"All migrants have the right to equal protection of all their human rights. These principles are established in the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. However, we often hear damaging and false stories about migrants. And we often see them facing untold hardship as a result of policies shaped more by fear than by facts," the UN Secretary-General said last December. The thousands of refugees who leave their countries in Africa each year now face an additional challenge: surviving a pandemic like the coronavirus. This pathogen has paralysed the world, including migration routes, forcing hundreds of people to be trapped on this continent and depriving them of the opportunity to reach their destination or return home.
Migratory movements have been a constant in the history of Africa. Flows of migrants or refugees are more intra-continental than to Europe or the Middle East. However, at present, the two busiest routes are the one linking the Horn of Africa through the Gulf of Aden to the Middle East and the central Mediterranean route from Libya to Europe. Even so, if Africa is characterized by something, it is because it is a nomadic continent that is always in movement. In Central and West Africa, transhumant pastoralists and their families make up at least 20% of the total population of this region. These people, like many of the refugees fleeing the conflicts that are devastating their countries, have been forced to cease their activity due to the closure of borders.
"I've been stranded here for weeks, and I can't send money to my parents and my wife because I have to use the money to pay for food and accommodation," Malick told the World Organization for Migration (IOM). Malick is a Senegalese businessman who used to travel to Mauritania once a week to do business. With the arrival of the new coronavirus, he has been stranded in Mauritania. "Now I can no longer support my family in Senegal because I am not working," he said.
The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) estimates that there are currently 9.5 million migrants from West and Central Africa in the region, of whom more than 100,000 are considered returned migrants. The International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development has published a report indicating that cross-border trade in the Sahel region exceeds 12 percent of the trade volume of the entire region. People living from such activities have been condemned to suffer the consequences of border closures and other measures taken in the countries of the region by the arrival of COVID-19.
"Many cross-border traders are calling to ask when the border will be reopened. We try to explain to them that the border must remain closed for now in order to lower the curve of COVID-19, but we know that it is difficult for them to accept this," said Malick Singhateh, a public health officer at the Sabi border post in The Gambia. Still, closing borders is not the only challenge these people face. IOM has warned through an official statement that such actions have led to a dramatic increase in the prices of food and other commodities. According to the same agency, at least 20,000 migrants have been trapped at the borders, with nearly 2,000 others waiting in transit centres. This number is in addition to the more than 5.1 million internally displaced persons who have been forced to leave their homes due to conflict or natural disaster.
The overcrowded conditions in which these people live pose a risk to containing the pathogen that has conquered much of the world. In addition, migrants and internally displaced persons do not have assured access to public health care systems. "Failure to include migrants and displaced populations in the response to COVID-19 can make such a response a total failure. No person will be safe until everyone is safe," said Sophie Nonnenmacher, IOM Regional Director for West and Central Africa.
"Migrants and displaced communities must be considered an integral part of any effective public health response. Border closures cannot be sustained in the medium and long term. IOM stands ready to support countries in reopening border posts in a timely and secure manner," she added.
On the Horn of Africa route, the UN migration agency has recorded a sharp drop in the number of migrant crossings, based on data collected by the BBC. According to this information, only 1,725 migrants from the Horn of Africa arrived in Yemen in April, compared to 7,223 in March, 9,624 in February and 11,101 in January this year. More than 138,000 people crossed the Gulf of Aden into Yemen last year, compared to more than 110,000 in the Mediterranean during the same period, according to data collected by IOM's Displacement Tracking Matrix.
The aim of the people crossing the so-called Eastern Route is not to stay in Yemen, a country in the midst of one of the cruellest wars of the current century. The UN stresses that more than 90 percent of the people who managed to reach Yemen continued their route to Saudi Arabia. A large part of them -92 percent- come from three rural regions of Ethiopia: Oromia, Amhara and Tigray.
"While the tragedies on the Mediterranean routes are well documented, our staff witness daily the abuses suffered by young people in the Horn of Africa at the hands of smugglers and traffickers who exploit their hopes for a better life," Mohammed Abdiker, IOM's regional director for the East and Horn of Africa, said in an official statement issued by the UN.
Before the arrival of the coronavirus, thousands of people managed to reach Yemen. However, during their route they had to face a series of difficulties such as organized crime that materializes in the form of smugglers or traffickers. "To get to Yemen, they piled about 280 of us on a boat. There was no oxygen, and some people committed suicide by throwing themselves into the sea," a 32-year-old Ethiopian told IOM in the Yemeni city of Aden.
"When we arrived in Yemen, the smugglers held us for a month. We were beaten, tortured, abused and threatened with ransom. My family sent $900 to save my life, so they released me and others who had paid," lamented another young Ethiopian man, just 18 years old. Most people arriving in Yemen come from the port of Bosaso in Somalia, according to UN estimates.
With the arrival of the coronavirus, Ethiopia has had to accommodate hundreds of migrants in informal settlements around the city. In addition, COVID-19 has had the power to exacerbate certain attitudes such as racism, which IOM believes is the order of the day in these refugee camps. "I've been here for about three months. The coronavirus has changed everything. I can't go on. I can't go back because all the borders are closed," said a young Ethiopian, as reported by the BBC.
Human trafficking networks have also been affected by the disease of the age of globalisation. In Djibouti, hundreds of migrants have been abandoned to their fate, according to the BBC report, which also reports that across the Red Sea, in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, nearly 3,000 Ethiopian migrants have been deported in cargo planes because they were suspected of having the coronavirus.
Data provided by the UN Refugee Agency states that in the first four months of this year, the Libyan Coast Guard has collected 3,078 refugees and migrants in the sea, compared to 1,126 in the same period last year. The coronavirus crisis and the upsurge in fighting in the North African nation have led thousands of people to flee in search of a better future. "The conflict and the COVID-19 pandemic represent a major threat to life in Libya. The health and safety of the entire population in the country is at risk," said UNHCR.
One of the sectors that has suffered the most from this pandemic is the healthcare workers. In March 2020, there were more than 850 restrictions on the movement of humanitarian personnel and goods into and out of Libya. The number of migrants and refugees who have been intercepted at sea and returned to Libya stands at 3,200. "Many end up in one of the eleven official detention centres. Others are taken to unofficial detention facilities or centres to which the humanitarian community has no access. The United Nations has reiterated that Libya is not a safe place and that people rescued at sea should not be returned to arbitrary detention," the UN said in an official statement.
The appearance of the coronavirus in this country poses a new risk to a health system that is already overwhelmed and does not have the capacity to care for all vulnerable people. "Food security, which is already a challenge, is compromised by the spread of COVID-19 and its socio-economic impact on Libyan families. Recent market assessments show that most cities are facing shortages of basic foodstuffs, along with rising prices," UNHCR said.
In April, Malta announced that it would not allow migrants rescued in the Mediterranean to enter the country as its ports were insufficiently secure due to the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, South Africa - one of the continent's most affected countries - has taken advantage of this health crisis to build a border fence with Zimbabwe. In this scenario of instability and uncertainty, migrants continue to arrive on the island of Lesbos.
"Irregular migrants, asylum seekers and victims of exploitation or trafficking are at great risk from the coronavirus because they live or work in environments that could expose them without the necessary protection," the UN said last April. A month later the risk remains the same or even higher. A response plan to this pandemic also needs to take into account all those people who have been trapped in the hope that sooner or later they will be able to start their lives again away from the threats that forced them to flee.