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The impact of COVID-19 on refugees and migrants: data and observations from MMC’s 4Mi program

The coronavirus and measures to contain it have profoundly impacted mobility around the globe. As the virus spread globally, various publications have discussed how it might disproportionately affect the lives of refugees and migrants. With the aim of contributing towards a evidence-based understanding of this impact and better informed advocacy and programming, at the onset of the crisis in March 2020 the Mixed Migration Centre adapted the 4Mi data collection program. Between April and July, we conducted almost 7,000 interviews with refugees and migrants in 13 different countries across Africa, Latin America and Asia,[1] capturing the immediate impact of the COVID-19 crisis on refugees and migrants. We have regularly published our findings via thematic country and regional 4Mi snapshots, as well as in bi-weekly global updates. This data from the first phase of our adapted 4Mi survey, while not representative of all regional and national trends and dynamics, provides important insights on the increased difficulties faced by refugees and migrants during the COVID-19 pandemic. As we move into the second phase of data collection, further zooming in on the coronavirus’ impacts on mixed migration dynamics, this article seeks to synthesize and contextualize our initial findings to highlight what we currently know both about the increasing precarity of people’s day-to-day circumstances and how the pandemic affected their journeys.

Living conditions and infection control measures

“Living conditions and hygiene conditions are disastrous. Migrants share only one water source for drinking water, we use the same toilet, and without soap.” 30-year-old woman from Sierra Leone interviewed in Niger

Since the beginning of the public health crisis there have been concerns around whether refugees and migrants can adhere to recommended measures to help prevent transmission of the virus, as  many along various stages of their journey may find themselves residing in camps, shelters, or detention centres, and facing overcrowded and insanitary conditions. Overall, the vast majority of refugees and migrants interviewed by MMC in Africa, Latin America and Asia have reported that they are taking some measures to protect themselves against the virus, including frequent hand washing, wearing a mask and staying at home, with the type of measures taken varying across regions. The percentage of respondents not taking any protective measures remained low and decreased over time in West Africa while it increased in East Africa (seemingly due to lack of availability of protective gear). Further, slightly more than half of all respondents surveyed stated that they were able to practice social distancing, with higher percentages observed in Asia and Latin America, over East Africa, North Africa and West Africa. Nonetheless, Afghan returnees interviewed by MMC who were still on their return journey and living on the streets, in temporary accommodation or in camps frequently reported being unable to physically distance. Surveyed refugees and migrants have consistently reported that they know how to protect themselves from the virus, yet worry about catching the virus has remained high.

Access to healthcare

“For our family of four, we have two ill adults here, and access to medical facilities is not easy. We are borrowing money now for their medicine, as we don’t have any more money. No earnings and no savings. It’s hard for us as my mother and brother are sick.” 25-year-old woman from Afghanistan interviewed in India

It has been feared that the vulnerability of refugees and migrants to the coronavirus would be exacerbated by barriers to health services. Across regions, about a third of 4Mi interviewees consistently reported being unable to access health services, with the exception of Asia and Latin America where, over time, more respondents cited being able to access healthcare. The biggest perceived barriers to health services cited by surveyed refugees and migrants differ between regions but overall relate to lack of funds, not knowing where to go, and discrimination against foreigners. Another barrier, particularly reported in Latin America, was lack of documentation. As refugees and migrants increasingly experience loss of income due to COVID-19, the inability to afford health services may increase over time.

Impact on livelihoods

“The virus outbreak and the movement restrictions are really making life difficult for many of the migrants, because everyone has stopped the activities which brought daily or monthly income for them. Not having money to sustain the situation is a big disaster to many of us here.” 33-year-old man from Nigeria interviewed in Libya

Beyond the immediate health crisis, COVID-19 has also severely impacted the world economy, and economic recovery is expected to be slower than anticipated. The economic downturn has exacerbated existing inequalities and is severely felt by refugees and migrants across the world. Migrant workers in Gulf countries have reported ‘wage theft’, and some countries have organised mass repatriations of migrant workers amid job losses. Meanwhile in Europe, countries were faced with labour shortages as seasonal workers were unable to cross borders, and others were stuck in overcrowded camps continuing to work with little protection against the virus. Reduced access to work and related loss of income has been the main impact of the COVID-19 crisis on daily lives reported by surveyed refugees and migrants. When we asked people about their livelihoods, more than half said they had lost income. Of the rest, the vast majority had no income. Only 10 percent were still earning the same income as prior to the pandemic.

Impact of the loss of income

“I’m a barber and I have my own saloon, but most of my customers have refused to come to my shop because of COVID-19. Life has not been the same for me since this coronavirus pandemic started. I’m just struggling to survive honestly.” 38-year-old man from Nigeria interviewed in Libya

Most refugees and migrants depend on daily wages to get by and do not have recourse to social protection in the countries in which they reside, often tied to the nature of their work in the informal sector and their irregular migration status. Thus, income loss renders refugees and migrants incredibly vulnerable. Impacts of loss of income observed in our data included the inability to afford basic goods, increased worry and anxiety, inability to pay remittances, and inability to continue their migration journey, with some differences observed between regions on which impact was bigger over others. The shrinking of financial resources was equally reported by IMREF after interviews in West Africa: migrants have resorted to negative coping strategies, such as selling their clothes and phones. As refugees and migrants increasingly struggle to make ends met, the consequences are also felt by families and communities in countries of origin. The World Bank estimates that global remittances will fall by 20% in 2020 due to the economic downturn triggered by the coronavirus pandemic and migrant workers’ loss of income and jobs. In our dataset, the inability to pay remittances due to loss of income was indicated by around 38% of surveyed refugees and migrants. It was especially cited as an impact by half of Venezuelan respondents in Latin America.

“I need financial support. We are about to leave the house because of lack of money.” 31-year-old man from Democratic Republic of the Congo interviewed in Kenya

Unsurprisingly, more and more surveyed refugees and migrants surveyed by MMC have also reported increasing stress and anxiety. As refugees and migrants lose their incomes, many seem to be faced with the dangerous choice between poverty and illness, as also observed in interviews conducted with Afghan refugees and migrants in Turkey. Our data show that, over time, across all regions but one, respondents reported less frequently that they were staying home to protect themselves from COVID-19 – this may be partly due to lockdown measures being lifted in various places, but some respondents may be compelled by dire income losses to leave their houses in search of work.

Need for assistance

“They have to respect the quarantine. Let’s see if all this comes to an end and we start working again. In this time we need more help. We are also human beings, they should respect our rights.” 26-year-old man from Venezuela interviewed in Peru

In line with the struggles faced since the onset of the pandemic, the proportion of 4Mi respondents reporting the need for additional assistance has been consistently high, with only marginal differences across regions. Cash was the most frequently cited need (77% overall), which reflects income losses, and this has grown over time in all regions except Asia, where not many of the respondents in our sample were working prior to the pandemic. Overall while additional assistance provided to refugees and migrants has increased since the beginning of the pandemic, it remains much lower than what is needed.

Racism and xenophobia

“Ever since the coronavirus outbreak began in Malaysia, some locals have been against us and see us as a threat. This makes me feel so stressed and fearful. We don’t know what’s going to happen next.” 26-year-old Rohingya man, interviewed in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

 The difficulties faced by refugees and migrants since the onset of the pandemic are compounded by increasing reports of racism and xenophobia, fuelled by negative rhetoric portraying refugees and migrants as carriers of COVID-19. African refugees and migrants transiting Yemen face abuses amid stigma linked to the virus, similar incidents were witnessed along the Bosnian – Croatian border. The number of respondents to the 4Mi survey citing increased racism and xenophobia due to the pandemic were initially more notable in some regions over others, with higher than average percentages noted in  Tunisia (35%), Malaysia (30%), and Somaliland. This coincides with reports in Malaysia of increasing hostility towards Rohingya with the unfolding of the COVID-19 crisis, causing refugees and migrants in Malaysia to live in fear of arrest and detention. Increased racism and xenophobia as an impact of the pandemic on daily lives has also been cited by respondents across regions as a barrier to accessing health services.

Impact on mobility and migration journeys

 “This COVID situation makes our lives more difficult. We had just enough for our transportation and to last two weeks in Côte d’Ivoire, but we’ve been stuck in this nightmare, halfway through our journey, for more than a month.” 31-year-old man from Niger interviewed in Burkina Faso

As of April 2020, the majority of the world’s population lived in countries whose borders were partially or completely closed to foreigners because of the coronavirus outbreak. Additionally, most countries had enacted restrictions on internal movement. Together, these measures significantly limited mobility around the world. This is reflected in our data, as surveyed refugees and migrants most often noted increased difficulty moving in and between countries as an impact of COVID-19 on their mobility. But beyond movement restrictions, our data indicates substantive variations between regions regarding if and how the COVID-19 crisis and related containment measures had impacted respondents’ migration journeys. As widely documented, many migrants found themselves stranded, for a variety of reasons, including border closures and loss of livelihoods. Out of 3,290 refugees and migrants surveyed between April and May, those who most often indicated being stuck in transit due to COVID-19 were interviewed in Niger, Libya and Kenya, suggesting these respondents were the most mobile before the pandemic. Many refugees and migrants seem to find themselves stuck in transit for longer periods, as they are forced to use up finite resources meant for their travels and basic needs. This has been reported by others in East Africa and West Africa, where many refugees and migrants have become unable to continue with their journeys. In our sample, the inability to continue migration journeys due to loss of income was increasingly reported by 4Mi respondents across regions with the exception of North Africa. MMC key informant interviews in North Africa indicated that some refugees and migrants were seeking loans to generate income, turning to Libyans and smugglers who might in turn seek to confiscate travel documents as security, potentially increasing people’s risk of immobility.

Returning home

“I would say that migration is a very difficult journey, exposing us to risks. Here we are, we have left home and COVID-19 has stranded us. We can’t do anything; I have finally decided to return to my country.” 26-year-old woman from Benin interviewed in Niger

 Owing to the overall socioeconomic impact of the pandemic, many migrants have sought to return to their countries of origin. Return movements because of economic difficulties have been observed from Spain to Morocco and across South East Asia. While the overall share of respondents in our dataset who indicated that they planned to return home was around 7%, this share was greater among Venezuelans interviewed in Peru (24%) and in Colombia (14%). This finding corresponds to other reports of return movements in the region to Venezuela. Returns are most likely linked to income losses and related deterioration of living conditions; as observed in our data, the share of Venezuelan refugees and migrants in Peru and in Colombia who reported losing income due to the pandemic has remained around 90%, which is much higher than in other regions. Yet, those making the return to Venezuela have also faced difficulties, such as being stuck on the way, stranded at the border, or facing precarious quarantine conditions upon return. Afghan returnees interviewed by MMC noted the second highest loss of income due to the coronavirus pandemic after respondents in Latin America, and loss of income was also reported as a driver of return in some cases. Afghan returnees also cited a number of challenges along their return journeys, including challenges moving across borders and within countries, as well as increased risk of detention and deportation during the journey. Additionally, many Afghan returnees were unable to find work upon return to Afghanistan, as lockdown measures and previous crises persisted.

Continuing journeys

“It is a pandemic that affects everyone and any country, so giving up on migration is not a solution to escape the pandemic.” 24-year-old woman from Mali interviewed in Niger

 While movements may have decreased overall in the short term, due to border closures but also reduced access to smugglers, it seems that, where possible, many refugees and migrants seek to continue their journeys, likely due to pre-existing drivers as well as increasingly precarious living conditions in transit. Continuing and even increasing movements despite coronavirus restrictions and concerns over virus contraction and transmission have been observed, for example, on Mediterranean Sea routes. In West Africa, the initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the closure of borders, significantly impacted movement within the region, with flows declining by 39% between January and May, while again increasing between April and May by 65%. About half of refugees and migrants surveyed by MMC indicated that COVID-19 did not impact their overall migration plans (noting that some in our sample – in particular in Latin America and Asia – are likely to have reached their final destination). Only 18% of respondents stated they had chosen to temporarily stay put, a decrease from 24%, likely linked to initial opening of borders in some places and mounting struggles faced at current locations.

Impact on migrant smuggling and migration routes

“The journey was hectic and was more difficult because of the coronavirus. The official price we bargained before we commenced the journey was tripled and we were locked up and forced to pay.” 28-year-old man from Nigeria interviewed in Libya

Initially, reduced access to smugglers was reported by some refugees and migrants surveyed by 4Mi for example in West Africa, with some respondents reporting that smugglers were avoiding them due to worries about virus transmission. Decreased smuggling activities in West Africa was equally reported by IMREF respondents. Bangladeshi 4Mi respondents interviewed in Malaysia also cited the reduced access to smugglers as a big impact on their migration journey. However, journeys might become increasingly facilitated by smugglers, as well as more risky and expensive, as border closures to limit the impact of COVID-19 persist, and some countries instrumentalize the pandemic to enact more restrictive migration and asylum policies in the name of public health, which might stay in place even after the ebbing of the crisis. As the smuggling industry goes further into the shadows, this is likely to result in more dangerous migration routes and modes of transport. Some of these assumptions, such as increasing prices and more dangerous routes, have been confirmed by refugees and migrants interviewed by MMC in our most recent data collection phase. Our findings on the impact of COVID-19 on smuggling will be elaborated further in an upcoming publication. Furthermore, as income losses continue and in some cases become more severe, the risks of refugees and migrants falling victim to trafficking may increase. In Somalia and Yemen, MMC key informant interviews point to smugglers searching for alternative routes to ‘to avoid authorities and checkpoints’, which may increase risks for those travelling with them. Information shared by Danish Refugee Council and partners support these indications, pointing towards increased smuggling activities and linked abuse of refugees and migrants along the Eastern route between the Horn of Africa and Yemen. In West Africa, a key informant working in Gao reported that refugees and migrants are being charged up to double the price compared to Malians to cross borders between Bamako and Gao, with increased prices for internal movement and accommodation within Mali as well. He further noted that transit times to the Algerian border had increased from 3-4 days to up to two weeks. Increased prices and indications of increasing reliance on smugglers for onward movement were also suggest by IMREF interviews with migrants and key informants in West Africa. Migrants interviewed by IMREF and who plan to continue moving also describe ‘high levels of uncertainty’. This is also reflected by a key informant in Agadez interviewed by MMC who indicating that refugees and migrants seem ‘a little lost’ regarding their future plans, expressing worries that even if they manage to continue moving they might not be able to sustain themselves in transit.

Conclusion

“In any case, migrating has allowed me to have enough to support my needs, but since COVID is here, I don’t have work and it is hard to move on to another country.” 28-year-old woman from Nigeria interviewed in Burkina Faso

The initial findings from our adapted 4Mi survey conducted between April and June show that the coronavirus and measures to contain it have impacted the lives of refugees and migrants, as well as their journeys, in a myriad of ways. The lives of refugees and migrants travelling along mixed migration routes were already precarious before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the virus and measures to contain it have exacerbated vulnerabilities and multiplied risks for people on the move. As refugees and migrants report limited ability to take protective measures and various barriers to accessing health services across regions, their worry about catching the virus remains high. The largest initial impact beyond health concerns appears to be socioeconomic, as refugees and migrants are faced with income losses, difficulties meeting basic needs, and inability to continue their journey. Further, the pandemic has impacted refugees and migrants journeys by limiting options for mobility within and between countries, stranding them in transit, causing some to opt to return home and rendering onward journeys for others more challenging, costly and uncertain. In addition to being faced with new obstacles related directly to the pandemic, existing problems faced by refugees and migrants have become more common and more severe, making coronavirus a so-called threat-multiplier. The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted global mobility, yet it remains to be seen which developments are temporary and which permanent. As the only large-scale in-depth data collection initiative gathering information directly from refugees and migrants on the move themselves, the Mixed Migration Centre will continue to monitor the impact of COVID-19 on their lives and journeys. After the April roll-out of our adapted 4Mi survey, which focused on the immediate impact of the pandemic, MMC has now moved into a new data collection phase. In July, we began  to further examine the medium-long term impact of the pandemic on migration, zooming in on how COVID impacts on protection issues, smuggling (access, demand, fees) and the interaction of COVID-19 with existing drivers of migration. The adapted data collection on the impact of the pandemic is also planned to start up in  additional countries (including Ethiopia, Djibouti, Guatemala and Mexico) during the second half of 2020 and is expected to continue until the end of the year.


[1] Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Tunisia, Libya, Kenya, Somaliland, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Afghanistan, Colombia and Peru.