Moving beyond uncertainty amid the pandemic

December 17, 2021 | 05:30 pm PT
Park Mi Hyung Chief of Mission, IOM Vietnam
Two years into the pandemic, I am still anticipating a new normal for human mobility whereby distances can again be measured by hours of traveling rather than by days of quarantine, thickness of paperwork, numbers of QR codes generated, or frequency of headaches.

These days, our office in Hanoi is bustling with small talks about the new travel regulations which are often unclear and confusing to a lot of my staff who need to go to the field or back home for the holidays. Amid those conversations, I feel my anxiety level slowly hitting the roof as I was also preparing for my business trip to Geneva combined with a home visit to Seoul.

As a matter of fact, it was very challenging to understand and navigate the complex web of entry and transit requirements for all the countries that I had planned to visit and pass through. It took me a lot of time to find all the scattered information, and I needed to regularly check for updates to see if any changes were made.

Getting all the paperwork done to get the required documents and codes was another story. After many tries and consultations with our IT staff, local health authorities and the consular offices of two countries, I managed to receive the quarantine exemption letter from the Government of South Korea and the Switzerland’s Covid vaccine certificates (both the paper document and the app) for overseas visitors. This "achievement" felt like my greatest achievement for the year.

Finally, I purchased my tickets and made plans with colleagues in Geneva. My parents and friends started counting the days for my return and if my dog knew that I was coming home, I am sure he would have started waiting for me at the door.

Then Omicron happened.

Within days, governments applied new rules and restrictions. I paid hefty painful cancelation fees. Needless to say, all the travel documents became useless. Time and money I spent in preparation gone to waste. The only consolation was that I hadn't raised my dog's expectation.

The hardest thing for me of living with Covid-19 is the uncertainty. And it seems to affect us and governments alike.

Passengers are at Noi Bai Airport on October 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy

Passengers are at Noi Bai Airport on October 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy

Since the start of the pandemic, more than 111,000 travel-related measures have been taken globally. All governments have been putting a lot of efforts into protecting the health of their citizens, yet with uncertainty shadowing us all, these complexly interlinked yet disparate and frequently changing measures and onerous and at times costly paperwork are unfortunately further increasing uncertainties and exacerbating existing mobility inequalities and vulnerabilities.

Requiring international travelers to prove they are fully vaccinated and have recently tested negative for Covid-19 has become the new "normal". We can all accept that these are necessary steps. Yet we should not accept that they are implemented in a manner that makes the disadvantaged more disadvantaged, the vulnerable more vulnerable.

Only about a half of the world, around 120 countries, provide Covid-19 vaccination access to regular migrants. And the situation for irregular migrants in most countries are quite dire.

Fragmented rules of which vaccines and where they were administered would be accepted, what documentation is required and a lack of compatibility between vaccine apps and QR-codes are even difficult for me to understand and navigate. And I work for the U.N.'s migration agency.

Imagine how difficult it would be for a young girl living in a remote mountainous area in Nghe An in north central Vietnam who only knows her local mother tongue, or an unskilled labor from Ca Mau in the country's Mekong Delta who has not completed high school, to navigate this complex web of information and bureaucracies. Standing near the verge of poverty, their migration dreams carry the families' only hope.

And this is taking place when both push and pull factors of migration are even stronger at play. The pandemic has finally enabled governments, communities and the private sector to recognize the value and contributions of migrants in their workforces and communities, and many are experiencing acute shortage of workers. At the same time, increased unemployment and loss of income are pushing more people wanting to move abroad for better opportunities.

Yet it has become even more difficult for much needed workforce to safely, orderly and regularly migrate. The number of dead and missing migrants globally hasn't changed much even during Covid-19.

We know very well from the history that such perfect storm provides a fertile ground for smugglers and traffickers. They have been enabled to offer even more misinformation and false information and even more costly services demanding migrants to take higher risks.

In the past two years when we've seen dramatic decrease in cross border mobility, airlines and tourism industry going bankrupt, we continue to see reports of trafficking and smuggling happening all over the globe. Criminals thrive on uncertainty and they are very skilled at exploiting it for profit.

Despite Omicron, the spread of vaccines means loosening restrictions and the world inching back to relative normalcy. We've been saying that no one is safe until everyone is safe, and that the world must build back better as we return to the post Covid-19 normal. But unless we consider and address the inequities that people face in accessing "recognized" vaccination, testing, legal identity, documentation, certification and digital infrastructure support, these new conditions of travel will not only leave many behind, but create an ideal environment for criminals to thrive, putting the disadvantaged at great risks.

Therefore, we must think beyond our borders and from the perspective of the most disadvantaged, ensure that predictability and accessibility play keys to cross-border mobility rules. We must be able to agree that facilitating predictable travel that gives all travelers, including migrants, reasonable costs and manageable criteria for entry, will benefit us all. That means first that travel rules are made based on evidence, with a better understanding of to what extent, how and when travel restrictions contribute to effective management of Covid-19 and assess the relative value and risk of different measures and restrictions over the course of a health crisis. That also means travel rules are made clear, simple, available and accessible to all and barriers recognized and addressed.

The United Nations' International Migrants Day on December 18 is thus the perfect time for us to reflect and appreciate the challenges faced by the people on the move as well as their resilience to continue to exercise their freedom and contribute to our society. And most importantly, the day to recommit ourselves to be more inclusive, fair and united in our response to the pandemic.

With New Year and Tet around the corner, again I wish a closer and kinder year for everyone, especially all the migrants around us and those abroad.

*Park Mi Hyung is the Chief of Mission, International Organization for Migration (IOM) – U.N. Migration Agency in Vietnam.

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