NEW YORK - The head of the U.N. Migration Agency says the coronavirus pandemic’s lockdowns, travel restrictions and border closures have affected migrants worldwide, leaving 3 million people stranded, perhaps without jobs.

“As usual in all crises, migrants are the first ones to lose jobs,” International Organization for Migration (IOM) Director General Antonio Vitorino told VOA ahead of International Migrants Day on Friday.

The IOM estimates there are 272 million migrants globally. A little less than half are women. The United Nations considers a migrant to be anyone who changes their country, regardless of the reason. But most move to seek economic improvement.

Vitorino spoke recently with VOA’s U.N. correspondent Margaret Besheer. His answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

VOA: Antonio Vitorino, director general of the International Organization for Migration, welcome. Thank you for speaking with us today on International Migrants Day.

Antonio Vitorino, Director General, International Organization for Migration:  Thank you for having me.

VOA: Director general, I want to start with COVID-19, because it has really shaped everyone's year. What are some of the impacts of the pandemic on migrants and how has it affected overall migration patterns and trends?

Vitorino: Well, mainly, with the lockdowns with the closure of the borders with the travel restrictions, we estimate that there are 3 million migrants stranded all over the world, people wanting to go back to their countries of origin and are unable to do that because of the restrictions in movement. Of course, as usual in all crises, migrants are the first ones to lose jobs, to lose their livelihoods in the countries of destination. And the World Bank forecasts for instance, a drop in remittances to the countries of origin of around 20% this year, which will have a terrible impact on the living conditions of the countries of origin of those migrants. And last but not least, unfortunately, the pandemic did not stop the operation of traffickers and smugglers, the criminal networks. There are four times more arrivals in Italy this year through the Mediterranean, one of the most dangerous routes, than last year. Or if you look, through the Gulf of Aden, there are 130,000 people who are crossing the Gulf both ways to reach the Gulf countries. And they did not stop because of the pandemic.

VOA: Vaccines for COVID-19 are now starting to enter some societies. What's your plan for making sure that migrants have equal access to the vaccinations?

Vitorino: Our message is very straightforward. We advocate for having migrants included in national vaccination plans. It's the responsibility of governments to guarantee that all that are present in their own territory, whether they are nationals or non-nationals, migrants, irrespective of their legal status, have access to vaccines because in practical terms the pandemic has shown that nobody is safe until everyone is safe. Therefore, we think that the international community should support those countries that have more weak health systems in order to guarantee that access to vaccination to all migrants, refugees, internally displaced people.

VOA: I think the whole planet is ready to move on from 2020, but I know that the IOM faces big challenges in 2021. Why don't you tell us what some of your concerns are?

Vitorino: My first concern is to guarantee that migrants have access to universal health care and vaccination. That's the short-term priority, and we do believe that with our work all over the world — and we are present in 160 countries — we can support governments in guaranteeing that migrants are duly taken care of from a health point of view. But there is a second concern for us, that with the opening of the borders, which will hopefully progressively happen, it's absolutely necessary that people across the borders are healthy and the border management and the migration policies will have to incorporate each time more and more health screening and health proofing to guarantee that mobility comes back and therefore we will be very much interested in cooperating with all countries in guaranteeing that the opening of the borders is done in a healthy way.

VOA: Here in the United States, three years ago the Trump administration pulled out of the Global Compact on migration. Do you plan to reach out to the new Biden administration to see if you can bring the U.S. back into this migration pact?

Vitorino: The Global Compact on safe, orderly, irregular migration is a political cooperation platform. It's not a legally binding document. And therefore, I think that all governments that realize that there is a need for international cooperation to manage migration appropriately and have their own national interest in joining the Global Compact on migration. And if I read carefully the statements that have been made by President-elect Biden when he was a candidate, I can tell you that I am very hopeful that the United States will come forward and be fully involved in this political cooperation to guarantee that migration can be for the benefit of all.

VOA: Director general before we let you go, I just wanted to ask you what your message is to the migrant community on this International Migrants Day.

Vitorino: Migration is a natural phenomenon of human life, it has always existed, and it will go on existing in our world. And it is our common shared responsibility to guarantee they are safe and their dignity is fully respected. That's why IOM is so much engaged in supporting migrants all over the world.

VOA: Well, thank you director general for speaking with us today on International Migrants Day. We appreciate your time.

Special Section