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How Africa can reduce COVID-19’s impact on displaced persons

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Swift positions taken by the AU could be stymied by ongoing conflicts, funding shortfalls and border closures.

By Tsion Tadesse Abebe and Dr Allehone Abebe

Africa’s 25.2 million refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons are some of the most vulnerable groups to COVID-19. They are hosted in areas with weak health systems and limited access to services such as water, sanitation and hygiene. Those in urban areas often live in crowded settings, where physical distancing is a luxury.

Violent conflicts make the problem worse because they damage or destroy social services infrastructure needed to tackle the pandemic. Border closures also increase the risks for asylum seekers. All this is complicated by the economic slowdown affecting refugee host countries’ economies.

The African Union (AU) and its various organs play an important part in coordinating responses to continental threats. They’ve responded quickly to COVID-19, including on issues related to refugees and internally displaced persons. But more must be done.

The AU has provided member states with policy guidance through its continental coronavirus strategy aimed at supporting national responses, calling for the inclusion of refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons. In a communiqué on migration and mobility amid the pandemic, it also called on member states to respect the rights of displaced people.

Refugee operations at UNHCR and its partners in many African countries are severely underfunded

For its part, the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) has labelled COVID-19 a ‘serious existential threat to international peace and security’, calling for specific attention to refugees and internally displaced persons. At a meeting about refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons in the context of COVID-19 on 28 April, it outlined important steps to be taken at national, regional and international levels.

The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights expressed alarm about displaced populations’ vulnerabilities and called on member states to address their specific needs. It issued guidelines on a human rights-compliant response.

The effectiveness of these continental positions however depends on their implementation by states. The AU faces obstacles such as ongoing conflicts, funding shortfalls and border closures.

In Libya, despite the PSC’s call for a ceasefire on 5 April, Al-Hadra Hospital in Tripoli was attacked by rockets. Ongoing detention in Libya of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants could fuel the spread of the virus as hygiene under these conditions is compromised.

Humanitarian actors should join the steering committee of the Africa Task Force for Novel Coronavirus

In April, 25 000 Malian refugees were targeted by armed groups in Burkina Faso, forcing them to head home amid the COVID-19 crisis. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Burkina Faso is the fastest-growing displacement crisis globally, with 840 000 people displaced. Niger, which hosts 225 000 refugees and asylum seekers including those evacuated from Libya, has recently endured several terrorist attacks.

Limited funding is another problem. In Uganda – host to Africa’s largest number of refugees at 1.4 million – the World Food Programme cut food rations for refugees and asylum seekers by 30%, citing lack of funds. This puts Uganda’s refugees, from South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi, at heightened risk of starvation as their small businesses have been paralysed due to lockdown.

Already refugee operations at UNHCR and its partners in many African countries are severely underfunded. This complicates responses to the pandemic and may force refugees to consider negative coping mechanisms such as prostitution to enable them to buy basic necessities, like food.

Border closures also make it difficult to protect refugees and internally displaced persons. UNHCR estimates that 167 countries including many from Africa have fully or partially closed their borders to contain the spread of the coronavirus. At least 57 states globally are making no exceptions for asylum seekers. This makes it impossible to exercise the human right of asylum, and hinders efforts to contain the pandemic as displaced people will probably continue crossing borders through informal routes.

To ensure that refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons are properly included in the continent’s response to COVID-19, the AU and its member states should consider the following actions.

A failure to support the most vulnerable could undermine Africa’s efforts to tackle COVID-19

First the AU, working with organisations such as UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration, should help states facilitate effective, humane border management and health screening practices. These must be in line with international standards that include ensuring asylum seekers are accepted at the border, screened and isolated while their asylum is processed.

Second, the PSC should continue exerting efforts to implement the global ceasefire called by UN Secretary-General António Guterres and AU Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat. This will help address the root causes of displacement, and enable the AU to implement its ‘Silencing the Guns’ campaign. The PSC’s 28 April meeting was a good start.

Third, humanitarian actors should be invited to join the steering committee of the Africa Task Force for Novel Coronavirus. This is the platform of the AU Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention that oversees the continent’s preparedness and response to COVID-19. Non-governmental organisations and UN agencies working on displacement can support the AU’s resource mobilisation effort. They can also enhance governments’ capacity by sharing practical guidance and best practices.

Fourth, states should ensure that refugees can access their national health services including for COVID-19 prevention and treatment. Already countries like Djibouti, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Uganda are building inclusive health systems that accommodate refugees and host communities through the Global Compact on Refugees. This should be further strengthened during the COVID-19 response.

The coronavirus is blind to borders. A failure to respond to the needs of the most vulnerable could undermine Africa’s efforts to tackle the pandemic holistically. While the AU leads the continental response and facilitates coordination, governments must ensure that refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons are part of their responses. They also need to work closely with relevant regional and international organisations.

Tsion Tadesse Abebe, Senior Researcher, Migration, ISS Addis Ababa and Dr Allehone Abebe, Senior Legal Officer, UNHCR Liaison Office to the UN Economic Commission for Africa