Migrants and COVID-19: How to take care of mental health

Migrants and COVID-19: How to take care of mental health

Migrating usually involves a series of changes and adjustments for migrants and their families. Migrants need to adapt to new languages, cultures, traditions and social systems. These changes can cause a temporary increase in stress levels, that normally regulates itself with time as the individual adapts to the new circumstances, routines, and lifestyles of the destination country. However, when a crisis situation impedes migration, this adaptation process becomes much more difficult, which can lead to negative psychosocial consequences.

It’s not unusual that a health crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic could cause people to experience increased levels of stress, sadness, confusion, anger, or fear, independent of their migration status. It’s a new and unknown situation that, in the context of mitigation measures, has caused many changes and challenges in work and lifestyle dynamics for people all over the world. This is particularly true for migrant populations, who can be facing greater vulnerabilities or challenges.

Many migrants can experience uncertainty about their future, loss of loved ones or worry about their wellbeing, in addition to difficulties in accessing services and reliable information due to language barriers. Some people may also feel guilty because of family members or loved ones who live in higher-risk areas or they may fear being separated from their families because of quarantines.

Physical isolation measures can represent a challenge for anyone’s mental health. However, migrants also experience the aggravating factor of being away from home and far from support networks. Prolonged isolation can cause stress, burnout, emotional detachment, irritability, insomnia, anxiety, increased use of psychoactive substances, lack of concentration, indecision, decrease in productivity, lack of motivation at work, and/or low mood.

Stigma and discrimination are also likely to have a negative impact on the mental health of migrant populations, considering that they are often wrongly blamed for importing illnesses. Stigma can occur not only in the destination country, but also when they return to their country of origin. Migrants from countries or regions that have reported more cases of the virus are particularly vulnerable to this type of stigmatization.

Some people have been stranded in countries other than their country of origin or destination due to temporary border closures that were implemented as a response to the health crisis. These stranded migrants have particular psychosocial vulnerabilities that need to be specifically addressed. Migrant workers, especially those employed in the informal sector, may be experiencing increased economic difficulties due to loss of employment or sustenance.

Populations who live in shelters, camps, or similar environments can face difficulties in implementing necessary hygiene and physical distancing recommendations from health authorities due to limited access to personal hygiene products and the characteristics their housing infrastructure. Likewise, these populations often experience working and living conditions that carry more risks for their physical and mental health. Migrants, particularly those with irregular migratory status, can experience significant barriers in accessing timely healthcare in a language they understand. This includes access to testing to confirm or rule out COVID-19, as well as subsequent treatment. These situations can provoke heightened stress levels, worry, distress, and anxiety, among other negative psychological consequences.

If you work with migrants, these recommendations can help to promote mental health during the COVID-19 outbreak. Of course, it is always important to take into account the context in which your activities are taking place.

  1. Facilitate the use of technology so that migrants can keep in contact with friends and family. It’s important to create spaces for people to share their emotions with trusted individuals.
  2. Promote healthy lifestyles, including adequate food, sufficient sleep, and physical activity, including during isolation.
  3. Encourage the avoidance of consuming tobacco, alcohol, or other drugs to deal with difficult emotions. Rather, facilitate migrants’ virtual access to mental health workers and support them in creating a plan for how and where to seek help if necessary.
  4. Facilitate access to information from reliable resources in languages that migrants can understand, such that they can take reasonable evidence-based precautions.
  5. Promote limited exposure to media reporting news about the health crisis, which can help reduce distress.
  6. Support migrants in identifying skills they have used in the past to overcome adversity and facilitate access to the resources they need to put these habits into practice.

For more resources on supporting migrants’ mental health, visit the websites of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee and the World Health Organization.


Extortion is Causing the Expulsion of Migrants from the Northern Triangle of Central America

Extortion is Causing the Expulsion of Migrants from the Northern Triangle of Central America
Categoria: Migrant Protection and Assistance
Autor: Guest Contributor

In cases of forced displacement, extortion is often mentioned as one of the main causes. However, extortion is located within a cycle of violence, such sexual violence, murder, etc., and it is difficult to identify a single incident of extortion as the sole reason for leaving a country.

Although its definition varies depending on national legislation, extortion can be understood as the use of threats, intimidation and other acts of violence to obtain actions or goods from another person against their will, as defined by the Latin American and Caribbean Network of Environmental Funds (REDLAC), in a special bulletin dedicated to this issue and upon which this post is based.

In the context of migration, kidnapping and extortion go hand-in-hand, as smugglers often extort money from migrants by threatening to kidnap their relatives. Extortion can also be committed in the other direction: relatives of migrants who have already arrived in another country are extorted by smugglers, demanding money from them so as not to harm the family member who has already migrated. This can often lead to persecution in communities of origin and destination.

In Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the serious issue of personal insecurity fuelled by drug trafficking and corruption has marked the region as one of the most violent on the planet, according to Amnesty International. In this context, extortion schemes demanding payments from local markets and small businesses are commonplace in gang-controlled territories. However, depending on the country, there can also be extortion demands  placed on homes, such as in Guatemala, where this accounts for 55% of extortion complaints.

There is also a difference between the type and impact of extortion experienced by men, women, children and the LGBTIQ+ population. In this sense, when women are extorted for money, threats are often combined with the intimidating possibility of sexual violence. According to the REDLAC bulletin, the bodies of women, adolescents, and girls are treated as territory for revenge and control while children are being increasingly recruited as rent collectors, among other functions.

Migrants are often also extorted by people who are not part of criminal groups but who take advantage of their vulnerable situation to turn a profit, such as locals who demand payment to cross private land rather than using routes with criminal gangs, or transporters who demand money from irregular migrants in exchange for not reporting them to immigration authorities. The same situation has been reported with employers who, on pay-day, threaten to report migrant workers for an irregular migrant status.

There are currently no figures on the number of people displaced or forced to migrate due to extortion in northern Central America, as this is part of a generalised climate of violence; however, some organisations locate this crime as one of the main reasons for migration from areas or even from the country.


Extortion during the pandemic

In the bulletin of the Network of Latin American and Caribbean Environmental Funds (REDLAC) which examines extortion as a trigger for internal displacement and forced migration in northern Central America and Mexico, some relevant points were also made about how extortion has adapted to the context of COVID-19:

  • In El Salvador, COVID-19 has reduced the income of gangs, but they have not lost territorial control. Some gangs have established restrictions, such as allowing one individual per family to make food purchases, to reduce the risk that a gang member may become ill and not be able to access medical care.
  • In Honduras, the paralysis of the transportation and informal trade sectors, generally common sectors for extortion, has registered a decrease in cases of extortion due to the pandemic. However, there have been reports of threats of retroactive charges once commerce resumes, house-to-house tariffs, and road ‘tolls’, and scams executed by gangs. Food distributors are frequent victims of extortion when entering communities.
  • In Guatemala, extortion has not stopped either, although at the beginning of the pandemic some maras (gangs) granted ‘pardons’ in their communities. However, national agencies predict that when the restrictive measures end, there will be an increase in other crimes and that extortion will return as a greater threat.
  • Mobility restrictions increase the risk of people being trapped in violent environments, making it difficult to seek support in other territories and countries. Despite this, many people seek and will continue to seek irregular migration options, despite the dangers of the pandemic, in order to leave the high-violence, low-income contexts in which they live.