The impacts of crises on population movements and on people on the move have never been more apparent than in the current COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout the last months they have abruptly and increasingly been brought to the attention of Governments, private sector and civil society actors, and the general public. COVID-19 and related lockdowns and closure of borders have shaped the ways people move (or don’t move) and the risks they face at home, in transit and at destination in a sudden, intense and extensive manner – and will likely continue to do so in weeks, months and perhaps years to come. This largely unprecedented situation offers some insights on population movements, mobility (and immobility) and vulnerability in the context of other disasters, whether linked with natural or man-made hazards. 

1: Our usual categories are not enough 

When we talk about migration, and in particular when we talk about migration in the context of disasters and other crises, we tend to associate vulnerability with specific, clearly defined categories. We focus on the assistance needs of IDPs, grant international protection to refugees and recognize a “protection gap” for those forced to cross borders in the context of disasters. COVID-19, a complex crisis with far-reaching, evolving and translocal impacts, shows that focusing on rigid categories is not a good way to capture all the implications of movements (and lack thereof) on risk.  

This is not to deny that internally displaced persons and refugees in cramped, underserved camps are indeed at high risk of suffering the pandemic’s health and socio-economic impacts. But no less concerning, in the face of this pandemic, is the situation of migrants who do not qualify for refugee status and who end up in transit sites and reception and detention facilities. Or that of foreign workers, whether regular or not, who in many countries are among the people most exposed to the infection due to their living and working conditions. The pandemic’s socio-economic impacts are being especially felt by internal and international migrant workers stranded without jobs and assistance, returnees who walk back home only to face discrimination and violence, and their family members who are left (suddenly and indefinitely) without the remittances they depended on. Also particularly vulnerable to the direct and indirect impacts of COVID-19 are people whose migratory status we might not even be able to clearly define: former refugees from Venezuela and Afghanistan who are moving back into the areas they were fleeing just years ago (and who end up at even higher risk through their return, despite not formally qualifying as “refugees” anymore), migrants paying smugglers to return irregularly to their home countries, international students and tourists who overstay their visa and are left starving and homeless, and aspiring migrants unable to travel to their destination and stuck at home with a growing debt and no job to pay it off.  

All these situations show us how important it is not to exclusively associate vulnerability with specific groups, based on their migration status alone. In particular, the initial reasons for a person’s movement, and whether their movement has been categorised as “forced” or “voluntary”, do not show the full picture of how moving (or not moving) shape their vulnerability to disasters down the line, and cannot form the basis for ranking their needs and levels of risk. In the face of any hazard, it is important to avoid assuming that refugees, asylum seekers and displaced persons (who might still benefit from some level of assistance and protection) will be more vulnerable than migrants (and in some situations even people that are usually considered of limited concern, such as students or tourists) suffering negative direct and indirect impacts without access to any form of support or networks. And that is without mentioning the many more people whose situations might escape the typical humanitarian or response framings (those who have remained behind, often out of heavily affected areas, or those whose movements do not fit our usual categories). 

Vulnerability is context-specific and dynamic, changing over time as people’s situation and location, their access to opportunities, assistance and political representation change – including due to being recognized (or not) within specific categories whose rights are protected. COVID-19 is exposing a variety of conditions of vulnerability of people and households whose livelihoods, wellbeing and prospects are based on moving (irrespective of their legal status, reasons for leaving, duration and distance of their movement and whether or not they are themselves on the move). It warrants a more comprehensive and less category-based approach to understanding the interplay between mobility and risk in the face of any other hazard.  

2: We need to talk about mobility 

COVID-19 also shows how little disaster-induced moving and staying, taken in isolation, tell us about people’s different levels of risk. Much of the analysis of mobility in the context of disasters is based on categories that group together people with vastly different needs and capacities, but with similar movement behaviours, such as “evacuees” or “displaced persons”. Associating common, specific vulnerability conditions to all people who move in the context of a disaster is inaccurate and might even be concerning if it is used to prioritize these groups over other at risk or affected persons in prevention and preparedness, response and recovery efforts

Across diverse development contexts, COVID-19 and related mobility restrictions have led to different movement outcomes for different people: white-collar workers are stuck at home, working from their desks, while migrant workers and asylum seekers are locked up in camps and dormitories;  better-off people leave cities for holiday homes in less affected locations, while laid-off workers go back to their places of origin, sometimes risking their lives, because they cannot afford rent or have no local support options. The key discriminant among these situations is not whether people moved or not in the face of the pandemic, but rather the different levels of freedom of their respective choices – that is, their mobility: their ability to freely decide whether, when, how and where to move.  

While COVID-19 might have resulted in very specific patterns of movement (the Haves “evacuate” by taking shelter in place, the Have Nots are trapped into going out to work, or get food or medical care), most disasters will result in a variety of different movement behaviors. In this crisis, as in any other, people’s level of mobility reveals more of their vulnerability than their movement alone. For example, non-displaced heads of households who stay behind to protect house and assets might have to negotiate more significant constraints, and might very well face higher overall levels of risk, than the rest of their families moving to a displacement site where they will be somewhat protected and assisted.  

The conceptualization of the category of “trapped populations” to some extent provides an opportunity to interpret both moving and staying as decisions along a single forced-voluntary continuum – however, much remains to be done to operationalize it. The mobility and disaster discourse, practice and data collection are still almost exclusively focused on forced movements. In the absence of equal attention to forced/voluntary stasis and the elements of voluntariness of any movement, this single-issue perspective can skew our understanding of movements themselves (depriving them of their intrinsic positive life-saving and risk reduction value) and overexpose vulnerability and needs of some affected persons over others.  

An alternative narrative could instead be articulated around the notion of “mobility”, in its original meaning of “people’s ability to move”, rather than as “all the different forms of movements of persons” as it has come to be understood under the UNFCCC and in the more recent migration discourse. This mobility is a core element of risk reduction strategies: in the face of any hazard, people who are able to choose where to be can avoid risks altogether. Increasing the freedom of movement choices of the least mobile people may well be a more worthy risk reduction target than “resilience” – especially in it reductive (and perhaps counterproductive) meaning of “capacity to survive against all odds” we have become accustomed to use in disaster and broader humanitarian and development discourses. Looking at mobility, instead of movements, could help develop a more precise understanding of risk patterns, vulnerability and resilience, helping to inform risk reduction measures that address more effectively the situation of the most vulnerable.  

3: Migration regimes shape (environmental) risk  

The sudden shift in short and long-distance patterns of movement resulting from COVID-19 shows the full extent to which policies shaping people’s mobility also determine risk – in pandemic as well as in non-pandemic times. Migration policies and regimes contribute to determining who can move and who can’t; through which routes and with what means people will travel; where they will stay, live and work; what rights they will have in different locations; and ultimately what impacts moving and staying will have on communities and societies. They shape people’s exposure and vulnerability to hazards of all kinds

The most immediate, recurrent risks migrants face when they have no safe and easy option for movement – abuses, exploitation, kidnapping, trafficking, violence, drowning at sea – are, and should be, of highest concern. For the migration and environment community, however, it is important to keep in mind that any restriction of movement (local or international) and of the rights of those on the move will likely result in more people being trapped in fragile areas of origin, but also crossing through locations highly exposed to environmental hazards, and arriving into particularly risky areas, with little access to safe jobs, housing, services, nor assistance in times of disasters.  

So far, our community has mainly looked at migration policies as an option to address the situation of people moving across borders in the context of disasters and climate change. We should also, and perhaps primarily, try to understand how policies, frameworks and measures that shape people’s ability to move increase or reduce the risk of future disasters. By affecting people’s distribution and access to resources, services and opportunities, they in fact are an underlying determinant of the demographic, economic and political dynamics through which disasters are constructed – and an increasingly powerful one in an increasingly mobile world.  

Migration policies are a root cause of disaster risk and migration status is one key dimension through which we should look at capacities and vulnerability in disaster contexts. Our current migration regimes often prevent any movement for those who might need it the most, and turn many of those who have moved into some of the least mobile and most vulnerable people in the face of small and large disasters. As we look towards rebuilding some freedom of movement as part of global efforts to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to keep in mind that any measure that expands people’s mobility (e.g. migrant-inclusive service provision, regular pathways and free movement agreements, regularization opportunities, portability of benefits and recognition of qualifications), especially if accessible to the least mobile people, will be an exceptionally useful measure not only to bounce back effectively, but also to reduce longer-term risks related to disasters and environmental change in places of origin and destination.


About the author

Lorenzo Guadagno works with the International Organization for Migration, managing the capacity building programme on “Reducing the vulnerability of migrants in emergencies”. He has worked on disaster risk reduction, human mobility and ecosystem management with several international and non-governmental organizations. He holds a PhD in sociology from the University of Sannio, Benevento, Italy. 


This article is part of the IOM Series on The COVID-19 Pandemic, Migration and the Environment.



SDG 3 - Good Health and Well Being
SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities
SDG 13 - Climate Action