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Were we all trapped? Reflections on immobility during a global pandemic

Updated: Jul 21

Author: Caroline Zickgraf



Photo: Muse Mohammed/IOM

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread globally, governments and international organizations – to various degrees – centered their responses on the prevention or limitation of mobility. “Lockdown” measures caused people, businesses, organizations, and governments all over the world to rethink the value of mobility. This short piece reflects upon the sudden upheaval of global (im)mobility patterns through the lens of ‘trapped populations’ coming from the field of migration and environmental change. It further contemplates how the immobilizing effects of the global pandemic may engender new interest and empathy towards those having to cope with environmental change in situ. 


COVID-19 has had tremendous global implications, not least of which on human mobility patterns. One of the most obvious, and controversial, responses were recommended and/or enforced confinement measures. Countries across the globe more or less shut down in order to halt the spread of the pandemic. International borders by land, sea, and air closed to all but the most essential of travel and transport. And it didn't stop there. Bordering became a local act. In some of the hardest hit countries like China, Italy, France, and Spain, people could not leave their homes except to go to the grocery store or pharmacy, and only then with proper documentation. In a matter of weeks, shops, schools, and businesses shuttered their doors across the world. In April of 2020, some 3.9 billion people, or half of the world's population, had been asked or ordered to stay at home by their governments to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. As a result, words like "lockdown", "confinement", "quarantine" became staples in our daily vocabulary.  


When lockdown measures were first implemented in many countries, concern grew for the toll that confinement would take on people's social, mental, and economic well-being. Statements and slogans such as 'we're all in this together' sought to emphasize collective solidarity.  Some rallied around community spirit and unity, and others begrudgingly accepted their new circumstance and the struggles that came with it in order to combat the spread of COVID-19. Yet, not all saw fit to follow their scientific or governmental advice: small fringe movements cropped up in pockets of the United States like Lansing, Michigan where right-wing groups loudly and vehemently opposed COVID-19 response measures. These groups did not target their wrath at the lack of medical supplies or availability of testing or inconsistent and incoherent national messaging, but rather at the state lockdown, which protestors claimed violated their rights.   


Yet, while the Global North has reacted with both solidarity and disdain, mobility has never been taken for granted in many countries of the Global South. Visas are, by and large, harder to get, borders more difficult to cross, and mobility options limited for those with fewer resources, whether they be human, financial, social forms of capital. While it may be a lightbulb moment for some, the value of mobility is not a grand observation for migration scholars and experts. In migration studies, we researchers typically focus on population movement – its causes, consequences, its opportunities and its challenges – but a smaller, but growing faction of research is also dedicated to a lack of movement, by choice or by force.  Although a continuum of agency is recognized,  most studies focus on 'involuntary immobility' in contexts of povertyconflict, and environmental degradation.  


In environmental migration research, coming from academia, international organisations, development institutions or civil society, involuntary immobility is most commonly referred to as 'trapped populations'. In the simplest of terms, trapped populations are those people who need to move, want to move, and yet lack the ability to do so.  We can (and have) debated the concept of trapped populations, aided by empirical research on the conditions that lead to immobility in environmental crises. We still have a long way to go towards understanding the drivers of immobility, but what we do know is that many of the world's most vulnerable people are those who are unable to escape the sudden, and direct, physical impacts of disasters, and conditions of poverty, famine, and conflict exacerbated by climate change. This research gap is also a political one, where climate action and policies alike tend to neglect the immobile. 


What has become blatantly obvious through this global pandemic is that mobility is something many of us have taken for granted, whether the mobility is international, national, or even outside of our own homes. Immobility has for far too long been put on the backburner, a niche subject barely a blip on political or public radars. The global spread of COVID-19 forced some of the most widespread and severe restrictions on even micro forms of mobility.  Were we all trapped? Have we emerged from an age of migration and plunged into an age of immobility?  


We have indeed been plunged into a new reality, where mobility in all its forms is being limited, and will most likely continue to be constrained to some degree for the foreseeable future. Though it may be tempting to extend the use of 'trapped' populations to COVID-19, I would argue that there are crucial differences between the recent and ongoing situation and those that have been studied in the context of climate change and environmental degradation. Firstly, confinement was temporary: many countries have already eased restrictions. Secondly, trapped populations are predicated on the idea that it is mobility that helps us to escape the threat to our safety, livelihoods, etc. Trapped populations, in fact, gained traction at the same time that 'migration-as-adaptation' discourse was taking hold, a sister concept of sorts, first emerging in the 2011 UK Foresight report.  In this sense, the problem with using trapped populations to refer to COVID-19 enforced immobility is that there is no need to move. Quite the opposite, there is a need to stay put. In cases of environmental degradation, staying in place presents a clear, and sometimes present danger. The (main) threat is not outside of our homes, but rather inside them. 


However, one thing that links immobility in confinement and immobility in environmental contexts is the exposure of gaping disparities. People who are unable to move away from environmental harm are often among the vulnerable segments of societies, those with high levels of poverty, low levels of human and social capital, and those who come from marginalised segments of populations. Despite early false proclamations that COVID-19 was some kind of great equalizer, as events unfolded it became abundantly clear that it was much more illustrative of global (and local) inequalities. People's health risks, jobs, relative wealth, homes, family structure, for example, all resulted in very different risks for the virus.  Black Americans are disproportionately getting sick and dying: they represent 13% of the US population but 23% of COVID-19 related deaths. Given their high rates of job informality and insecurity, overcrowded and precarious living conditions, and limited access to health services, migrants and refugee populations in Latin America, for example, have been one of the most affected by the pandemic.  Pre-existing socio-economic inequalities also result in disproportionate struggles with border closures and confinement. Home isolation poses a much bigger challenge to developing countries, where access to safe drinking water, sanitation, reliable energy, communications technology are far from guaranteed. In developed countries, too, the rich stay in lavish homes filled with amenities, while grocers, cleaners, postal service workers must choose whether their jobs are more important than their risk for contamination. Unlike trapped populations in the environmental context, it is often the poorest and the most vulnerable who are obliged to leave their homes. 


Across the world, the ‘trapping’ effects of COVID-19 responses have been particularly tough on vulnerable migrant communities. In April 2020, more than 14,000 asylum seekers were stuck in border cities along northern Mexico. In sub-Saharan Africa, migrants were left stranded, either after having been deported without due process, or abandoned by smugglers. Hundreds of Rohingya refugees drifted at sea for months unable to dock in Malaysia because of the country’s fight against COVID-19. Border closures and lockdown may have done more than expose inequalities, they may have exacerbated them.  Expanding the use of 'trapped populations' to the context of COVID-19 at a global level risks further marginalising the groups that have faced and will continue to face involuntary (im)mobility long after confinement measures have been lifted.  If everyone is 'trapped', is anyone?  


Yet, whether or not the label applies, and without exploiting a global tragedy claiming nearly 400,000 lives and counting, there may be room to capitalise to some extent on the worldwide experience of immobility.  Can we engender new interest and empathy towards those having to cope with environmental change in situ? Global attention spans can be fleeting, shown time and time again by 'compassion fatigue', whether applied to conflict, disaster, or global pandemics. Most people have never thought about the challenges posed by immobility in areas experiencing climate change. People are much more likely to have heard of 'climate refugees' (even if the term is extensively debated and rejected by most in the field). We have the opportunity to introduce the issue of immobility under rising global warming to a new audience, without repeating mistakes of the 'climate refugee' discourse, including disempowering the very people it intended to help.   


Three key areas should be considered in order to effect change: awareness raising, research, and policy action. The coming months and years present an opportune moment to build upon newfound empathy for the plight of immobile and/or trapped populations amongst the general public, but we must do more than raise awareness. We should not assume that compassion for others will be permanent, or, for that matter, translate into action. In order to overcome compassion fatigue, we must follow through with both more in-depth research and policy action to offer opportunities and pathways for action rather than adding to doom-and-gloom narratives.  Awareness raising must be accompanied by stronger, concerted efforts to research the drivers of immobility and their impacts on the well-being of those affected, not least of which by investigating the mental health of immobile populations. Such research and greater public awareness can drive and better inform more empathetic, proactive and efficient policy measures at local, national, regional, and international levels. In these three areas, we might ensure that what was temporary for some could also be made temporary for the world's most vulnerable.

This article is part of the IOM Series on The COVID-19 Pandemic, Migration and the Environment.

About the author:

Dr. Caroline Zickgraf is Deputy Director of the Hugo Observatory: Environment, Migration and Politics and Research Fellow within the Belmont-forum funded MISTY (migration, transformation, sustainability) international research project. Based in the Department of Geography at the University of Liège, she researches the links between human migration and environmental changes, specializing in the issues of immobility in coastal populations and transnational practices between migrants and non-migrants. Her field research has taken her from Morocco to Senegal to Viet Nam to Comoros.

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