The Double Punishment of Migrant Workers in West Africa in Times of COVID-19

Elieth Eyebiyi from Benin describes the effects of the Covid 19 pandemic on migrants and their home countries.

Bild: von FES Benin Remittances from migrants are an important resource for their families and villages of origin.

The health crisis of the coronavirus disease, which started in China at the end of 2019 and then quickly spread all over the planet, is having severe repercussions on the most vulnerable populations. Announcements of a disaster in Africa, in particular by the World Health Organization (WHO), are slow to come true and  unlikely to happen; very much in contrast to the difficulties and inexperience of Western health systems in managing a pandemic which caused by 10th of May 2020, 282,733 deaths worldwide. However, though Africa has recorded only 0.8 % of worldwide death (2.268), the short, medium and long-term consequences of this health crisis will impact all areas.

In terms of mobility and labour migration, the crisis will deeply affect migrant workers, particularly in the primary and service sectors. Those categories of workers are subject to a double punishment. On the one hand, the depletion of their resources due to travel restrictions imposed in most countries increases their vulnerability. On the other hand, the obstacles to carry out monetary and social transfers that hitherto used to improve the well-being of their communities, weaken the resilience in their places of origin.

Mobility restriction is one of the main public measures taken to put a break on the spread of coronavirus. Its first act was the closing of borders, bars, restaurants, entertainment places, public transport, and sometimes markets; in short, they restrain most of the activities of the informal sector in which migrant workers operate in West Africa. Without access to the seasonal workforce from neighbouring countries - peasants from Benin and Niger employed in farms in Nigeria, fishermen from Benin operating in Nigeria, including workers from Burkina Faso working in the cocoa economy in Ghana and in Côte d'Ivoire - agriculture and fishing will also be severely impacted, as will mining activities (Senegal, Guinea, Burkina-Faso, Mali).

The second measure activating the de facto lockdown of populations through a strict curfew (Senegal, Niger, Togo, Burkina Faso, etc.) or the setting of a ‘cordon sanitaire' (Benin)  are reducing the demand for services provided by migrant workers and slowing down the daily economy. By paralyzing the supply and demand, this double-entry restriction on mobility has strained the income sources of the poorest, thus affecting the resources of migrant workers and other subordinate contributors to the economy, generally deprived of any social protection, and depending on daily revenues generated by precarious activities that fade out in time of crisis.

The drastic reduction of the migrant workers’ resources is contributing to the deterioration of their standard of living and increasing their precariousness. And this, even though these subordinate categories of workers contribute -  through work that is not very visible in official statistics - to the development of environments in their host countries; especially in the tertiary (local trade, transport, etc.) and primary sectors (seasonal agriculture, fishing, etc.)

This situation has a spill-over effect on the resilience of their communities of origin, whose survival is essentially dependent on the many cash and social transfers by which those workers reinvigorate the economy of their countries and places of origin (Mali, Senegal, Niger, etc.). Such remittances also consolidate the basic social services in the context of the state’s absence. For 2020 the World Bank predicts a 20% drop in remittances, 19.7% towards middle-income countries and 23.1% in sub-Saharan Africa in general. The typology of sources of remittances sent from migrants to the countries of the West-African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU), recalled by a Bloomberg report, shows that 66.1% of those financial flows come from Europe, 57.7% from the Euro zone, of which 24% in France and 23.9% in Italy. Those countries are the most severely affected by the current pandemic, along with the United States and Great Britain.

According to the Central Bank of West African States migrant remittances in the WAEMU zone in 2017 represented 10% of GDP in Senegal, 7.7% in Togo, 5.5% in Mali, 3.2% in Guinea Bissau, 2.9% in Burkina-Faso and 0.7% each in Benin and Niger. However, on the eve of sequential border closings, many legal migrants, unregistered migrants from Europe, regional diasporas in West Africa, and internal migrants returned to their countries or villages of origin, constituting additional burdens for families for which they were previously the main resource providers. Those who have remained in migration are forced into inactivity or into other temporary jobs, which inevitably reduces their income and further weakens them further. There is fear that the traditional stabilizing effect of remittances on households will be lacking in the medium-term.

If the management models of coronavirus in West Africa are all just as diverse as the so-called lockdown measures - the latter ranging from the absence of any social support to distribution of food aid and subsidies to food, electricity and water bills – then migrant workers remain outside the social aspects of the 'response plans' or supporting measures implemented in West Africa. The drying up of their direct resources and the weakening of their remittance capabilities will have a lasting impact on the region's economies. Apart from curtailing the spread of the coronavirus and preserving their health, the effects of mobility restrictions will paradoxically be detrimental to the survival of migrant workers, and more generally of all workers of the extractive industries who are so characteristic for the West African region.

The closedown of territories and activities will not last in West Africa. It will probably be necessary, to quickly let it go in order to avoid the suffocation of structurally fragile economies driven by the productivity of the most vulnerable groups. The current health crisis will only turn into an opportunity if the region’s states could transcend the dilemma of the emergency, rethinking the social protection of the marginalized in employment and the most vulnerable of the informal sector in a clever and innovative way, to meet the true needs of migrant workers’ to be included in their host countries and to keep facilitating remittances in the sub-region. And this, all the more, because this crisis is unlikely to be the last one, on a continent regularly affected by various epidemic episodes (Ebola, Lassa, etc.), a continent which will see the vulnerabilities reinforced by the current pandemic.


Elieth Eyebiyi from Benin is a socio-anthropologist, specialist in governance, migration, mobility and development.

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