Article: ”Covid-19 Is Paralyzing One of West Africa’s Main Resources: Migrants”

The Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) published on April 09, 2020 a commentary by freelance journalist Giacomo Zandonini on the impact of Covid-19 on migration in West Africa.

As the Coronavirus is also spreading across West Africa, the “impacts are huge, multi-layered and sometimes hard-to-detect”. The Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS), the 15-country free movement area, imposed border closures, movement restrictions and curfews in mid-March. Zandonini identifies three categorical effects which revolve around socio-economic impacts, the humanitarian dimension and the management of borders and mobility. 

Mass Movement, Remittances and Blockades

Besides restrictions to regional and internal movements, closure of informal stalls and street-vendor activities had an immense impact on domestic and international migrant workers, mostly employed in the informal sector, which is making 30 to 80 percent of work in the ECOWAS region. As internal migrants were mostly able to move from urban areas to rural to be in their home villages, for international migrants it has been a lot riskier and sometimes impracticable. The construction, agriculture and trade sector are reliant on migrant workers, therefore a disruption of stock and food supply chains is likely. Communities across the region are reliant on the flow of remittances,  which represent 15 to 20 percent of the national economy in Gambia and Liberia. Therefore, migrants left unemployed and blocked in countries without any source of revenue has a massive socio-economic impact on West Africa.

Isolation and further Vulnerability for Migrants and Refugees

The outbreak of the pandemic has also a humanitarian dimension when looking at the situation for then million refugees, internally displaced and stateless people in the region. The already dire situation for persons in informal settlements and camps is now combined with the difficulty to social distance and follow quarantine measures. Additionally, restrictions impact resettlement to safe countries and evacuation from Libya to Niger and Rwanda, while migrants have been pushed back at external borders of the ECOWAS. According to Zandonini, access to welfare provisions and to the labour market is needed to avoid “smuggling activities, the rise of xenophobic sentiments and the manipulation of grievances by armed groups and non-state actors”.

Redesigning Local Borders

Thirdly, the combination of vast, porous borders and the limited effect of enforcement agencies is a dangerous mix, which might lead to increased funding for border controls by European stakeholders,  concerned about increased south-north migration. As the European Union is currently negotiating its next seven-year financial framework, the Coronavirus might turn into a business opportunity for the global security sector in West Africa.

Zandonini concludes that in order for ECOWAS to survive the restrictions on mobility, it has 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”.

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