives of dozens of people, including at least 16 children.

More than 32,000 migrants, predominantly from Ethiopia, remain stranded across Yemen in dire, often deadly, circumstances.

“The conditions of migrants stranded in Yemen has become so tragic that many feel they have no option but to rely on smugglers to return home,” said Jeffrey Labovitz, IOM’s Director for Operations and Emergencies.

At least 42 people returning from Yemen are believed to have died on Monday when their vessel sank off the coast of Djibouti. Last month, at least 20 people had also drowned on the same route according to survivors. IOM believes that, since May 2020, over 11,000 migrants have returned to the Horn of Africa on dangerous boat journeys, aided by unscrupulous smugglers.

READ  IOM, Niger rescue 83 distressed migrants  in Sahara Desert

“Our Voluntary Humanitarian Return (VHR) programme provides a lifeline for those stranded in a country now experiencing its seventh year of conflict and crisis. We call on all governments along the route to come together and support our efforts to allow migrants safe and dignified opportunities to travel home,” added Labovitz.

COVID-19 has had a major impact on global migration. The route from the Horn of Africa to Gulf countries has been particularly affected. Tens of thousands of migrants, hoping to work in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), now find themselves unable to complete their journeys, stranded across Djibouti, Somalia and Yemen.

While the pandemic has also caused the number of migrants arriving to Yemen to decrease from 138,000 in 2019 to just over 37,500 in 2020, the risks they face continue to rise. Many of these migrants are stranded in precarious situations, sleeping rough without shelter or access to services. Many others are in detention or being held by smugglers.

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“We cannot find jobs or food here; Yemen is a problem for us,” said Gamal, a 22-year-old migrant returning on the VHR flight. “I used to sleep in the street on cardboard. I could only eat because of the charity people would give me and sometimes we were given leftovers from restaurants. I never had much to eat.”

Since October 2020, in Aden alone, IOM has registered over 6,000 migrants who need support to safely return home. Today’s flight to Addis Ababa was the second transporting an initial group of 1,100 Ethiopians who have been approved for VHR to Ethiopia. Thousands of other undocumented migrants are waiting for their nationality to be verified and travel documents to be provided.

Prior to departure on the VHR flight, IOM carried out medical and protection screenings to ensure that returnees are fit to travel and are voluntarily consenting to return. Those with special needs are identified and receive specialized counselling and support.

In Ethiopia, IOM supports government-run COVID-19 quarantine facilities to accommodate the returnees on arrival and provides cash assistance, essential items and onward transportation to their homes. The Organization also supports family tracing for unaccompanied migrant children.

READ  688  killed, three million displaced by flood in Nigeria

Across the Horn of Africa and Yemen, IOM provides life-saving support to migrants through health care, food, water and other vital assistance.

Today’s flight was funded by the US State Department’s Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM). Post-arrival assistance in Addis Ababa is supported by EU Humanitarian Aid and PRM.

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