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Hot zones – the first global pandemic of the urban migrant district

The following essay was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2020 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.

The essay’s author Doug Saunders is a Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. He is the author of books on migration and cities including Arrival City and The Myth of the Muslim Tide.

The greater Covid-19 risks faced by non-citizen city dwellers are due more to their living conditions than any intrinsic propensity to infection. With traditional responses shown to be inadequate in addressing the varied needs of millions of urban refugees and migrants in times of crisis, new approaches should be developed with urgency.

New pandemic, new dynamics

The Covid-19 pandemic is a global phenomenon uniquely driven and shaped by the migratory populations of cities. It has been concentrated disproportionately in the districts in which immigrants, refugees, and domestic rural-to-urban migrants live and has been spread to vulnerable regions by failed efforts to control their movements. The political and policy decisions attempting to control the pandemic have been complicated by migrant communities’ collective economic and humanitarian decisions, and those communities have been disproportionately the pandemic’s victims.[1]

Historically, global epidemics have generally had their most devastating effects on large, connected cities, their spread tied to patterns of human migration, and their lethality controlled only through processes of human movement and urban concentration. The new coronavirus, however, emerged at a point in the twenty-first century during which major cities in many countries are populated, to a far greater extent than in previous decades and centuries, with concentrations of domestic and international migrants who remain linked to their villages and regions of origin. These migrant and refugee populations, both regular and irregular, have become central to the economies of many host cities.

Three consequences

This has had three novel consequences, all observed during 2020 in the statistical data and reporting of multiple countries on several continents. First is a considerable concentration of the disease and its deaths in the migrant-settled districts of cities: inner-city informal settlements and slums that are the primary recipients of domestic and regional migrants in lower-income cities, and inner-suburban apartment districts across Europe, North America and other developed regions. Both types of district became the predominant immigrant-reception neighbourhoods during this century and frequently bore the brunt of Covid infections and deaths during the pandemic’s first wave.[2]

Second is what is likely modern history’s largest-scale “reverse migration” trend—an urban-to -rural domestic return migration, driven predominantly by fear of the economic effects of curfew and quarantine—observed across less-developed and middle-income countries in East Asia, South Asia, Africa, the Middle East and the Americas at considerable scales, with epidemiological effects on more vulnerable rural regions.

The third consequence has been the desperate situation of non-citizen international migrant labourers, who form the majority population of a number of major cities and a considerable plurality in others; their vulnerability to lockdowns, economic closures, and other disease-control measures has led to tensions, uncontrollable return migrations, and attempts at “reverse smuggling” while leaving populations both stateless and homeless.

Outdated policies

These three mass phenomena of urban migrant communities have confounded traditional policy efforts to contain the spread of the pandemic and maintain safety in cities. They have also provoked large-scale humanitarian crises, as both the disease itself and the efforts to control it have disrupted the livelihoods and sometimes devastated the lives of urban migrant and migrant-descended populations, both illuminating and amplifying ethno-cultural and economic inequalities present within their urban districts.

The pandemic has drawn attention to the fact that migrants and recently migrant-descended populations remain vulnerable, concentrated, and potentially mobile long after they have officially landed and settled. This points to an urgent need for international agreement and coordination to protect migrant populations, not just when they are in transit or in flight, but also after they are established in cities and are still at greatest risk of both disease and the repressive effects of policy responses.

A brief history of epidemics and cities

The propagation and amplification of major epidemics has, throughout much of recorded history, been attributed to the migration in and out of major cities—by armies, religious pilgrims, people fleeing war, citybound migrants from overcrowded rural areas, trade routes, and immigrants. The plagues of classical antiquity were said to have an especially acute effect on the great cities—an effect amplified by migration into the city from overcrowded rural places.

Urban immunity

Big cities, however, also became the first centres of mass immunity, transforming previously deadly epidemics into endemic, predominantly childhood diseases among urban residents. By the end of the Middle Ages, trade connections linking the big cities had begun to create a unified disease pool linking the populated parts of Europe and Asia, with shared adult immunity to many diseases. This, however, made non -urban populations of indigenous and nomadic peoples especially vulnerable to viruses carried by urban Europeans engaged in trade and colonial expansion.

It also made major cities deadly places for rural migrants who flocked to the cities as agriculture modernised. Until about 1900, large cities were described as “population sumps, incapable of maintaining themselves without constant replenishment from the healthier countryside.” Only the popularisation of inoculation, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries turned rural-to-urban migration into something other than a deadly prospect, and flipped the statistics so that rural areas became more vulnerable to epidemic disease than urban spaces.

The well-off took flight

Epidemic outbreaks have long inspired some populations to attempt to flee the city, either to some rural location viewed as being safe, or to a migratory homeland with more physical and economic security. Until very recently, however, it was only the very prosperous who were able to migrate outward. For example, during the seventeenth century, the wealthy were advised to “flie far… flie speedily… returne slowly”—and as a consequence, “plague disproportionately affected people of middling or lower socioeconomic status, who lacked the resources to flee.”. In current scholarly parlance, these populations are the “involuntary immobile,” their inability to migrate making them exceptionally vulnerable to war, conflict, natural disasters and epidemic disease. The same was observed in epidemics in the United States (US) in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when well-off residents rented houses in rural areas believed to be safer, often severely depopulating better-off districts of cities.

The results of this urban flight could be devastating. During the 1918 influenza pandemic, a study by the Norwegian Institute of Public Health found that the mortality rate in big cities was about 1 in 100, while mortality in rural areas was as high as 1 in 10—a dichotomy credited to the outbound movement of urbanites, who tended to have higher levels of immunity due to previous low-level exposure, and carried the disease to places with neither immunity nor decent medical facilities.

The rise of air travel as a primary mode of international migration greatly magnified the potential for spread—and the potential speed of infection—of epidemic diseases. Human migration and air travel were recognised as “a key driver in the emergence and dissemination of emerging infections” after the 2004 SARS virus epidemic, the H1N1 influenza of 2009, and the Zika virus crisis of 2016.

The new urban world of Covid-19

Many of these patterns have been seen in the large-scale epidemics of recent decades. But the new coronavirus is the first global pandemic to have emerged and spread in a world in which the scope and movement of urban migrant communities has been transformed and greatly intensified. This is a product of three rapidly accelerating changes that were first observed near the beginning of the twenty-first century.

New demographics

The first is a substantial increase in the number of cities with sizeable rural-to-urban migrant populations, both domestic and international in origin, who remain connected to their villages and regions of origin symbolically, electronically, and through chain and cyclical migration links. While such populations have been a significant feature of cities throughout history, the 2000 to 2020 period witnessed a dramatic increase in the rates of internal and regional rural -to-urban migration in African and Asian countries, and a related rise in the migrant populations of larger cities on both continents.

That shift in scale had a measurable effect on the infection dynamics of Covid-19 compared to earlier viral pandemics. A 2020 analysis of population movements that compared the spread of the SARS pandemic of 2003 to the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2019-20 found that the ways diseases spread outward from cities have changed profoundly. As the researchers found, “China’s migration landscape is radically different from 17 years ago.” In 2003, only in Beijing did rural-urban migrants exceed 20 percent of the city’s population; by 2020, internal migrants were distributed much more widely across China, forming sizeable populations in scores of second- and third -tier cities; by 2019, Wuhan (where Covid-19 was first detected in human populations) had a larger population share of migrants (20.25 percent) than Beijing did in 2003. This “changing geography of migration,” along with the longer distances taken by people for family reunification and the wider range of jobs the migrants hold, are “what make the spread of Covid-19 so different from that of SARS.”

Cheaper travel

The second change is a great increase in the availability and affordability of comparatively rapid long-distance travel, owing to the great expansion of air travel, road networks, bus and train connections in middle-income countries, the decline in absolute poverty, and the relaxation of authoritarian controls on cross-border and internal movement in many countries. The number of worldwide international air passengers per year, for example, grew exponentially during the first two decades of this century, from fewer than 2 billion per year in 2004 to 4.5 billion in 2019, with most of the passenger growth occurring in the Asia-Pacific region.

Digital connections

The third is the widespread availability of instantaneous electronic communication to people on low incomes and spread across wide and formerly remote geographies. For example, the proportion of Africans with mobile phone subscriptions (in “non -fragile” countries) increased from 0.67 per 100 in 2000 to 83 per 100 in 2016 (in “fragile” countries it rose to 68 per cent). This instantaneous communication between urban- resident migrants and their home villages, whether in their own country or abroad, has meant that during national emergencies such as epidemics, they are no longer tethered to their host city and its policies, but can obtain information about options for out-migration, flight migration, and circular migration. It also means that travel-restriction policies are ineffective, because many affected people learn about them, and act on that knowledge, before they can be implemented fully.

These three new developments have had observable effects on regional epidemics during the past decade. During the West African Ebola Virus Disease epidemic of 2014-15, for example, despite intensive efforts by governments to restrict travel and movement, internal movement between urban and rural locations (in both directions) not only failed to decline, but actually increased above its typical levels. The Covid-19 pandemic is the first truly global infectious-disease event to emerge in, and spread between and into, these new cities and technologies of this century.

Covid concentration in urban migrant districts

The movement of international immigrants and refugees is rarely a cause of viral disease spread. Even during very extensive and uncontrolled cross-border migration events they do not tend to bring disease. For example, during the European migration crisis of 2015-16, there were no observations of the millions of migrants and refugees having caused any measurable increase in infectious disease rates in European countries. A study of the spread of Covid-19 in China found that inter- city business and tourism travel accounted for most of the inter-city and international infection, and emigration played a lesser role. Although “shock-mobility” mid-pandemic returns to places of origin do have a documented viral-transmission effect, the regular movement and settlement of refugees and immigrants does not.

Unequal impact

On the other hand, settled migrant communities in cities have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic, both epidemiologically and financially. And the changing configuration and scope of migration communities in large cities appears to have had a greater than usual effect on segregating and subjugating immigrant, internal-migrant, and refugee communities to the worst of the pandemic’s effects.

After its initial spread in January and February of 2020 among comparatively elite populations through international travel, Covid-19 became an epidemic that concentrated within specific neighbourhoods and towns. In many larger cities in developed countries, it disproportionately tended to be prevalent in districts with the highest concentrations of migrant populations. An examination of some examples of the most-affected districts in Western cities illustrates the factors and influences that these new settlement districts have in common:

  • In New York City, high Covid-19 infection rates during the late spring and early summer peak were concentrated heavily in inner-suburban apartment districts of the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn with high populations of foreign-born residents, while more “white” and non-immigrant districts such as most of Manhattan were largely spared serious infection.
  • In Houston, the highest rates of Covid-19 infection during the peak were measured in the neighbourhood of Gulfton, a low-rise apartment district with a very high population of refugees and immigrants, both regular and irregular (61 percent of its population is foreign-born, more than twice the rate of Houston as a whole)
  • Toronto saw one of the most disproportionate distributions of coronavirus infections, with the disease concentrated heavily in apartment neighbourhoods of northern Etobicoke and northeastern North York— the districts with among the highest populations of visible-minority immigrants and refugees. The rates of Covid-19 and related deaths in these immigration-reception districts were found to be at least three times higher than those in less diverse neighbourhoods.
  • In Sweden, the disease concentrated to an overwhelming degree in mass-housing districts in the peripheries of cities where large populations of refugees, migrants and their descendants live. In Stockholm, the highest rates of coronavirus death and infection were recorded in northern apartment suburbs such as Rinkeby and Husby, both major refugee-settlement destinations with foreign-born populations of 60 to 80 percent. Likewise, in Gothenburg, the northeastern apartment districts with majority refugee and immigrant populations experienced Covid rates over 50 percent higher than the city’s average.
  • Barcelona saw the disease concentrated in the immigrant-dominated apartment neighbourhoods of the northern periphery, while more prosperous and “white” districts saw little infection.
  • In Paris, there was widespread concern about the extremely high mortality rates in eastern apartment suburbs such as Seine-Saint-Denis, which is the French department with one of the highest proportions of immigrant residents, and the highest number of migrant-worker hostels in Paris.

The suburbanisation of immigration

With few exceptions, these are not urban geographies that would have been migration-settlement districts during most of the twentieth century. As a number of analyses have found, this century has seen a shift of immigrant districts in North America and Western Europe from the old “ethnic neighbourhoods” in the urban core (which are no longer accessible to newcomers due to rising housing costs caused by housing-supply crises in most Western countries) to apartment districts in the inner suburbs and outer periphery. This “suburbanisation of immigration,”often involving neighbourhoods built during the post-war decades as bedroom communities for workers with automobile transportation, leaves large migrant populations in many cities in more isolated and physically disconnected neighbourhoods than in previous decades. At the same time, these newcomer populations are disproportionately likely to hold jobs and small-business activities deemed “essential” under public- health rules, forcing them into close contact with others in the workplace, in mass-housing buildings, and on public-transportation links, leaving them more vulnerable to infection.

A 2015 study of the causal links between migration and disease incidence found that these effects can “turn some localities into ‘sinks’ whose initial high disease prevalence attracts further sick individuals because they cannot compete with healthy individuals for scarce space in healthier localities.” In other words, more vulnerable populations become “stuck” in their neighbourhoods while better-off populations of developed cities are more likely to flee, thus increasing segregation of cities into high-prevalence and low-prevalence neighbourhoods.

Migrant districts more vulnerable in developing regions

In the major cities of many less developed countries, the greatest concentrations of cases were often identified in informal urban districts (including shantytowns and slums, but also dormitory and apartment districts) populated largely with internal or regional migrants. While the peripheral migrant districts of Western cities are typically populated with immigrants and refugees who possess, or can expect, permanent residency and a potential path to citizenship, the migrant-filled informal settlements of Asia, Africa, and the Americas typically contain irregular populations with very precarious sources of income and an ambiguous relationship with authorities (even if they have been settled there for decades). This has left these migrant districts exceptionally vulnerable to the pandemic.

For example, a serological survey conducted in three large slum areas of Mumbai in July 2020 found that 57 percent of residents tested positive to coronavirus, by far the highest rate in the city. The survey encompassed rural-migrant slums in the Chembur, Matunga, and Dahisar districts, with a combined population of 1.5 million; only 16 percent of non-slumdwellers in those districts tested positive. Authorities suggested that toilets shared by hundreds of people were a major contributor, as was the necessity of residents to continue working in crowded public places to survive. Across India, the Indian Council of Medical Research found that Covid spread in urban migrant slums was almost twice (1.89 times) as high as in rural areas.

Similarly, studies found that the highest rates of Covid -19 infections in Brazilian cities were in the huge Rio de Janeiro favela districts of Cidade de Deus (28 percent infected) and Rocinha (25 percent infected). Both districts, containing at least 100,000 people each, were settled by migrants from northeastern Brazil in the late twentieth century.

Not all high -density slums and shantytowns experienced high rates of coronavirus infection, though: the large informal settlements in Dhaka and Lagos, for example, reported only modest levels of infection (though this could in part be a consequence of low levels of testing). It was more common for such migrant settlements to experience economic and political hardships that forced their residents to choose between migration or destitution. Some governments used the cover of pandemic control to mete out worse hardships on informal settlements: the government of Addis Ababa demolished an established slum near its airport and evicted the families living there, at the height of the pandemic’s first wave, in what the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission called “a great risk for vulnerable people.”

Myriad factors of disparity

In summary, migrant districts in many cities have been disproportionally affected by Covid-19 due to a combination of distinctive factors, including overall population density; dwellings in which it is difficult to maintain physical distance or fully quarantine; poor hygienic and sanitary conditions or shared facilities; higher incidence of “essential” jobs in fields such as health, transportation and food service; reliance on crowded mass transportation; and dependence on crowded indoor settings for religious and social gatherings. People with immigration backgrounds are not intrinsically prone to infection, but their urban living and settlement conditions have put them at greater risk.

Large-scale reverse migration

Two things make the age- old experience of flight migration from epidemics different in the twenty-first century. First is that in all but the wealthiest countries those migrating outward from the cities during this pandemic tend not to be a middle-class elite but low-income migrant workers with precarious incomes who often reside in informal housing. Second is that in most instances they are not motivated to migrate by fear of infection but by economic and physical security concerns related to health-control laws and regulations.

Public health scholars became aware during the first decade of this century that quarantine policies can have the effect of encouraging outward migration. This measurably became the case in the spring and summer of 2020 on a large scale in China, India, and Latin America, and to some degree in countries of sub-Saharan Africa, Europe and North America. In the words of a World Bank analysis, urban epidemic-control measures, including lockdowns, quarantines and curfews, have “disproportionately affected internal migrant workers… [W]ithout adequate access to housing, basic water and sanitation, health facilities, or social safety nets to help them survive such restrictions,” these urban populations have either been stranded and vulnerable or have resorted to “a chaotic and painful process of mass return.”

Few precedents

Such reverse migrations—from urban back to rural areas—have been rare exceptions during the last several centuries of urban transition. Notable instances include responses to major regional or world wars, significant economic depressions, the collapse of communism in Central European countries and the HIV/AIDS crisis in sub-Saharan Africa in the 1990s. The reverse migration provoked by the Covid-19 pandemic and its policy responses is almost certainly one of the largest in history, though total numbers are unobtainable and will likely remain so.

Urban exoduses in India…

The most visible return migration was in India (China likely had more people move to villages during the coronavirus crisis, but the outbreak there coincided with the annual Spring Festival migration, during which hundreds of millions regularly return to their family villages).

The imposition of a very strict lockdown and travel ban by the Indian government in March triggered an internal migration described by public-health specialists as “the second largest mass migration in its history, after the Partition of India in 1947” during which more than 14 million people were displaced. It is very difficult to gauge its size, in large part because most of these movements were illegal, forcing many people to walk long distances to their villages. However, the number of Indians classified as interstate or intra-state “migrant workers”— that is, rural residents living in cities—was 456 million, or more than a third of India’s population, in the 2011 census. According to one World Bank estimate early in the pandemic, the lockdown “impacted the livelihoods” of a majority of India’s 40 million inter-state migrants.

Although their flight was largely for economic rather than epidemiological reasons, India’s internal migrants reportedly were sometimes rejected by their own villages, out of fear of infections carried from the city. As a consequence, some became members of a large population of stranded workers. By April, an estimated 660,000 migrant workers were housed in relief camps.41

…Peru…

In Peru, an estimated 200,000 people attempted to migrate from Lima to their home villages after the country imposed an extended lockdown, with little aid available, in late April. Their journeys were often difficult, because Peru officially required people making overland journeys to quarantine in each state they passed through, often in unhygienic and sometimes exploitative conditions. Some of the 900,000 Venezuelan refugees living in Peru also made return migrations.

…Africa…

Many African cities became scenes of large urban-to-rural movements which crowded roads and overwhelmed transportation hubs in many cities in the days before and the weeks after lockdown and curfew measures were announced. Uganda reported the largest urban-rural exodus it had experienced since the Bush War of 1980-86.

In Kenya a few days later, as authorities prepared a strict curfew, Nairobi experienced an outbound migration in which “thousands of the city’s working and underclass, fearing they would perish if they didn’t get out, took to the roads on foot and headed back to their villages, hundreds of kilometres away”. Similar situations were reported in Rabat, Johannesburg and Kampala. In Zimbabwe, health authorities expressed worries that the mass movement of people out of Harare, Bulawayo, Mutare and Masvingo was spreading coronavirus infection to far-flung villages. This African urban-rural shift has had a measurably damaging effect on remittance payments to villages (for which payments from urban relatives are often the largest source of village income). The Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that remittance payments across sub-Saharan Africa declined by 23 percent as a result of Covid restrictions and reverse migrations.

…and the global North

Reverse migration was not the sole preserve of less developed and middle-income countries. In Italy, for example, the government’s decision to impose a national lockdown and ban on intercity travel on March 8—an announcement that had been anticipated by many in advance, and leaked to the media—led to a major rush to train stations in northern Italian cities, where people fled to family villages in southern and central Italy that were seen as less restricted. The pre-lockdown rush, in the words of an Italian virologist, “caused many people to try to escape, causing the opposite effect of what the decree is trying to achieve.” In France a week later, the expected imposition of similar internal travel restrictions led to a “second Paris exodus” by road and train to villages and more remote cities that lacked quarantines. One crude study of mobile- phone data suggested that as many as a million residents of Ile-de-France (Paris and its periphery), out of a total population of 12.2 million, fled the metropolis. There were similar reports of people fleeing the largest cities in the US to suburbs and villages, although suggestions that this marked a permanent population shift were contradicted by analyses of real -estate data that showed movements in 2020 did not differ from those in previous years. However, such reports do suggest that those making urban-to-rural moves from Western cities were mainly more financially secure residents, following the pattern of epidemics in previous decades and centuries and differing from the patterns in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Domestic propagation driver

Although the role of regular international immigration and refugee movements in spreading the coronavirus appears to have been negligible, there is unambiguous data showing that domestic flight or return journeys of urban migrant populations to their hometowns, at least during the initial imposition of disease-control measures such as lockdowns and curfews, played a role in spreading the virus to more remote areas, after its initial international spread within metropolitan borders. An analysis of internal migration in Italy found that 60 percent of all Covid-19 deaths in non-outbreak regions, and 18 percent of all Covid-19 deaths across Italy, could be attributed directly to reverse migration—meaning that, if internal migration had somehow been prevented completely, Italy would have suffered 7,348 fewer total deaths and 5,895 fewer Covid-19 deaths in March through May 2020.

However, there is an emerging consensus that the imposition of internal -migration controls most often achieves the opposite of the desired effect, and even under ideal conditions does little to reduce the spread of disease. A team of medical and public-health specialists studied the effects of Chinese measures on the early spread of Covid-19, and found that the travel ban implemented in Wuhan on January 23 “only delayed epidemic progression by 3 to 5 days within China,” and was less effective than lockdowns, self-isolation, hand washing and contact tracing at mitigating the pandemic. A larger econometric study of the daily incidence of Covid-19 and population mobility across 135 countries found “no effects” on the disease of any statistical significance for “international travel controls, public transport closures and restrictions on movements across cities and regions.” So even if well-implemented, restrictions on the movements of city- dwellers to home regions are unlikely to succeed as infection-control measures, it may be better to address the predominantly economic anxieties that motivate internal migrants to seek flight during a pandemic.

The plight of migrants stranded in foreign cities

The shock spectrum

The social anthropologist Biao Xiang, 4  in his work with the migration observatory COMPAS at Oxford University, has characterised the responses of migrant communities to the Covid-19 pandemic as a spectrum of five forms of “shock mobility.” iThe traditional response to epidemics is reaction mobility, a direct flight response to real or perceived threats. When migrants decide to move or return because their livelihoods have been destroyed by the disease and its policies, their response is survival mobility. An alternative, substitution mobility, involves having other people or groups move on your behalf. Another familiar response in 2020 is limbo mobility—a rootless slow movement among those who have been denied a place of return or safety, seen in many countries. And a perverse but important form of shock mobility is reaction immobility, in which nominally migrant populations stay put and avoid travel as a survival strategy.

Involuntarily immobile

For the millions of foreign migrant workers who live in faraway cities without citizenship—including in cities such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha and Singapore, in each of which more than a million residents are foreign noncitizen workers—survival in 2020 meant an often desperate choice between these forms of shock mobility. When pandemic control measures cut off their sources of income—and sometimes their access to food, housing and other necessities of life—many attempted reaction mobility, fleeing home as quickly as possible. After most countries closed their borders to migration and travel during March, many of these populations became what is termed the “involuntary immobile.” An estimated 2.75 million migrants were left stranded worldwide. Some attempted survival-mobility returns through clandestine channels, with some North Africans in Europe creating a small new industry in “reverse smuggling”—paying for return journeys back across the Mediterranean. Such expensive and risky options were not available to many, though. Another population, almost certainly larger, found themselves in limbo mobility, with some families living desperately in parking lots and public squares of Gulf States after losing their housing and jobs. Others resorted to reaction immobility, sheltering with minimum resources, often in crowded labour camps or dormitories, unable to move or earn. Many more cycled between these options.

Multiple factors converge in Mexico

Many countries were overwhelmed by multiple foreign-migrant populations in varied but desperate situations. Mexico, for example, has experienced a dangerous confluence of all these factors among its sizeable noncitizen populations. First, the shutdown of borders by Mexico and its neighbouring countries, combined with the suspension of asylum processes in the US, led to large populations of prospective irregular migrants and asylum seekers, mainly from Central America, stranded in cities along the northern border of Mexico. Second, the US engaged in a large-scale deportation of settled irregular migrants and asylum seekers from Central America and Mexico during 2020, ostensibly for disease-control purposes but possibly using the pandemic as cover to amplify existing policies. By June, more than 40,000 people had been expelled to Mexico and were at large in its cities, unable to return south. Third, it was reported that a large proportion of these mixed-migration populations had given up their asylum attempts or international- migration efforts in order to flee the crowded confines of shelter and were “moving elsewhere in Mexico,” generally to “pursue informal livelihood activities” in cities. This both risked spreading infection to previously low-infection-rate urban areas and expanding the undocumented Central American population in Mexican cities who generally lack access to health care and other vital services.

Rescue efforts

Some middle -income countries eventually mounted rescue efforts to repatriate some of these populations. In May, India sent two naval ships and 64 jetliner flights to 13 countries to bring home some of its hundreds of thousands of stranded workers (most were charged the equivalent of USD $40 for the journey). Other countries that engaged in repatriation programs for stranded international migrant workers included Indonesia, Turkey and the Philippines, and the UN’s International Organization for Migration provided support to stranded return migrants in several transit centres. However, there was little to indicate that more than a fraction of these millions of expatriate workers had either returned home or returned to employment by autumn of 2020. Most host countries have done little more than relying on international migration organisations, religious groups, charities and rudimentary aid programs to keep these populations alive and off the streets.

Remittance flows dwindle

Their plight has combined with the other two phenomena cited in this essay to create a dangerous economic situation for the rural populations of the global South. The chief source of income in many rural areas today is remittances from relatives who are either employed as migrant labourers in foreign cities or who have settled more or less permanently in immigration districts of developed countries. The crises afflicting both those urban populations have led to a dramatic collapse in remittance income: the World Bank estimates a decline of 20 percent in 2020, representing a loss of $109 billion to vulnerable regions. Many of these same rural regions are also experiencing the addition of new populations due to reverse migration, adding dependent residents who had previously contributed remittances.

Conclusion: time for change

The three populations discussed in this essay, many of whom once arrived in mixed migration movements— residents of coronavirus-affected immigration districts in cities, residents seeking to migrate away from cities back to hometowns, and non-citizen residents unable to emigrate or earn a livelihood—all generally fall outside the scope of what is considered “migration governance” by national administrations and many international organisations. What the Covid -19 pandemic has made painfully clear is that amid a global crisis, traditional policies designed to control movement, settle migrants, and supply labour are inadequate to address the humanitarian, economic and security needs of tens of millions of refugees and immigrants and the cities that host them. There is an urgent need to develop a new approach to managing and providing for these populations during major global crises, because those populations have emerged as this pandemic’s most prominent victims.


[1] Since the onset of the global pandemic in March 2020 until the time of writing this Review, the Mixed Migration Centre has conducted approximately 12,000 interviews with refugees and migrants on the impact of Covid-19 on their lives and their migration journeys. Most of those interviews took place with refugees and migrants residing in cities. Pages 112-119 in this Review present an overview of selected data in eight major cities. All publications featuring data from MMC’s Covid-19 4Mi surveys are available here: https://mixedmigration.org/re-source-type/covid-19/

[2] This paper draws on data and observations from January through September of 2020, a period that includes the coronavirus pandemic’s “first wave” of infection peaks in many countries. As this Review went to press, a second peak of infections was emerging in many of these countries. It remains to be seen whether subsequent peaks will follow the geographic patterns of the first.