105. The Impact of COVID-19 on Africa/European Union (EU) Migration

Author: Terri Maggott
Date: 26 June 2020
Publication: The Star
Image courtesy of:  Max Bohme via Unsplash

As the United Nations (UN) marked World Refugee Day on 20 June, the migration of Africans to the European Union (EU) had been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, approximately 40, 000 Africans attempted to access Europe through the Mediterranean Sea, with 739 deaths occurring. Between January and June 2020, only 3, 638 Africans crossed the Mediterranean into Europe, with 277 deaths reported. By 23 June 2020, Africa had recorded 315, 380 COVID-19 infections, including 8, 339 deaths, while Europe (including non-EU states) had an estimated 1, 518, 251 confirmed cases, including 174, 968 deaths. A recent webinar, titled, “The Impact of COVID-19 on Africa/EU Migration”, was jointly hosted by the University of Johannesburg’s (UJ) Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation (IPATC) and the Sweden-based Nordic Africa Institute (NAI).

Dr. Ahmed Bugre, a Malta-based Adviser to the African Union (AU) Commissioner for Social Affairs, discussed how relations between the AU and EU have been impacted by COVID-19, particularly in terms of Africa/EU migration governance, and how migration patterns are affecting political and economic relations between the two organisations in light of the pandemic. Dr. Franzisca Zanker, a Senior Research Fellow at the Arnold-Bergstraesser Institute in Germany, discussed the implications of COVID-19 for Africa/EU migration in relation to human rights violations and labour patterns.

When COVID-19 reached pandemic proportions by March 2020, 42 African countries issued travel bans and closed their borders as a way of curtailing the free movement of people and the transmission of the virus. This has changed the trend of Africa/EU migration. In May 2020, UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, released a policy brief which stated that “the 25.2 million African refugees, asylum-seekers, internally displaced persons, and stateless people are among those most vulnerable to the virus”. Indeed, inadequate public health infrastructure increases the continent’s vulnerability and the structural causes of migration (conflict, underdevelopment, and limited economic opportunities) have thus been compounded by COVID-19. While the migration of Africans to the EU might slow, it will not cease.

In the EU, most borders were also closed in an attempt to halt migration and reduce the rate of infections. In some countries like Germany and France, irregular migrants have been offered a fast-track to legal residence as the difficulty of containing the virus among undocumented persons became apparent. Even though a low number of Africans have arrived in the EU in 2020, European governments have refused them entry, citing COVID-19 as the reason. The EU has also stopped its search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean, relying instead on aerial surveillance and the Libyan Coast Guard to block entry. These measures have further aggravated the plight of African migrants under COVID-19. Human rights groups such as the Mediterranea Saving Humans NGO have called these practices illegal and a violation of international human rights law.

This situation has forced European governments and citizens to recognise the significant contributions of low-skilled workers—many of them migrants— to their economies, as debates over “essential workers” have increased amidst the pandemic. Many Africans in the EU, as with workers elsewhere in the world, have lost their jobs as economies and labour markets shrink due to COVID-19 complications. Some EU states such as Greece and Hungary have resorted to deporting migrants and calling for the tightening of asylum laws. However, the EU has lacked a coordinated response to COVID-19, despite its disproportionately negative impact on migrant labour and the remittances sent back home by African migrants from Europe. According to the UN Secretary-General’s 2020 report, cited earlier, remittances—a crucial revenue source for some countries—are projected to decrease by 23% under COVID-19.

Six key policy recommendations emerged from the June 2020 webinar: first, the African Union must prioritise public health issues in implementing its 2018 Protocol Relating to Free Movement of Persons, Right of Residence and Right of Establishment; second, AU governments must devise a viable programme of repatriation and integration for migrants from Europe; third, the EU has a human rights obligation to craft effective legal pathways that inform resettlement programmes for African migrants; fourth, Brussels must revise its policies relating to the use of cheap African labour in precarious work, given how heavily the bloc relies on such workers; fifth, there must be a narrative change that meaningfully takes into account the voices of African migrants and governments, thus addressing the asymmetrical power relations between the AU and EU; and finally, the AU must construct new policies that can simultaneously promote equitable migration and increased trade within Africa to reduce the incentives for continued migration to Europe.

Terri Maggott is a Research Coordinator at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation.