MMC adapts its 4Mi program to assess the impact of COVID-19 on refugees and migrants

Actions to contain the spread of COVID-19 are having a significant impact on human mobility, with travel restrictions, border closures and approximately 20% of the world’s population currently under lockdown. While a global pandemic undoubtedly calls for extraordinary measures, many governments’ COVID-19 related decisions regarding refugees and migrants follow previous policies of securitization largely fueled by rising populism and nationalism around the world.

Viktor Orban has suspended the admission of people to Hungary’s transit zone and with it effectively the right to asylum, citing ‘risks related to the spread of the COVID-19’. In Bosnia, migrants and refugees face confinement in a newly constructed camp close to the Croatian border, justified by the government as an ‘urgent measure[s] to prevent the onset of the disease caused by Covid-19’. South Africa announced the erection of a border fence with Zimbabwe to ‘ensure that no undocumented or infected person cross into the country’.

Another important challenge for both people on the move as well as refugees and migrants in destination countries, is access to healthcare and other basic services during the crisis, due to a number of barriers, such as language and legal status. Portugal’s decision to grant provisional citizenships rights to all migrants and asylum-seekers with pending residency applications to ensure they have access to health care is one of very few, and for now exceptional, positive initiatives for refugees and migrants.

In light of these overwhelmingly negative policy developments, a range of publications has discussed how the novel coronavirus will disproportionately impact refugees and migrants. This prediction also pertains to fears around the virus’s ability to ‘spread like wildfire’ in camps and camp-like settings due to their dense population, concerns around access to health services, resourcing of health systems, effective dissemination of information, and more. As has been pointed out, social distancing and going into lockdown are the privilege of the few, and many assume that refugees and migrants are among today’s ‘ultra-vulnerable’ populations.

Certainly, the bulk of the measures implemented so far, expected measures to come, and the nature of the pandemic itself will have wide-ranging consequences for refugees and migrants. Yet, there exists a clear gap when it comes to concrete evidence about the impact of COVID-19 on refugees and migrants, particularly those on the move, outside of refugee camps. How does this global pandemic affect them? What information is available to refugees and migrants on the move and how does it play into their decision making, their intentions and aspirations, and their migration journeys? Does it change the conditions under which they travel, and their protection needs? What are the barriers to accessing healthcare and assistance?

Highlighting the voices of people in mixed migration flows, based on information collected directly from refugees and migrants on the move, those who have arrived at their destination or returned home is central to the work of the Mixed Migration Centre (MMC). We do so through 4Mi, a unique network of field monitors situated along frequently used routes and in major migratory hubs collecting primary data on mixed migration flows.

Due to the crisis, MMC’s face-to-face 4Mi data collection has been suspended in all 24 countries where the program is operational. MMC has rapidly adapted and developed a new shorter 4Mi survey focusing on the impact of COVID-19 on refugees and migrants on the move, exploring topics such as impact on their lives and migration journeys, risk awareness, access and barriers to healthcare and protection needs.

Data collection will shift to remote participant recruitment and surveys will be conducted via phone. All 4Mi monitors will receive basic information on COVID-19, how to protect themselves and how to prevent the spread of the virus, which will also be shared with respondents. The output will center around rapid analysis and weekly 4Mi snapshots, both regionally and globally, with actionable recommendations for the response, based on the direct experiences of refugees and migrants themselves. MMC will also make resources available to respond to targeted requests for data analysis by humanitarian partners, including our host organization the Danish Refugee Council. Initial roll-out will start imminently in all regions where MMC is currently operational: East Africa, West Africa, North Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe, but in a second phase,  we will explore expansion to other countries beyond where 4Mi is currently operational.

Through our adapted 4Mi program we aim to fill the information and evidence gap around the specific impact of COVID-19 on refugees and migrants on the move. The collected 4Mi data will contribute towards building a solid evidence base to inform targeted responses on the ground, as well as advocacy efforts related to the situation of refugees and migrants during the coronavirus pandemic.