COVID-19 and People on the Move in Africa: The impact of State Responses to the Pandemic on Migrants, Refugees, Asylum-Seekers and Internally Displaced People

The spread of COVID-19 throughout Africa has not only generated health emergencies across the continent but has also had devastating impacts on local and national economies, lives and livelihoods. Inevitably, marginalised populations such as migrants, refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people (IDPs) have been some of the worst affected, including increased risk for their health, wellbeing and protection.
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© UNICEF Ethiopia/2021/Zerihun Sewunet
© UNICEF Ethiopia/2021/Zerihun Sewunet

Based on extensive desk-based reviews and virtual interviews with key stakeholders involved in migration governance, this article reflects on research conducted by a group of colleagues at the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS) over the last ten months, which has investigated the ways in which African states have approached the protection of migrants, refugees, asylum-seekers and IDPs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Located within the current context of a burgeoning third wave and limited supplies of and access to vaccines, the article highlights key findings surrounding how state responses to the pandemic have added further instability and precarity to the lives of many migrants on the continent.

It is clear that the #pandemic and resulting lockdown measures have disproportionately affected and marginalised the poor, regardless of citizenship or legal status

A Heightened Level of Precarity

COVID-19 and its broader socioeconomic and political impacts have been devastatingly felt across communities in all regions of the African continent. Yet, it is clear that the pandemic and resulting lockdown measures have disproportionately affected and marginalised the poor, regardless of citizenship or legal status. Consequently, numerous difficulties and challenges have been faced by citizens, international migrants and refugees alike, all living and working in the same urban and peri-urban spaces, border regions, and rural areas.  

However, in addition to the collective impact of the loss of income and jobs, psycho-social challenges and restrictions on fundamental freedoms, our research repeatedly highlighted the extent to which many migrants are experiencing a heightened level of precarity. This is predominantly due to the exacerbation of pre-existing issues related to their status and related challenges in countries or regions of destination, including numerous state and community level exclusion policies and protection concerns.  Indeed, in many cases, COVID-19 has not created unique issues for migrant populations on the continent. Rather, it has highlighted existing challenges, including a forced reliance on alternative and unsafe migratory routes; difficulties in accessing documentation, healthcare and other social welfare systems; and xenophobia, stigmatisation and discrimination.

State Responses: Security, Exclusion and Expulsions

National lockdowns, border closures, and the subsequent restrictions on population movement have highlighted how essential mobility is for people across the continent. Yet, despite the prevalence of diverse forms of population movement, state responses to COVID-19 have not sufficiently engaged with migration.

Where migration governance responses have occurred in the context of COVID-19, they have focused on enabling the movements of goods and services, while simultaneously imposing restrictions on the movement of people. Indeed, responses to COVID-19 have provided states with the opportunity to limit the cross-border movement of people and justify increasingly restrictive approaches to migration management.

Yet, it has been shown repeatedly in previous research that closing or fortifying borders does not stop movement. Rather, movement across borders continues but becomes more dangerous as those moving outside of regular channels are forced to take greater risks

Border closures and increased irregular journeys also have extensive implications for public health, as people who move irregularly are frequently left out of disease control mechanisms at official border crossings and face constant challenges to access healthcare in countries of transit and destination. As a result, what is referred to as “the healthy migrant” effect quickly falls away as those on the move who are often healthier (on arrival) than host populations are unable to maintain their wellbeing and face increased exposure to ill-health.

These insular and nationalistic migration governance responses to COVID-19 will likely have long-lasting effects

A Securitised Response 

The research conducted by ACMS has also shown that in some contexts, COVID-19 responses are being used to legitimise an increasingly securitised response to immigration. In other words, the pandemic has provided an opportunity for states to push ahead with agendas to restrict immigration while appearing to be implementing humanitarian and public health responses. This increased securitisation of immigration not only drives migrants into riskier situations, but is also used to justify further deportation of non-nationals, as witnessed since the outbreak of COVID-19 in Southern Africa. It also critically undermines much-needed efforts to develop migration-aware and mobility-competent cross-border, regional health system responses.

For example in South Africa this securitised approach has included erecting new border fences, expulsion of migrants from urban areas and the exclusion of migrants and refugees from key services and provisions. This approach has rendered many foreign migrants in the country invisible in a critical public health moment.

Exclusion and Expulsion

Our research over the last ten months has also consistently highlighted how states have not prioritised responses targeting asylum-seekers, refugees and IDPs – often failing to even include them in planning or broader state-wide measures. For example, responses to COVID-19 based on lessons learned from the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) have regularly not included these groups of migrants. Furthermore, responses aimed specifically at refugee populations routinely focused entirely on refugee camps and failed to address increased vulnerabilities of many urban refugees, due to a loss of income as well as the closure of humanitarian offices and support structures.

Equally, as is the case in South Africa, an inability to register and renew documentation has left many in precarious situations in host countries, with the prevailing risk of detention, extortion or even deportation.

Finally, with the closure of borders and increased numbers of expulsions of foreign nationals (under the guise of stopping the spread of the pandemic), reports of non-refoulement and states breaching international law, specifically the right to seek asylum, have increased.

Vaccine Nationalism

These tendences to exclude, expel and render various groups of migrants invisible have continued throughout 2020 and 2021, increasing in intensity in certain host countries as resources become further stretched. The rise of ‘vaccine nationalism’ on the continent is a key example. Asylum-seekers, refugees and other migrant groups (as well as citizens without documents) are being side-lined, if not, excluded entirely from many state-based vaccine roll-out plans; an approach that not only violates their human right to health but undermines the success of national vaccination campaigns. In combination with the growth of vaccine hesitancy seen on the continent and reports of ineffectiveness of state roll-out programmes, vaccine nationalism is likely to have regional, continental and global public health implications.

Looking Forward

These insular and nationalistic migration governance responses to COVID-19 will likely have long-lasting effects. Indeed, as noted above, the measures set in place by states have only exacerbated and amplified existing challenges faced by non-citizens, including anti-foreigner and xenophobic sentiments.

In order to ensure that the continent ‘leaves no-one behind’, it is essential that all responses to COVID-19 – including vaccination programmes – are inclusive of everyone. There is no question about the devastation resulting from the pandemic. Yet long-term programming in response to COVID-19 and future pandemic preparedness planning, presents opportunities for states and regional bodies to centre the governance of internal and international migration within a holistic approach to inter- and intra-continental trade, development, and the fulfilment of human rights. As we near the 40th anniversary of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the global pandemic has shed new light on the urgent need for states across the continent to honour their obligations and responsibilities towards all persons within their territory, based on regional and international human right norms.

Dr Nicholas Maple and Dr Rebecca Walker are Post Doc Research Fellows at the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS), Professor Jo Vearey is the Director of the ACMS, University of Witwatersrand.

The authors are grateful for the input of colleagues at ACMS and other partner institutions in the collection and analysis of data used in this article. In particular, Thea de Gruchy (ACMS, Wits University) is acknowledged for her contributions to two recent publications that we draw on:

  • De Gruchy, Thea, and Jo Vearey. Forthcoming. “Left behind: Why South Africa Must Develop Migration-Aware Responses to Covid-19 and Future Pandemics.” 
  • Vearey, Jo, Thea de Gruchy, and Nicholas Maple. 2021. “Global Health (Security), Immigration Governance and Covid-19 in South(ern) Africa: An Evolving Research Agenda.” Journal of Migration and Health https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jmh.2021.100040.

ACCORD recognizes its longstanding partnerships with the European Union, and the Governments of Canada, Finland, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, UK, and USA.

ACCORD recognizes its longstanding partnerships with the European Union, and the Governments of Canada, Finland, Ireland, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, UK, and USA.

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