The opinions expressed in the text are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
The immense impact of COVID-19 on migration has been a shock to many of us, and we now live in a world where the human mobility of people within and across borders is greatly reduced – at least temporarily – to an unprecedented extent. This unparalleled situation reminds us how much migration is – and has historically been – an essential foundation of our societies. Without freedom of movement, our world has been completely redefined within a few weeks.
Two of the main portfolios of work at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are migrant health and crisis response. The organization leverages its extensive expertise in these two areas to support communities and national health systems to respond to the current health crisis from a mobility perspective. IOM is particularly concerned with the risk of potential outbreaks of the infection in camps and displacement situations.
In parallel to the emergency response, the community of experts in migration, environment and climate change is thinking about the multiple dimensions that the COVID-19 crisis has and will have on our work.
In this article, we share a preliminary analysis of the linkages between the current crisis and our engagement on migration, environment and climate, considering potential impacts on migration management and migration policy and on migrants and communities.
Our goal is to prompt a conversation on the possible long-term impacts of the current situation in our professional area, not to enter into a scaremongering and speculative exercise.
COVID-19 is redefining migration patterns worldwide
The IOM Statement on COVID-19 and Mobility (20 March 2020) provides a useful first analysis of the impacts of the pandemic on migration and some initial insights on IOM’s activities; whilst IOM analytical Snapshots focus on specific issues, such as consular assistance and migrants’ stigmatization and discrimination.
The current crisis highlights how much our contemporary world is shaped by the movements of people within and across borders and how different our world looks like when mobility is curtailed. Mobility restrictions have been enacted by a majority of states to contain the spread of the outbreak, but this forced immobility has unimaginable consequences at the economic and social levels, including on individuals who migrated in the context of climate change, environmental degradation and dramatic weather or meteorological events.
IOM established a mobility database that maps global travel and entry restrictions – this tool reveals how quickly restrictions have been implemented worldwide. This obviously has unique implications on the daily work of actors in charge of migration management, from entry and stay of migrants, to refugees’ resettlement, labour migration schemes and programmes dealing with the voluntary returns of migrants.
Regardless of social origin or country of nationality, many people worldwide are dependent on well-functioning consular services that are now being tested to their limits, resulting in individuals being stranded abroad. Many countries’ Ministries of Foreign Affairs have been issuing advisories on COVID19 and travel restrictions to assist their citizens abroad. Other countries are assisting migrants and tourists on their territory by providing free visa renewals and extension.
COVID-19 and environmental and climate migration – analyzing potential implications
As the frontline emergency unfolds, we acknowledge that for now, the focus is on addressing the immediate health, economic and social impacts. However, it is also our job to try to understand the immediate and future implications of the crisis on wider issues, including the migration, environment and climate change nexus. This analysis will be further refined as the situation evolves, but for now we want to highlight the following dimensions and their potential associated threats, as well as the potential opportunities that can emerge from the crisis.
- Changes and disruptions in migration management regimes
Many states have adapted their migration policies to deal with COVID-19, for instance by granting temporary residency to immigrants to ensure they can access health services or providing automatic extensions of visas. Some of these migration management discretionary decisions have been used in other crisis contexts, including those linked to environmental crises.
On the longer run, numerous different programmes can be impacted, such as a potential scaling back or suspension of immigration and asylum programmes – including humanitarian visa processing, family reunification and asylum registration, – or the suspension of services such as voluntary returns, seasonal schemes or pre-departure trainings. If such situations arise, IOM emphasizes the need to ensure that vulnerable mobile groups are not further marginalized.
These changes to overall migration management systems will clearly have great impacts for both countries and individuals, who need to make sense of a new reality that upends all usual procedures and has the potential to create new, or aggravate existing vulnerabilities of migrants and lead to violations of migrants’ rights. These potential changes will impact all migrants, including those who have moved in connection to the impacts of climate change, environmental degradation and disasters on their livelihoods, health and security.
Existing tools from different migration management areas can also inform responses. For instance the Guidelines to Protect Migrants in Countries Experiencing Conflict or Natural Disaster focus on situations where migrants are present in a country experiencing a conﬂict or natural disaster. These guidelines may provide useful inspiration to manage mobility in host and home countries during health crises.
On the other hand, positive migration management practices protecting migrant populations during a crisis can also serve as a practical blueprint for those policymakers who try to understand how migration management should be rethought to respond to climate and environmental factors. There are ongoing discussions on how visa and residency options could be applied to environmental and climate migrants who cannot remain or return to their places of origin because of adverse climate and environmental impacts. The COVID-19 migration management practices might be able to inform these efforts.
- Increased vulnerability in environmentally fragile areas
COVID-19 is spreading to areas that are environmentally fragile and vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. These areas are also often affected by conflict, poverty, high rate of forced displacement and fragile health systems. The consequences of COVID-19 add a new layer of vulnerability on already fragile populations. In some contexts, choices need to be made between respecting social distancing orders and protecting people against disasters, as both can be mutually exclusive. We might see many more similar situations in the upcoming months.
This in turn might have striking impacts on migration patterns as many might be forced to move in search of better conditions once mobility restrictions are lifted. We might also see situations where people try to move out of affected areas despite the restrictions, as the burden of these multiple vulnerabilities become too much to bear. This will have implications in terms of spreading the virus.
- Increased vulnerability of “trapped populations”
The other side of the coin relates to forced immobility. The COVID-19 crisis is forcing billions of people into forced immobility – for an unknown duration. This has implications for those so-called trapped populations – the people who do not have the means to leave areas where the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation are combined with socio-economic impacts making people extremely vulnerable to environmental change.
Once again, the consequences of COVID-19 are likely to add to existing vulnerabilities of trapped populations, maybe for several years. At this stage, we do not have enough evidence to assess how COVID-19 will interact with climate and environmental conditions and impact “trapped populations”. We can only highlight the increased risk that some people remain in dangerous conditions in polluted cities, or villages ravaged by drought or coastal erosion.
Yet, the spotlight on how the mobility dimensions of the current COVID-19 crisis might also create opportunities to strengthen our advocacy efforts for these populations for whom immobility equals increased vulnerability.
- Learning from widespread societal changes as climate action is disrupted
It is already clear that the global policy dialogue on climate action will be delayed as the United Nations climate talks, scheduled for November 2020 in Glasgow (COP26), have been postponed to 2021. COP26 and its preparatory meetings taking place in all regions of the world were supposed to bolster global climate action, including by encouraging countries to announce ambitious mitigation targets.
In this context, progress under the migration-related work stream of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), notably the work linked to the Task Force on Displacement, is also jeopardized. A recently scheduled meeting to review progress has been canceled and it is likely that there will be delays in the implementation of the Task Force on Displacement two year plan of action. This situation might also have funding consequences, with the risk that programmes on climate migration might be underfunded as resources are focused on the COVID-19 crisis.
Even if some experts have noted that the current economic situation has led to a temporary reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, it is also clear that climate change is a long-term transformation that cannot be solved by temporary ad hoc measures. Delaying action can have dangerous structural consequences, albeit less tangible and immediate ones that those associated to COVID-19.
However, several experts and climate leaders also highlight that the world can learn from the current crisis and develop global radical and collaborative action on climate change. According to Francois Gemenne and Anneliese Depoux, as well as the former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, the current crisis reveals that societies can be ready to accept immediate and radical changes and that governments can quickly mobilize immense expertise and resources in the face of an immediate danger. For the former Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, Christiana Figueres, the current crisis can encourage systemic changes enacted by governments, the private sector and individuals, and highlight the need to focus on prevention, support the most vulnerable and trust science-based solutions.
- Health, economic and social impacts on climate migrants
The narrative around the COVID-19 situation obviously focuses on the health costs of the pandemic, but also on the immense economic impacts felt worldwide, from widespread unemployment to reduced economic production. In this context, many migrants, including those who moved in the context of climate change and environmental degradation, are likely to face a series of devastating health, economic and social impacts, for an unknown duration. Migrants often have precarious livelihoods with no or reduced benefits, including health insurance. They often also have reduced or no access to social safety nets and health services and might live in inadequate housing conditions that are not conducive to keeping healthy in confinement situations.
Another potential impact relates to increased stigmatization, as highlighted in the United Nations (UN) Migration Network statement entitled “COVID-19 Does Not Discriminate; Nor Should Our Response”. The statement warns that vigilance is needed to fight against the stigmatization of any particular groups during this crisis, including migrants.
Current mobility restrictions already impact migrant workers but also their employers, for instance in the seasonal agriculture sector. Many people rely on seasonal migration to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change on their livelihoods and search for alternative livelihood options. These migrants are currently not able to access national and international migration opportunities, and this will have negative impacts on their short and medium-term standards of living. But just as many employers rely on the migrant workforce, and it is possible that entire industries will be disrupted by the lack of available seasonal migrant workers.
On the other hand, the crisis might help highlighting that many migrants are currently supporting their host societies, from the highly skilled health professionals on the frontline of the epidemic to those essential workers who keep our societies functional in confinement situations, by caring for elderly people, growing food in the agricultural sector, staffing essential businesses or keeping the streets clean. These examples tell us once again that good migration policies are beneficial for both migrants and host societies, including at times of immense upheavals.
- Disruption of policy dialogues and programmes and projects focusing on climate migration
Similarly to the threat to climate action mentioned above, there is also a risk that migration policy dialogues and migration programming suffer a setback. For instance, the regional reviews of the implementation of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM), the first intergovernmental agreement on international migration that dedicated a comprehensive section to migration in the context of climate change, environmental degradation and natural disasters, are to take place in 2020. The GCM Multi-Partner Trust Fund is also to start funding projects for implementation in 2020, including potentially projects on climate migration.
With the current restrictions in place, it is possible that the calendar of both reviews and project implementation is disrupted and delayed, and that political interest in supporting and funding the review and implementation of the GCM, including its climate and environmental dimensions, is weakened as attention is focused on the COVID-19 crisis.
Similar issues might come up in implementing climate migration projects within organizations, such as IOM. IOM’s current programming on climate change and the environment continues, including research, policy, capacity building and direct support to migrants. However alternative pathways for programme implementation are also being developed, on the basis that the COVID-19 crisis will have long lasting consequences that will adversely affect programme implementation. This can offer the opportunity for better crosscutting thinking and programming that will look at climate migration in connection to overall socio-economic factors, including health dimensions.
- Understanding the environmental sustainability implications of COVID-19
Finally, there is also a need to better grasp the potential impacts that COVID-19 can have on environmental sustainability principles, in particular in terms of waste management and access to clean water for people in camps and displacement situations. IOM is working with different multi-stakeholder networks, including The Joint Initiative – the Coordination of Assessments for Environment in Humanitarian Action (JI) of the Environment and Humanitarian Action Network (EHAN) and the Global Plan of Action for Sustainable Energy in Displacement Settings (GPA), to understand the environmental sustainability implications of COVID-19 response and its aftermath.
Bringing the migration, climate change and health nexus to the forefront
On the one hand, climate change is expected to result in a higher frequency of climate-related health hazards and fatalities due to malnutrition, increased propagation of vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue and heat stress among others. On the other hand, it is commonly agreed that the number of people migrating because of climate change and environmental impacts on their livelihoods, daily lives and health will continue to rise.
The current situation highlights that the migration, climate change and health nexus will need to be urgently prioritized. Thinking and research on these questions is ongoing and the topic is regularly being discussed in global events. Many migrants moving in the context of climate change, environmental degradation and natural disasters have specific physical and mental health needs that are linked to their exposure to climate and environmental conditions. Yet, these migrants often experience significant barriers to accessing essential health and social services. The current COVID-19 crisis puts these migrants at higher risk to fall through the cracks and not receive the necessary medical care.
IOM is intensifying its efforts to develop joint action across its climate migration and migrant health work streams. The current crisis should remind us that policy and programmatic choices are not a “either/or” situation. People’s health is intimately connected to wider structural conditions, including their ability to access health and social services and the availability of adequate and sufficient food, clean air and safe water. Their migration decisions impacts – and are impacted by – these factors. Comprehensive action has to include all relevant policy areas in order to secure sustainable and positive changes.
Historically, global crises offer the opportunity for positive societal and economic changes as we learn to think and act differently when faced with immense disruptions. In that respect, whilst fully acknowledging the negative impacts of the current crisis, we can strive to propose innovative migration programmes that support both health and climate change actions.
UN Migration Network Statement - COVID-19 Does Not Discriminate; Nor Should Our Response (2020)
IOM - Extreme Heat and Migration (2017)
 Portugal already announced that the country would grant temporary residency to immigrants and asylum seekers in order to ensure access to health services.
Dina Ionesco is the Head of the Migration, Environment and Climate Change (MECC) Division at the at the International Organization for Migration (IOM). In this capacity, she oversees IOM’s policies and programmes related to the nexus between migration, environment and climate change, and coordinates IOM’s contributions to policy processes, such as the climate change negotiations.
Mariam Traore Chazalnoël is a senior specialist in environmental and climate migration at the International Organization for Migration (IOM)’s Office to the United Nations in New York. She has been working since 2013 on the global governance of environmental migration and regularly publishes on the topic.