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COVID-19 and mixed population movements: emerging dynamics, risks and opportunities - A UNHCR/IOM discussion paper

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1. Introduction

The COVID-19 pandemic, and the different measures States have taken to contain and respond to it, have the potential to shape human behavior at the individual, family or community level, and to impact the ways in which our societies function, in unprecedented and far-reaching ways. This paper explores the implications for human mobility – drawing on the trends that IOM and UNHCR are already observing in our field operations, as well as data in the public domain. The focus is on the irregular flows of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers linking Africa and Europe, but the paper also notes some emerging trends in relation to population flows towards Europe from south-west Asia and the Middle East.

The purpose is to take stock of what we are already observing, and what we anticipate developing as the COVID-19 crisis evolves – and hopefully subsides – in countries of origin, countries hosting large refugee and migrant populations, countries of transit and countries of destination – noting that in many cases, these categories overlap and change over time. In doing so, the paper seeks to shed light on how the COVID-19 crisis is interacting with the complex and fluid dynamics shaping mixed population movements, and how these might evolve.

What matters, of course, is what should be our collective response. As the two organizations dealing with population flows, we want to ensure that the potential impact of the crisis on refugee flows and human mobility is understood and factored into wider responses – especially those addressing its socio-economic consequences through bilateral and multilateral recovery instruments and development cooperation. We want to draw attention to the risks and opportunities that are emerging, and the potential implications if these are overlooked.

Our aim is to provoke dialogue and early action. What key considerations should help shape responses by States, the African Union, the European Union, other regional entities, civil societies and other stakeholders? Can they find ways of leveraging existing Europe-Africa cooperation frameworks, and their interface with the two Global Compacts, to cope with the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on human mobility? And can governments steer away from stand-alone, introverted responses, and find ways of engaging based on solidarity and partnership, which address the broader drivers of population flows?

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