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First comprehensive global analysis of COVID-19 travel restrictions, border closures weighs future impacts on mobility

The pandemic has gravely impacted global mobility, stranding millions of people, migrant labourers, family members or international students overseas. Photo: IOM

While the overall picture of cross-border human mobility in 2020 is of movement dramatically curtailed as a result of measures imposed by governments since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a new report shows a varying reality over time and by region, with particularly harsh effects for refugees and other migrants who move out of necessity.

The report resulting from the collaboration by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) marks the first comprehensive analysis of the travel measures and border closures that governments around the world took during 2020—which at their peak in mid-December exceeded 111,000 in place at one time. The report, COVID-19 and the State of Global Mobility in 2020, results from MPI analysis of IOM’s COVID-19 Mobility Impacts platform, which collects all of the actions taken by countries and subnational authorities to close international borders, restrict travel between particular locations, impose quarantines and health requirements for travellers, and establish “travel bubbles” and other arrangements.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has gravely impacted global mobility, stranding millions of people, migrant labourers, family members or international students overseas,” said IOM Director General António Vitorino. “This report draws out these dynamics over the course of 2020 and highlights the ways governments are attempting to restart mobility in 2021 and beyond.”

Cross-border mobility in 2020 can be divided into three phases, the report’s authors find:

  • January to May: Mobility lockdowns. In this first phase, countries introduced a raft of national lockdowns, other travel restrictions and health requirements to respond to the fast-evolving public health crisis. The scale of border closures was unprecedented, many occurring with limited coordination. By the end of March, governments had issued or extended 43,300 travel measures. Movements of all kinds were dramatically curtailed. For instance, the numbers of passengers on international flights in April and May were down by 92 per cent relative to the same months in 2019.
  • June to September: Phased reopening. This period brought the staggered reopening of some points of entry, especially of airports. Travel bans were increasingly replaced by health measures, including certificates of pre-departure COVID-19 tests, quarantine measures or health declarations. During this phase, different strategies across the world began to crystallize. This was obvious most clearly in the divergent approaches of island countries: as New Zealand and Australia pursued virus-elimination strategies and maintained border closures, others such as the Caribbean islands opened up to tourism.
  • October to December: Responses to new outbreaks and virus mutations. The remainder of the year was a mixed picture, as countries sought to replace travel restrictions with health requirements, while battling a second (and in some cases, third) wave of infections and grappling with the emergence of new variants of the virus. Some countries, including Chile, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates, opened even to tourists. Health certificates became the most common health-related travel measure.
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Three shifts in cross-border mobility were particularly visible, and could persist in the years ahead:

  • Widening gulf between movers and non-movers. The pandemic has deeply curtailed the mobility prospects of some groups who move out of necessity, including refugees and migrant workers, while having little effect on business travellers and others with the resources and opportunity to cross borders for work, family or tourism. This gulf is especially likely to persist if travel begins to favour those who have been vaccinated or tested, or if reliance on digital health records makes a person’s ability to travel dependent on digital access and literacy.
  • Greater socioeconomic vulnerabilities. The pandemic has amplified the socioeconomic vulnerability of those who depend on mobility for survival. Job losses have hit migrant workers hard, especially since in many countries they often work in sectors particularly disrupted by pandemic response measures or with a higher infection risk.
  • Amplified relationships of dependence and exploitation. Restrictions on movement have increased the dependence of many migrants on intermediaries and facilitators, from employment agencies to smugglers. Even as fast-changing travel restrictions have increased the demand for smuggling services among people desperate to flee violence, natural disasters and economic deprivation, or to be able to return home, they have pushed smugglers to use more dangerous routes and raise their prices – exposing migrants and refugees to an increased risk of exploitation and trafficking.
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The report examines the future of mobility as countries begin to emerge slowly from the pandemic, finding no easy or one-size-fits-all answers.

“More than a year on from the onset of the pandemic, it remains an open question what role border closures, travel restrictions and health-related travel requirements should play in a pandemic management response,” said MPI President Andrew Selee. “As new strains of the virus emerge, governments face the challenge of developing risk mitigation strategies that move beyond the blunt tools of border closures and travel bans. They also need to avoid unilateral responses and work with other governments and international organizations to develop well-planned border health policies.”

Read the report here

About the International Organization for Migration 

Established in 1951, IOM is the leading inter-governmental organization in the field of migration and works closely with governmental, intergovernmental and non-governmental partners. With 173 member states, a further nine states holding observer status and offices in over 100 countries, IOM is dedicated to promoting humane and orderly migration for the benefit of all. It does so by providing services and advice to governments and migrants. Learn more about IOM: www.iom.int. 

About the Migration Policy Institute 

A nonpartisan organization, MPI seeks to improve immigration and integration policies through authoritative research and analysis, opportunities for learning and dialogue, and the development of new ideas to address complex policy questions. Founded in 2001, MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at local, national and international levels. It aims to meet the rising demand for pragmatic and thoughtful responses to the challenges and opportunities that large-scale migration, whether voluntary or forced, presents to communities and institutions in an increasingly integrated world. For more on MPI, visit www.migrationpolicy.org.  

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IOM, UNHCR: Latest Caribbean shipwreck tragedy underscores need for safe pathways

International Organisation of Migration (

Geneva – The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency are deeply saddened by the latest loss of at least two lives after a boat capsized off Venezuela’s shores on Thursday 22 April.

According to local authorities, at least 24 people including several children are believed to have been on board the boat heading towards the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago. Seven people were rescued by commercial Venezuelan vessels, and two bodies have so far been recovered, while rescue operations are ongoing to find other survivors among the 15 Venezuelans that are still unaccounted for according to authorities.

“The waters of the Caribbean Sea continue to claim the lives of Venezuelans,” said Eduardo Stein, Joint Special Representative of UNHCR and IOM for Venezuelan Refugees and Migrants. “As the conditions in the country continue to deteriorate – all worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic – people continue to undertake life-threatening journeys.”

This is the latest of several incidents involving the capsizing of boats carrying Venezuelan refugees and migrants towards Caribbean islands, the most recent reported near the Venezuelan city of Guiria in December last year.

READ  UNHCR releases supplementary COVID-19 appeal to meet exceptional refugee needs in 2021

With land and maritime borders still closed to limit COVID-19 transmission, these journeys take place mainly through irregular routes, heightening the dangers as well as health and protection risks.

“Shipwrecks, tragic deaths at border crossings and further suffering are avoidable, but only if immediate and concerted international action is mobilized to find pragmatic solutions that put saving lives and protecting human rights at the forefront of any response,” added Stein.

“The establishment of regular and safe pathways, including through humanitarian visas and family reunification, as well as the implementation of protection-sensitive entry systems and adequate reception mechanisms, can prevent the use of irregular routes, smuggling and trafficking.”

UNHCR and IOM reiterate their readiness to lend support and technical expertise in exploring practical solutions to provide regular pathways that also take into account COVID-19 prevention measures. UNHCR and IOM, as co-leaders of the Interagency Coordination Platform for refugees and migrants from Venezuela (R4V), work with at least 24 other partners and governments across the Caribbean to meet the needs of refugees and migrants in the sub-region.

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There are over 5 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants around the world, 200,000 of whom are estimated to be hosted in the Caribbean.

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Searching for closure: New study examines challenges facing families of missing migrants in the UK

Most families in the UK seeing information about loved ones who went missing while in transit to the country are forced to rely on informal channels and networks, members of the diaspora abroad, and community-based associations. Illustration: Salam Shokor, 2021

Berlin – When a person goes missing, the existing laws, procedures and inter-state cooperation enable families to make the necessary arrangements and reach closure about the loss of their loved ones.

new report from the International Organization of Migration (IOM)’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre and Missing Migrants Project shows this is not the case for people across the United Kingdom who have missing migrant relatives.

“The families who participated in the research in the UK are some of the tens of thousands of people living worldwide with the pain of not knowing the fate of their loved ones who went missing or died during migration journeys,” said Frank Laczko, Director of IOM’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre (GMDAC) in Berlin.

Over the past two years, IOM GMDAC has carried out qualitative research funded by Switzerland’s Federal Department of Foreign Affairs with families searching for missing migrants in several countries. The twin aims of the research are to amplify the voices of the families of missing migrants and develop a series of recommendations to drive action to support them.

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This new report shows that cases of missing migrants in the UK extend far beyond the English Channel.

Nearly 300 people are known to have died since 1999 along the northern coast of France, Belgium and the Netherlands, in the English Channel or shortly after crossing into the United Kingdom, according to records collected by IOM’s Missing Migrants Project and the Institute of  Race Relations. But the number of missing migrants en route to the UK is likely to be much higher. Many of the families involved in the research did not know the whereabouts or fate of their relatives in the Mediterranean Sea crossing and elsewhere.

“Besides the emotional toll, we know that the lives of people related to missing migrants may be forever marked by the many psychosocial, legal and financial impacts,” said Dipti Pardeshi, Chief of Mission of IOM in the UK.

“When I came here… I would cry every morning… I was crying over my loss and also because the future was uncertain then. I did not know what was going to happen,” said Emeka, a Nigerian woman living in the UK who is looking for her husband.

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“I didn’t know if I would get residence here, or if I was going to be deported. That was what I was facing then apart from the loss of family,” she continued.

With the exception of the tracing service offered by the British Red Cross and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), in the United Kingdom there are no agencies or policies specifically dedicated to help report, locate or identify cases involving migrants who went missing while in transit to the country. As a result, families primarily seek information about the missing and rely on support from informal channels and networks, members of the diaspora abroad, and community-based associations.

The research, carried out in collaboration with Dr. Samuel Okyere at the University of Bristol and IOM UK, found that families of missing migrants in the UK may be migrants themselves with fears that searching for their loved ones could lead to being prosecuted due to their uncertain immigration status.

IOM calls for action in the UK, and elsewhere, to support these families. Objective 8 of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) specifically calls on states to identify those who have died or gone missing, and to facilitate communication with affected families. The report includes 10 recommendations for how families of missing migrants in the UK can be better supported to trace their relatives and to cope with the impacts of loss.

READ  UNHCR, IOM call for a truly common and principled approach to European migration and asylum policies

Find the new report “Families of Missing Migrants: Their Search for Answers, the Impacts of Loss and Recommendations for Improved Support ” here.

“Living Without Them – Stories of families left behind” is a four-part podcast series produced by IOM about the research project with families of missing migrants. Listen to the third episode about the stories of families of missing migrants in the UK here.

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IOM’s Emergency Director in Mozambique: Communities uprooted by recent violence in Palma require greater support

IOM’s Director for Operations and Emergencies listens to communities affected by the recent violence in Cabo Delgado, northern Mozambique. Photo: Sandra Black/IOM

Pemba – Nearly 30,500 people displaced by recent violence in northern Mozambique face increased hardship as the humanitarian situation intensifies across Cabo Delgado province. Funds are urgently needed to respond to the emergency, which has displaced nearly 700,000 since the onset of violence in October 2017.

IOM’s Director of Operations and Emergencies, Jeff Labovitz, visited Mozambique this week to express condolences to the families of those who lost loved ones in the recent attacks in Palma, and solidarity with displaced and affected communities in Cabo Delgado.

“Cabo Delgado has seen unprecedented, rapidly increasing levels of displacement over the past year. Displaced people are vulnerable and in need of urgent and comprehensive humanitarian assistance,” said Labovitz.

“IOM is working with UN and non-governmental partners and supports the Government of Mozambique to alleviate the suffering of people who’ve been suddenly driven from their homes and communities.”

Labovitz met with humanitarian partners and government representatives, including from ministries and local authorities in the capital, Maputo, and in Cabo Delgado. He also visited resettlement sites in Metuge District and the Transit Site in Pemba, which hosts people recently displaced from Palma.

READ  UNHCR, IOM call for a truly common and principled approach to European migration and asylum policies

He spoke with host families and with displaced people. Many expressed their desire to move to a safer place where they could resettle.

At the Transit Centre Labovitz spoke with Rabia, a woman displaced from Palma who recounted her harrowing experience:

“My husband was killed, but my two children and I survived. We moved between locations for several days without food or money. We made our way to Afungi and from there we boarded a flight to Pemba.”

“I am going to persevere, but the situation is very difficult. I don’t know how I’m going to provide for my children without a space to live or equipment to start farming,” she added.

IOM’s Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM) continues to record, on a daily basis, increased numbers of people displaced from Palma to safer areas. Several days in the last month have seen more than 1,000 arrivals per day. Of the displaced, 75 per cent are women and children – including pregnant women and unaccompanied children – and more than 1,000 of the total have been elderly.

“Remarkably the communities of Cabo Delgado – who themselves have increasing humanitarian needs – host the vast majority of displaced individuals. Support from the international community is needed to relieve some of this pressure and focus more attention and support,” continued Labovitz.

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He commended the government’s provision of land for displaced families in resettlement sites, which enable families to cultivate land and restart their lives. IOM-supported efforts to establish these sites aim to ensure more dignified living conditions for residents.

IOM is working together with humanitarian partners to carry out multi-sectoral assessments in order to guide the delivery of humanitarian supplies, including in hard-to-reach areas. The situation in Cabo Delgado remains critical, especially in areas that, due to the security situation, are inaccessible to humanitarian actors.

“Sadly, calls for greater funding for this emergency have gone largely unmet.  We need to come together to ensure that people have access to water and sanitation, shelter and food and are protected from gender-based violence and other forms of abuse,” Labovitz said.

IOM continues to provide support to people displaced from Cabo Delgado through the provision of psychosocial support, protection assistance, support and referrals for health services, shelter and non-food items, camp coordination and camp management. The Organization is also tracking populations and their needs through DTM to inform the response. Most recent displacement figures are available here.

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In 2021, IOM requires USD 58 million to support emergency and post crisis efforts in Mozambique under IOM Mozambique Crisis Response Plan, which includes USD 21.7 million to respond to immediate lifesaving  humanitarian needs in northern Mozambique through this year’s Humanitarian Response Plan.

IOM’s Global Crisis Response Platform provides an overview of IOM’s plans and funding requirements to respond to the evolving needs and aspirations of those impacted by, or at risk of, crisis and displacement in 2021 and beyond.

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