Contributions by Elizabeth Ferris, Renzo Guinto, Ellen Boccuzzi, Jenna Holliday, and Philip Hirsch

COVID-19 has disrupted the lives of millions of migrants in Asia and the Pacific through what the World Bank calls a triple shock: the pandemic itself, governmental measures to control the virus and the global recession. In an effort to stop the spread of the virus, all countries in the world closed their borders and most imposed shutdowns of one kind or another. Migrants everywhere lost jobs or saw their incomes reduced. Millions of migrants returned to their home countries. Many were stranded with little funds and no money to return home. Governmental relief programs intended to mitigate the painful effects of shutdowns were only rarely available to migrants.

Migrants in all regions in the world were affected by the triple shock, but perhaps nowhere was the shock as great as in Asia and the Pacific. The Asia region is home to some 111 million international migrants, some 66 million of whom work in other countries in the region while over 40 million work in more distant countries, like in the Gulf or North America. Families of migrants and their countries have depended on remittances sent home—remittances which have declined as a result of the triple shocks.

In the fall of 2020, the USAID/Bureau for Asia commissioned a study of the impact of COVID-19 on migrants in Asia and the Pacific with a specific focus on how the pandemic has affected the resilience of migrants. The study first looked at COVID-19’s impact on migrants in the region as a whole through four thematic lenses: governance and human rights, gender, health, and the environment. The researchers then did a deeper dive into COVID-19’s impacts on different subregions, including South Asia, Mainland Southeast Asia, Maritime Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and the Pacific, and then examined in even more detail specific migration corridors, such as Tajikistan-Russia and Nepal-India as well as internal migration in countries such as Tuvalu and the Philippines.

Not surprisingly, the study found that the impact of COVID-19 on migrants took different forms in different subregions, but that the overall impact was to exacerbate existing inequities, especially for those who were already in precarious positions—such as undocumented migrants and domestic workers. Usually working in sectors where social distancing or telecommuting are not options, migrants suffered from lack of access to health care. Gender inequities of all kinds increased, including expanded care and domestic work for women, surges in gender-based violence and heightened risk of trafficking. The environmental consequences of absorbing sometimes large numbers of returning migrants were serious and could have long-lasting effects. As the global recession decimated the tourist industry, countries dependent on tourist income were particularly hard-hit; with rising unemployment, diminished possibilities for working overseas increased the pressure on developing economies.

While governmental relief programs largely excluded migrants, the team found examples of governmental programs that did recognize migrants’ needs. For example, Thailand’s health system covers migrants as well as citizens. Local civil society organizations often stepped in to fill the void, providing assistance to migrants. In some cases families sent money to migrants working overseas in a reversal of remittance flows.

The results of this study were presented in a webinar on December 18—International Migrants’ Day. The researchers who carried out this research have each written blogs exploring COVID-19’s impact on migrants in a different subregion and through a different thematic lens. Ellen Boccuzzi wrote about the impact of the pandemic on migrant protection in India and Nepal. Philip Hirsch provided an overview of the impact of COVID-19 in Southeast Asia in a podcast and discussed the intersections between the pandemic, migrants and the environment by looking at the impact on fisheries in a blog. Jenna Holliday looked at the impact of COVID-19 on migrants in Central Asia through a gender lens while Renzo Guinto discussed the health dimensions of COVID-19’s impact on migrants from the Philippines. Elizabeth Ferris wrote about the countervailing economic and environmental drivers of migration in the Pacific in light of the restrictions on migration imposed to prevent the spread of the virus.  A publicly available version of the report of the study’s findings can be found here. The authors’ views expressed in these publications do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.

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