The International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Niger is currently assisting 2,371 stranded migrants across the country in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and is concerned about the significant number of migrants still arriving in Niger despite a nationwide lockdown.
As of 31 March, 34 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in Niger and three have sadly passed on. In order to contain the spread of the virus, the Government of Niger has imposed several restrictions, including border closures, curfews and travel bans within the country, and a mandatory two-week quarantine for people arriving in the country.
The stranded migrants are hosted in IOM’s six transit centres, three temporary transit sites used to quarantine recent arrivals at the border with Algeria and two transit houses in Niamey recently opened to cope with the sudden increase of stranded migrants as a result of border closures.
As these places continue to operate at their full capacity, IOM Niger is concerned about a possible outbreak of the virus in one of its centres and is doing everything possible to ensure migrants stay safe and healthy, including through the installation of hand-washing stations, awareness raising and regular checks for COVID-19 symptoms.
As the migrants wait to return to their countries of origin through IOM’s Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration programme (AVRR), tensions at the transit centres are running high.
“We know there is a crisis out there, but it pains me to know we were supposed to leave last week; we even had our tickets,” said Mohamed, 24, a migrant from Chad. “I really hope the situation changes soon. I want to go home.”
In collaboration with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and local authorities, IOM is currently assisting 764 migrants in Assamaka, at Niger’s border with Algeria as they finalize their 14-day quarantine period. The migrants come from 15 different countries of origin, most notably Niger (391), Mali (140) and Guinea Conakry (101). Among them are many vulnerable persons, including children, pregnant women and injured individuals.
IOM and the Regional Public Health Directorate (DRSP) in Agadez organized a joint mission last week to Assamaka to assess the situation and the health needs of this vulnerable group.
“The fight against COVID-19 requires a joint approach,” said Chegou Yami, DRSP Director for the Agadez region. “We can only succeed in this fight if we join forces, maximize our resources and act now.”
At the site, IOM provides shelter, food, water, core relief items, psychosocial and medical assistance and has reinforced its capacities to ensure it can cater to this large group. However, migrants continue to arrive in Assamaka, making it increasingly complicated to place them in quarantine, especially as new arrivals need to be separated from pre-existing groups.
Further inland in Arlit, a main crossing point between Assamaka and Agadez for migrants, traders, truck drivers and smugglers, there is an urgent need to ramp up the capacity to host new arrivals in quarantine sites. In collaboration with local and regional authorities, IOM has identified a quarantine site in Arlit where recent border crossers can be hosted and receive assistance.
Additionally, the Nigerien army notified IOM last week that 256 people have been found at the border with Libya after having been abandoned by smugglers. Among this group, were migrants from nine nationalities, with the majority from Nigeria (104), Ghana (53) and Burkina Faso (34).
The Ministry of Interior’s Directorate of Civil Protection, regional and local authorities and IOM’s team in Dirkou worked together to quickly identify a solution and are now moving this group from Madama to a site in the outskirts of Agadez where IOM provides humanitarian assistance as they undergo their quarantine period.
“While the borders are officially closed, we still see migrants arriving in Niger from neighbouring countries that need to complete 14 days of mandatory quarantine,” said Barbara Rijks, IOM’s Chief of Mission in Niger. “This, together with the many other migrants stuck in IOM’s transit centres in Niger, is putting an enormous strain on the limited resources and capacities of the Government of Niger and IOM.”
Since borders have officially closed and internal movements curtailed, IOM is worried about the devastating impact this situation will have on the livelihoods and coping mechanisms of host communities in Niger.
“Unless we can all come together to support the Government of Niger, this crisis could have devastating consequences on the local population and migrant communities,” Rijks added.
Amid this humanitarian emergency, IOM continues to work closely with the Government of Niger and diplomatic missions of countries of origin, to explore the possibility of creating a humanitarian corridor for the voluntary return of migrants who show no signs of COVID-19 and who have already undergone the mandatory two-week quarantine.
UN agencies in West and Central Africa are currently assessing the need for a humanitarian corridor and are asking governments to facilitate the movements of UN personnel and transportation of goods to provide humanitarian aid across the region.
Migrants are assisted at the transit centres in Niger in the framework of IOM’s Migrant Resource and Response Mechanism supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands and the EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration supported by the European Union.