Pandemic Borders

What will international migration in West Africa look like after COVID-19?

Travel restrictions may force more and more West Africans to use irregular channels of migration in the future.

Joseph Teye
16 December 2020, 9.09am
Passengers arriving at the Lagos International Airport from Lebanon after a five-month closure of the Nigerian airspace due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 6 September 2020
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Olukayode Jaiyeola/NurPhoto/PA Images . All rights reserved
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With COVID-19 disrupting travel, shutting borders, and redefining what is essential work, Pandemic Borders explores what international migration will look like after the pandemic, in this series titled #MigrantFutures

Migration is an integral part of life in West Africa, a region that experiences a high level of intra-regional mobility. The closure of land borders as part of the measures taken to fight the pandemic has seriously affected the livelihoods of those who depend on cross-border economic activities. But what will be the impact of this pandemic on the long term for migration in this region?

Although COVID-19 may not significantly change the willingness of low-skilled persons to migrate internally and internationally in search of better economic opportunities, the possible extension of travel restrictions by governments of certain destination countries may force more West Africans to use irregular channels of migration. The economic downturn caused by COVID-19 may also reduce job opportunities in some destination countries, thereby reducing migration flows to such countries. It is therefore recommended that migration facilitation should be incorporated into COVID-19 management programs in West Africa.

Intra-regional mobility

Migration in West Africa is mixed and includes refugees, victims of trafficking, and labour migrants. While political narratives and media images suggest an ‘exodus’ of West Africans to Europe, a majority (i.e. 95%) of migrants from West Africa have been moving internally or to other countries within the sub-region. Intra-regional migration is facilitated by the Protocol on Free Movement of Persons, Right of Residence and Establishment which was adopted in 1979 by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

As part of the measures to control the spread of COVID-19, many of the West African countries closed their international borders in April 2020. Cross-border economy and circular mobility, involving farmers and itinerant traders, which is a common feature of livelihood in the sub-region has been greatly affected. The closure has also damaged the economies of several border communities. Meanwhile, some West African migrants are stranded in border towns as they wait for land borders to open.

While political narratives and media images suggest an ‘exodus’ of West Africans to Europe, 95% of migrants from West Africa have been moving internally or to other countries within the sub-region

The closure of borders practically led to the ‘suspension’ of the ECOWAS free movement protocol. There are cases where ECOWAS citizens who violated the ‘new travel restrictions’ and crossed the borders into other countries were arrested and sometimes deported. While the international airports have been reopened recently to facilitate international travels, many of the land borders which are used by a majority of West African citizens are still closed.

However, just as the borders between countries affected by Ebola were reopened when the disease was brought under control, intra-regional migration is predicted to return to pre-COVID-19 levels once the pandemic is over. The ECOWAS Secretariat is already pushing for the safe reopening of West African land borders to allow intra-regional mobility.

Closing legal channels of migration

The pandemic has also had a negative impact on international migration of West Africans. While some are stranded in some destination countries, especially in the Middle East, anecdotal evidence suggests that many of the popular destination countries have reduced the number of visas issued to West Africans, as only essential travel is allowed in some cases. At the same time, many of the migration schemes through which West Africans are recruited for job placement in some of the emerging destination regions, such as the Gulf countries, have been suspended as a result of the pandemic.

There are also fears that some destination countries may restrict inflows of West African migrants for fears that such migrants may spread the virus. COVID-19 may also cause rising xenophobia as migrants are increasingly portrayed as carriers of the virus. For instance, some months ago, there were already reports that African migrants who arrived in China were being evicted from their residences for fears that they were responsible for the second wave of COVID-19 in the country. This led foreign ministries of some African countries to issue statements condemning the attacks.

COVID-19 may also cause rising xenophobia as migrants are increasingly portrayed as carriers of the virus

Additionally, while it is expected that regular migration pathways will reopen once COVID-19 is over, some low-skilled potential migrants fear that a few governments of popular destination countries in Europe and North America may exploit COVID-19 mobility restrictions to implement broader, long-term immigration restriction policies designed around xenophobia. 32 year old Ajura who lives in Accra wants to migrate, but he explains during an interview:

“My brother is in Germany and he was helping me to get a visa to join him before this disease started. Now I am so worried because the rich countries which already don’t want us to come there can use this COVID-19 as an excuse to refuse visa applications.”

Despite these fears over potential increased border restrictions, COVID-19 may only increase xenophobia without having significant effects on immigration policies in popular destination countries. There is however a strong possibility that a decline in economic growth caused by COVID-19 will reduce job opportunities in several destination countries, thereby making migration to such countries undesirable. It is also feared that in response to risk of infections, restrictions to internal movement and quarantines associated with COVID-19, some employers will find ways of replacing jobs filled by immigrants with automated ones. This may reduce the demand for migrant labour in some popular destinations and thereby affect migration flows.

Increase in irregular migration and trafficking

The gradual closing of channels for safe, orderly, and regular migration is pushing vulnerable people to use irregular migration pathways. Recent informal interviews conducted by the Centre for Migration Studies have shown that some brokers are taking advantage of the COVID-19 related suspension of formal recruitment services to charge high fees and smuggle migrants into other countries.

Some unsuspecting migrants were also trafficked by some of these brokers. For instance, Atula, a 34 year old Ghanaian woman who was trafficked to Dubai in June 2020 and abused by her employers before returning to Ghana in October 2020, noted that she went through a broker who turned out to be a trafficker because a registered recruitment agency who was initially assisting her to go to Qatar stopped the process due to COVID-19:

“I wanted to go and work in Qatar. An agency which helped my friends to go there was processing my documents but when COVID-19 started, the manager told me he could no longer do it. I wanted to go so I was introduced to the ‘connection man’ who promised me a job in Dubai with good pay…. When I got there, I realized that all that he told me was not true”.

Mainstreaming migration into COVID-19 strategies

COVID-19 restrictions will not dramatically change the future migration decisions of West Africans. Migration is an integral part of life in the region. Many people are not taking COVID-19 risks seriously, and a large number of people in the region will continue to make decisions to migrate intra-regionally and internationally. However, the pandemic is likely to limit channels of regular migration. It is therefore important to have migration as a central part of pandemic management and recovery strategies at both national and regional levels.

Efforts should be made by West African governments to find innovative ways to safely reopen the land borders as people who rely on cross-border trade are facing serious economic challenges due to the closure of the borders. For instance, rapid COVID-19 testing facilities can be used at the land borders to test cross-border traders just as it is currently being done at the airports. It is also possible to allow people living within border communities (those living 5 kilometres on each side of the borders) to cross the borders for economic activities without any COVID-19 test.

If this is implemented, ID cards will have to be used by people in border communities to cross the borders. However, they could be required to take the COVID-19 test if they intend to go beyond the border regions. ECOWAS should also continue to work with popular destination countries to develop programmes that allow potential migrants to regularly migrate once the COVID-19 situation improves. Failure to do so could result in more economic challenges to households that depend on migration, and increase irregular migration.

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