Thousands of migrants have been stranded "all over the world" where they face a heightened risk of COVID-19 infection, the head of the UN migration agency International Organization for Migration (IOM) has said. IOM Director-General Antonio Vitorino said that more onerous health-related travel restrictions might discriminate disproportionately against migrant workers in future. "Health is the new wealth," Vitorino said, citing proposals by some countries to introduce the so-called immunity passports and use mobile phone apps designed to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.
"In lots of countries in the world, we already have a system of screening checks to identify the health of migrants, above all malaria, tuberculosis... HIV-AIDS, and now I believe that there will be increased demands in health controls for regular migrants," he said on Thursday. Travel restrictions to try to limit the spread of the pandemic has left people on the move more vulnerable than ever and unable to work to support themselves, Vitorino told journalists via videoconference.
"There are thousands of stranded migrants all over the world. "In South-East Asia, in East Africa, in Latin America, because of the closing of the borders and with the travel restrictions, lots of migrants who were on the move; some of them wanted to return precisely because of the pandemic," he said.
They are blocked, some in large groups, some in small, in the border areas, in very difficult conditions without access to minimal care, especially health screening, Vitorino said. "We have been asking the governments to allow the humanitarian workers and the health workers to have access to (them)," he said.
Turning to Venezuelan migrants, who are believed to number around five million amidst a worsening economic crisis in the country, the IOM chief said "thousands... have lost their jobs in countries like Ecuador and Colombia and are returning back to Venezuela in large crowds without any health screening and being quarantined when they go back". In a statement, the IOM highlighted the plight of migrants left stranded in the desert in west, central and eastern Africa, either after having been deported without the due process, or abandoned by the smugglers.
The IOM's immediate priorities for migrants include ensuring that they have access to healthcare and other basic social welfare assistance in their host country. Among the UN agency's other immediate concerns is preventing the spread of new coronavirus infection in more than 1,100 camps that it manages across the world.
They include the Cox's Bazar complex in Bangladesh, home to around one million mainly ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar, the majority having fled persecution. So far, no cases of infection have been reported there, the IOM chief said, adding that preventative measures have been communicated to the hundreds of thousands of camp residents, while medical capacity has been boosted.
Beyond the immediate health threat of COVID-19 infection, migrants also face growing stigmatization from which they need protection, Vitorino said. Allowing hate speech and xenophobic narratives to thrive unchallenged also threatens to undermine the public health response to COVID-19, he said, before noting that migrant workers make up a significant percentage of the health sector in many developed countries including the UK, the US and Switzerland.
Populist narratives targeting migrants as carriers of disease could also destabilise national security through social upheaval and countries' post-COVID economic recovery by removing critical workers in agriculture and service industries, he said. Remittances have already seen a 30 per cent drop during the pandemic, Vitorino said, citing the World Bank data, meaning that some USD 20 billion has not been sent home to families in countries where up to 15 per cent of their gross domestic product comes from pay packets earned abroad.
Vitorino, in a plea, urged to give the health of migrants as much attention as that of the host populations in all countries. "It is quite clear that health is the new wealth and that health concerns will be introduced in the mobility systems - not just for migration - but as a whole; where travelling for business or professional reasons, health will be the new gamechanger in town.
"If the current pandemic leads to a two or even three-tier mobility system, then we will have to try to solve the problem - the problem of the pandemic - but at the same time we have created a new problem of deepening the inequalities," he said.