Expert voices Vol 25, No. 02 - February 2021

The art and science of tracking human mobility across borders

UN DESA has just revealed the latest data on international migration, showing that 281 million people currently live outside their country of origin and that they represent about 3.6 per cent of the world’s population. But how do we know how many migrants there are in the world? What work goes into tracking human mobility? Clare Menozzi, Population Affairs Officer in UN DESA’s Population Division, explains.

Who is considered an international migrant? How do we know how many migrants there are in the world?

“From a statistical perspective, international migrants are defined by the intersection of two factors: space and time. Space, because we usually characterise a migrant as a person who has changed his or her country of residence and established a new residence in another country. Time, because we use a cut-off, often of 12 months, to determine the amount of time a person must have lived continuously in a country in order to be considered a migrant. Temporary absences for holiday or work assignments are generally not considered in the definition.

To estimate the total number of international migrants in the world, we review existing empirical data on the number of people who are foreign-born or foreign citizens. These data are obtained from population censuses, population registers and nationally representative surveys. We generally prefer to use data on country of birth because it reflects changes in country of residence more accurately.”

Besides the impacts of COVID-19 on international migration, what other notable changes did you notice in this year’s data trends that did not align with your expectations?

“While the COVID-19 pandemic caused major disruptions to migration trends this year, there are several other trends that stand out. One of these is the rapid increase in the number of international migrants living in Latin America and the Caribbean. Between 2000 and 2020, the number of migrants in that geographical region more than doubled. The increase was driven, in part, by the large number of people displaced from the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru host over two thirds of all migrants from that country.

Another important trend is the growing number of countries that have focused on providing options for safe, orderly and regular migration. Globally, more than half (54 per cent) of all Governments with available data reported having policies to facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration, as defined in Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) indicator 10.7.2.”

The latest International Migration 2020 Highlights states that migrant women are catalysts of change, promoting positive social, cultural and political norms. Can you describe that process?

“As migrants, women contribute to the economic development of their countries of origin and destination. Migration creates opportunities for female employment and increases women’s bargaining power and status in households. Many become the principal earners of their families. The remittances that women migrant workers send home improve the livelihood of their families and contribute to the economies of their communities of origin.

Despite the many positive effects of international migration, migrant women remain among the most vulnerable members of society. In many host countries, they face barriers that prevent them from participating fully and equally in social, political and economic life. Migrant women often have lower employment rates than native-born women or male migrants and are paid less than their male counterparts. Women also face gendered risks of exploitation, violence and abuse, including human trafficking.

Countries are increasingly recognizing the importance of implementing gender-responsive migration policies. Around half of Governments with available data reported having formal mechanisms to ensure that migration policy was gender responsive.”

Get the latest data from UN DESA’s International Migration 2020 Highlights.

Indigenous peoples’ centuries long fight against pandemics

The COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly devastating for indigenous communities around the world. Dr. James Makokis, a Saddle Lake Cree Nation medical doctor explains how inequalities and colonialism have both played a nefarious role and how indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge and practices helps them protect the health of their communities.

Infectious diseases have killed more indigenous people than any weapon in the colonial era. How has this impacted their approach to health?

“This is a tricky question and depends which Nation, community, or group of people we are talking about as it varies based on how colonialism has affected traditional Indigenous values. These values will always preserve the integrity of the group and ensure a future for the next generations yet to be born.  Some communities are acutely aware of this and have incorporated harm-reduction programs to decrease Hepatitis C and HIV transmission for example.  Others struggle with accepting whether a harm‑reduction approach align with their current values.”


Why are COVID-19 and other pandemics so dangerous to indigenous people in particular?

“COVID-19 has exposed the inequities that have existed in Indigenous Nations and Peoples affected by Colonization since the time of European Contact, notably poverty, the development of chronic diseases, and the dismantling of traditional Indigenous health systems.  COVID-19 thrives in inequity and areas where there are decreased sanitation or overcrowding, and this has made Indigenous Peoples particularly vulnerable to this pandemic.”

What are some of the unique solutions that indigenous peoples have developed to fight pandemics? Could any of them be scaled up to the wider population?

“Indigenous Peoples have had to assert their sovereignty to their Lands now more so than ever, in order to protect their populations from COVID-19.  Many Indigenous leaders were proactive early in the COVID-19 pandemic and assembled security patrols to limit traffic into their communities.  This is one strategy that was likely used globally as an important measure to slow the virus early on in the pandemic.

For many Indigenous people, oral history was sufficiently intact to recount the devastation of historic pandemics and more importantly how to ensure their survival.  We saw a renewed interest in the use of traditional Indigenous medicines and it was an encouraging sign to see people of all ages start using the medicines we have been gifted in the various territories we live in.

This brings up the important issue of Indigenous Peoples having the right to access medicines freely and without limitations. In Turtle Island, before the existence of the Canada-United States border, Indigenous Peoples were free to trade without the restrictions of Colonial laws that make it illegal to transport biological matter including medicinal plants. Since some of the medicinal plants utilized during previous historic pandemics grow in southern climates, we have had restricted access to using these during the COVID-19 pandemic. This underscores the importance for Indigenous Peoples being able to cross imposed international borders without limiting the health systems we continue to use for survival, including Indigenous medicines.”

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