From Bolivia to Berlin, Bosasso to Bangkok, tens of thousands of migrants today find themselves stranded in the midst of their migratory journeys as a result of COVID-19, often in precarious situations.
A widow from Myanmar struggles to feed her family in Thailand; an Ethiopian mother of six searches for a husband missing in Somalia; a couple and their one-year-old daughter travel 1,800 km by bus through Chile only to find their passage home blocked.
The reasons are many: roughly 220 countries have imposed over 60,000 travel and mobility restrictions, unemployment in sectors traditionally filled by migrant labour has soared pushing many to make the hard decision to return to their countries of origin, while others face the threat pushbacks, or deportation as visas and permits expire.
While some nations have responded by extending health care and social support services to migrants regardless of their legal status, others have not. Stigmatization and xenophobia are on the rise, and the risk of detention in already overcrowded facilities, and homelessness is growing.
IOM here offers a contemporary snapshot of stranded migrants in 17 countries.
Some of the defining images of the global mobility lockdown were those of the tens of thousands of migrant workers pouring across the Thai border into Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos in late March. In a three-week period prior to sweeping border closures, an estimated 260,000 people left the country and an unknown number continue to do so through irregular routes.
There are between four to five million migrant workers in Thailand, drawn to labour-intensive sectors such as agriculture, fisheries & food processing and construction, and the country’s vibrant tourism industry; roughly 2.7 million are registered with the government.
In early April, the Thai Chamber of Commerce estimated that about seven million jobs had already been lost and that were the pandemic to persist the number could climb to 10 million: there are 38 million people in the Thai workforce.
IOM is trying to meet the basic needs of stranded migrants; over 200 particularly vulnerable families are receiving monthly food and hygiene supplies but, as is the case in all of the countries featured here, the needs are high and there are simply not enough resources available.
EASTERN MIGRATION ROUTE
Scores of migrants, mainly from landlocked Ethiopia, pass through Bossaso in neighbouring Somalia along the so-called Eastern Migration Route from the Horn of Africa, across the Strait of Hormuz, through conflict-torn Yemen to the Gulf, principally the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in search of work every year.
Two-thirds of the 138,000 people who crossed the busiest maritime migration route on earth in 2019 boarded smugglers vessels here in Puntland state.
Despite border closures and other movement restrictions, migrants continue to attempt the journey. IOM documented approximately 600 reaching Bossaso in Puntland in a single day in April. But now, there’s nowhere to go.
“I have been here for around three months,” said 19-year-old Fassil from the Tigray region in Ethiopia. “The coronavirus has changed everything. I cannot continue, I cannot go back because all borders are closed.”
Anti-migrant xenophobia and stigma fueled by misinformation are growing since the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in Puntland in mid-April.
“We do our best to help them... however, if their numbers increase, and they cannot cross the sea due to the closure of borders, their well-being will be in great danger,” says Ahmed Shirie, the Chairman of the Ethiopian community in Bossaso who are already assisting 400 stranded people.
While the majority of migrants pass through Bosaso, roughly 38 percent of migrants will depart form Djibouti, a second mainland African terminus of the Easter migration route.
As is the case with its sprawling southern neighbour, COVID-19-induced border closures, movement restrictions and a crackdown on smugglers plying the route has stranded over 1,500 Ethiopian migrants in 25 different locations across the country as of April 2020.
Through more than five years of conflict, Yemen has remained the corridor through which tens of thousands of migrants from the Horn of Africa pass every year on their journey to Saudi Arabia in search of work.
While the numbers have plummeted from 11,101 in January to 1,725 in April, movement restrictions and increased vigilance along the border have resulted in many thousands of people being stranded in a war zone, unable to advance to their destination or retreat to safety. An increasing number face crowded and often unsanitary conditions in transit, detention and quarantine centres.
As fears of the virus increase and more and more people see their loved ones and neighbours become ill, migrants are being stigmatized as “transmitters of disease”. In the past they have been blamed for bringing cholera to Yemen.
There is no evidence that one group is more responsible for the transmission of COVID-19 or cholera than another. The xenophobia and scapegoating campaigns are leading to retaliation against migrants, including physical and verbal harassment, forced quarantine, denial of access to health services, movement restrictions, and forced movements to frontline conflict and desert areas, leaving them stranded without food, water and essential services.
The economic fallout from COVID-19 has fallen particularly heavily on migrants in Egypt.
Their exact numbers are unknown but the possibility of work has drawn thousands of Sudanese, South Sudanese, Yemenis, Ethiopians, Eritreans and others to Cairo and Alexandrea in particular.
“Food is a grave concern for all right now,” said Muzzamel Soliman, a Sudanese Fulani leader in Cairo. “Many have lost their jobs and had to move houses as they no longer have any source of income. Some can barely feed themselves or their families.”
In cooperation with the Egyptian Red Crescent, IOM Egypt has delivered nearly 1,800 stranded migrant families with food boxes containing rice, pasta, beans, sugar and other essential basic needs like hygiene kits in the country’s two largest cities. The Organization operates a hotline to refer migrants to financial and legal services, medical screenings, and housing allowances for urgent cases.
South Africa is home to approximately 4.2 million migrants drawn by the country’s robust economy from as far away as Ethiopia. The nation-wide lockdown has produced huge socio-economic impacts and social protection needs in a country whose economy was contracting even before the virus was first reported. The migrant labour force which primarily operates in the informal sectors and depend on daily income to meet their needs, face dire food security, shelter, health and protection challenges.
COVID-19 has trapped many thousands along the so-called Southern migratory route. Neighbouring Zimbabwe expects upwards of 20,000 returnees to arrive from Botswana, Zambia, South Africa, and Mozambique in the coming weeks in addition to the 3,500 who managed to enter the country as of May 12, stretching the capacity of provide services in a country already home to more than 43,000 internally displaced people.
A transit country for migrants attempting to travel to South Africa, Zimbabwe also hosts large numbers of stranded migrants. One hundred undocumented Malawian nationals abandoned by smugglers voluntarily returned home by bus with IOM’s assistance in mid-May.
A nearly 6,000 km-wide belt of land stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, the Sahel encompasses more than a dozen countries. Here, mobility is a critical millennia-old livelihood and adaptation strategy that allows millions to survive and thrive in one of the world’s harshest environments. Government-mandated restrictions on movement, notably putting a halt to bustling cross-border trade and “non-essential” activities, has impacted households across the region.
Over 24,000 people including migrants hosted in transit centers and herders stranded at borders are currently waiting for their fates to be settled and for the borders to reopen.
To mitigate the disruption to its activities, including the provision of assistance to stranded migrants, IOM is mainstreaming COVID-19 related activities into existing projects and when possible, continuing its lifesaving search and rescue efforts and other critical operations.
It is estimated that more than 1,500 migrants are stranded in Mauritania, primarily Malians and Senegalese. Without any alternative perspective, they are worried about their future and that of their loved ones.
Key will be the timely and responsible reopening of the border crossings into Senegal, balancing the desire of people to return home and the impacts the closures have had on many communities who rely on cross-border trade, and the need to address significant public health concerns related to COVID-19.
IOM is providing training and medical and protective equipment to Mauritanian authorities to encourage the reopening of border posts, shuttered since 25 March.
Almost 3,000 migrants had asked IOM to assist with their voluntary return home prior to Niger closing its borders in mid-March.
While there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 among these migrants, frustrations are growing due to lengthy stays in overcrowded transit centres. Niger and some of its neighbours have already agreed to the creation of a humanitarian corridor to organize the safe, voluntary return of migrants, approvals are still pending from countries of origin guarding against the spread of the virus.
Over 1,300 Nigeriens to fled clashes in a gold mining region in the south of Burkina Faso in late April, hoping to make it to Ouagadougou, before continuing on to Niamey, the Nigerien capital. IOM has provided cash assistance for food, screened and registered the group, and is working with the national authorities to assist their voluntary return.
The closure of universities in Cameroon stranded more than 2,000 Chadian students for weeks. A bilateral agreement between the two governments allowed the students to return to Chad in early-May, where they were quarantined for two weeks. IOM has chartered buses to help them return to their home communities after negotiating travel special authorization for the groups across several administrative regions.
As well as providing physical support to migrants stranded in Georgia, IOM is also ramping up social media and virtual assistance. A live online consultation session organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs allowed IOM to talk directly to 50,000 migrants in the EU, Turkey, Israel, Russia, and more.
Over 500 questions were asked by stranded migrants during the session, focusing on how to get home, the implications of overstay in the EU, post-COVID-19 travel and employment opportunities back home.
“Migrants stranded abroad due to COVID-19, especially irregular labour migrants, are in need of constant access to updated information about return options, COVID-19-related restrictions and future migration perspectives”, noted Anna Kakushadze who ran IOM’s part of the consultation.
As the COVID-19 pandemic started to take hold thousands of Kyrgyz labour migrants found themselves without jobs, salaries or a place to live.
When they decided to return home many became stranded in airports or on the borders of the Russian Federation, Turkey, Kazakhstan and UAE.
IOM’s offices teamed up to distribute masks, gloves, antiseptic, hot meals and provide a place to sleep in airports in Moscow and Novosibirsk.
A statement from IOM Kyrgyzstan noted that stranded migrants were vulnerable to COVID-19 “and also to exploitative practices. Data on past crises revealed that criminals, employers and others can use the opportunity to exploit migrants by cutting or withholding wages, threatening to report migrants to authorities, and exploiting them in other ways.”
In the wake of the 15 March closure of the border between Germany and Poland, all Polish citizens returning home were ordered into a compulsory 14-day home quarantine. That put thousands of cross-border workers and students in a difficult situation as they had to choose between their work and returning home.
At the time, some border regions were offering a Euro 40-65 daily stipend to cover meals and hotel rooms to encourage Polish commuters to remain in Germany.
Regulations have since been loosened to allow Poles who work or study in Germany to avoid quarantine upon their return. However, certain professional groups including doctors, nurses, pharmacists and geriatric nurses, are excluded from the regulation and are still being quarantined.
The significant contributions migrants in the UK are making in critical areas in the fight against Covid-19 are well documented.
However, the crisis has exacerbated the situation for many others who’ve been made more vulnerable due to their status. Despite warnings from IOM and prestigious journals like The Lancet advocating for migrants to be included in national health and social services as a public health priority, an estimated one million undocumented migrants are at risk of not being able to access adequate health care, and cope with the impacts of the crisis.
Those who are employed are typically found in the sectors most affected by the crisis such as hospitality and retail, or to be self-employed with temporary work and precarious livelihoods.
Reduced services are negatively impacting on those applying for the EU settlement scheme, while few public funds are available for needy EU citizens who have lived in the UK for less than five years.
There are roughly 3,000 migrants of different nationalities stranded in northern Chile, among them Bismar Núñez and Eleuteria Barja and their one-year old daughter Jazmín, who traveled roughly 1,800 kilometers by bus from Chile’s capital Santiago, to Iquique 300kms from the Bolivian border.
Like hundreds of their countrymen, the couple want to return home.
Before being taken to shelters provided by the Government of Chile, they spent their nights on the streets or in informal settlements, battling frigid conditions 3,700 meters above sea level while waiting for the chance to cross the border.
In an effort to manage the public health challenge presented by COVID-19 both the governments of Bolivia and Chile have agreed that the groups will be quarantined prior to crossing.
In coordination with the government and civil society partners, IOM Chile has been providing stranded migrants in the informal settlements with emergency assistance, including temporary accommodation for the most vulnerable, food and non-food items like tents and blankets.
IOM has documented approximately 7,700 cases of stranded migrants in Central America and the Caribbean.
Among them are more than 2,500 people stranded in Panama after arriving from Colombia through the Darien Gap. They remain in three overcrowded stations managed by the Panamanian National Border Service in one community in the Darien province.
The migrants are usually kept in these facilities for brief periods and taken to the Costa Rica border as part of a “Controlled Flow” agreement between the two countries which allows for the safe passage of 100 irregular migrants daily from Panama to its western neighbour. That agreement is currently suspended, stranding migrants in Panama for over two months.
Most of the migrants come from Haiti, but there are small groups from Cuba, and from as far away as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Yemen and Bangladesh.
The Government of Panama, with support from IOM and other organizations, is constructing new accommodation centres to provide security for migrants stranded on its territory.
In late April, the Mexican government releasing people from its migrant detention centers based on recommendations from the United Nations, including a group of 74 Salvadoran migrants from the Acayucan Migratory Station in Veracruz state. Local authorities in Oluta city were uncomfortable with the move as the migrants were taken into the shelter late at night, without previous notice.
IOM stepped into a familiar role, working with both the Mexican and Salvadorian governments to organize an Assisted Voluntary Return (AVR) effort to get them home safely and in a dignified manner, while ensuring public health concerns are suitably addressed. This group’s movement is still under discussion, but 82 Salvadorian and Honduran migrants have returned home with our assistance, and the option remains available to migrants in Mexico despite restrictions in place in many Central American countries.
In the meantime, they must wait.