When COVID-19 brought the world – and with it, migration – to a halt in March 2020, the MIDEQ Hub was about to embark on an intense period of fieldwork in 12 countries of the Global South. The aim? To better understand the relationships between migration and inequality and to identify ways in which the potential benefits of South-South migration could be brought to bear on improving the lives of individuals, families and communities as well as development processes more generally.

We had spent more than 12 months setting up the project…grappling with complex legal agreements, recalibrating financial processes, designing our research questions, and building relationships. None of it was easy. A project of this scale and complexity really brings home the structural inequalities that dominate the research landscape and which go some way towards explaining how current understanding of migration has come to be dominated by the political and policy interests of the Global North. They also affirm the need to recentre the South in studies of migration.

But more of that another time.

The challenge back in March was how to move forward when the issues on which MIDEQ is focused had fundamentally shifted in ways that none of could have predicted – and still can’t. As I wrote back in April, the relationship between migration and inequality is profound but largely under-analysed. We know that migration can reduce inequality and contribute to positive development outcomes by redistributing resources at the national, regional and even global levels. But COVID-19 has severely disrupted access to the opportunities associated with migration, undermining the potential developmental benefits and creating new challenges for policy efforts aimed at securing improved outcomes for migrants and their families.

The pandemic’s impact on migration and inequality is complex

Seven months into the pandemic it is clear that COVID-19 has amplified existing inequalities and created new ones in the countries in which our work is focused. There are plenty of examples already and more emerging.

Malaysia is a country which is heavily dependent on the labour of both documented and undocumented workers. It produces two-thirds of disposable rubber gloves worldwide, largely using migrant labour from Nepal and Bangladesh.

Whilst the companies producing disposable gloves are thriving during the pandemic, migrant workers are not. According to MIDEQ researchers, it appears that governments seeking to secure PPE for their frontline healthcare workers have chosen to overlook concerns about the appalling conditions experienced by many of these workers due to increased demand. Meanwhile, the Malaysian government has chosen to blame migrants for the pandemic and used it as a pretext for arbitrary detention and deportation.

Nepali migrant workers are among those returning from Malaysia in significant numbers. According to MIDEQ researchers in Nepal, the consequences are not entirely negative: returnees are contributing to agricultural productivity and rebalancing a growing dependence on remittances from migrant labour and there is potential for the role of intermediaries to diversify. Nonetheless the significant downturn in the flow of resources into Nepali families and communities associated with COVID-19 is certain to have implications.

In Ethiopia, similarly, remittances make a crucial contribution to the macroeconomic balance, providing a much-needed source of foreign exchange. MIDEQ researchers have focused on better understanding the implications of COVID-19 for the significant flows that reach communities through informal rather than formal channels. Their focus is on the Hadiya-Kembata region in Southern Ethiopia, a major place of origin for Ethiopian migrants to South Africa. It is clear from MIDEQ’s research that the national lockdown has caused many migrant-owned small businesses to either collapse or find themselves of the verge of bankruptcy.

In Haiti too there are significant concerns that any decrease in remittance transfers poses an immediate threat to the health and well-being of many Haitian families. Here as elsewhere MIDEQ researchers with a deep knowledge and understanding of the social, policy and economic dynamics are on the ground, monitoring the impacts of the pandemic as they unfold and providing invaluable new insights.

MIDEQ Co-I Kando Amédée Soumahoro wearing a mask. Photo by Kando Amédée Soumahoro for MIDEQ.

Rethinking our approach in light of COVID

Of course undertaking fieldwork and data collection under these circumstances has necessarily created significant new challenges on top of those that already existed.

In all of the countries in which MIDEQ’s researchers live and work, the pandemic has been associated with travel restrictions as well as bans on gatherings and meetings with people from different households. COVID-19 has been used a pretext for negative political debates and policies on migration, not only in Europe but around the world. The pandemic has made it even more difficult to reassure migrants that they can trust the people asking them questions. And of course, we need to protect the health of researchers and respondents alike where meetings are able to take place.

The ability, creativity and willingness of MIDEQ’s researchers to adapt to their new COVID-19 research environments has been remarkable.

Many of our research teams have adapted their approaches and questions to ensure that they are able to capture the complex relationships between migration and inequalities. This is reflected in the growing number and diversity of MIDEQ blogs. They have also changed the ways in which they undertake their research.

Some have taken their research online. Researchers have conducted 40 online interviews with Nepali migrants in Malaysia and more than 350 online interviews on the use of digital technologies among migrants and migrant households in Nepal, Ghana and South Africa.

Our team in Haiti have found ways to undertake research combining both quantitative methods and the ethnographic fieldwork needed to help deepen our understanding of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on families of migrants. Here as elsewhere, specific protocols have been developed to ensure researcher and participant safety and security during fieldwork activities.

Meanwhile we have adapted the instruments for the survey to include questions specifically on the impacts of COVID-19 on migrants and on their families in countries of origin. We anticipate that data collection will begin in the Burkina Faso-Cote d’Ivoire corridor, in Ghana and in Haiti before the end of the year.

Of course, whether this will be possible in practice will depend on how the situation evolves over coming months, not just in terms of the pandemic itself but in terms of the political and policy response. It is clear that we will need to continue to be flexible in our approach, adapting to the circumstances of migrants and to the evolving contexts within which South-South migration is embedded.

Perhaps the only thing that is clear right now is that the work of the MIDEQ Hub has never been more important or necessary. Now 18 months into the project, our team of more than 60 researchers around the world is exceptionally well placed to unpack the relationships between migration, inequality and development, in whatever forms they emerge. And we will continue to do so.