While about 10,000 people in Africa were registered as positive to the coronavirus as of April 7 – a marginal figure if compared to data coming from Europe, Asia or North America – the pandemic outbreak has already had huge, multilayered and sometimes hard-to-detect impacts on the continent.
Consequences for migrants, refugees, stateless people and all citizens on the move have been and will continue to be particularly dire. The Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS), Africa’s 15-country, largest free movement area, stands as an example of how migrants in all conditions are vulnerable both to risks for public health and to the measures adopted to tackle them.
Movement restrictions, border closures and curfews imposed throughout the ECOWAS from mid-March onward affected millions of people on the move, from overcrowded refugee settlements in the conflict-ridden drylands of Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and the troubled Lake Chad basin to volatile and ramified smuggling networks, from urban refugees in mega-cities such as Lagos and Accra to millions of seasonal rural workers in guesthouses in Ivory Coast or Burkina Faso.
As questions still outgrow answers, it’s possible to trace potential scenarios, based on the existing knowledge of an inherently dynamic phenomenon. These revolve around social-economic impacts, the humanitarian dimension and the management of borders and mobility. Strictly intertwined and combined with behaviours of state authorities and non-state actors, these elements might accelerate existing trends but also open ways for new measures and a stronger recognition of the positive role of mobility.
Mass movements, remittances and blockades
Restrictions to both regional and internal movements and to vital economic activities, with a partial closure of markets and the frequent removal of informal stalls and prohibition of street-vendor activities, had immense impacts on domestic and international migrant workers and their families, often employed in the informal sector, which is estimated to serve 30 to 80 percent of workers in the ECOWAS region.
As in several countries around the world, these measures were accompanied or anticipated by large movements of population from urban to rural areas. “A striking phenomenon, if we consider that urbanization was one of the defining characteristics of mobility in the 20th century”, in the words of Roberto Forin, a researcher with the Geneva-based Mixed Migration Center, that launched a data-collection programme to analyse the impacts of the pandemic on migrations globally.
While hundreds of thousands of internal migrants had opportunities to leave Bamako, Lagos, Dakar or Abidjan to reach their home villages, for international migrants this process has been riskier and sometimes impracticable. The whole map of West Africa is dotted with episodes of blockade, some of which were ongoing at the time of this publication: 75 Nigeriens were stuck in a no-mans-land at the border between Mali and Burkina Faso, 800 travellers were kept for days at the Togo-Benin border and 600 were stranded along the Ivory Coast-Burkina Faso frontier, as reported by the International Organization for Migration.
On the one hand, these movements will impact economic sectors relying on migrant manpower, such as construction work, agriculture and trade, and might also connect with the disruption of stock and food supply chains. On the other, remittance flows are already dramatically slowing down. In 2018, the World Bank tracked 27 billion dollars in remittances to countries in the ECOWAS. Such flows represent 15 to 20 percent of the national economy in Gambia and Liberia and lower but relevant shares in other countries.
With migrants left unemployed and blocked in countries other than their own, where they have limited access to any source of revenue, these sums already fell drastically over the last month. According to ICMPD advisor Hugo Brady, “operators like Western Union or MoneyGram report a 40-85 per cent drop-off from countries in lockdown such as Italy and the UK”, which are home to hundreds of thousands of West Africans. Cutting the cost of cash-based transactions could then be vital to reduce the impacts of this sudden, dramatic decrease.
Isolation and further vulnerability for migrants and refugees
Looking at the humanitarian dimension, international actors rang an alarm bell on the situation of ten million refugees, internally displaced and stateless people living in the region. These include people who escaped jihadist attacks and counterterrorism operations in the Sahel, where decades-long insurgencies led by Boko Haram and Al-Qa’ida factions turned into long, asymmetric wars; refugees from past conflicts in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast and the current war-ravaged western Cameroon, as well as political opponents and threatened minorities.
Dozens of informal settlements and camps throughout the region hardly guarantee sufficient water provision and healthcare for these groups, let alone social distancing and quarantine measures. While the United Nations system is launching dedicated programmes to avoid outbreaks in these communities and pushing global donors to provide extra funds, access to populations in need is further compromised by the new emergency, and borders risk being closed to people seeking asylum.
Restrictions also affect all operations of resettlement to safe countries for refugees, including an evacuation programme for people detained in Libya to be set up by the UNHCR and relying on temporary hospitality in centers in Niger and Rwanda. Voluntary return schemes for migrants stranded or detained in Libya and Niger to other countries of origin in West Africa are also suspended, while groups of travellers have been violently pushed back at the external borders of the ECOWAS, between Niger and Libya, Niger and Algeria and Mali and Algeria, forcing international organizations to provide emergency assistance.
People on the move, to North Africa or to richer coastal states in the ECOWAS region, are and will be increasingly stuck in countries where they weren’t planning to stay, without access to welfare provisions and to the labour market. A condition of “involuntary immobility, that will make them further disempowered and vulnerable”, warns Roberto Forin. Specific policies, including regularizations, temporary authorizations to stay and welfare support need to be adopted to avoid recourse to smuggling activities, the rise of xenophobic sentiments and the manipulation of grievances by armed groups and non-state actors.
A last remark goes to the evolution of border management throughout the ECOWAS region. Apart from a few exceptions, only documented traders carrying merchandise are authorized to cross land, sea and air borders in the region, in an unprecedented closure since the ECOWAS Free Movement Protocol was signed forty years ago.
Redesigning local borders
Nonetheless, a combination of vast, porous borders and limitedly effective enforcement agencies, often denounced for their corrupt practices, make for a dangerous mix in terms of containment strategies and might lead to increased funding for border controls by willing European donors, concerned about the pandemic as much as about mobility patterns and smuggling networks from the region to North Africa, and potentially to European shores.
While the International Organization for Migration is planning a scale-up in its border activities, to prepare national authorities for medical checks and quarantine periods close to crossing points, the coronavirus emergency might turn into a business opportunity for the global security sector and re-orient European Union external funds for Africa, in a delicate moment for determination of the next seven-year financial framework.
If the ECOWAS, a fragile creature, wants to survive lockdowns and closures, it will need to recognize the fundamental contribution of migrants to the economic and social life of the region, improve relations between countries and their diasporas and re-think free movement and regional integration, negotiating with its main international partners and donors. While emotionally-driven public statements and decisions might accompany the awaited growth in the number of positive cases – a 10,000 threshold should be reached in every bloc’s country around mid-May according to projections by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine – addressing the issue of migrants and refugees will be crucial for the future one of the most mobile areas of the world.