Regional situation overview
On 11 March 2020, WHO declared the novel Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) a pandemic. Fifteen weeks after the first case of COVID-19 was reported in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, 113,053 cases have been confirmed, resulting in 1,922 fatalities (as per 9th of May 2020). There is nowhere in the region that remains unaffected, with registered infections in all 17 countries and new cases reported daily.
While the full effects of COVID-19 remain unknown, the pandemic continues to profoundly impact regional migration and mobility dynamics, with deep health, social and economic consequences for the most vulnerable, including migrants, displaced populations and their host communities, and returnees.
The MENA region is uniquely vulnerable to the devastating impacts of COVID-19. As the pandemic unfolds, multiple countries simultaneously contend with complex and often protracted crises. In these settings, the fragility of health systems, combined with limited disease surveillance capabilities, has created environments conducive to rapid COVID-19 transmission and higher mortality rates. Infection prevention and control capacities are also insufficient, with limited availability of in-country laboratory testing for COVID-19. Furthermore, rapid and largely unmanaged urbanization, has generated suboptimal conditions for disease containment. This is acute in camp and camp-like settings, and informal settings, where migrants and displaced persons often reside. Communities in these locations are exposed to high density living conditions with limited services, inadequate sanitation facilities and a lack of livelihoods, heightening pre-existing health, social and economic vulnerabilities.
The region’s complex health dynamics are expected to worsen the impacts of COVID-19. High levels of chronic and non-communicable illness, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes as well as communicable diseases in emergency settings contribute to higher comorbidity and mortality rates in areas with COVID-19 outbreaks. Against this context, migrants and displacement-affected communities are some of the most vulnerable populations, with cultural, linguistic and legal barriers impeding access to health promotion programming, disease prevention, treatment and continuum of care.
Beyond the public health threats posed by COVID-19, mobility restrictions are also devastating the social and economic lives of millions, with the daily movement of people, goods and services coming to a near complete stop. Disruption in global value and supply chains combined with an abrupt fall in commodity prices are also amplifying pre-existing vulnerabilities. Migrants and displaced communities are disproportionately affected by this economic downturn. For migrant workers employed in short-term or informal occupations, this translates into loss of jobs and income, payment delays, and food and clean water shortages. For displaced communities, many of whom work in day-wage employment, this results in rising poverty and heightened economic vulnerability. Movement restrictions are also increasing the difficulties faced in sending remittances, spreading economic and social vulnerabilities beyond borders. This context of financial insecurity opens space for labour exploitation, including human trafficking.
The region is also one of the most crisis-stricken parts of the world. Protracted conflicts and climate-related disasters have driven large waves of displacement alongside the physical destruction of property and critical infrastructure. Crisis-affected locations in the region are characterized by deep recessions, worsened fiscal positions and fragile institutions, all of which continue to cause unprecedented levels of displacement. It is estimated that 14.2 million people live in internal displacement as a result of conflict, violence and disasters across the region.