COVID-19 did not stop the Western Hemisphere Program: countries report success in capacity building during 2020
This October 2020, IOM presented to its partners the achievements of the last 12 months of the Western Hemisphere Program. This presentation took place in the framework of the annual planning meeting of the program, which this year was carried out in a completely virtual way and gathering the eleven countries where this IOM initiative is implemented. The constant among panelists was to highlight the successful adaptation to the challenges posed by COVID-19 in the four axes of the program: migration management, alliances, preparation for migration crises and communication for development.
"The Western Hemisphere Program is one of the most sustained and important initiatives of the IOM in this region," highlighted Michele Klein-Solomon, IOM’s regional director for Central America, North America and the Caribbean. "Particularly in the difficult context of the pandemic, and having a strong component on labor migration, this program will be a powerful tool to help include migrants in the socio-economic recovery efforts”.
This space was attended by key government officials implementing the program with IOM, representatives of the donor country, special guests, and the various IOM offices that provide experts and technical assistance to these governments to make migration in the region a safer option. In total, there were more than 20 exchange sessions throughout the month, with an average of over 50 participants in each.
A year adapting to the crisis
Among the achievements mentioned by the participants was the strengthening of virtual tools already available to IOM, such as the E-Campus platform, which allowed a rapid adaptation to the new realities of the work of migration officials generated by COVID-19. This was promoted both with the general public (for example, getting more than 7,000 people to complete courses in El Salvador), and by establishing key alliances and cooperation agreements for institutions to use the platform as part of their training activities (for example, IOM Dominican Republic signed a memorandum of understanding with the School of the National Institute of Migration).
Similarly, the IOM program supported important advances to strengthen the countries' capacities in labor migration management and to encourage the socioeconomic integration of migrants, for example, through the expansion of the Labor Channeling Mechanism (MECAL) in Mexico. Other countries, such as Costa Rica, expedited mechanisms for the regularization of migrants, while Honduras and Belize were able to lay solid foundations for the development of comprehensive migration policies.
"They are helping us strengthen our capacities in this policy we are developing, including both political and civil society actors. We want to obtain a more consulted and socialized public policy that allows us to give better attention to our people and to migrants in transit," explained Ricardo Montes, Vice Minister of Justice of the Honduran Ministry of Governance, Justice, and Decentralization.
In the area of promoting alliances and cooperation, regional activities continued virtually, achieving the exchange of experiences between States and United Nations agencies despite the distance. Within the framework of the Regional Conference on Migration (RCM), important issues such as the fight against illegal smuggling of migrants, the role of labor migration in socioeconomic recovery, or the protection of migrant children and adolescents, to name a few, were discussed. Despite COVID-19, the program also managed to support the holding of cross-border migration roundtable meetings between Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, at a key moment when the borders were about to be reopened.
The work on the Emergency and Communication pillars was closely linked during 2020. IOM rethought its communication for development processes with communities, integrating new approaches to respond to COVID-19 and border closure concerns. Thus, the IOM Panama team led the interagency response to migrants stranded at migration reception stations, opening communication channels in the migrants' native languages to reduce the stress caused by the same situation and the lack of reliable information about the near future.
At the same time, IOM provided cooperation in several countries to improve living conditions in migrant centers. In northern Central America, a campaign was developed with six communities to address the challenges of young people in recognizing reliable sources and information on migration in the context of COVID-19.
Laura Sánchez, advisor to the General Directorate of Migration and Aliens in Costa Rica, highlighted IOM's support in adapting to the crisis scenario: "the projects that had been planned for 2019 have had to be adapted and modified to meet the new challenges we have faced this year. We have made an effort not to leave the migrants who are in the country, either regularly or irregularly, unprotected".
The Western Hemisphere Program has completed ten years working in Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean to strengthen government capacities to manage the challenges that migration can pose and maximize its benefits. This IOM program is generously supported by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.