Maureen Achieng is currently Chief of Mission for the IOM Special Liaison Mission to Ethiopia and Representative to the African Union, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA).
GPI conducted a written interview with Maureen Achieng to talk about the consequences of COVID-19 on migrants, refugees and internally displaced persons on the African continent and about the immediate measures that should be taken up by the international community.
While the COVID-19 outbreak is first and foremost a health crisis, it also impacts on mobility worldwide. What are the repercussions of the current pandemic on African migrants and refugees?
Unfortunately, there is already some stigma being attached to the virus on the African continent as in other parts of the world. Stigma drives people, in this instance, migrants, underground so that fewer of them show up for testing. It is already difficult for migrants to access health services in normal times. When people go underground during a pandemic such as COVID-19, the risk is that we end up with pockets of the disease which if not treated, will ensure that the virus will remain a problem for everyone. There is simply no way to insulate oneself against a virus that is as contagious as the Coronavirus. This is a global problem that must of necessity be tackled through a globalized solution. It demands all countries to work together, so no country or region is behind. National approaches simply will not suffice.
We at IOM are also only too painfully aware that the economic impact of this pandemic is going to be big. With migrant remittances, the mainstay of their families across Africa, already dwindling, the picture, at least in the short term, looks bleak. Many migrants have lost or will lose their jobs in the coming weeks and months. Given the important role remittances have come to play in many African countries, the impact on migrants’ families, but also in macroeconomic terms, across the continent risks being significant.
Which immediate measures should be adopted by the international community, including Germany, to support African migrants in the context of the current pandemic?
I would say that important migrant hosting countries such as Germany, and who are already doing a good job of being inclusive, more than ever need to strive to ensure migrants can continue to access services, especially health services, irrespective of their migratory status. The World Health Organisation (WHO) makes clear the urgency to test, isolate, trace and treat if we are to ensure as a global community that COVID-19 is dealt with decisively. If there is no inclusivity in testing and treating, the disease will continue to resurge.
It is also to be expected that with the reduction in public services at the moment due to lockdowns and the closure of non-essential businesses, there is also a risk that migrants are not able to ensure that their administrative paperwork is in order, which could cause them to lapse into irregularity. This, further down the line, will put them even greater risk.
And I must come back to the question of remittances: Transferring money from Europe to Africa costs way more than it should. In the face of the drastic reduction in remittances that we can expect, it would be a good moment to revisit this long-standing discussion on the need to reduce the costs of money transfer to enhance the developmental impact that remittances could have on families in countries of origin. This is a good moment to ensure that the cost is not exaggerated relative to the risk and the low, real transaction costs associated with the process of transferring money.
Infectious and deadly diseases like measles, yellow fever and diphtheria represent a great threat to marginalised and vulnerable communities, particularly on the African continent. Should COVID-19 come to a peak in African countries, routine immunisations against these diseases will be even more decisive in order to prevent a global double outbreak.
How can Germany and other international partners ensure that adequate policies are in place so that migrants, refugees and displaced persons are not left behind?
Countries across the globe need to invest more in Health System Strengthening (HSS) to ensure that resilience against future pandemics is built up. Despite the disagreement on so many issues these days, the one thing that most scientists and policymakers seem to agree on is that there will be future outbreaks. COVID19 provides us as a global community the opportunity to see where we have fallen short in preparing for and responding to this pandemic and to ensure better preparedness for the next one.
We need for health services to include everybody. If one single person or one single region is left behind, the entire planet is at risk. To tackle future pandemics more effectively than we have done/are doing this one, we need to work hard as a global community to reduce the disparities in health care within and between countries. This is a goal that is also very central to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
I would also just add that the African Union (AU) Commission ought to be commended for its foresight in setting up the African Centre for Disease Control (CDC) and the African Medicine Agency, with the support of partners like the European Union, Germany, and others. These are critical continental institutions that need to be further strengthened to ensure that the continent is better prepared when the next pandemic comes knocking. The Africa CDC has done a phenomenal job of putting in place COVID-19 testing capacities in a very short span of time. With continued support to these entities, I am confident that the continent will do even better next time around.
Lastly, I would add that there is no better time than now to work towards the full operationalization of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) and its associated Continental Free Movement Protocol. If once the pandemic has been tackled the continent resists the impulse to erect more barriers to free movement and even more fully embraces the continental integration agenda through these twin continental decisions, Africa’s economic potential will be unleashed, and a more prosperous Africa will be an Africa that is better prepared for future pandemics.
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