Protection of Migrants in Crisis is More Relevant Than Ever in the Face of COVID-19

Four Years On from the Launch of the MICIC Guidelines

Geneva – The impact of crises on people on the move has rarely been more drastically felt than in the past few months with the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether migrant workers or students, migrants in transit or in camps, refugees or internally displaced persons, the lives of people on the move around the world have been disrupted.

Migrants are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 – evident from the rapid spread of the virus in dormitories in Singapore, the Maldives and the Gulf, slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants in the United States and Germany, Canadian farms, detention centres in Malaysia, and camps for displaced persons in Greece and Bangladesh.

They are also among those least likely to have access to adequate health services or other social protection, and the most likely to lose their jobs

A recurrent target of xenophobic acts, migrants are being scapegoated as carriers of the virus or as freeloaders on strained public services. Furthermore, lockdowns and border closures have left thousands stranded, unable to support themselves where they are and unable to go home.

Despite the challenges, migrants have been instrumental in easing the hardships imposed by the pandemic and keeping our interconnected societies functioning – whether in healthcare provision, agricultural production, logistics and delivery of essential goods, research, or infrastructure projects.

Their ability to move has been essential to coping with the impacts of the pandemic and will be key to our collective recovery as we build more resilient societies.

The MICIC Initiative and Guidelines

While the conditions of vulnerability of migrants in crisis situations have abruptly been brought to the attention of governments, private sector and civil society actors and the general public over the last months, they are not new.

Conflicts, disasters, economic and public health crises have shown us time and again how administrative and legal barriers, linguistic and cultural differences, limited access to services and isolation often cause the disproportionate suffering of migrants and their families during crises.

Starting in 2014, the Governments of the US and the Philippines convened the international community through the Migrants in Countries in Crisis (MICIC) Initiative to address precisely these issues – prompted by the 2011 Libyan uprising but also devastating floods in Thailand and later Hurricane Sandy in 2012, each affecting hundreds of thousands of migrants.

Throughout the MICIC Initiative, we discussed how migrants fall through the cracks of humanitarian assistance and recovery efforts, how we often fail to provide protection and assistance, how this leads to loss of life, increased suffering, and unbridgeable losses for migrants, their families and communities, with severe short, medium and long term well-being implications.

We learned from each other while identifying solutions and strategies to create more inclusive crisis prevention, preparedness, response and recovery systems.

Based on this process, we developed the Guidelines to Protect Migrants in Countries Affected by Conflict or Natural Disaster (MICIC Guidelines) which were released in June 2016 and now stand as the most comprehensive blueprint for our collective efforts. They offer a roadmap to relevant government agencies, private sector and civil society actors, and international organizations in migrants’ countries of origin and destination to reduce migrants’ vulnerability in the face of crises.

The MICIC Guidelines: A Tool for Societies to Confront the Pandemic

The MICIC Guidelines turned four years old last month. They have never been more relevant than in 2020. While they were initially developed for contexts of conflict and disaster, the principles, recommendations and practices they outline address obstacles migrants now face due to COVID-19.

Obstacles such as non-discriminatory assistance, language barriers, migration status, mobility restrictions, limited local knowledge, mistrust towards local authorities and xenophobia and discrimination underpin the vulnerability of migrants in any crisis – including the current pandemic.

The Guidelines outline principles and actions that ensure migrants – especially the most marginalized – are included in efforts to respond to these crises. Their implementation means creating societies that can better protect and leverage the potential of all their members – societies that are more cohesive, inclusive and resilient.

In recent months, the Guidelines have charted a way forward to keep migrants at the centre of effective and just response and recovery efforts so as to minimize the adverse impacts of COVID-19 on society.  Accounting for migrants in risk and impact assessments, ensuring their participation in crisis management efforts, assisting them in a non-discriminatory and inclusive manner, facilitating their movement and empowering them to contribute to community resilience will be crucial.

In just a few months, many countries have made concerted efforts to ensure migrants have universal access to health services; launch multilingual information and communications campaigns; suspend immigration enforcement activities; implement visa flexibility and regularization opportunities and, facilitate return and reintegration. However, there is much more work to do.

A Roadmap for Migrant Inclusion

As we move forward, migrant-inclusive approaches will be essential to ensuring the well-being and security of communities at global, national and local levels. To tackle the challenges and risks revealed by COVID-19, we must account for, engage, empower and protect all migrants.

These efforts must become an essential component of humanitarian action, disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation, migration management and sustainable development.

The Guidelines offer a comprehensive framework to do so.

They are also an essential tool for translating into practice the objectives of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration related to crisis management, vulnerability reduction, consular assistance and service provision.

IOM stands ready to further support its Member States and partners with all the work that lays ahead.

Over the last four years, IOM has led efforts to implement the MICIC Guidelines in over 50 countries, helping to build the capacity of governments and partners, making available training and operational guidance tools, carrying out awareness raising initiatives and publishing research.

IOM continues to collaborate with governmental and non-governmental partners to develop contextualized approaches that help address the specific vulnerability conditions migrants face in the face of crises of all kinds.

This article was written by Jeff Labovitz, IOM Director of Operations and Emergencies