A joint study by the World Food Programme and the International Organization for Migration, “Populations at risk: Implications of COVID-19 for hunger, migration and displacement”, explores the impacts of COVID-19 and related containment measures on migrant workers, remittancedependent households and the forcibly displaced. It assesses the implications of the pandemic for people’s mobility, food security and other livelihood outcomes in major migration and hunger hotspots around the world. Summary excerpts:
There are important linkages between food security and mobility. Food insecurity, especially when combined with conflict, can be one of the main drivers for people to move. Migration, including through the generation of remittances, contributes to communities’ resilience and development, and is also an important strategy used by households to cope with income uncertainty and food insecurity risks. In 2019, the number of international migrants and refugees worldwide reached 272 million, up from 174 million in 2000. This is equivalent to 3.5 percent of the world’s population. All regions have seen growth, albeit at different levels. The highest increases since 2000 have been seen in the Middle East and North Africa (58 percent), sub-Saharan Africa (44 percent) and Latin America (44 percent).
Changes in mobility
As of October 2020, 219 countries, territories and other areas had international entry restrictions or conditions for authorised entry in place. The containment measures put in place by governments since the start of the pandemic have caused migration trends worldwide to shift. While certain international flows have decreased significantly since March 2020 – for example, those to the Gulf Cooperation Council states, others, such as crossings of the Central Mediterranean have seen a relative increase. In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic is not likely to impede migration altogether. In the longer-term, the impact of the crisis on food security and poverty could increase people’s need to search for livelihoods elsewhere, leading to a potential rise in migration driven by necessity.
Income loss and unemployment have pushed many migrants to return home as they have become unable to support themselves and their families. Return journeys thwarted by COVID-19 related border closures and travel bans have left nearly 3 million migrants stranded, unable to return to their places of work, their communities or countries of origin.
Most of the over 164 million international migrant workers generate their incomes in the informal sector, which has been worst hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is estimated that in low and middle-income countries, 75 percent of migrant women and 70 percent of migrant men work in the informal economy. They are often the first to be laid off and are usually excluded from social welfare systems.
In addition, they often live in precarious and overcrowded conditions, which puts them at heightened risk of contracting and spreading the virus. Loss of income and unemployment have left many migrant workers unable to support themselves and their families, pushing them to return home.
Households receiving remittances
Remittances are a lifeline for around 800 million people in the world. In 2019, cross-border remittances, most of them sent by migrants back to their family members, officially amounted to USD 717 billion. Of this, 76 percent or USD 548 billion was sent to low- and middleincome countries. Remittances allow families on the receiving end to diversify their income sources, helping them to meet their immediate food needs and facilitate their access to better nutrition, education and healthcare services. Remittances also enable households to invest in their livelihoods and constitute an important insurance against income loss. In October, the World Bank estimated that remittances to LMICs would drop by at least 14 percent by 2021 as a result of the pandemic. Based on this estimation, it was projected by the World Food Programme that remittance losses could leave an additional 33 million people at risk of facing hunger across the countries where it operates. While remittances fell markedly in March/April, they recovered at least partially in several countries in May/June, when many governments started to lift some of their containment measures.
On one hand, this could illustrate the resilience and determination of migrants and diaspora communities to support their families back home. On the other hand, the increased remittance flows recorded in some places could potentially indicate a more frequent usage of official banking and other digital channels in place of informal channels such as handcarrying or private agents. Any trend data on remittances therefore needs to be interpreted with caution. As employment opportunities continue to be constrained – with latest estimates showing that 495 million full-time jobs were lost during the second quarter of 2020 – it is likely that migrants are using their savings or compromising their own consumption in order to send remittances, which is not sustainable in the medium to long term.
The number of people displaced due to conflict and violence has been growing consistently since 2011. It reached a record high of 79.5 million people at the end of 2019 – nearly double the 41 million in 2010. By the end of 2019, the total number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) reached 50.8 million: 45.7 million displaced by conflict and 5.1 million who remained displaced due to disasters, weather-related and natural hazards.
It must be noted, however, that over the past ten years, disasters have caused over 23 million new internal displacements on average per year. In 2019, new internal displacements were mainly driven by disasters, which triggered 24.9 million new displacements compared with 8.5 million displacements due to conflict. The same trend was observed in the first half of 2020, with disasters driving 9.8 million displacements and conflict and violence accounting for 4.8 million.
The majority of the displaced live in urban areas, where the economic impact of COVID-19 has been most pronounced. Like migrant workers, they mainly work in the informal sector and are often the first to lose their jobs during times of crisis. Refugees and IDPs living in crowded environments are also at high risk. Physical distancing, masks and frequent handwashing are impossible measures to implement, making these groups highly susceptible to a rapid spread of the virus.
Food security and protection concerns
Even before COVID-19, IDPs and refugees were at high risk of food insecurity and malnutrition. It is estimated that 80 percent of people displaced by conflict live in countries with high levels of acute food insecurity and malnutrition. Nine out of the ten countries with the largest number of IDPs experienced a major food crisis in 2019. Displaced populations in these countries are largely dependent on external food assistance for their survival. Over the past year, food insecurity has been increasing among displaced populations in countries such as the Syrian Arab Republic, Lebanon and Yemen.
In addition, migrant workers dependent on daily labour are emerging as a new group at increased risk of food insecurity due to loss of income and lack of access to safety nets, which exacerbates their vulnerability to violence and exploitation. This is particularly the case for migrants who are stranded in precarious situations. Protection risks for migrants and displaced populations such as evictions, exploitation, gender-based violence or child marriage have increased during the pandemic. COVID-19 has also pushed migrants in vulnerable situations into embarking on more dangerous migratory journeys. At the same time, discrimination and xenophobic attitudes have been spreading and consolidating. Misinformation is a serious concern and may further expose vulnerable, minority or marginalized populations to the transmission of the virus.
The COVID-19 pandemic and actions taken to contain its spread is not a temporary crisis but a profound disruption that is likely to change human mobility in the near and long term. People on the move are particularly susceptible to the health and socioeconomic impacts of the crisis – with knock-on effects on their families back home. The World Food Programme and the International Organization for Migration recommend eight priority actions to mitigate the immediate and long-term impacts of COVID-19 on mobile and displaced populations and remittance-dependent households.
1. Ensure migrants facing acute hardship can access humanitarian assistance in order to meet their food and other essential needs.
2. Safeguard assistance provided to the displaced and their host communities, including refugees and asylum seekers, IDPs, as well as migrants in crisis situations and those in mixed flows.
3. Secure access to critical services and inclusive information for all mobile and displaced populations.
4. Recognize the positive contributions of migrants and diaspora and promote their inclusion in social protection systems.
5. Facilitate the flow of remittances as an essential financial service that supports the response to and recovery from the impact of COVID-19.
6. Promote necessary adjustments to national legal frameworks and ensure access to legal services.
7. Counter xenophobia, stigmatization and discrimination towards people on the move in the wake of COVID-19.
8. Improve data and analysis to better understand the impacts of COVID-19 on mobility, remittances and food security dynamics.
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