The Regional United Nations Network on Migration together with the Regional UN-SDG COVID-19 Executive Committee in West and Central Africa are concerned with the wellbeing of millions of migrants across the region amid the COVID-19 crisis.
While they face the same health threats from COVID-19 as any other human being, migrants may be exposed to a higher level of vulnerability linked to discrimination and exclusion in their living and working conditions or in their access to basic services including healthcare. Under these difficult circumstances, migrants may be at risk of abuse and other human rights violations.
Over 30,000 migrants are currently stranded at borders and more than 2,000 are waiting to be assisted in overcrowded transit centers where they are at heightened risk of COVID-19 infection. Since the outbreak in the region, thousands were abandoned in the desert by smugglers and traffickers along migratory routes. Some were deported, putting their lives and health at risk and others are being targeted with discrimination, hate speech, and xenophobia.
As governments in West and Central Africa are taking preventive measures such as border closures to protect their countries from the spread of COVID-19, migrants, including those in irregular situations, may find themselves disproportionately impacted, unable to access healthcare, social services or protect themselves. In addition, border closures further limit regular migration options including return, while forcing migrants to take more dangerous migratory routes and putting them at risk to be exploited, extorted, or abused.
Building on the principled commitments and actions outlined in the Global Compact for Safe, Regular and Orderly Migration (GCM), the Regional Network calls on governments to make every effort to address and reduce migrants’ vulnerabilities by incorporating their health and other vital needs in national and local responses and recovery, taking into consideration the special needs of women and children; by upholding human rights at international borders ; by confronting discrimination, xenophobia and anti-migrant narratives, and by operationalizing relevant recommendations on the human rights protection of migrants in vulnerable situations.
Member States should ensure that all migrants – regardless of their migration status – are able to protect themselves and their communities from COVID-19 and can avail themselves of COVID-19 testing and treatment without fear of detention, deportation or penalty. To that end, the Regional Network calls on Member States across the region to urgently expand the availability and flexibility of safe, regular pathways for migrants in vulnerable situations (GCM Objective 5), including pathways for entry and stay based on human rights, compassionate or humanitarian grounds; to cooperate in facilitating safe and dignified voluntary return of migrants on the basis of their free, prior and informed consent; to suspend all deportations during COVID-19, and to ensure that no one faces the risk of refoulement by being returned to places where their life, safety or human rights are threatened, including to uphold the prohibitions of collective expulsions and arbitrary pushbacks at borders (GCM objective 21).
Moreover, the Regional Network stresses the need for Member States to prioritize the protection of migrants’ rights, dignity and wellbeing, and to provide safe access to basic services, including COVID-19 treatment and integrated prevention services to all migrants, including those with pre-existing health conditions, and who may already have limited access to healthcare, including those in an irregular situation. All migrants, regardless of status, should be included in national COVID-19 preparedness, response, recovery and containment plans that guarantee non-discriminatory and equitable access to treatment, care, information, and social protection (GCM Objective 15).
Particularly for children moving unaccompanied or separated, prolonged family separation due to border closures, coupled with limited access to psychosocial support and protection services, increases their mental distress and their exposure to violence and exploitation. The Regional Network calls upon Member States to uphold the best interests of the child at all times, as a primary consideration in situations where children are concerned (GCM Objective 7).
The Regional Network reaffirms Members States’ commitment to eliminate all forms of discrimination, hate speech, xenophobia and intolerance against migrants and their families (GCM Objective 17). COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate, and neither should we. To this end, the Regional Network stands ready to support Member States establish mechanisms to prevent, detect and respond to systematic instances of xenophobia and discrimination against migrants, and to raise awareness of COVID-19 to inform public perceptions of migrants and to reshape the narrative on migration.
Finally, the Regional Network underlines that mobility and other restrictions will need to meet the requirements of legality, necessity and proportionality, and be non-discriminatory (GCM Objective 11). The COVID-19 response does not have to be an obstacle to mobility in the region, and mobility is not an obstacle to mitigate the impact of this pandemic.
The United Nations Network on Migration was established to ensure effective, timely and coordinated system-wide support to Member States in their implementation, follow-up and review of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.
In releasing this statement, the Regional Network reminds States of their commitment in the GCM to address and reduce vulnerabilities in migration and to provide access to basic services for migrants. The COVID-19 pandemic has created momentum to promote an integrated and safe approach to border management as a viable and sustainable solution to mitigate public health challenges while ensuring the health and economic security for all.
The United Nations Network on Migration is committed to supporting all partners in pursuit of the implementation of the GCM, recognizing that this cooperative framework provides an invaluable tool for ensuring all in society can contribute to a collective response to COVID-19 and are protected equally against its impact.