Stuck in the pandemic: Research through the COVID-Migration News Database
The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting mobility restrictions have disrupted migration flows and travel around the world. We are Geography doctoral students in the midst of our fieldwork stage, with Raffaella conducting interviews in Ethiopia on migration aspirations and Rachael beginning ethnographic fieldwork in Morocco on translocal social remittances. Like many researchers of migration around the world, we have encountered effects in our research in two main ways: the pandemic’s effect on 1) migration flows and our specific topics of study and 2) our inability to travel to our research sites to conduct participatory, ethnographic fieldwork.
The pandemic has highlighted the vulnerability of place-based research as many research methods cannot be carried out due to travel restrictions and social distancing rules. This has given rise to innovative methods and tools in collecting data remotely, as well as new opportunities to reflect on our positionalities as researchers. That is why we have considered remote approaches to study what is happening at our research sites.
One possibility that presented itself was to follow the news about the pandemic’s effects in Morocco and Ethiopia, as well as within destination countries of Moroccan and Ethiopian migrants. As a recent and ongoing phenomenon, the pandemic is shaping every aspect of migrants’ lives, though the complexity and fast-changing nature of pandemic travel restrictions can make it difficult to grasp and study the immediate implications. News media provide an entry point to analyzing the multi-dimensional effects for migrants, displaced persons, and asylum-seekers and refugees, along with the impacts on host communities. Reviewing this complex relationship during the pandemic is particularly important in light of Sustainable Development Goal 10.7: “Facilitate orderly, safe, regular, and responsible migration and mobility of people including through the implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies.”
Jemaa El-Fnaa at sunset in Marrakesh, Morocco (photo by Rachael Diniega)
COVID-migration news database
Out of the importance of following the pandemic’s impact on migration, as well as logistical concerns created by travel restrictions, the COVID-Migration News Database was born. Created by our working group Trans|Form: Population, Environment, and Development at the Department of Geography and Regional Research, University of Vienna, it is a collection of more than 2,000 news articles from Google News that link COVID-19 and migration around the world. Compilation of news articles began from February 2020 and is ongoing as of April 2021.
This website is designed for researchers and practitioners dealing with the COVID-19 and migration nexus. Users can search the website through categories, locations, and sub-topics to discover relevant information for research questions connecting those two topics, or for background information on the evolution of migration changes brought about by the pandemic. News articles are sorted by both country and topics of interest, with categories such as what migrants are exposed to, how they are affected, and which actors are taking measures to support them. More instructions on how to use the database can be found in our introductory video.
Case study: COVID-19 and migration in Ethiopia
We explain a case study using the database to understand the ongoing challenges for migrants, refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Ethiopia, where Raffaella had begun conducting her fieldwork in 2019 prior to the pandemic. In her research, Raffaella is particularly interested in how social media and the imaginaries they convey about faraway places shape migration aspirations. Furthermore, she is looking into how external structures, like migration policies, influence these aspirations and the capabilities to carry them out.
Using the database in January 2021, Raffaella found in total 84 news reports on the pandemic’s effects on migrants, refugees, and IDPs in Ethiopia as well as on Ethiopian migrants abroad. The database news reports gave a general overview on how the pandemic and the governmental measures taken are especially affecting already vulnerable populations like daily laborers, the urban poor, pastoralists, refugees, and IDPs. As Ethiopia has a long-standing history of hosting refugees, news articles detail how overcrowded refugee camps and poor access to water and sanitation could expose refugees to COVID-19 outbreaks. Furthermore, international and interregional mobility restrictions put in place to contain the virus have not only left migrants stranded in transit, but also interrupted service provisions to IDPs by international organizations, NGOs, and the government.
Market day in Weter, East Hararghe, Ethiopia (photo by Raffaella Pagogna)
The situational overview generated by the database search also gave Raffaella ideas on specific research questions to revise about migration aspirations in the context of the pandemic. During interviews with residents of Harar in 2019, Raffaella repeatedly came across translocal connections and/or migration aspirations and experiences with regard to the United Arab Emirates. Many of the database’s articles now discuss the deportation, detention, and/or immobility of Ethiopian migrant workers in the Gulf and Middle East regions. The huge number of migrant workers returning to Ethiopia during the pandemic has required new emergency assistance and quarantine sites provided by the government and international organizations. For further inquiries, it would be interesting to explore how the pandemic as a structural constraint has impacted existing migration aspirations and also in what ways it has affected the opportunities to migrate.
For Raffaella’s research on Ethiopia, the database provided a useful point of entry during challenging times of research. However, it did not have all the information to answer Raffaella’s revised research questions fully, and there remain limitations to consider in using the database. For example, our team’s method of finding articles through Google News means the selection of articles are subject to the algorithms, language settings, and biases inherent in the Google News search and thus must not be mistaken for the complete range of news reporting on COVID-19 and migration. Not all newspapers, journals, NGO reports, or other media sources are integrated into Google News. The infringement of press freedom by country governments around the world also must push us to consider the stories that are prevented from being told.
Nevertheless, we propose that the database can provide a starting point to analyze articles or collect information regarding migration in times of COVID-19. The search capabilities in the database enable the synthesis of news stories across a broad range of sub-topics and locations. That information can be used to help researchers such as ourselves revise our questions, methodologies, and logistical plans, especially as we, Raffaella and Rachael, hope to return to our research sites in the coming months. We encourage researchers to utilize the database to raise awareness and enable a better understanding of the pandemic’s effects on migrants and their livelihoods around the world.
Rachael Diniega is studying for her PhD Geography as a project assistant at the Research Platform Mobile Cultures and Societies, University of Vienna. She will be conducting multi-sited research in Morocco on the link between translocal social remittances and environmental change. Her interests build from an international background in sustainable development and human rights.
Raffaella Pagogna is studying for her PhD as a research assistant in the research group population, environment, and development at the Department of Geography and Regional Research at the University of Vienna. She conducted fieldwork in Harar, Ethiopia on migration aspirations and structure and agency in the migration decision-making processes.
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