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Stranded in a pandemic: migrant and refugee experiences call for collaborative governance


The mobility of almost everyone around the world was restricted because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lockdowns, travel restrictions, border closures and concerns about new variants disrupted most lives, but the effects of these measures were particularly hard on vulnerable populations who were forced to flee their homes and on economic migrants who are often left in a lurch in times of crisis.

Stranded populations globally fell through the cracks of state structures that were not nimble enough to support their needs. However, lessons emerging from the pandemic can improve inclusive recovery efforts and help with preparing for responses to future crises that meet the needs of forcibly displaced people.  

IDRC supports the COVID-19 Responses for Equity initiative, which seeks to understand the impacts of the pandemic and to develop recovery strategies based on evidence and on local, community-led responses. The research has a focus on the forcibly displaced, including migrants who have fled persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations, economic hardship, climate change or prolonged instances of political instability. These studies document the additional barriers migrants face in a crisis and demonstrate the important role that grassroots organizations play in supporting them. The findings make the case for governments to orchestrate concerted responses that are based on collaborative governance models, particularly in times of crisis.

Transitory populations face structural barriers

The pandemic presents even more difficulties for forcibly displaced populations because of pre-existing biases and barriers. Pre-pandemic research identified structural governance barriers that hinder migrants’ access to social protection and benefits. These systemic barriers are rooted in a sedentary bias (when migration is approached as a negative phenomenon) in state structures.

IDRC-supported research led by Asuntos del Sur shows that in Mexico, authorities require national IDs before granting access to health services and financial support. This practice is to the detriment of foreign migrants, many of whom are from Central American countries. The research found that many of Mexico’s migrant shelters closed during the pandemic, which affected transitory populations and put them at risk of illness and death. The shelters that stayed open were underfunded and did not have masks and antibacterial gels or sufficient access to water and sanitation facilities. Other barriers were less efficient or even suspended immigration procedures that directly resulted in violating people’s right to asylum and international protection.

The bias is also evident in IDRC-supported research in 12 cities led by Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO). The research found that 15% of workers in informal employment living in Mexico City received cash transfers compared to only 2% of migrant workers from outside the city. Similarly, WIEGO found that migrant workers in the Indian cities of Ahmedabad and Delhi could not access food relief because their ration cards were registered in their home cities. Only 34% said they received cash transfers, compared to 43% of workers from the same city.

Migrant returnees in Central America’s Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) were also invisible in government social support records. IDRC research partner, the Asociación de Investigación y Estudios Sociales (ASIES) found that 35% of people who were deported or made their way back to El Salvador from the United States or Mexico did not have identity documents. Without IDs, these returned migrants were ineligible for cash transfers, subsidies and medical or other services. In Guatemala, none of the returnees surveyed reported being beneficiaries of government support programs. In addition to severe economic challenges, returnees reported community rejection leveled at them and their families.

Gender, ethnicity and place of origin intensify vulnerabilities

Migrants often face social exclusion, a vulnerability that is intensified by other intersecting aspects of identity such as gender, ethnicity, class and geographical location. As anxieties and lack of support intensified for migrants, these intersectional identities worsened the impact for many.

WIEGO’s research documents the disproportionate burden of care work that women in informal employment undertook, especially as lockdowns affected the functioning of schools, daycare centres, and the ability of grandparents and other family members or neighbours to lend a hand. The 12-city study found that only 32% of non-migrant workers were able to access this informal social safety net, compared to only one-quarter of migrant workers. For women migrant workers, this intersection of migration, gender and informal employment has long-term implications on intergenerational poverty because unpaid care work forces them to work fewer days and rely on their previously accumulated assets to survive.

Collaborative governance and localized responses

While state-level responses have been insufficient to address the basic needs of migrants, the IDRC-supported research responding to the COVID-19 pandemic has documented instances of effective community-level responses by grassroots organizations, including by migrants themselves.

For example, Asuntos del Sur found that civil society organizations addressed the gap left by the state by delivering food supplies, setting up community kitchens, establishing health protocols and finding places for migrants to stay who were transiting through Mexico at the onset of the pandemic.

Migrants are known to have networks that lend some resilience in times of crisis. IDRC’s research partner the Universidad Nacional de San Martin (UNSAM) found that women migrants in Argentina used their knowledge and organizational skills to fill the void left by the state. Testimonies from members of these networks illustrate migrant women’s volunteerism to provide food relief through soup kitchens and support to those who suffered from gender-based violence and institutional violence related to lockdown enforcement.

ASIES found that many of the non-governmental organizations serving returned migrants suspended their normal services during the quarantine and focused on distributing one-time assistance such as basic food items, gift cards or biosecurity kits. Some also supported entrepreneurship development in their constituencies or provided psychological assistance remotely.

Tapping into collective intelligence

The research supported by the COVID-19 Responses for Equity initiative illustrates the importance of localized responses and the need to coordinate the efforts of informal community groups, NGOs, municipalities and state and national governments.

ASIES and UNSAM focus on the role of families and communities in meeting the needs of foreign migrants and returnees. WIEGO recommends recognizing grassroots organizations as an essential component of the social protection ecosystem.

For Asuntos del Sur, these forms of collaboration allow governments to tap into a collective intelligence to find solutions to the challenges of our times (like the COVID-19 pandemic) in a way that does not leave behind forcibly displaced populations or migrants who are forced to return home.

Research highlights

  • Migrant and transitory populations around the world often lack identity documents, which makes it difficult to access social protection, relief measures and cash transfers.   
  • Women have disproportionately borne the increase in care work and have experienced higher levels of gender-based violence.   
  • Community-level efforts have succeeded in reaching the most vulnerable, where state-level initiatives have faltered.  
  • Collaborative governance models are needed to recognize the role played by grassroots organizations in supporting vulnerable populations in times of crisis.

Contributors: Natasha Chhabra, program officer, with IDRC senior program specialists Martha Melesse, Fernando Perini, Edgard Rodriguez, Walter Ubal and Alejandra Vargas García.