COVID-19 and its impact on migration: the case of Armenia

COVID19_migration_Armenia_GE

Covid-19 and migration worldwide

Covid-19 pandemic has affected global migratory flows on a scale that no other event has allegedly had since 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States. “The world will not be the same”, “migration will not be the same” are phrases most frequently uttered by experts and practitioners these days, and for a good reason. International and regional organizations operating in the sphere of migration and mobility also recognized the large impact that the pandemic has and will continue to have. “Covid-19… is having an unprecedented impact on mobility both in terms of regimes for border and migration management, and the situation of all people on the move, including those displaced by conflict or disaster,” IOM said in a statement. More than 20% of the world’s population is in lockdown, parallelly the states have also restricted cross-border mobility or have imposed rigorous checks on the border.

The impact of these actions is observed on all areas of migration, including labor migration, asylum and refuge, return, etc. Migration Data Portal reports of 271.6 million migrants worldwide in 2019; the rise of this figure has been one of the most important phenomena of the past decades. Meanwhile, in the same year 70.8 million out of all migrants are forcibly displaced populations, including 25.9 million refugees, 41.3 internally displaced people (IDPs) and 3.5 million asylum-seekers, according to UNHCR. These populations have been disproportionately affected by the current measures, taking into account already existing vulnerabilities of theirs. Although officials on many levels (e.g. UNHCR, European Commission) have reiterated that the need for international protection should be exempted from travel restrictions and asylum procedures should be implemented with highest caution for health risks, in practice this was not the case in many countries, including EU member states. 

Labor mobility has also suffered as a result of these measures. The labor migrants in high-income countries are mostly involved in manufacturing and hospitality areas, which have come to a standstill. The agricultural sphere also suffers as labor shortages caused by the COVID-19 travel restrictions are becoming time-critical in this sector of the economy. Long dependent upon migrant labor, governments across the developed world are working to avoid crop losses. In 2019 migrants have sent to medium and low income countries an estimated $ 550 billion as remittances. The cutting of this cash stream will be felt for these countries in coming months, as often remittances are not becoming long-term investments, but serve for daily expenses of the families of the migrants.

Perhaps the only mobility area that has increased its activities is the area of return. Some countries have implemented the largest repatriation operations in these complicated circumstances. Consular services in different countries have been stretched to their limits, trying to coordinate and organize the return of their citizens and in cases of impossibility of the latter to assist them with accomodation, food, even physiological assistance until the return becomes possible. As in the case of health services, the pandemic has vividly demonstrated the further  and sometimes urgent need to staff and finance consular services.   

Global challenge, local context

Though the first case of Covid-19 infection was registered in Armenia on March 1, 2020, the Government had already set up an interdepartmental commission to prevent the spread and coordinate the response to Covid-19 on January 30. The first case was detected with an Armenian citizen who had arrived from Iran, a neighboring country and one of the countries that was most affected by the spread of the virus. Prior to that, on February 23, 2020, Armenia had already imposed movement restrictions both across the Armenia-Iran border and air travel, allowing only its citizens and holders of temporary resident permits to return. As in many countries in the world, the Armenian Constitution also guarantees its citizens the right to enter the country, which cannot be “subject to restriction” (Article 40). Further cross-border movement restrictions were established with Georgia on March 14 and Russia on March 17. As the spread of the virus continued, on March 16 the Government declared a state of emergency in the country and imposed travel restrictions at first with 16 countries, later complementing that list. The exit of the citizens was banned.

Further internal movement restrictions and measures of isolation and self-isolation have been imposed, providing the health system with indispensable time space to reorient for pandemic response. Internal movement restrictions started with establishing quarantine regimes for specific cities (e.g. Vagharshapat, which was one of the centers of the spread of the virus) and later banning all non-essential inter-regional movement. These measures allowed to take the spread of the virus under control, preserve and strengthen the capacities of the healthcare system.

Meanwhile, the global situation and locally taken measures have had a serious negative impact for many businesses, especially in the sphere of services (particularly tourism), which has become an important vehicle for the Armenian economy for the last decade. While Armenian GDP grew at 7.6% in 2019, the services sector, of which tourism is an essential component, grew at 5.2% rate. At the same time the Government has readjusted the budget, changing the prediction of 4.9% growth to 2% decline, with the Ministry of Finance declaring that the increase of public debt is inevitable.

Nevertheless, certain measures have also been taken to alleviate the complex economic and social situation that the country has found itself in. Measures from government-subsadized 0% loans for businesses to directly subsidizing some parts of citizens’ utility bills have been undertaken. For obvious reasons the overall situation had an enormous negative impact on Armenian seasonal labor migrants, whose traditional migration route lies towards Russia, where they are mainly involved in the spheres of construction and services. The situation has also impacted other migrant populations, including refugees and asylum seekers and for sure has impacted the processes of return, which will be discussed further.

Refugees and asylum

In the case of Armenia, as much elsewhere in the world, refugees are amongst the vulnerable populations affected by the pandemic and the economic and social hardships accompanying it. Among them refugees from Azerbaijan and Syria form specific subgroups given the facts of their long standing difficulties with housing and economic integration problems. Though most of them are citizens of Armenia, many of the people displaced from Azerbaijan and Syria remain as “people in protracted refugee situations” or “in refugee-like situations”. In both cases housing is the paramount issue of concern.

In the fall of 2019 the Armenian Government launched a specific program to solve the 30 year-old housing issue of the displaced population from Azerbaijan, issuing Housing Purchase Certificates, allowing beneficiaries to purchase apartments or houses in a scope of given sum of money on the whole territory of Armenia. Though the program was not suspended, beneficiaries currently face enormous difficulties in finding the housing and doing the paperwork accompanying the purchase. Nevertheless, this problem can be solved with the lifting of the emergency situation in the country.

The case of the displaced Syrian population in Armenia is somewhat different. As they have fled civil war in Syria since 2012, they managed to collect with them some of their belongings and some amount of financial resources. These resources have quickly dwindled mainly as a result of housing rent payments. According to one study, more than 80% of “Syrian households” were renting apartments and houses in Armenia in 2018. The Covid-19 restrictions complicate this situation to a further extent. As most of the displaced Syrian population is predominantly engaged in the service/hospitality sector of the economy, which is strongly affected by the quarantine measures, the financial resources that allowed them to pay the rent fees are gone.  

Nevertheless, the Government has undertaken specific measures to overcome social consequences of Covid-19. In this regard all displaced populations have the equal access to the provided social support. The legal status of the majority of “people in protracted refugee situations” or “in refugee-like situations” is Armenian citizenship, thus, they have full access to all the social programs initiated by the Government for the alleviation of the social consequences of Covid-19. On the other hand, those whose legal status is “refugee” also have equal access to this support, as is guaranteed by the law (Article 23, The Law on Refugees and Asylum). Thus, the approach of providing targeted assistance to the population segments most in need was chiefly reserved to social and economic needs and not predetermined by the legal status (at least the status of a refugee), which is rather a non-discriminatory approach.

Covid-19 apparently created complications in the sphere of asylum as well. The asylum system in many European countries has come to a standstill, as the face-to-face services and procedures have been suspended or postponed. In the case of Armenia, which doesn’t have very big numbers of asylum seekers, still some complications occurred. Certain cases have been suspended due to the impossibility of conducting face-to-face procedural elements. Some practical recommendations provided by the UNHCR for the management of the asylum system during Covid-19 have been taken into account. The most practical and useful of all practical recommendations in Armenia turned out to be backlog management, as timewise it was some breathing space for the asylum officials to deal with that backlog.

Labor migration

One can note with a good deal of certainty that the implications of Covid-19 on labor migration have most important repercussions in the Armenian context. In statistical terms labor migration is the most complex type of mobility to measure, mainly because one has to rely on the statistics provided by the receiving side and sociological surveys (in both cases not a great problem if the methodology is proper), as administrative statistics is not gathered on the subject upon the exit from the country.

In terms of Armenian labor migrants, the latest study on this subject has been conducted in 2019, which showed that seasonal/circular labor migration (mainly to Russia) is the main mobility trend of citizens of Armenia (R.Yeganyan et al., “Assessment of Armenian external migration”, 2019), though it gradually loses its vitality characteristic. The dynamic of this migratory flow is the gradual loss of its crucial importance for the Armenian economy, which is well reflected on the remittances/GDP ratio. According to World Bank statistics, in 2004 remittances (from all over the world) equaled to around 22% of the GDP of Armenia, while in 2018 the same figure was around 12%. At the same time, according to the Central Bank of Armenia, around 60% of the financial inflow by private entities have been made from Russia, which gives room for reasonably assuming that these amounts are remittances from Armenian labor migrants in Russia.

Nevertheless, the absolute figures of Armenian labor migrants in Russia remain relatively high. According to the information of the Migration Department of the Ministry of Interior of Russia, 210 460 Armenian labor migrants have been registered in that country. The seasonal nature of this type of mobility made it more vulnerable to the situation with Covid-19. Armenian seasonal labor migrants were leaving for Russia in spring and returning in autumn. As the spread of the epidemic both in Armenia and Russia took speed in late winter and early spring of 2020, many of these migrants were unable to leave the country. It is impossible currently to provide any statistical estimate concerning the number of labor migrants that were unable to leave. These estimates can be made only when the administrative migration statistics of Russia becomes available in 2021. Meanwhile, the question of the employment of these labor migrants who never left this year remains on the Armenian agenda. One course of action has been suggested by the Minister of Territorial Administration and Infrastructure, to try to engage these people in massive capital construction projects (mainly road construction and repairs) in Armenia, as they are also engaged in similar types of business and employment in Russia. In this case, the issue has always been the relative competitiveness of wages, which are more favorable in Russia then in Armenia, but in conditions where Covid-19 triggered obstacles make the cost of migration much higher if not impossible, this calculation may be disregarded.

In any case, labor migration has been an extremely important factor both in terms of economy and socio-cultural dimensions for many Armenian families, especially in the countryside (regions of Shirak and Gegharkunik are heavily affected by the phenomenon), thus, the coming year will demonstrate how its absence impacts those families and the society at large. 

Return

In times of Covid-19 the only type of mobility that has not experienced standstill, but on the contrary, has been very much activated, is return. Legal grounds guaranteeing unconditional entry of the citizens to their countries upon their return exist in the majority of constitutions of states. All over the world the consular services have been at the forefront of organizing return operations and have often been stretched to the limits.

The Armenian case was no exception. Though return operations, under the readmission agreements, of Armenian nationals irregularly residing in other countries (mainly European) have been largely suspended, a few readmission cases have occured. The main trouble was and still is the organization of voluntary return operations of the Armenian nationals. Armenian diplomatic and consular representations (55 representations in 44 countries) around the world have been in contact with citizens in more than 50 countries. In a period of a month (March 14 to April 17), the return of 21206 Armenian citizens has been organized. The return geography is quite diverse, starting from Armenian schoolchildren, studying in the US under the FLEX education program, to labor migrants from Russia. This geography included also Armenian citizens returning from Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Czechia, Middle Eastern countries, etc. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has set up hotlines in all diplomatic and consular representations, providing “consular coverage” in more than 50 countries. The main complications of such operations are connected with the internal restrictions on movement in the host countries, restrictions in air travel all over the world, as well as limited quarantine capacities of the country. Nevertheless, Armenian diplomatic and consular representations if unable to organize the return of citizens in short time period, register them, try assist in places with accommodation, food, etc., until the possibility of organizing a return operation emerges. This was quite clearly operated in the case of Russia, though with great deal of difficulty, also on the side of returning citizens who wanted their flights to be organized immediately. The matter was resolved with the assistance of the local Armenian Diaspora and charitable foundations. At the same time this situation both in Armenia and across the world shows further need for strengthening consular capacities and resources.

Conclusion

Covid-19 has shown that migration trends can change, can be reversed, but some sort of human mobility in any circumstances, even the most dire, is inevitable. Perhaps, the phrase “migration will never be the same” is true, but what are the demonstrations of this remain yet to be seen. Nevertheless, some trends in the Armenian context that have been discussed in this paper can be judged to continue or even exacerbate after the restrictions connected with the pandemic are lifted. Refugee protection and the establishment of a well balanced asylum system remains a priority. Meanwhile, the most consequential changes may occur in the trend of labor migration, which has already been losing its vitality for supporting the Armenian economy. The effects that these trends will have on socio-cultural life, especially of the Armenian countryside, may also be significant. At the same time return will further gain more attention of the Armenian Government and the society. The need for further strengthening the capacity for return operation and providing consular support was clearly demonstrated once more.

 

The contents of this publication is the sole responsibility of the author  and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the Heinrich Boell Stiftung Tbilisi Office – South Caucasus Region.