Africa: As COVID-19 Holds Thousands of Migrant Traders Hostage, UN Warns of Looming Unprecedented Crisis

Thousands of migrant traders across Africa, particularly in the Sahel region, are being held hostage by the rampaging COVID-19 pandemic. 

For many of them, the lifeline to their families has been ‘arrested’ by official measures to contain the virus.

For instance, a Senegalese trader, Malick, who was accustomed to travelling to Mauritania weekly for commerce is now stranded due to the pandemic.  

Mobility across the arid African Sahel region is a long-standing tradition and is considered a critical livelihood and adaptation strategy for millions in one of the world’s harshest environments.  

With governments mandating significant restrictions of movement to contain the propagation of the coronavirus, notably by putting a halt on border trade and “non-essential” activities – heavy socio-economic impacts for households have begun.  

According to Malick, “I’m stranded here for weeks, and I can’t send money to my parents and my wife because I have to use the money for food and accommodation.”

Stranded since March at the Sélibabi, Mauritania, border station, he adds, “Now, I can no longer support my family in Senegal, as I am jobless.”   

For him, and thousands of others, last week, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) joined several UN agencies and NGOs in West and Central Africa to sound the alarm about the rapidly deteriorating crisis in the Sahel amid the COVID-19 crisis, a condition now headed to unprecedented levels of humanitarian need across the region.   

UNDESA estimates there are 9.5 million West and Central African migrants currently in the region, more than 100,000 of whom are considered returning migrants. 

The International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development calculates cross-border trade across the Sahel today represents almost 12 per cent of the region’s overall trade volume.   

Therefore, mobility in the region is crucial to livelihoods in several nations, upon which the pandemic already is having a devastating impact.  

Public Health Officer at the Sabi border post, in The Gambia, Malick Singhateh, says “many cross-border traders call to ask when the border will reopen. We try to explain why the border must remain closed for now to curb COVID-19, but we know it is difficult for them.”  

 The shutdown has also led to dramatic increases in prices of goods and food for millions of households. Herders and their families – who demographers estimate account for an estimated 20 per cent of the region’s population – also have been forced to end their seasonal migration due to border closures. 

Preventive measures impeding transit of both people and goods have leftover 20,000 migrants stranded at borders, and close to another 2,000 waiting in transit centres.  

These latest disruptions come on top of some 5.1 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), forced to move either due to conflict or natural disasters (see chart below). Those IDPs are likely to be living in congested conditions and face significant risks and vulnerabilities as they struggle to meet basic needs.  

As an aggravating factor, migrants and displaced persons have generally limited access to public health care systems and may not be tested or treated for COVID-19 which can lead to worse outcomes for host populations.    

Acting IOM Regional Director for West and Central Africa, Sophie Nonnenmacher, says “failing to include migrants and displaced populations in the COVID-19 response means failing to respond to the crisis. No one will be safe until everyone is safe.”   

“Migrants and displaced communities must be seen as an integral part of any effective public health response”, said Nonnenmacher, who adds: “Border closures are not sustainable in the medium and long run. IOM stands ready to support countries in reopening border posts in a safe and timely manner.”  

IOM is working with governments in the region to provide for water and sanitation, and safe isolation needs in camps, and to strengthen measures at points of entry to ensure their safe reopening. 

IOM is also working with governments to begin voluntary humanitarian return programmes for vulnerable migrants, now the sole legal option for going home.  

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