Statement on Covid-19 and Migration Governance in Africa

On Day 12 (24 November 2020) of the ’67th Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR)’, maHp project coordinator Associate Professor Jo Vearey presented a joint statement by the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS) and the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHRDA), calling on the continent’s responses to Covid-19 to mainstream all forms of migration and all migrant groups. Watch and read the full submission below:

Honorable Chairperson of the Commission, Honorable Commissioners, Colleagues,

State responses to Covid-19 – including extreme lockdowns, border closures, and the resultant restrictions on population movement – have highlighted the essential role human mobility plays in on the continent.  As a result, Covid-19 creates a unique opportunity for encouraging states and regional bodies to centre mobility across international borders as part of a more holistic approach to inter- and intra-continental trade, development, and the fulfilment of human rights.

Yet, despite the prevalence of diverse forms of population mobility across the continent, responses to Covid-19 do not adequately engage with migration. Where migration governance responses do exist in the context of Covid-19, they focus on controlling the movement of people and goods across international borders. Ultimately, this involves facilitating the regular transfer of goods and services whilst simultaneously restricting the regular movement of non-citizens across borders. This approach is detrimental to the management of Covid-19 and highlights the prioritisation of protocols for facilitating the movement of goods and services over engaging with protocols that have been developed relating to the movement of people. These responses will further stall the agenda associated with the AU Protocol for the Movement of People.

The response to Covid-19 has also provided states with the opportunity to tighten and restrict the movement of people across borders. Furthermore, in some contexts Covid-19 is being used to legitimise an increasingly securitised response to immigration (i.e. reducing movement). As has been shown in previous research, closing or fortifying borders does not stop movement.  Rather, movement across borders continues but becomes more dangerous as greater risks are taken outside of regular channels. This has implications for the safety of individual migrants and for public health generally as people who move irregularly are often left out of disease control mechanisms at Points of Entry. Covid-19 has affected migration routes to Europe with more people moving via the Canary Islands than previously. Migrants are increasingly “stuck” in corridors to (and from) Europe, including those being returned. This has led to an increasing reliance on the use of smugglers and in using new, more dangerous, routes. Key areas of concern include transit camps in Niger at the border with Libya and Algeria.

Currently, Covid-19 disease control responses focus on Points of Entry (PoE), including international airports and major land border crossings. Responses to Covid-19 – including lessons learned from Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) do not include asylum seekers, refugees and IDPs are not prioritised by states.  Rather, responses have exacerbated/amplified existing challenges faced by non-citizens, including a reliance on unsafe migratory routes and difficulties in accessing documentation, healthcare and other social welfare systems.

Increased securitisation of immigration may undermine much-needed efforts to develop migration-aware and mobility-competent cross-border, regional health system responses. Therefore, there is a need for caution as the development of (im)migration interventions centred around a securitisation approach may provide opportunities for co-opting components of the global health security movement by using health status (or perceived health risk) as an additional securitisation measure through which to further restrict movement across national borders and/or to justify deportation of non-nationals. These processes risk creating challenges that will further stall progress towards global health goals by undermining attempts to develop coordinated, cross-border, migration-aware and mobility-competent health programmes. Responses risk deterring irregular cross-border migrants from accessing prevention and treatment programmes for both communicable and non-communicable diseases

In order to ensure that the continent “leaves no-one behind”, responses to Covid-19 must mainstream all forms of migration and all migrant groups. This includes those moving within their country of birth as well as those crossing international borders.

To this end, we urge the African Commission to encourage states to:
– Improve processes to generate and utilise real-time migration and mobility data to support the development, implementation and evaluation of appropriate responses that result in safer and unencumbered journeys for all moving on the continent.
– Build on opportunities for positive change, such as the increased coordination of humanitarian responses resulting from responding to Covid-19.
– Encourage local-level coordination. Indeed, developing coordination mechanisms across border areas if undertaken at the local level, can avoid the delays associated with bureaucratic processes at national/sub-national level.
– Support migrant-and refugee-led responses to Covid-19.
– Revise pandemic preparedness plans so that they engage with migration.


Gaye Sowe

Executive Director

Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHRDA)


Jo Vearey


African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS), Wits University

About Jo Vearey

Jo Vearey is a Professor and the Director of the African Centre for Migration & Society, University of the Witwatersrand. She holds an Honorary Fellowship with the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh, and a Senior Fellowship at the Centre for Peace, Development and Democracy at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. In 2015, Jo was awarded a Humanities and Social Science Wellcome Trust Investigator Award. Jo holds a MSc in the Control of Infectious Diseases (LSHTM, 2003), a PhD in Public Health (Wits, 2010), and has been rated by the National Research Foundation as a Young Researcher. In 2014 and 2015, Jo received a Friedel Sellschop Award from the University of the Witwatersrand for outstanding young researchers. She was a Marie Curie Research Fellow in 2013, at the UNESCO Chair on Social and Spatial Inclusion of Migrants, University of Venice (SSIM-IUAV), Venice, Italy.

With a commitment to social justice and the development of pro-poor policy responses, Jo’s research explores international, regional, national and local responses to migration, health, and urban vulnerabilities. Her research interests focus on urban health, public health, migration and health, the social determinants of health, HIV, informal settlements and sex work. Jo is particularly interested in knowledge production, dissemination and utilisation including the use of visual and arts-based methodologies.

Jo has a range of international collaborations, including an ESRC-NRF funded project with the University of Edinburgh, a WOTRO funded project with the VU University, Amsterdam on migration and sex work, and partnerships with the University of Massachusetts Boston and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine‘s Faculty of Public Health and Policy and Gender, Violence and Health Unit.

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