One year into the pandemic: Covid-19 a threat multiplier for people on the move

One year on from the official declaration of Covid-19 as a pandemic, and as many foresaw, people on the move find themselves up against a trio of crises relating to health, income, and safety and security.

People travelling on mixed migration routes have for years faced numerous obstacles and risks, and reported unmet needs and difficulties accessing income and services. Covid-19 – and the response to it – has multiplied those risks and difficulties, apparently without diminishing the drivers to migrate. Here we draw attention to key issues for refugees and migrants on mixed migration routes the world over, taken from more than 21,000 interviews conducted through the Mixed Migration Centre’s 4Mi programme, in five regions over the course of the pandemic. (See note at the end for more on the data and methodology.)

Limited access to health services: a public and personal health issue

A minority of respondents said they had access to health services either for general conditions (39%) or for care related to Covid-19 (45%). The barriers vary but are primarily lack of money (44% of all respondents), lack of documentation (23%), lack of information (22%) and discrimination (19%). Uncertainty, fear and risks brought on by the pandemic have also negatively impacted the mental health of refugees and migrants.

Almost two-thirds report reduced access to work

“I left Venezuela to help my family, to work, it is hard to be a migrant but it’s better for me here. I have been afraid of being evicted because I cannot get a job and I have heard that they are evicting Venezuelan migrants who are not paying rent. My husband worked renting washing machines and because of the quarantine he is not working, we have been feeling very worried.” 18-year-old woman from Venezuela interviewed in Colombia

63% of 21,449 refugees and migrants interviewed across Africa, Asia and Latin America between April 2020 and January 2021 cited reduced access to work as an impact of the pandemic – the most frequently cited impact on daily life.

Two-thirds who lost income could not afford basic goods

65% of people who had been earning an income before the pandemic said they had lost income through loss of work (6,850 of 10,606 respondents); 22% reported losing financial support from family. That loss of income has led to an inability to afford basic goods (reported by 65% or respondents who lost income) increasing debt (52%) experiencing increased worry and anxiety (32%) and using up savings (28%).

An increase in domestic and sexual and gender-based violence has been widely reported across the globe, and affects refugees and migrants too. For example, 50% of all respondents agreed or strongly agreed that incidents of domestic violence have increased.

Movement inhibited

“Prices have doubled or tripled since the lockdown started. I have already spent most of my savings and cannot go outside to work. There is no chance of going back to Pakistan for work, as the border is closed. I’m really worried about the future…” 33-year-old Afghan man returned from Pakistan, interviewed in Nangarhar

Not surprisingly, 43% of 21,407 respondents reported an impact on the ability to cross borders. 16% were afraid to move, and 8% lacked the resources to continue their journey.

Protracted situations of involuntary immobility and financial insecurity can lead to negative coping mechanisms (such as borrowing money) and increase the vulnerability of refugees and migrants to protection risks, such as labor exploitation, and create a self-reinforcing cycle. 56% of 15,702 respondents said the risk of labor exploitation had increased since the pandemic began.

Shifting dynamics

“Yes, migration is so difficult, especially with this moment of the health crisis which has also become an economic crisis. We do not have access to work, nothing is going the way we wanted, although we left our country of origin for economic reasons.”24-year-old man from Chad interviewed in Niger

The public crisis is impacting on economic and political factors which are both driving and inhibit movement on mixed migration routes. 2020 simultaneously saw an increase in sea crossings towards Europe via the Mediterranean of North African nationals, and a decrease of sub-Saharan Africans moving towards Europe, likely linked to constrained resources inhibiting movement further afield.

Even riskier journeys?

“The current situation is very difficult, especially at the borders. At the border you have to pay a lot of money to the police to cross. The police ask you to pay the equivalent of your smuggling fees.”28-year-old woman from Liberia interviewed in Mali

Smugglers are reportedly more difficult to access, and more expensive. But 37% of 15,702 respondents said that the need for smugglers has increased. Increased dependency on smugglers will likely increase the risks for refugees and migrants on the move. As the obstacles to crossing borders have grown, 64% of 13,968 respondents agreed or strongly agreed that smugglers are using more dangerous routes.

4Mi respondents overall confirmed Covid-19 as a threat multiplier. More than half of 21,766 respondents agreed or strongly agreed that arbitrary arrest and detention, bribery and extortion, and theft had increased since the Covid-19 pandemic began, in parallel with increasingly restrictive immigration policies and actions during the Covid-19 pandemic, and increasing racism and xenophobia across many countries.

Outlook: Adapting to Covid-19

Preliminary findings indicate that Covid-19, and the associated crises, is contributing to drivers of migration: out of 3,749 respondents who started their journey after 1 April 2020, 28% said this was related to the impact of Covid-19 on economic factors, and we can expect the negative economic impact of the public health crisis to continue. (In October 2020, the IMF projected that the global economy had contracted by 4.4% in 2020, extrapolating that in the medium term the pandemic will increase inequality.)

The dynamics of migration will continue to shift. Whether the medium- to long-term impact of Covid-19 will be increased cross-border movement or a higher prevalence of involuntary immobility is highly dependent on the regional context and a key trend to watch.

Nonetheless, the obstacles and risks on mixed migration routes are unlikely to significantly diminish as transmission of Covid-19 continues, new variants emerge, and the rollout of vaccination remains uneven. MMC will continue to monitor and analyze these dynamics.

4Mi data show that over the past year the Covid-19 pandemic has plunged many already vulnerable refugees and migrants into grater precarity. Inclusive Covid-19 response frameworks are needed, that protect the rights and needs of refugees and migrants, as well as increased support for those on the move.

With the pandemic shedding light on the contributions of migrant workers to the global economy and Covid-19 response as ‘essential workers’, it is high time for more countries to replicate positive initiatives, such as the temporary regularization pathways offered by Portugal and Colombia, as well as the inclusion of migrants in Covid-19 vaccination plans.

Note on data and methodology

Shortly after the outbreak of the pandemic, MMC adapted the 4Mi data collection programme, to remote interviewing focused on the impact of Covid-19. MMC interviewed 21,770 refugees and migrants who were on the move or recently arrived in destination between April 2020 and end January 2021. Interviews took place in 17 countries and were conducted via telephone.

Based on this large data set, MMC released over 40 written publications on the impact of Covid-19 on refugees and migrants. Moreover, in March 2021 we launched 4Mi Interactive, an interactive portal for exploration and visualization of data on mixed migration, which makes the data on Covid-19 easily and widely available for users.

The questionnaire was revised in June, and some new questions were introduced, hence a smaller sample size for some questions. Other differences in sample size are because of filtering (e.g. only those who report a loss of income are asked about the impact of loss of income).

For more on methodology see the 4Mi FAQ. For more data see MMC’s publications on the impact of Covid-19, and the 4Mi Interactive data portal on Covid-19.