COVID-19 and rethinking the need for legal pathways to mobility: Taking human security seriously

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This paper is part of a series of short “think pieces” by IOM’s Migration Research High Level Advisers on the potential changes, impacts and implications for migration and mobility arising from COVID-19. Designed to spark thinking on policy and programmatic responses to COVID-19 as the impacts continue to emerge globally, the papers draw upon existing and new evidence and offer initial exploratory analysis and recommendations.


The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the importance of enabling safe, orderly and regular migration, both for migrants themselves and for receiving societies. Migrants with irregular or precarious legal status may be particularly vulnerable to contracting the disease, because their living or working conditions expose them to the virus without necessary protection. They may also fear contacting hospitals or other national authorities should they fall ill. Given the interdependence between all members of a community in terms of public health, policies that maintain immigrants in an irregular status represent a risk not only for migrants themselves, but for the broader public. In this paper we propose that a paradigm shift towards including public health considerations from a human security perspective is needed in the way we conceive the legal pathways to migration and migrant regularization.

While COVID-19-related travel restrictions remain in place, some countries have implemented restrictive immigration policies, limiting legal migration more broadly. Examples include various measures in countries such as the United States of America, Chile and South Africa, in the areas of immigration and asylum, as well as border security. In the United States, restrictive measures include halting naturalization ceremonies and the issuance of many green cards to those outside the country. A newly proposed regulation would further raise the standard of proof for asylum seekers and allow immigration judges to deny applications for protection without giving applicants the opportunity to testify in court.

Chile ruled that foreigners leaving the country on humanitarian flights had to sign an affidavit agreeing not to return to Chile for nine years, as well as renouncing the right to apply for residence or asylum in Chile (along with refugee status). In response, the National Immigrant Coordinator filed an appeal with the Santiago Court of Appeals.
The Court rescinded the order requiring people to sign this document, a judgement that was confirmed by the Chilean Supreme Court.

South Africa, on the other hand, announced that it would build a 40 km fence on the border between South Africa and Zimbabwe to fight COVID-19 transmissions from Zimbabwe.

The collateral effects of the COVID-19 crisis will probably lead to new forms of human mobility. Even with the most recent travel bans and immigration restrictions, borders – especially borders in the global South – remain porous. Amid these restrictions, desperate migrants have turned to smugglers and some have fallen into the hands of human traffickers.

This has been observed in the case of Venezuelan return migration across South America. Similarly, evidence in the Niger suggests that smugglers are moving toward more clandestine and thus probably more dangerous routes.6