Seventy-five Malagasy women arrive in Madagascar from Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, 9 December 2020 via a flight chartered by IOM. Photo: IOM/Daniel Silva

Bayarmaa* has been stranded in Viet Nam since losing her job due to COVID-19. Hungry and facing challenges with her accommodation, the Mongolian national was unable to afford the medical treatment she needed for a recurring chronic disease. Deeply worried and frustrated about being unable to help her daughter, Bayarmaa’s mother back home too became ill.

Day by day, Bayarmaa’s situation worsened until she decided to seek assistance from the Mongolian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

The widespread impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on global human mobility due to travel restrictions, border closures and lockdown measures to curb the spread of the virus left millions of migrants, including Bayarmaa, stranded across the world.

In a September 2020 report on COVID-19's Impact on Migrants, IOM’s COVID-19 Return Task Force detailed the plight of nearly 3 million migrants stranded worldwide. Many more migrants are believed to have been stranded in the subsequent months. The Task Force was created in response to the complex challenge of organizing voluntary returns during the pandemic, and to help missions to address challenges effectively.

In 2020, IOM facilitated the voluntary return of more than 50,000 migrants worldwide. Over 1,000 migrants (53% female and 47% male) were supported by the COVID-19 Return Task Force to return home in a safe and dignified manner globally.

Each return was unique in its own way and highlighted the different and extreme conditions the migrants faced amidst the COVID-19 pandemic prior to their return.

Among those returning were migrant workers and their families, travelers, international students, unaccompanied children, pregnant women, elderly persons, persons with disabilities, others seeking medical attention, and victims of human trafficking.

In China, Ronica’s* situation was no different from Bayarmaa’s. She was a young migrant woman from Jamaica, who had been working as a kindergarten teacher in China until she started experiencing mental health problems and was hospitalized. She lost her job, leaving her with no option but to return to Jamaica. Her illness was made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, rendering her incapable of travelling the long route back to Jamaica unescorted.

Anna*, a Jamaican migrant in Curaçao, had health complications as well. She had overstayed her residency permit, and had a leg amputated due to diabetes as the situation deteriorated around her. This left her in a wheelchair, stranded with no source of income, no paperwork and no way home.

Humanitarian assistance including medical and psychosocial support, shelter, food, hygiene kits, and protective gear was provided to each returning migrant prior to departure, while following the strictest health recommendations depending on the country's requirements.

“...IOM guaranteed migrants to carry out COVID-19 tests ...from Managua to Belize,” said Ana Cecilia Solís, project coordinator at IOM Nicaragua.

Labour migrants in the Middle East found themselves in an increasingly dire situation with fewer options for safe and dignified work, leaving them unable to afford their rent, food or health care. An assessment of migrant workers in Lebanon conducted in mid-2020 by IOM’s Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM) found that roughly 70 per cent of those surveyed were making plans to return home in the next three months.

Twenty-five-year-old Kame*, a domestic worker from Sierra Leone, experienced several months of hardship at the hands of her employers that led her in February 2020 to jump from the third floor of the house she worked in, to the street below. She survived, but alone and without work she faced destitution as the coronavirus pandemic compounded Lebanon’s economic problems.

“After jumping I thought I would die, but God made it possible for me. I’m very happy to be going back to Ethiopia and to finally get the chance to see my family,” she said before boarding her flight.

She is one of many migrant workers who, with the support of IOM, managed to return home safely. 

In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), 75 Malagasy women migrant workers were stranded for close to nine months. Some had lost their jobs, finding themselves overnight without accommodation, while others exceeded residencies. Through the support from IOM, they managed to return to Madagascar in December, via a chartered flight. This return movement was the third one of Malagasy nationals supported by IOM, after IOM previously supported the return of 177 nationals from Kuwait (June 2020) and 54 nationals from Lebanon (October 2020).

Some of the migrants, like 23-year-old Joy*, were victims of trafficking who were stranded after escaping. She left her home in West Africa, after being coerced with the promise of steady employment with benefits in Lebanon. In an attempt to gain employment opportunities to support her elderly parents, she and her sister moved to Lebanon, where they were mistreated, forced to work extra hours, paid poorly and, at times, not at all.

She managed to escape and met her sister who was left homeless by her employers after the Beirut blast in August 2020. Joy and her sister were exhausted and wanted to return home to see their father who had suffered a heart attack.

For two Somali students, Geedi* and Warsame*, the pandemic meant that they could no longer attend classes nor return home, leaving them stranded in Tehran, where they were pursuing their studies.

The COVID-19 mobility restrictions compounded the vulnerability of some migrants and the challenge of returning home. Partnerships with host and transit countries have gone a long way towards facilitating their return, by ensuring that health checks and other measures are incorporated into border management systems.

“Following the migrants’ registration with IOM to voluntarily return – and thanks to the cooperation with government authorities in Cyprus and Nepal – everyone was ready to help the stranded migrants to voluntarily return to their homes,” said Natasa Xenophontos Koudouna, Head of Office for IOM Cyprus.

Joy and over 1,000 other migrants stranded as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic have been reunited with their families back home through the generous contribution from the Government of Germany to the IOM COVID-19 Return Task Force, as well as the support from other donors such as the US Government, European Union, Governments of Switzerland, Norway, the United Kingdom and Denmark.

* The names of the migrants in this story have been changed to protect their identities.