By Cécile Riallant, Head of the Migration & Sustainable Development Unit at IOM and Luca Renda, Head of the Recovery Solutions and Human Mobility Team, UNDP Crisis Bureau


With its historic temple, archaeological ruins and splendid beaches, the region of La Unión in El Salvador used to attract many tourists, who, until recently, brought much needed cash and generated work for one of the poorest parts of the country.

But while the inbound movement of tourists was vital to La Unión’s economy, so was the outbound migration of its citizens. El Salvador is a country of migrants, and La Unión has double the national average of people leaving their home for opportunities abroad. A third of households have a family member outside the country, mostly in North America. The money many migrants send home via remittances is invested in communities, builds businesses, pays for school fees and largely contributes to combatting poverty.

COVID-19 was a double blow for the area. Travel restrictions decimated tourism and plunged the economy into recession. According to a survey by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNDP, one in three families in La Unión had a member lose their job. Many migrants abroad were forced to return due to travel restrictions and increasing local unemployment. To ensure that La Unión recovers better, IOM and UNDP worked with local authorities to develop a socio-economic plan, building on the findings of the assessment.

The work in El Salvador was part of a series of similar projects around the world designed to better understand the impacts of the pandemic on migration. These show that in nine countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia, job losses, closed borders, and unequal systems have hit migrants and their families hard, and in every place studied, COVID-19 restrictions and economic hardship have dramatically changed human mobility patterns. Examples of data collected from the IOM and UNDP global work on the impact of COVID-19 on human mobility include:

In Indonesia, an estimated 175-180,000 Indonesian migrant workers returned home in 2020. Three-quarters of them faced joblessness on their return, households saw a huge drop in income (some by 60 percent), and returnees lacked access to services and measures such as unemployment benefits.

In Chilmari Upazila, Bangladesh, an area affected by forced displacement due to river erosion, people have been returning to their farms as unemployment increased in the cities, with families pushed into hardship.

In landlocked Lesotho, travel restrictions with South Africa affected cross border traders from making a living. Poverty has increased and many of the women traders say they have been exposed to abuse and harassment as they tried to negotiate added bureaucracy with border authorities.


Migrants’ inclusion in COVID-19 recovery plans

The findings from El Salvador, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Lesotho show the importance of including human mobility in governments’ COVID-19 recovery and human development plans. In some cases, the large volume of migrants returning home from abroad due to COVID-19 restrictions have placed a strain on the economy. An example of this is Kyrgyzstan, where 150,000 of the country’s one million migrants have returned home from working abroad since the pandemic began. This has put pressure on resources, public services and job opportunities – and exacerbated the effects of the 10 percent economic contraction.

In interviews with affected communities in Kyrgyzstan, respondents spoke of increased poverty and rising tensions. Women, who make up half of the migrants, have been particularly affected in a country that had made marked progress in tackling gender based discrimination and violence.

Every woman that responded to the survey said they faced discrimination on returning home and eight out of ten said they were stopped from managing their own money. “I sent everything to my father, who spent it on the house. Now I have no job and no savings,” said one.

The scale of the returns has also exposed a gap in national and local authorities’ ability to respond to the new challenges. “We never ask for help, we know local authorities cannot help us, they do not have the tools and the knowledge to do that,” said one person interviewed.


Rising tensions

Failure to include migrants and their host communities within COVID-19 plans will not only hinder recovery but can lead to mounting tension, discrimination and xenophobia. For example, on Guinea’s border with Mali, travel restrictions impacting traders and their hosts have led to growing tensions over resources. IOM and UNDP have helped to promote social cohesion by working with young people and small businesses, providing training and supporting entrepreneurs. Taxi drivers, trade unions, radio stations, and community leaders were recruited to help reduce discrimination and police and customs officials have received training on border management, helping to calm the situation.

To counter discrimination faced by migrants in Belarus, UNDP and IOM carried out an anti-xenophobia media campaign. In Lima in Peru, IOM and UNDP helped integrate Venezuelan refugees and migrants into host communities by giving them work with municipal recovery efforts.  Documentary screenings at migration film festivals and the creation of murals by Venezuelan and Peruvian artists are helping discourage xenophobia.

In Lima, Venezuelan migrants and their Peruvian hosts created a mural to reflect closer socio-economic integration in a project supported by UNDP, IOM and the local municipality. (Photo credits: UNDP Peru/Jasmin Ramirez)


What does this mean for the future?

The pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on migration and development. With inclusive and integrated development policies, good migration management and partnerships, we can harness the potential of human mobility to spur development forward and avoid what some predict is a “lost decade for development.”

Migration will remain an integral part of an interconnected world, making it imperative that migration and migrants are included in the process of recovery. The IOM and UNDP partnership shows the importance of socio-economic integration, strengthening the capacity of local authorities, and combatting xenophobia.

IOM and UNDP are showing how UN agencies can join forces to inform and deliver tailored support, responding to longer-term socio-economic needs. We are committed to continuing to work together to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Global Compact for Migration. The lessons learned from the pandemic must not go to waste, but must be heeded so that human mobility can have positive economic and social dividends, recovering better towards sustainable development for all.