27 Jul, 2020

COVID-19's impact on migration across West Africa and Central Mediterranean Route

by Ekaterina Golovko

1. Migration dynamics in West Africa and on the CMR

Since March 2020 when COVID-19 was classified by the WHO as a pandemic, the impact of the virus on the lives of people has been unprecedented. In West Africa its role for the understanding of regional migratory processes is central: COVID-19 responses had a direct repercussion on migration flows at national and regional level. Such responses had significant repercussions on livelihoods, human security, the economy, safety and political freedoms besides limiting the ability to travel. 

In the last several years, migration dynamics in West and Central Africa have been deeply affected by European migration management and security arrangements with the Libyan coastguard. As a result, since the La Valetta summit and the implementation of anti-smuggling legislation in Niger, migratory flows and arrivals to Europe by sea have been significantly reduced. For a more detailed discussion of migration dynamics see last year’s overview. Already in the pre-COVID period, the CMR had registered much lower numbers than in previous years. For example, in 2019, 123,700 refugees and migrants reached Europe (74,600 to Greece, 11,500 to Italy and 32,500 to Spain), as documented by UNHCR. Nationals of Afghanistan, Syria, Morocco and Algeria represented the most common nationalities. From sub-Saharan Africa the most numerous were nationals of Guinea (5,000), Cote d’Ivoire (4,200), Democratic Republic of Congo (4,100) and Mali (3,800). During 2019, 1,336 migrants were found dead or missing at sea.

Since the eruption of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, migration flows across West and Central Africa have been reduced by almost half, as attested by the data collected by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) at 35 key transit points across these regions. Regional migration in January-April 2020 has reportedly declined by 48% percent (compared to 2019) due to travel restrictions imposed by governments to prevent the spread of the virus[1]. 

2. COVID-19 response and protests in West Africa 

While the first cases were attested in March, until the moment of writing (July 2020) large numbers of cases have not been registered in comparison with other regions. Nonetheless West African governments have reacted very quickly. Often they were criticized of mimicking Western response to COVID-19 centered on lockdowns and border closures instead of finding African solutions to pandemics. On the other hand, these responses were put in place in advance, before the situation became disastrous. These immediate measures were supposed to leave some time for preparation and to slow down the diffusion of the virus. Before the number of new contagions started to grow exponentially, schools and borders were closed and curfews imposed. This timely imposition of measures explains the linear, non-exponential diffusion of the virus observed so far in West Africa. Among the other reasons slowing down its spread are the weakening of the virus in warm climates, the low average age in sub-Saharan Africa (the bulk of the population is under 25), the low detection capacity of national health systems, the high level of incidents of mortality from other diseases endemic to the region, as well as experience built up during the Ebola epidemic of 2014[2].  

At the national level responses varied from states of emergency[3] and public health emergency  to curfews and prohibition of gatherings. Curfews were more often employed to restrict gatherings and movement in the evenings and at night. In particular, the prohibition of religious gatherings was negatively received in Muslim societies where during Ramadan people could not pray in mosques. As a result, social unrest was attested in Niger: 166 people were arrested on the night of April 20 to 21 in Niamey. The International Crisis Group reports “some interpreted the decision to suspend collective prayers as an unacceptable intrusion by the authorities into the practice of their faith”[5].  In fact, full lockdown could not be an adequate measure because of the impossibility for local populations to survive without engaging in daily income-generating activities. The risk of the virus did not seem as dangerous as the economic difficulties of people with no savings and no formal social welfare systems in place. In Burkina Faso, market traders protested at local markets contesting closures. Contravening confinement, clandestine inland transport networks have also emerged[6].  The major dilemma for governments in the region is how to reconcile public health issues with the potential damage to the livelihoods of millions of Africans who are dependent on daily work in the informal sector.

3. The impact of the pandemic on mobility 

Intra-regional migration (and not migration to Europe) represents the most significant form of mobility in the ECOWAS. It was severely impacted by the governments’ decisions to close the borders and limit cross border movements. In the first quarter of 2020 IOM’s DTM registered an increasing number of people on the move compared to the final quarter of 2019. However, the flows dropped significantly between February and March because of the COVID-19 epidemic[7]. The main registered movements were long-term economic migration (43%), short-term local movements (38%) and seasonal migration (14%). 

As a consequence of border closures and other COVID-19 related measures, many transiting and returning migrants were stranded due to lockdowns. According to IOM’s DTM, 21,000 migrants were left stranded and 1,500 quarantined in West and Central Africa[8]. For example, on 20 April migrants deported from Algeria and stranded in IOM’s transit center in Arlit protested against their living conditions. In Niger, one of the major transit countries on the way to North Africa, during the pandemic a special authorization for those travelling by road within the country was required. All travellers were supposed to obtain and present this permit at special COVID-19 checkpoints manned by police officers. These measures had the immediate and visible effect of emptying the roads. Given Niger’s pivotal position in regional migration dynamics, the policy has already started to affect migrant movement north and the human-smuggling ecosystem in the central Sahara[9].  

In this context, several migration assessments in the region expressed concerns that these restrictions would possibly increase illegal border crossings with the help of smugglers and traffickers[10]. According to other sources, instead, some smugglers have decided to suspend their activities, for example those operating across Algeria’s southern borders[11]. Cross border movements between Algeria and Mali have drastically slowed down in the last three weeks of March. Migrant demand for the crossing has also dropped, potentially as a result of internal movement controls imposed to combat COVID-19 by origin or transit countries[12]. Smugglers that seek to continue operations face significant resistance not only from local communities and armed groups, but also from other smuggling networks. Some smuggling groups have issued warnings to other networks, demanding that borders not be crossed to prevent COVID-19 contagion[13]. This is confirmed by data of the Mixed Migration Center (MMC) reporting that respondents in Niger indicated reduced access to smugglers at a substantially higher rate (26%) than in Mali and Burkina Faso (6% in both countries). MMC confirms that some of the interviewed migrants attest smugglers’ reluctance to host them or to work with them[14].  

4. The Impact of COVID-19 on the day-to-day life of migrants and refugees

Migrants have been badly affected by COVID-19 economically. The majority of migrants (82%) interviewed in Tunis and Libya have affirmed that the pandemic has impacted their mobility in a variety of ways, including constraining their movement within the country and across international borders, increasing their risk of detention and deportation, reducing their access to smugglers, and interrupting their resettlement processes[15]. More than half of respondents in Libya and in Tunisia said they had lost income because of the COVID-19 crisis and restrictions related to it[16]. IOM found that in 93% of assessed locations in Libya, migrants relying on daily labor were negatively affected due to the impact of COVID-19 in reducing economic activities. Moreover, in research undertaken to inform the Libya Protection Sector, REACH highlights that increased job insecurity linked to COVID-19 continues to impact people’s ability to cover basic needs and pay rent. This suggests that COVID-19 may impede the mobility of refugees and migrants – beyond movement restrictions and curfews – by constraining their resources and capabilities, causing some to be involuntarily immobile in Libya[17]. 

In the border area between Mali, Cote d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso as well as between Burkina Faso, Togo and Benin, large numbers of seasonal and circular migrants move to reach important agricultural or gold mining areas[18]. As attested by REACH, stranded migrants as well as returning migrants and transit migrants are exposed to growing mistrust of host populations. This means that solidarity networks are reduced and host populations are less available to provide shelter or employment for migrants, especially those newly arrived or in transit[19]. 

Border restrictions are also reducing food availability and access to food for both migrants and persons on the move and for local populations. Restrictions on individuals’ freedom of movement and the slowed transportation of goods have already begun to negatively impact the four dimensions of food security and nutrition: the availability of food, individuals’ economic and physical ability to access food, utilization of food to reach a state of nutritional health, and stability of food sources[20]. In April 2020, the African Union published the Declaration on Food Security and Nutrition During the Covid-19 Pandemic drafted by African ministers for agriculture. In this declaration, member states committed to work “with food and agriculture system traders and transporters, and officials in other sectors and local governments to resolve any bottlenecks affecting the safe movement, transport and marketing of essential people, goods and services in the system[21]”.

The discovery of COVID-19 and the subsequent responses to it have impacted the work of some humanitarian organizations that had to reduce or suspend certain types of assistance and protection activities for IDPs and refugees[22]. This further obstructs their access to basic services, such as housing, food, health, hygiene and protection. In particular, in Mali some reception and transit centers have stopped welcoming new migrants. 

Finally, one of the most significant impacts of COVID-19 on migration is the predicted economic downturn because of the heavy reliance on remittances of migrants in the majority of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. The World Bank expects remittances to decline by 23.1% in 2020 because of COVID-19 with an expected recovery of 4.0% in 2021[23]. This anticipated decline is related to the effects of the outbreak of coronavirus in both recipient and source countries that could probably lead to further poverty, deprivation and social unrest[24]. 

[1] IOM, COVID-19 Impact on mobility in West and Central Africa, April 2020, Publication date May 2020. 
[2] Amandine Dusoulier, La COVID-19 en Afrique de l’Ouest :  une gestion aux multiples facettes,  GRIP, 16 juin 2020.
[3] States of emergency were declared in West Africa in Cape Verde, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Senegal and Sierra Leone.
[4] Declared in The Gambia.
[5] Covid-19 au Niger : réduire les tensions entre Etat et croyants pour mieux contenir le virus https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/sahel/niger/covid-19-au-niger-reduire-les-tensions-entre-etat-et-croyants-pour-mieux-contenir-le-virus.
[6] Amandine Dusoulier, La COVID-19 en Afrique de l’Ouest :  une gestion aux multiples facettes,  GRIP, 16 juin 2020.
[7] IOM, West and Central Africa — COVID-19 — Regional Flow Monitoring Report (January — March 2020), available at: https://dtm.iom.int/reports/west-and-central-africa-%E2%80%94-covid-19-%E2%80%94-regional-flow-monitoring-report-january-%E2%80%94-march-2020
[8] ibid. 
[9] https://globalinitiative.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/GIATOC-Policy-Brief-003-Smuggling-COVID-28Apr0930-proof-4.pdf
[10] REACH, Impact du COVID-19 sur les migrants en transit et de retour au Mali, May 2020.
[11] Lucia Bird, Smuggling in the Time of COVID-19. The impact of the pandemic on human-smuggling dynamics and migrant-protection risks, Global Initiative. Accessible at: https://globalinitiative.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/GIATOC-Policy-Brief-003-Smuggling-COVID-28Apr0930-proof-4.pdf
[12] ibid. 
[13] ibid. 
[14] Mixed migration Center, MMC West Africa 4Mi COVID-19 Snapshot. Impact of COVID-19 on refugees and migrants in West Africa, 13 May 2020. Accessible at: http://www.mixedmigration.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/101_covid_snapshot_WA.pdf
[15] MMC North Africa 4Mi Snapshot. The Impact of COVID-19 on the Mobility of Refugees and Migrants in Libya, May 2020. Accessible: https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/107_covid_snapshot_NA.pdf
[16] Respondents in Libya (21%) and in Tunisia (37%) reportedly did not have an income before the crisis.
[18] https://www.iom.int/fr/news/les-flux-migratoires-travers-lafrique-de-louest-et-lafrique-centrale-ont-ete-reduits-de-pres-de
[19] REACH, Impact du COVID-19 sur les migrants en transit et de retour au Mali, May 2020.
[20] Loic Bisson, Anna Schmauder, Johannes Claes, The Politics of COVID in the Sahel, Clingedael Alert, May 2020.
[21] Meeting of African Ministers for Agriculture. Declaration on food security and nutrition during the COVID-19 pandemic, 16 April 2020. Accessible at: https://au.int/sites/default/files/documents/38439-doc-ministerial_declaration_en.pdf
[22] REACH, Impact du COVID-19 sur les migrants en transit et de retour au Mali, May 2020.
[23] World Bank COVID-19 Crisis through a migration Lens. 
[24] Ibid., p. 28.