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Including migrants and displaced populations in preparedness and response activities to COVID-19: Guidance for Americas National Societies

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Background: Migration & Displacement in the Region

• The Americas is currently experiencing several migratory dynamics across the whole region as well as facing the largest displacement crisis in modern history in the southern part of the continent. Around 26.6% of the world’s migrants (61.6 million people) live in the Americas. Disasters, crises, social exclusion, armed conflict and other situations of violence in countries of origin keep being the main causes of migration in the region.

• Over four million Venezuelans have left their country due to an increasingly difficult economic situation. This large movement of people has had effects in neighbouring countries, the Southern Cone, the Caribbean islands and some countries in Central America. As a response to this large movement of people, governments have put in place over the last months, new legal requirements to enter their country, resulting in many people using informal border-crossing points, that may expose them to increased protection risks.

• In Central America, people continue to move due to situations of high violence and looking for better life opportunities elsewhere. While many people try to reach northern countries, several also return to their home country, establishing cyclical movements across Central Americas countries that affect both migrants and host communities.

• Movements in the Caribbean region are frequent, a situation that is often exacerbated by natural disasters, forcing people out of their native communities that are not safe to live in.

• There are also millions of people who have been forcibly displaced – as refugees and IDPs, for violence and climate reason, across the whole continent.

In this context, vulnerable groups might be at increased risks such as:

• Many migrants and refugees are undocumented and/or stateless.

• There is an increasing anti-migrant sentiment sweeping through the continent: episodes of discrimination, xenophobia and harassment against migrants, are observed in several contexts.

• An alarming situation of violence against migrants, including attacks, robbery and threats, has been observed.

• The increasing situations of gender-based violence mostly against women and girls. This has been manifested through sexual abuse (reported and underreported cases) and the high risk of trafficking with sexual exploitation means oriented to women and girls and with labour, exploitation means oriented mostly to men and boys.

• The profile of the migrants who are travelling has changed, and therefore important needs to be covered. An increased number of pregnant women and children who are travelling with the aim of reunification.

• Unaccompanied and separate children, in their adolescent age, remain one of the most-at-risk populations.

• The Protection monitoring assessments by UNHCR have proved the presence of people with disabilities migrating, mostly people with physical disabilities.

• At the origin countries, mainly Venezuela, there is an increasing rate of older people who are facing very difficult situations to fulfil their basic needs.

• LGBTQ+ populations remain as one of the less supported populations across different response activities.

Risk Factors for Migrants during the COVID-19 outbreak

Migrants and displaced populations may be at an increased risk from the current outbreak of COVID-19. Risk factors may include:

• Language barriers to understanding and accessing health care, and reporting on health conditions in some of the countries of the Region.

• Undocumented status, which may create formal barriers to accessing care, or lead to reluctance to access care due to fear of arrest or deportation.

• Migrants and displaced populations may be de-prioritised in healthcare efforts.

• Social, religious and cultural barriers to accessing health care.

• Limited social and support networks.

• Lack of familiarity and awareness of health procedures and available support in host communities means migrants might not know where to find medical attention.

• Health assessments show that many migrants suffer from respiratory issues due to environmental and travelling conditions during their transit. This might increase their vulnerability to contracting COVID-19.

• Poor living and working conditions, including overcrowded conditions with poor sanitation and hygiene.

• Financial barriers to accessing health systems and support, including lack of health insurance.

• Lack of or limited access to traditional media (press, radio and TV) might mean that people utilize Social Media as a main source of information, increasing the chance of them being exposed to rumours and misinformation. Migrants may simply not know how and where to access trustworthy information.

• Migrants, already a target of discriminatory and xenophobic behaviour, may increasingly face stigma and blame for spreading COVID-19.

• Health care officials may not know where and how to reach migrants and displaced populations.

• Gender assigned roles can be a risk factor to have COVID-19. People who are most at risk are the ones (mostly women and girls) demanded to be the primary caregivers of the ill people.

• According to their gender and diversity characteristic, some specific populations can be most at risk, for example, children might not have adapted access to information and would be unable to express their fears abiding them to seek for help, people with disabilities and other populations (such as people living with HIV, ethnic groups, elderly, and LGBTQ+ groups) may face cultural and social barriers to access health services and even information adapted to their specific needs.

• Focus on containing the outbreak and an overburdened health system can divert resources from routine health services including pre- and post-natal health care and contraceptives and exacerbate already limited access to sexual and reproductive health services. This could be especially problematic considering the current profile of migrants, include children and many pregnant women.

There may also be needs for the family members of migrants who have stayed behind to keep in touch with people who have migrated to other countries. Such family members may be concerned about the fate and needs of their relatives as communication becomes more infrequent.

Reminder: The approach of the Movement to migration is strictly humanitarian and focuses on the needs, vulnerabilities and potentials of migrants, irrespective of their legal status, type, or category –IFRC Policy on Migration (2009).