UN says international migration rising despite Covid impact

A man packs his belongings in a makeshift camp for migrants and asylum seekers in Grande-Synthe, Northern France, as police encircle the area, November 16. (Keystone/AP Photo/Louis Witter)

International migration between wealthy countries rose last year despite Covid-19 restrictions while conflict and climate change drove up internal displacement in poorer countries where people were unable to relocate beyond their borders, a new UN report has found.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said on Wednesday the number of international migrants grew to 281 million in 2020, or 3.6 per cent of the world's population, up from 272 million in 2019.

Out of the top 20 countries of origin for migrants last year, 18 were highly developed countries – up from just seven in 1995, according to the 2022 World Migration Report.

Meanwhile, the number of people internally displaced globally grew to 55 million in 2020 from 51 million in 2019.

The report highlighted that people from richer countries were able to relocate despite travel restrictions while the pandemic pushed up internal displacement and grounded millions of would-be migrants in fragile states.

The IOM stressed there would have been a further two million more international migrants last year if it had not been for the pandemic, which it said acted as a “great disrupter” of migration.

“We are witnessing a paradox not seen before in human history,” IOM chief Antonio Vitorino said in a statement.

“While billions of people have been effectively grounded by Covid-19, tens of millions of others have been displaced within their own countries.”

Of the 55 million internally displaced in 2020, 48 million fled conflict and violence and seven million were forced to move by climate-related disasters such as hurricanes and wildfires.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Cameroon, flooding and extreme rainfall displaced around 279,000 and 116,000 respectively.

The IOM warned that “international migration pathways for millions of people in developing countries have further narrowed”. At the same time, people living in wealthier countries were able to move freely, for example, in Europe's passport-free Schengen area.

“We are at risk of an international mobility divide with potential consequences for global inequality,” said Marie McAuliffe, head of the IOM's research division.

McAuliffe said people from countries torn by crises such as Afghanistan lack the “power passports” of more stable countries, and even those who do face other barriers to international travel.

“While Covid-19 kept many millions of people grounded around the world, the total size of the global displaced population actually grew and new internal displacements also increased,” she said.