The Covid-19 crisis has disproportionately impacted people on the move, and as we now enter the next phase of the response—the widescale vaccine roll-out—we need to ensure that "leaving no one behind" and "equitable access to vaccines" are not just phrases, but practice.
Although the number of vaccinations globally has overtaken reported Covid-19 infections, only a quarter of national deployment and vaccination plans submitted to the COVAX Facility include migrants. Due to the highly contagious nature of the virus, we know that migrants remain at higher risk of infection due to many factors, including frequently overcrowded living and working conditions and lack of access to preventative health care. Excluding migrant workers, especially women migrant workers, from vaccination plans carries the risk of ongoing transmission in these populations, with spillovers into the national population in countries of destination.
Ensuring that migrant workers are included in the vaccine rollout is key to ending the pandemic. There are tangible protection risks associated with excluding migrant workers, ranging from consequences for their health, access to services, work, education and livelihoods, freedom of movement and freedom from discrimination. It is impossible to break or sustainably slow the transmission of the virus unless a minimum of 70 percent of the population has acquired immunity. The United Nations Network on Migration in Bangladesh calls on all stakeholders to advocate for vaccine access for the 7.8 million Bangladeshi migrants living abroad as well as to encourage vaccine uptake by aspirant migrants in Bangladesh.
While national authorities are responsible for public health responses, all countries should ensure that all people, regardless of their migration status, are given equitable access to vaccines. The provisions may be aligned to the prioritisation criteria of the country.
With many migrants playing vital, life-saving roles in the coronavirus pandemic, it is important—especially in countries where migrants make up a large percentage of frontline workers—that prioritisation plans for Covid-19 vaccines should be inclusive of migrants, depending on local epidemiology, health system capacities and migration profiles.
Before the pandemic, Bangladeshi migrant workers abroad, particularly women working as domestic workers, often faced challenges or barriers to access healthcare support, and these have been aggravated by Covid-19-related sector lockdowns, job losses, and restrictions on movement. According to the Ministry of Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment, over 400,000 migrant workers returned to Bangladesh in the past year. For many returnees, re-migration is essential in order to support their families and pay back debts incurred during the pandemic. The UN Network calls on all private and public sector partners to raise awareness on the importance of vaccination amongst aspirant migrants.
As many healthcare systems in countries of destination have been overwhelmed responding to the crisis, it is important that departing migrants are vaccinated for their own protection and that of the communities they will join abroad. We all have a responsibility to ensure that migrants are aware the vaccine can protect them against the virus. Governments should prioritise migrants for vaccination and accordingly arrange online registration and make provisions for migrants with low literacy levels and no access to smartphones so that they can receive vaccines without obstacles. For migrants, enhancing support to acquiring national identity cards is crucial.
Ensuring equitable access to vaccines for all people is not just a moral issue but also an economic one. The rebound of the global economy is directly tied to the success of vaccination programmes. In a world where all economies are connected, widescale vaccination will accelerate economic recovery.
Labour migration has greatly contributed to Bangladesh's development, and in 2020, migrants remitted over USD 21.9 billion. Protecting migrant workers' access to labour markets is a key priority, and while authorities in countries of destination are revising policies and guidelines related to recruitment and employment in a post-pandemic world, the Network urges stakeholders to encourage aspirant migrants to get vaccinated as a first step to facilitate their migration and provide protection against the virus.
Migration stakeholders should reach out to communities to directly engage them in campaigns and vaccination efforts that use community partners who have trusted and established relationships. Integrating and welcoming community groups and members into the process is vital and can provide invaluable allies in building trust and relationships, guiding communication and logistics, and providing critical feedback. The Network calls on national and international organisations, the private sector and civil society partners to support vaccination efforts in Bangladesh adhering to the principles of universal health coverage, the duty to follow an equitable allocation and leaving no one behind, and in mitigating vaccine hesitancy through effective information campaigns.
Public health agencies tasked with implementing Covid-19 vaccine rollout in the communities with high migration should seek to understand the community's vaccine beliefs and practices and reduce barriers to vaccination by intentionally partnering with the community. For effective distribution, and in the face of possible hesitancy and lack of trust in the communities, the Network highlights the need for stakeholders to ensure that proper community engagement activities about the new vaccine are implemented, directly addressing people's possible misinformation or misperceptions, highlighting the importance of vaccination in their possible future migration, ensuring that information are provided at grassroots levels in a culturally adequate manner.
Network members are committed to support the government in informing and persuading migrants and their communities to get vaccinated and communicating on how, where and when to access the vaccines. The Network stands ready to support the government of Bangladesh to advocate for inclusion of migrants irrespective of status in any immunisation roll-out for Covid-19.
The Bangladesh UN Migration Network was launched to support the government of Bangladesh to implement the Global Compact for Migration (GCM) and in August 2020, Bangladesh agreed to be a "champion" country for GCM. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the Network has provided strategic guidance to the government on the impact of the crisis on Bangladeshi migrants, convened workshops to solicit inputs for the draft GCM National Action Plan, produced a body of evidence and research to support targeted interventions, and provided technical guidance as requested. Network members will continue to support government-led efforts that place migrants and their communities at the centre of recovery planning in Bangladesh.
This article has been written on behalf of the Bangladesh United Nations Network on Migration by Mia Seppo, UN Resident Coordinator; Giorgi Gigauri, UN Migration Network Coordinator, Chief of Mission, IOM; Tuomo Poutiainen, Country Director, ILO; Sudipto Mukerjee, Resident Representative, UNDP; Asa Torkelsson, Representative, UNFPA; Johannes van der Klaauw, Representative, UNHCR; Tomoo Hozumi, Representative, UNICEF; Sergey Kapinos, Regional Representative, UNODC Regional Office for South Asia; and Shoko Ishikawa, Representative, UNWOMEN.