Covid-19 impeded millions seeking asylum and migrating, UN migration agency says

Biannual 2022 World Migration Report also highlighted challenges migrants face amid rise of AI and social media misinformation

Migrants queue in front of the Federal Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers in Brussels. AFP

Covid-19 border closures and increased hostility towards migration has hindered refugees seeking asylum, the UN said on Tuesday.

An International Organisation for Migration (IOM) report detailed worldwide migration patterns, including which countries receive the most migrants each year, why most migrants choose to relocate as well as geopolitical, environmental and economic drivers of worldwide migration.

Covid-19 has proved to be a great disrupter, negatively impacting migrants throughout the international migration cycle, starting with departure from countries of origin, entry into transit and destination countries, stay in transit and destination countries, and the return to countries of origin,” the report said.

Amid international travel restrictions put in place to control the pandemic, the rate of international migration was markedly slower than projected, said the biannual report, revealing that the number of international migrants in 2020 was two million lower than expected.

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Of the 281 million international migrants recorded in 2020, refugees constituted 26.4 million — up from 26 million in 2019. However, the number of asylum seekers dropped to 4.1 million, down from 4.2 million in 2019.

The largest segment of international migrants in 2020, however, was made up of labourers in search of better career prospects in other countries, the report showed.

Displacement suffered by millions around the world due to conflict and natural disasters also contributed to global migration, said the report.

“Foremost have been the displacements of millions of people due to conflict (such as within and from the Syrian Arab Republic, Yemen, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan), or severe economic and political instability (such as that faced by millions of Venezuelans and Afghans),” it reads.

There have also been large-scale displacements triggered by climate-related disasters in many parts of the world, including in China, the Philippines, Bangladesh, India and Haiti.

Covid-19 border closures

The report underscores the extent to which global mobility was affected by the pandemic, both because of border closures and limitations on people’s movements within their own countries. This has been the largest contributor to the marked drop in the migration rate.

“Covid-19 has intensified the tension between migration and mobility by drawing further attention to how mobility underpins and enables different forms of migration, as well as the fact that immobility can act as a major disrupter to migrants throughout the ‘migration cycle’,” the IOM report said.

The border between Syrian and Turkey became the second-largest migration corridor in the world over the past year, the report said, though the Mexico-US border remains the world’s most extensive migration channel. And the India to the UAE migration corridor was named the third largest in the world.

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The Covid-19 pandemic intensified disinformation about migrants, who were variously attacked for introducing the virus or causing an increase in cases. Health crises have historically been exploited to advance xenophobic agendas
International Organisation for Migration report

Though the pandemic undoubtedly slowed the rate of global migration, political conflicts and natural disasters in a number of countries around the world also increased the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) from 51 million in 2019 to 55 million in 2020.

The report also addresses the growing issue of misinformation, particularly on social media, with anti-migrant campaigns viewed by millions of social media users making it even more difficult for migrants to relocate to their desired destinations.

Such sentiments were also stoked by far-right groups on social media who used Covid-19 as a conduit for their agendas, said the report.

“The Covid-19 pandemic intensified disinformation about migrants, who were variously attacked for introducing the virus or causing an increase in cases,” read the report.

“Health crises have historically been exploited to advance xenophobic agendas.”

Pros and cons of tech in asylum applications

The rise of artificial intelligence and its use in many parts of a migrant’s journey was also addressed by the UN report, which said that as tech leaders struggle to align the use of AI with humanity’s ethical values, migrants are subjected to injustice due to algorithms that profile migrants according to a set of opaque criteria.

While AI definitely speeds up visa processing times, the report said, biases programmed into an AI’s algorithm can make it reject a migrant’s application based on its internal risk-profiling mechanism.

“The lack of transparency and the presence of biases in AI algorithms is a widespread concern, extending well beyond migration. While humans also display biases in their decision-making independently of the use of AI, AI systems can amplify existing human biases, not just encode them,” the report stated.

As more coronavirus variants continue to emerge, the report concludes that disruptions to world migration are most likely to continue to happen.

Updated: December 2nd 2021, 10:40 AM