Since January 2020, and in line with WHO recommendations, IOM’s global workforce has been mobilized across the world to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, drawing down on decades of experience, most recently with the Ebola epidemic, and working with dozens of governments to plan their responses and save lives as the global health crisis evolves into the most significant mobility crisis ever.

IOM’s Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan to COVID-19 Pandemic

Building on the 2020 Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan, IOM’s approach since 2021 uses a robust Strategic Response and Recovery Plan (SRRP) which encompasses life-saving assistance and response to humanitarian needs, initiatives to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on migrants and societies, as well as support to recovery and resilience integrating longer-term sustainable development planning.

IOM’s SRRP focuses on four strategic objectives:

  • Continue essential services for, mitigate risks of and protect displaced persons, mobile populations and host communities;
  • Scale up essential public health measures and promote mobility-sensitive health systems;
  • Mitigate the longer-term socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19, contribute to restarting human mobility and empower societies for self-reliance; and
  • Inform response and recovery efforts by tracking the impact of COVID-19 on mobility and people on the move and strengthen evidence-based decision-making through data.

You can download IOM’s COVID-19 Strategic Preparedness and Response plan in English.

How IOM is Helping on the Ground

IOM’s strategic response focuses on reaching the vulnerable and building operational capacities to address the mobility dimensions of this pandemic. These actions include:

  • Risk communication and community engagement activities, by leveraging community networks to ensure public health information is communicated in accessible and culturally appropriate ways to the most vulnerable, including migrants, regardless of status. These have been undertaken in a number of countries, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Greece and Yemen. In Greece, IOM has conducted information sessions in mainland camps for migrants, translating government information, as well as distributing additional supplies.
  • Cross-border coordination and capacity building to strengthen health surveillance at entry and exit points (airports, seaports and land border crossings) in dozens of states, including along Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan and Iran. IOM is providing a daily Global Mobility Restriction Overview, as well as Country-Level Restriction Mapping, outlining new and complex travel restriction measures to support colleagues across the organization.
  • Crisis coordination to facilitate information exchange between stakeholders. In some European countries, such as Greece, Malta and Norway, IOM is in close and regular contact with government counterparts to coordinate next steps. In Belgium, IOM has set up a crisis management team with the government to ensure no person is left behind.
  • Trainings for government employees; IOM has previously undertaken trainings on Standard Operating Procedures at point of entry during health emergencies in the context of Ebola response, in Guinea, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Senegal. This is can be extended to address COVID-19 operational needs and be done virtually.
  • Population mobility mapping exercises to anticipate needs and prioritise measures by layering information about travel restrictions, points of entry status, airlines and the status of stranded migrants, in collaboration with WHO. These have been undertaken in several countries, including Mongolia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Rwanda and Tanzania. It is important that governments and frontline response teams have a solid understanding of population movements and mobility dynamics so vulnerable groups can be reached in a timely manner.
  • Enhanced surveillance, and WASH services at entry points. IOM is increasing water access and hygiene measures at scale across its operations, to minimise the risk of contagion. In other locations, and across Asia, all US-bound migrants undergoing health checks at IOM centres receive information, hand sanitizer and tissues.

In view of the impact of the pandemic on IOM’s daily operations, including the increasing number of travel restrictions, a thorough assessment is being undertaken to ensure the continued safety of the staff, partners and all beneficiaries of the organization. Across all of IOM’s activities, priority is given to mainstreaming protection concerns within the COVID-19 response to ensure that our efforts are people-centred, inclusive and do no harm to the populations we assist. Thus far, the following actions have been taken:

  • Temporary suspension of IOM’s resettlement programming, in coordination with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Resettlement, however, remains a life-saving tool for many refugees. IOM and UNHCR are working with states to ensure movements can continue for the most critical emergency cases wherever possible.
  • Scale-back and/or suspension of a number of migration health assessment programmes, visa application programmes, and operational reduction of family reunification and humanitarian visa programmes. Where operations continue, IOM has adopted a number of precautionary measures, including the development of specific Standard Operating Procedures for COVID-19, health education and counselling for migrants, and strengthening of pre-embarkation checks.
  • Virtual counselling for migrants and virtual training sessions for migrants’ associations. In many European countries, IOM has set-up remote communication mechanisms to inform migrants, especially those interested to return home, about the general situation and current restrictions to movements. 

Despite these programmatic changes, IOM is closely following the evolving situation on the ground and retains full capacity and readiness to resume operations as soon as conditions allow.

Key Considerations
  • The current outbreak of COVID-19 is – first and foremost – a health issue. However, it is also having an unprecedented impact on mobility both in terms of regimes for border and migration management, and the situation of all people on the move, including those displaced by conflict or disaster.
  • IOM’s 14,000+ staff is working to respond to this public health emergency from the perspective of mobility. In doing so, the Organization is drawing on its experiences from previous emergencies – notably the most recent Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo  – and is working closely with the World Health Organization and other UN Migration Network member agencies and partners to ensure the integration of migration health concerns across the UN system.
  • However, IOM is aware that the current pandemic will have broad-ranging, long-term humanitarian and socio-economic impact. While the economic and political implications of this crisis are impossible to fully assess at this moment, there is a need to acknowledge the critical economic inflection points ahead for societies, and the deeper impacts that may be looming for the diverse mobile populations that the Organization serves.
  • In the short-term, within countries that have been hardest hit, migrants are exposed to many of the same vulnerabilities as other citizens, and often to a greater extent. Foreign nationals are more likely to be in overcrowded households or employed in short-term, or precarious work with limited provision for sick leave. Other migrants, in both regular and irregular status, may have limited access to public health services, or fear accessing such services. They may also be excluded from public health information programming or, when informed, lack the financial means to manage periods of self-isolation or quarantine.
  • Across the world, in less affected countries, displaced populations in camps or camp-like settings are already highly vulnerable to contracting infectious disease, in conditions where a virus can more easily spread. Others caught up conflict may be some of the hardest populations to reach and monitor, yet most ill-equipped to protect themselves against infection.  
  • Efforts to support all vulnerable groups, including migrants, should be strongly considered to avoid harmful consequences, minimise hardship, as well as reduce public health risk. Our work to ensure the safety of communities must uphold the fundamental human rights of all. All migrants, in regular or irregular situations, and including those in exploitative situations, should have access to health information, testing, treatment and care, so that response teams can include them in contact tracing and community interventions.
  • IOM reiterates the need for migrant-inclusive approaches in the overall COVID-19 response and calls on countries to address the particular needs and vulnerabilities of migrants, regardless of their legal status, in the spirit of Universal Health Coverage. The fight against COVID-19 cannot be won unless the response plans in all countries include migrants, especially those marginalized or in situations of vulnerability.
  • We should remain vigilant against the stigmatisation of any particular group during this crisis, including migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers, as highlighted by the UN Migration Network statement. IOM remains concerned about the spread of misinformation and the use of stigmatizing narratives as they can keep people from coming forward with symptoms or for contact tracing, which in turn can hamper the provision of adequate care and derail efforts to reduce further transmission. All authorities must make every effort to fight xenophobia, linked to the origin and spreading of the pandemic. This is especially important given the uncertain length and impact of this crisis. Social distancing should not be at the expense of long-term social cohesion.
Key Resources
Messages from the Director General on COVID-19