A medical officer checks the body temperature of a man in Taftan, Pakistan, on 17 March 2020 | Photo: Picture-alliance/Photoshot
A medical officer checks the body temperature of a man in Taftan, Pakistan, on 17 March 2020 | Photo: Picture-alliance/Photoshot

The impact the coronavirus disease is having on migrants is of “huge concern”, according to a spokesperson from the UN migration agency, IOM. He also warned that border closures could lead to increased health risks.

The IOM has raised concerns about several ways in which the coronavirus pandemic is affecting migrants. 

The agency’s spokesperson Joel Millman says there is “huge concern” about the impact on working migrants in sectors of the economy that have seen widespread shutdowns due to the pandemic -- primarily food preparation, as well as care of the elderly, hospital workers, janitors and construction workers. 

As people are encouraged to stay home and not go out to bars or restaurants, for example, migrant workers will be less able to earn money or send money home, Millman said.

Caution against feeding fear

Millman also said the IOM is concerned that people will associate the coronavirus disease with something foreign, that has come from travelers or from people that are from far away. “We’ve seen this with AIDS and tuberculosis in decades past,” he said. 

“We caution against feeding that fear,” Millman said. As well as demonizing migrants, it puts the general population at risk because it can frighten people off going to hospital to get checked, he explained.

“This is no different than any other health emergency in that … everybody, even people from abroad, have to have access to your institutions that are there to protect the public health.”

Pandemic does not stop migration

There has been no sudden change in migrant numbers from Africa to Europe as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, according to Millman. “People aren’t less likely to migrate …, and they’re not more likely to be running away from Africa because of this pandemic,” he said.

On the other hand, Afghans who have been living in Iran -- one of the countries hardest hit by the pandemic -- have been returning to Afghanistan in very high numbers. The IOM said this week that Afghan migrants were crossing from Iran via several border points at a rate of around 9,000 per day.

Irregular border crossings increase public health risk

The UN has “a clear policy on borders and border closures,” according to Millman. Each country has the right to decide its own border policies, he said. However, countries also have to balance their interests between public health and security, and humanitarian obligations and the free movement of people in a global economy.

Closing borders -- a step that has been taken by several countries in response to the pandemic in recent days -- can cause problems, Millman points out. When borders are closed, people may turn to criminal groups to get around the closures, with the result that they come in through unofficial crossings where they cannot be inspected. “This is particularly dangerous in a public health emergency, because … no one is able to check your health conditions or your documents, or know where you’re coming from.”

It is not clear yet which practices will work best to contain or suppress the coronavirus, Millman says. But the IOM’s position remains that the best border security is a “transparent border inspection” – in other words, allowing people to cross borders and checking them thoroughly. 

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