A hotline meant to connect stranded migrants to help is proving to be a game-changer in Sudan – it is enabling counsellors to call back and offer psychosocial support at a time when social distancing rules are restricting inter-personal interactions.
For migrants in distress, psychosocial support and counselling rank within the first level of assistance. Yet in many places this has become almost unavailable due to strict social distancing regulations and government-imposed lockdown restraints meant to contain Covid-19.
But in Sudan, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has responded by expanding its existing telephonic psychosocial support to cover returnees and migrants whose situation has been worsened by the pandemic. The service is supported by the EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration in the Horn of Africa.
“During this demanding time, all people suffer from fears, anxiety and tension,” explains Khalid Hawli an IOM psychosocial support assistant in Khartoum. “Migrants will suffer to a greater extent because uncertainty will increase, economic difficulties will increase, and their social problems will increase and hence they value our intervention, to provide comfort and assistance for them.”
Sudan is Africa’s third-largest country and also the third-largest in the Arab world. Until the secession of South Sudan in 2011 it was the largest country by area, in both Africa and in the Arab bloc.
Less apparent is that its geographic location in North-East Africa - bordered by Egypt, Libya, Chad, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and the Red Sea - places the former British colony at the centre of several migration routes.
There is little doubt that Sudan is accustomed to the attention of outsiders due to its age-old status as a country of origin, transit and destination for migrants. Around 1.4 million are presently living within its borders. Yet like in other countries, the pandemic has exacerbated the vulnerability of migrants, with some approaching IOM for assistance.
Phone counselling is offered through the IOM-run migration response centre (MRC) in Khartoum. The centre receives and caters to the needs of stranded migrants, returnees and others in distress. Even then, other migrants simply stay in informal settlements usually in clusters with their compatriots who may be in transit or working in Sudan. IOM staff regularly conduct outreach activities in the informal settlements, including raising awareness on the dangers of Covid-19 and how to avoid being infected.
But phone counselling is proving to be both personal and effective. The service is available in six languages (Arabic, English, Oromo, Amharic, Tigrigna, and Hausa), with counsellors following a guideline developed by IOM. The Khartoum MRC also offers assisted voluntary return support for those who find themselves in difficulties and are unable or unwilling to stay in the country.
Lesese Mekonen, an Ethiopian living in Sudan, says he was elated when he received a call from an IOM counsellor. “Due to the lockdown, I cannot work,” the 30-year-old explains. “The re-assurance I got from IOM had a positive impact on me, especially as I have a little child…I feel grateful for that.”
Through the call he was counselled about Covid-19 protection measures for himself and his son. “I requested assistance to go back to Ethiopia and hopefully I will be able to travel soon,” he adds.
Those reached through remote counselling are usually migrants who had registered at the MRC and were being targeted for follow-up assistance. Many of them would have reached out to the MRC through the helpline whose number is well-known within migrant communities and migrant safehouses in Khartoum.
To date, over 477 migrants and returnees have been contacted for phone counselling. In coordination with representatives of host communities, the EU-IOM Joint Initiative also provided emergency food parcels to 1,000 vulnerable migrants, reaching the various communities of Nigerien, Eritrean, Ethiopian, Nigerian and Somalis.
Among those who also got a call is Habibat Musa, a Nigerian with four children who also cannot work due to restrictions arising from Covid-19 containment measures. “Receiving a call from the MRC lifted my spirit, and I felt someone cares. They were able to support us with food and hygiene items and follow up calls to help me manage my stress."
About the EU-IOM Joint Initiative
Launched in December 2016 with the support of the European Union (EU) Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, the programme brings together 26 African countries of the Sahel and Lake Chad region, the Horn of Africa, and North Africa, the EU and IOM around the goal of ensuring migration is safer, more informed and better governed for both migrants and their communities.