Impact of Covid-19 on the ECOWAS Free Movement Protocol and the Regional Integration Agenda

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD) recently organized a webinar to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on one of ECOWAS’s main instruments for regional integration, the Free Movement Protocol.

While the coronavirus represents a global emergency, countries around the world immediately closed their borders to protect their citizens and prevent the spread of the virus. This raises the issue of regional cooperation and possible roadmap for future response to similar emergencies.

Two distinguished personalities, H.E. Dr. Michael Spindelegger, Director General, ICMPD and H.E Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola, Nigerian Minister of Interior took turns to set the context for presentations and discussions.

This was followed by presentations by four expert speakers and what follows is a summary of their presentations:

Dr. Tony Elumelu (PPO, Free Movement Directorate-ECOWAS): Towards a common immigration policy and Integrated Border Management taking into consideration migration and health.

Dr. Elumelu commenced his presentation by providing a context to the ECOWAS Free Movement Protocol. Over the years, the ECOWAS Commission has consistently and progressively introduced a series of initiatives that would strengthen its regional integration plan, including the principle of free movement of persons, goods and services in the region. The elaboration of the ECOWAS Common Approach on Migration in 2008 has guided several actions including the introduction of a unified template for travel document application, the phased implementation of the Joint Border Post Programme, and the implementation of a common biometric identification card to facilitate intra-regional mobility. However, like many countries across the globe, ECOWAS Member State are not insulated from the current pandemic, and one of the measures taken by individual MS was to restrict the movement of people both internally and across international borders. This was in contradiction to the ECOWAS Free Movement Protocol, restricting not only the free movement of persons within the sub-region, but also restricting economic activities. Dr Elumelu argued that the COVID-19 pandemic would go down in history as a pandemic that has changed the world in many forms. The analyses of the effects of the COVID-19 disease are ongoing and may not yet reveal the full extent of the economic as well as the social impact on communities. As global economies and regional bodies begin to take stock 6 of the effects, there is already a growing realization on the toll this is having on the general population. In the West Africa region, the challenges are real for the millions of community citizens whose livelihoods depend on the daily movement of trade across the borders. The same applies to member states whose economies are dependent on the movement of goods and services within the region. With the gradual easing of restrictions, measures or guidelines to ensure safe travels both at the pre-departure and post arrival stages must be applied at all entry posts, including maritime borders.

Professor Stanley OKOLO (Director General, West African Health Organization): Finding a balance between the health emergency and cross-border migration in the context of the ECOWAS Free Movement Protocol.

Prof. Okolo began by providing a status update on the evolution of COVID-19 cases in the ECOWAS region. Three months into the outbreak, the rate of transmission in West Africa differs significantly from earlier predictions. As at 25 May 2020, there were a total of 29,772 confirmed cases, 17,318 active cases, 11,827 recovered and a total of 627 deaths. These figures show that the rate of transmission of the disease is relatively low, compared to other regions of the world. Although, the testing capacity in West Africa is very low, it does not fully explain the dynamics that is playing out in sub-Sahara Africa.

However, with very poor health infrastructure and weak health management systems, there are legitimate concerns that the effect of the pandemic in Africa would be devastating. People living in slums and shantytowns will not have the luxury to practice physical distancing as a non-pharmaceutical preventive measure. In addition, while the focus is on COVID-19, there are patients with other pathological illnesses who are struggling to get adequate care. As far back as 2005, the World Health Organization (WHO) had published a Handbook for Public Health Capacity Building at Ground-crossing and Cross-Border Collaboration.

Furthermore, in June 2019, WAHO published the Regional Pandemic Response Plan drawing experience from both the WHO guidelines and the Ebola case management successes. The Ebola outbreak in 2015, mainly affected three ECOWAS Member State – Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Contact tracing and isolation strategies were effectively utilized in managing the outbreak. In March 2020, the WHO released an updated guideline on the Management of Ill Travelers at Points of Entry in the context of COVID-19.

While sub-Sahara Africa may not have enough resources and testing capacity to cover a significant proportion of it population, active surveillance, early detection, isolation and case management remain the best options. These measures are practical and were successfully implemented at the various entry points during the Ebola outbreak.

In the case of COVID-19, the border closure policy adopted by ECOWAS Member States may pose some challenges by inhibiting the possibility of contact tracing and data sharing. At the moment, the wave of transmission of the Coronavirus disease in sub-Sahara Africa is relatively low and if this trend continues, it will be a major opportunity for public health researchers who will need to determine the cause of this peculiar pattern.

However, there are still valid concerns that many African communities may experience a spike in the transmission rate if conscious measures are not taken to help communities prevent the spread of the disease. African countries need to strike a balance between re-opening the economy and curtailing the spread of the disease. Personal hygiene and the use of facemasks are the minimum requirements while public health authorities continue to look for an effective medical remedy. The WAHO has advised national authorities to base their decisions to ease the lockdown on scientific data as it relates to the spread of the virus.

Ms. Lotte Kejser: Chief Technical Adviser, International Labour Organization: ILO Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on Migrants and Youth employment

Ms. Lotte shared some insights on best practices and lessons learned from similar situations. Ms Lotte started the presentation by comparing the employment situation in West Africa before COVID-19 and the current state of employment. About 80% of the working population are in the informal sector some of whom are employed in small and medium sized enterprises which generates more than 4% of GDP. The population of the region is estimated at 400 million and it is projected to double by 200 Million by 2050 with a growth rate of 2.7%. Almost 50% of the population are children between age 0 and14 and 20% are between 15-24 years implying a 50% youthful population between the age 15 and 34. The demography of the region gives it a hypothetical advantage in terms of the survival rate for COVID-19 infection assuming that the older population are more susceptible to the disease. Perhaps this reality marginally contributes to the slow rate of infection so far in the region. However, with over 50% unemployment and underemployment rates and the lack of social support for the unemployed, the productivity rate and income distribution among the youth population is low. Youths account for 60% of the unemployment rate and this is twice as high for women than for men. Given that a larger percentage of the working population earn their livelihood daily, the reality is that majority of the population will not earn any income to sustain themselves during the lockdown. At the same time, the drastic reduction in diaspora remittances has complicated the means of livelihood of many families.

Ms. Melita Gruevska-Graham, Head Anti-Trafficking Programme – ICMPD: Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic and the Protection of Vulnerable groups

Ms. Melita started the conversation by providing an overview of the different initiatives and programmes ICMPD is currently committed to in region. She took time to share her very deep insight about the peculiar vulnerabilities for the different categories of the migrant population.

West Africa has always been a region of high human mobility and about 80% of the migratory flow is intra-regional. Interestingly over the past 10 years, the migrants’ profiles are changing and becoming more diversified to include more women and Youths in a context of mixed migration flow. A major concern is the high irregular migration incidence 8 specific to certain communities and driven by the need to escape the real existential threat of poverty, to find a better life for their families.

This is what has fueled the enterprise of migrant smuggling and human trafficking and the very horrors of modern day slavery. Many others are victims of conflict displaced within their own communities and with no hope in sight for a durable solution.

The ICMPD led Rabat Process is currently finalizing an assessment of anti-trafficking gaps, needs, and good practices in the 15 Member States of ECOWAS and Mauritania. The assessment is envisaged to provide a toolbox of transferable practices, so that Rabat Process partners can build upon successes and avoid pitfalls in existing country trafficking responses.