In West Africa, characterized by movements both within and out of the region, refugees and migrants on the move are among those particularly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and related mobility restrictions. By adapting its 4Mi program in March 2020 MMC has gained important insights by directly asking refugees and migrants on the move in West Africa about the effects of the pandemic on their lives and journeys. Results show that the pandemic is acting as a threat-multiplier, compounding existing risks and vulnerabilities for refugees and migrants on the move in West Africa, as they grapple especially with the socio-economic impact of the pandemic on their livelihood and COVID-19 related barriers to their mobility.
Refugees and migrants interviewed by 4Mi in West Africa have reported reduced access to work as a main impact of COVID-19 on their daily lives, in addition to increased worry and stress, and reduced availability of basic goods. 46% of respondents cited losing income due to the pandemic, which negatively impacted on their ability to continue migration journeys and send remittances.
Figure 1 – What impact has the crisis had on your daily life?
Figure 2 – Have you lost income due to coronavirus restrictions?
Additionally, refugees and migrants in West Africa contend with health concerns, as a vast majority of those interviewed expressed concerns over catching the coronavirus, many report limited ability to take protective measures, as well as barriers to accessing healthcare.
Figure 3 – Would you be able to access health services?
Figure 4 – What are the barriers to accessing health services?
The increased hardship experienced by refugees and migrants in West Africa in their daily lives due to the pandemic will impact on existing drivers of migration, likely particularly on economic ones which are prominent in the region and along the Central Mediterranean Route. Further, UNHCR and IOM reported an uptick in ‘violent attacks in the Sahel’s hotspots’ between March and April, as well as increased numbers of IDPs in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger in March, both developments likely to impact movements in the region.
As movement restrictions were imposed across the world including in West Africa, a decline in regional migration movements was noted by IOM in March, within an overarching reduction of movements in the region between January-May; however, this trend seems to have reversed as movement increased again between April and May. 4Mi interviews reflect this reality, as the majority of respondents noted increased difficulty moving within countries and across borders due to COVID-19.
Figure 5 – What impact has the coronavirus crisis had on your migration journey?
Particularly in Niger, also reduced access to smugglers was mentioned as a major impact of the pandemic on migration journeys, with some 4Mi respondents even noting that smugglers were avoiding them due to fear of the virus. Many were stranded across the region due to travel restrictions, estimated to be around 17,000 by IOM as of the end of May. About a quarter of 4Mi respondents also cited being momentarily stuck, noting that 58% of those in our sample who cited losing income said it resulted in their inability to continue their journey.
Yet, as mentioned above, despite existing barriers and some being momentarily stuck, people continue to move both within the region and towards Europe. In fact, 4Mi respondents in West Africa seem for the moment largely undeterred in their overall migration plans, with 42% of respondents reported not having altered their plans as a result of COVID-19, 17% noting they had changed their route but not their destination and only 5% noting a change in destination.
Figure 6 – Have you changed your plans because of the coronavirus outbreak?
Even so, as an MMC key informant in Agadez observed, the future remains uncertain, and questions about how to move forward with their plans remain – closed borders along the way, ability to find work at their intended destinations, as well as virus transmission during the journey remain central concerns for people on the move. This uncertainty was also reflected by migrants interviewed by IMREF in West Africa who planned to continue their journeys.
Since July 2020, MMC has rolled out a new survey focusing further on the specific impact of the pandemic on mobility. In West Africa, as drivers for migration persist but refugees and migrants face ongoing difficulties moving between countries, 44% of respondents interviewed by 4Mi cited an increased need for smugglers since the onset of the crisis. With increased demand, 56% of respondents in West Africa also noted higher smuggling fees. Finally, greater dependency on smuggling services is likely to increase risks and indeed 60% of respondents in West Africa reported that smugglers had started using more dangerous routes. The risks associated with smuggling services is exemplified by a recent incident in which smugglers abandoned a group of migrant seeking to reach Libya in the Sahara desert.
Both 4Mi data from West Africa and secondary sources reflect that COVID-19 has significantly impacted mobility in the region. While it is hard to predict future volume and direction of migration movements, it seems that despite restrictions and uncertainty many are planning to continue with their journeys where possible, doing so increasingly aided by smugglers. Others will likely find themselves continuously involuntary immobile and faced with precarious living situations due to the economic impact of COVID-19 among other factors. A containment approach to mixed migration in absence of increased and tangible support for those on the move and those stranded amid the coronavirus crisis, could exacerbate existing vulnerabilities and expose people to increasingly dangerous journeys.
35% of respondents were not earning an income prior to the onset o the health crisis.
 Based on 562 remote 4Mi interviews conducted between 2 and 41 July 2020: 166 in Burkina Faso, 212 in Mali and 184 in Niger.