Geneva, 25 Oct 2021 – With each passing year, humanitarian needs around the world continue growing as more and more people are displaced by conflict and disasters.  

The devastating impact of COVID-19, which has already claimed more than 3 million lives, and the ensuing global mobility restrictions have amplified these needs, depriving millions of their livelihoods and impacting their ability to access basic services and life-saving aid.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened existing crises around the world,” says IOM’s Director of Operations and Emergencies, Jeffrey Labovitz. “Our staff have shown great resilience and determination to meet these new challenges.”

In 2020, IOM reached over 37 million people in need worldwide, providing much-needed aid to migrants, internally displaced persons (IDPs), refugees, and the local communities who support them.

DTM enumerators surveyed people in Beirut, Lebanon on their living conditions. Following the powerful twin explosions in Beirut Port in August 2020, thousands of people were displaced and several buildings were severely impacted. Photo: IOM/Angela Wells

Tracking a world that keeps moving

Since the start of the pandemic, the journeys of millions of migrants have faced additional, sometimes insurmountable, obstacles.

More than 27,750 entry restrictions and 73,533 medical requirements were imposed at points of entry worldwide by the end of 2020, according to IOM’s Displacement Tracking Matrix, which has been recording the scale and impact of pandemic-related mobility restrictions.

As familiar pathways once open to migrants closed, IOM concluded that, by mid-2020, more than 3 million people had become stranded, unable to return to their countries of origin.

“In the 15 years since IOM’s DTM has been tracking global mobility, we’ve never before seen traditional migration routes impacted so significantly. By recording these restrictions, we’ve been able to better understand how these migration routes are changing and where people are most in need,” says Labovitz.

Many still risk their lives in search of safety or a better life by embarking on alternative, irregular migration routes.

Many people from Musa’s neighbourhood in Dakar have made dangerous irregular journeys towards Europe. Photo: IOM/Amanda Nero

“We were not far from Spain,” says Musa, a Senegalese migrant who attempted to reach Europe last year by boat. “Our boat ran out of petrol before we made it there.”

“We were rescued by an Algerian boat and sent to a detention centre. After 15 days, we were sent to Niger on crowded buses and left in the middle of the desert. We walked a whole day in the heat to reach Agadez.”

On the other side of the African continent, migrants continue to cross the Gulf of Aden through conflict-torn Yemen, hoping to reach the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Human traffickers and smugglers prey upon them by painting an image of a future that does not exist.

Fadmou is one of many migrants who were unaware that she was about to cross into a war zone until she was informed by IOM staff while staying at an IOM migrant response centre in Hargesia, Somaliland. Nevertheless, the young mother chose to continue onwards with the hope of improving the future of her young child.

“I want to go because I don't want my child to grow up in poverty like I did,” she explains.

Fadmou and her husband planned to travel from Somaliland to Yemen in hopes of reaching the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Photo: IOM/Muse Mohammed

Although the pandemic has led to a major decrease in the number of migrants arriving in Yemen (from over 138,000 in 2019 to just over 37,500 in 2020), the number left stranded and vulnerable to abuse has increased across the country.

IOM staff have been helping people along the Eastern Route to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – running mobile clinics, offering services at migrant response points and helping families to reunite in their home countries.

Tiwi in the Philippines was hit hard by Super Typhoon Goni with nearly all homes damaged or destroyed. Photo: IOM

Responding to overlapping crises

Last year witnessed new emergencies such as typhoons in the Philippines, the locust infestation across East Africa and armed conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, the Tigray region of Ethiopia, northern Mozambique and beyond. Crises like these resulted in hundreds of thousands becoming displaced in search of safety.

Locals gather water at a collection point in Maiduguri, north-east Nigeria. Worldwide, the Organization provided 21.5 million people with clean water, sanitation and hygiene services in 2020. Photo: IOM/Jorge Galindo

In many of these locations, IOM staff had to find new ways of delivering assistance to IDPs  in camps and camp-like settings which are often overcrowded and under-resourced. Quarantine and COVID-19 treatment facilities had to be established, spaces where people lived needed to be decongested and essential relief items were distributed in open areas to accommodate physical distancing.

In the face of these challenges, IOM managed to provide 4.6 million people in 54 countries with shelter and essential relief items.

IOM staff distributed relief items and conducted COVID-19 awareness sessions in IDP camps across Africa in 2020. Photos: IOM / Tobin Jones / Hamza Osman / Shanice Ubisse / IOM Ethiopia

Working towards longer-term solutions

Millions of IDPs, migrants, and refugees have been displaced for years, or even decades, due to protracted crises, and require more than just immediate assistance. In Afghanistan, Turkey, Iraq and beyond, IOM helped crisis-affected people get back on their feet by providing the tools needed to start their own businesses and become financially independent.​​​​​​​

Turkish and Syrian women sew masks in a women's centre in Kilis, Turkey. Photo: IOM/Nadine Al Lahham

In Iraq, IOM supported a local tailoring factory to expand its production capabilities with a business grant. The owner, Caroline, hired 10 additional employees and refashioned the factory to produce face masks. Today, her factory produces more than 2,500 masks per day which are distributed across the country.

“I’m very happy about this opportunity. Using this grant, I can grow the factory and produce many more masks,” says Caroline. Photo: IOM/Raber Aziz

Several IOM projects target not only migrant, IDP, or refugee populations but also the local communities where they live. In Ecuador, IOM provides services and vocational trainings to migrants and refugees from Venezuela, and local Ecuadorians to build social cohesion.  

Migrants and local Ecuadorians attend a graduation ceremony for entrepreneurship trainings. Photo: Paula Vásquez

In 2020 alone, IOM assisted more than 2.8 million people across 61 countries through various community stabilization initiatives.

Resettling people to their new homes

​​​​​​​Most countries imposed some form of mobility restrictions on their citizens or travelers to stem the spread of the disease.  

The restrictions meant that the resettlement hopes of thousands of refugees were put on hold.  

Refugee families in Greece board a settlement flight bound for Germany. Photo: IOM

IOM needed to re-think how to safely facilitate movements – especially for resettling refugees and returning migrants – amid constantly changing country entry restrictions and protocols. As restrictions increased, teams began testing all passengers for COVID-19, providing them with places to quarantine and working with airlines and states to secure their safe transit. 

By the end of last year, IOM had successfully helped 27 states with the humanitarian movement operations of 40,536 refugees and people in vulnerable situations.

Mohamad and his family await their flight from Lebanon to France in a hotel where they quarantined prior to travel. Photo: IOM/Muse Mohammed

Mohamad and his family are some of the fortunate few who were able to resettle to a new country last year. They came from Syria to Lebanon six years ago and were affected by the powerful twin explosions in Beirut Port.

“My daughter doesn’t sleep anymore since the explosion and sometimes she wakes up screaming. I think it’s because it reminded her of the things she saw in Syria,” Mohamad explains.

He hopes that moving to France will provide his family with the safety they need to rebuild their lives.

Despite the explosions and COVID-19 related travel restrictions, IOM continued to facilitate flights out of Lebanon for resettling refugees as well as migrants who wished to return home.

Looking ahead

2020 will be remembered for its disasters, conflicts, and a pandemic that pushed agencies and aid workers to their limits. It will also be remembered as a year that taught us critical lessons that will prove valuable as IOM and other agencies prepare to address emergencies in years to come.

For more information on the scope of IOM’s global emergency operations in 2020, see the Global Operations and Emergencies Report.

Sumaiya is a frontline physician at one of IOM’s Health Centers in Cox’s Bazar. Since the beginning of the pandemic, health staff began wearing personal protective equipment while working in the Rohingya refugee camp. Photo: IOM/Nate Webb

Written by Muse Mohammed, IOM Media and Communications Division.