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Press Release

COVID-19 restrictions preventing people from fleeing violence or forcing dangerous routes, warns IRC

Last updated 

New data and case studies compiled and analyzed by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) shows COVID-19 is preventing people from fleeing violence or migrating due to COVID-related movement restrictions, and is making routes even more dangerous for those who do flee. COVID-19 is also causing people to return home to unstable situations because of the economic and social impacts of the virus on their host communities and the humanitarian crises plaguing nations long before the virus took hold. 

Dangerous migration since COVID-19

The IRC found that 29 of the 35 crisis-affected countries (83%) we operate in face border restrictions, according to ACAPS data. Many migrants and refugees are migrating or fleeing despite movement restrictions and are forced to use irregular routes fraught with dangers. As Europe has cracked down on routes over the Mediterranean from Turkey and Libya, the journey to Yemen is now the busiest maritime migration route in the world as migrants and refugees seek safety and opportunity in the Gulf, complicated by a five-year long war in Yemen-- the worst humanitarian crisis in the world-- and torture and rape at the hands of smugglers along the journey. 

Locked in to violence since COVID-19  

  • In El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, borders are completely closed, so many who want to flee from violence are instead “locked in” to a pressure cooker with some of the highest pre-existing rates of urban and gang violence in the world. Gender-based violence has increased exponentially across Latin America since the pandemic; in some countries by more than 60%. 
  • Along the Mexico side of the US-Mexico border, over 20,000 asylum seekers are stuck waiting for their hearings in US immigration courts, which have been postponed due to court closures. This number is distinct from the 40,000 asylum-seekers who have been “expelled” without due process at the US-Mexico border due to a public health rule implemented in mid-March. 
  • Rohingya refugees have been turned away from ports in Malaysia by officials citing border closures. While stranded at sea, between 20-50 people starved to death. At one point, five boats were stranded, and still one with nearly 500 refugees is stuck at sea. Female Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar are also facing more gender-based violence than before COVID-19. 
  • Migration has dropped by nearly 50 percent across West and Central Africa due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. The closure of borders has left 21,000 migrants stranded in the region, as well as 1,500 migrants quarantined, according to the IOM. 
  • At least 5,000 Congolese refugees were stranded on the border with Uganda for a month without access to any humanitarian services. The IRC is providing COVID-19 screenings and medical care along the border. 

Returns to danger since COVID-19 

  • Over 80,000 Venezuelans in Colombia have gone back to Venezuela since April 3rd. “Many Venezuelans in Colombia attempting to cross back to Venezuela every day tell our staff they have returned devastated by the effects COVID-19 and the lockdown have had on their lives. Their ability to survive, on a daily basis, has been upended: they’ve been made homeless, lost their daily earnings and are unable to feed themselves. And so, with a heavy heart, they go back home, where they at least have family and possibly a roof over their heads,” Marianne Menjivar, the IRC’s Country Director of Colombia and Venezuela, said.
  • The IRC believes that in May at least 21 of our clients have left Agadez, Niger to either return home or continue on the migration route towards Europe, which is extremely dangerous given border closures and movement restrictions. 
  • Nearly 60,000 migrant workers have returned to Myanmar following factory closures and COVID restrictions in Thailand and other countries in the region, making it harder for them to find work and survive. Thousands have been housed in poorly equipped quarantine facilities and often asked to provide their own food and bedding.
  • There was an increase in the number of inbound individuals coming from Ethiopia to South Sudan in April 2020. The most frequently reported push factors were fleeing COVID-19 (50%), distance from family/home (30%), and a lack of educational services (15%), likely due to closures of schools in Ethiopia. South Sudanese are returning to their homes where they still face a risk of violence, but the perceived threat of COVID-19 in Ethiopia and its economic impacts is more than the perceived violence in their home communities in South Sudan.  
  • Cameroonians caught up in conflict in the Northwest, Southwest crisis are returning to violence in their host communities, unable to flee due to COVID-19 border closures.
  • More than 296,000 people have returned to Afghanistan from Iran this year, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The International Organization for Migration recorded that nearly half of these returnees, more than 145,000, returned as the pandemic picked up in March. 

Elinor Raikes, Vice President of Program Delivery at the International Rescue Committee, said, “COVID-19 has turned migration patterns on their heads. Fleeing for your life is the definition of essential travel, yet many migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are simply locked into the persecution, violence and dire conditions they so desperately sought to leave behind. Many have seen their informal sector work dry up, xenophobia increase, and risks to their lives and livelihoods grow due to COVID-19. Faced with new levels of vulnerability in the host country they fled to, many are choosing to return home to potential violence- they would rather live through the uncertainty of a global pandemic in their home country despite the many risks. As crisis-affected countries face double and triple emergencies, we have to remember that one-size-fits-all movement restrictions have consequences down the line and around the world. Until we prioritize pathways to safety for the most vulnerable, routes will continue to be dangerous, especially during the pandemic. And, more than that, the world needs a global ceasefire, stronger funding to crisis-affected countries who are facing far more than just this deadly virus, and innovative strategies to serve those who are stuck or in transit.”

The IRC operates in all of the above countries, providing a range of services, including protection services, case management, cash assistance and healthcare. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the IRC also launched a $30 million appeal to mitigate the spread of coronavirus among the world’s most vulnerable populations.

About the IRC

The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and over 20 U.S. cities helping people to survive, reclaim control of their future, and strengthen their communities. Learn more at www.rescue.org and follow the IRC on Twitter & Facebook.