Countries all around the world have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with increased border controls and mobility restrictions. This affects us all but especially migrants who wish to return to their country of origin. We at IOM Finland adapt to the new travel regulations and continue assisting migrants as much as possible despite the limited air traffic and constantly changing pandemic situation.

I started working at IOM Finland in early March 2020. My main task is to facilitate the payment of reintegration cash grants to migrants who want to return from Sweden to their country of origin with IOM’s assistance. Additionally, under normal circumstances, I am supposed to travel frequently to Sweden to have meetings with our donor, the Swedish Migration Agency. However, in March the COVID-19 case numbers started to significantly increase in many countries, Sweden included. Many countries around the world imposed travel restrictions, and this affected also my work at IOM Finland.

Assisting migrants despite mobility restrictions

As some countries closed their borders and international flight connections became rare, most of IOM’s operations including international movement of migrants were put on hold. Moreover, migrants could not return from Sweden to their country of origin. Nevertheless, I did not run out of work but reacted to the situation with energy, creativity, and flexibility. I made all the possible preparations for the migrants wishing to return and followed up on their inquiries on the return situation either by email or by phone. In this way, the migrants could return as soon as the mobility restrictions would be lifted. In addition, my days started to fill with designing information materials on assisted voluntary return and reintegration and writing statistical reports.

The air traffic remains limited, but many migrants have been able to return to their country of origin with IOM’s assistance since summer. However, as the COVID-19 situation has been worsening, migrants wishing to return often have to wait for some time. This is unfortunate because many would like to travel back to their country of origin as fast as possible. Moreover, there have been delays in the return assistance and reintegration support provided and implemented by IOM in the host countries as well as the countries of origin.

New practices in assisted voluntary return

Because of the pandemic IOM follows carefully the governmental regulations for travelling in transit and destination countries. We must ensure migrants get tested for COVID-19 before travelling and provide them with face masks and other supplies for personal hygiene. Moreover, we search for the latest information about the COVID-19 situation in different countries and stay updated with the constantly changing regulations to pass on correct information to migrants.

Less voluntary returnees, less receivers for reintegration support

In the Spring 2020, the number of migrants receiving financial reintegration support significantly decreased. After the first wave of COVID-19, the number started to increase. However, it seems that the overall numbers for this year will stay lower than last year. In 2019, we received around 300 notifications about voluntary returnees eligible for reintegration support from our donor in Sweden and granted reintegration support to around 300 migrants. In contrast, this year we have received so far more than 100 notifications and granted reintegration support for about 80 migrants.

Supporting achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

The assisted voluntary return and reintegration provided by IOM primarily contributes to the SDG 10, Reduced inequalities, and the target 10.7: "Facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through the implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies." By facilitating voluntary returns, we support safe, humane, and well-managed migration.

In addition, the assisted voluntary return and reintegration contributes to target 10.2: "By 2030, empower and promote the social, economic and political inclusion of all, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status". The reintegration support we provide is economic: it can be either cash grants or in-kind-support such as assistance for starting a micro business.

Despite the challenges posed by COVID-19, we at IOM Finland do our best at supporting migrants in need and assisting them with voluntary returns. Our goal is that migrants can return safely and in dignity and achieve sustainable reintegration in their country of origin.

The writer works as a Reintegration Assistant at IOM Finland.

The views expressed by the authors in IOM Finland's blog are their own and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the International Organization for Migration.

SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities