18 December 2020

When the first reports of a serious respiratory disease hit the media a year ago, it took some time before we—humanity—realised what a serious impact this phenomenon would have on our lives. Information and misinformation were prominent factors in those early days. Was this COVID-19 virus, as we came to call it, really a serious disease? Was it going to spread around the world? How would we react and prepare?

Due to the interconnected nature of our world, news about COVID-19 spread even more rapidly than the disease itself. It gained footholds in Asia and Europe, and then North America. We became used to staying in and applauding health workers, and to the appalling sight of military trucks lining up to receive coffins. In the background, as they often are, were the world’s migrants, its mobile workforce.

There are over a billion migrants in the world today,1and more than 270 million of them have crossed international borders.2 In the area served by the Vienna Regional Office of the International Organization for Migration (IOM)3, which encompasses South-Eastern and Eastern Europe and Central Asia, there are more than 32 million international migrants who have used migratory routes both ancient and new.4 They move along the old Silk Road from the Chinese border, through Central Asia and into Russia, across the Caspian and the Black Seas and beyond. They take up jobs in old manual industries, such as agriculture and fishing, and pursue modern careers in the tech, financial and petrochemical sectors.

They leave the formerly closed Soviet states and their satellites, or stay within them, on new migration corridors stretching from Ukraine to Poland, from Moldova to Romania, from Georgia to the Balkans, often taking the jobs that local citizens do not want. They fill the dangerous jobs, the dirty jobs and, as we have seen more and more during the COVID-19 era, the vital jobs on the front lines, working as doctors, nurses, caregivers, couriers and shop assistants.

No phenomenon has been as affected by humanity’s reaction to COVID-19 as migration. Simply put, humans are the main vector for the transmission of the virus, so the mobility aspects of our response had to be factored in from day one.

In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, we had a welter of questions to both pose and answer simultaneously. The virus was ethereal, a shapeshifter. Just when we thought we knew something about it, the rules changed.

We needed to look at the evident health aspects and decide how to protect communities. How would people make journeys home? Could they be tested and kept virus-free on trains, planes, busses and boats? What would happen to them once they returned? Would mass movements strain the already overcrowded, impoverished receiving communities? How would these communities cope without the billions of dollars generated and remitted by their family members overseas?

Ms. Renate Held, Regional Director for the IOM Austria Regional Office in Vienna. © IOM 2020

Remittances have been credited for helping to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in the past decade, empowering women with a greater role in financial decision-making, and improving health and education among some of the poorest and most vulnerable segments of societies. Lower- and middle-income countries received over $550 billion in international remittances in 2019.5 Were we about to see a rollback in all of those gains?

And what about those who could not reach their homes? Would they become ever more marginalised? Would stranded migrants face increased vulnerability to violence, exploitation, abuse, discrimination and xenophobia? Would they experience loss of employment, the inability to send remittances to families, homelessness, limited support and lack of access to life-saving services, including health care? Would they become more prone to risky behaviour and thus to the associated physical and mental health issues?

These questions barely scratch the surface of what IOM, our member States, the communities we serve and the migrants themselves have had to contend with over this strangest of years. We have all had to get used to new ways of living and working, in front of a computer screen or behind a plastic shield, with the ubiquitous face masks that will become the zeitgeist of these times, defining every photo taken in 2020.

In our region, we now have the largest population of refugees and migrants in any one country (Turkey) as well as conflict in Ukraine and lately, in Nagorno-Karabakh. We are witnessing continuing movements of people towards the European Union along routes that begin in the heart of Asia. A wide variety of governments rule over a heterogeneous mix of faiths, bloodlines and cultures, some of which trace their origins back to ancient empires; their behaviour and alliances—and migration choices—are often predicated on those ancient bonds.

Even before the pandemic, migration in this region was diverse, expansive and essential. The changing climate, largely caused by human activity, has created new drivers of and motives for migration. As we begin an unpredictable recovery from the shock of COVID-19, great respect and care must be given to the lands, lakes, forests and fields of this huge swathe of the planet, spanning eleven time zones.

 IOM Azerbaijan staff helping a group of stranded Sri Lankans return home. The majority were students or businesspeople who were unable to continue studying or trading due to COVID-19 restrictions. © IOM 2020

First and foremost, we will be emphasizing that there can be no recovery unless it is comprehensive and all-embracing. This means that migrants must be at the heart of vaccination and care plans. We urgently need the vibrant dynamism of migration to revive our shattered economies and strive for prosperity en route to an equitable and sustainable world.

On International Migrants Day (18 December), there is no greater inspiration with which to conclude than the words of United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres:

“We have seen the emergence of anti-migrant narratives stoking xenophobia and stigma towards the very people whose contributions have been so valuable. We see an opportunity now to reimagine human mobility, to build more inclusive and resilient societies, where well-managed migration harnesses the expertise and drive of migrants to reignite economies at home and abroad.”


1 World Health Organization, "Refugee and migrant health". Available at https://www.who.int/migrants/en/.
2 International Organization for Migration, World Migration Report 2020 (Geneva, 2019), p. p. 2, 19, 22. Available at https://www.un.org/sites/un2.un.org/files/wmr_2020.pdf.
3 The office serves South-Eastern Europe, Eastern Europe and Central Asia. For more information, see the Regional office website at https://rovienna.iom.int/.
4 International Organization for Migration, “Key Migration Data 2018. SEEECA 2018: Facts and Figures” (Vienna, IOM Regional Office Vienna, 2018), p. 2. Available at https://rovienna.iom.int/sites/default/files/document/1.%20RO%20SEEECA%20Factsheet%20%282018%29_0.pdf.
5 Dilip Ratha and others, "Data release: Remittance to low- and middle- income countries on track to reach $551 billion in 2019 and $597 billion by 2021", World Bank Blogs, October 16, 2019. Available at: https://blogs.worldbank.org/peoplemove/data-release-remittances-low-and-middle-income-countries-track-reach-551-billion-2019.
6 António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, Address in observance of International Migrants Day, 18 December 2020.

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