Interview with the newspaper L’Expression (Algeria) – May 14, 2020

Read below the interview with the Algerian newspaper L’Expression on migrations and COVID-19:

The full version of the interview:

L’Expression: Introduce yourself to our readers.

Samir Abi: Hello and thank you for the opportunity to speak to your readers. My name is Samir ABI, I am an African from Togo, a small country in West Africa. An economist by training, I specialized in the theme of migration and development.

For twenty years now, I have been traveling over the world to observe the situation of migrants, understand their socio-economic impact in the countries of departure, transit and reception, and then discuss with politicians the measures to be taken in order to improve it. I head an organization called the West African Observatory on Migrations of which I am the Permanent Secretary.

What are the reasons for migration in Africa today? In which categories do we classify them? And above all, how many migrants are there?

I am used to say that migration is a natural fact. Every man, whether he lives in a country in the North or in the South, feels the need at some point to move to look elsewhere in order to find new opportunities. This is characteristic of all humans and animals that do the same according to the seasons.

However, it is considered that life’s situations can make it early, delay or rush the departure from its place of origin to another. So we see people who are forced to migrate because of family problems (not necessarily financial), people who migrate to continue their studies, people who migrate because they found love in the distance, people who desperate by drought or other climatic problems leave their home. If not family, political, resource conflicts or wars that make them leave their home. But it is often common to link migration to the lack of life’s prospects, financial means, employment in an area of ​​origin. Migrants therefore go to new horizons in search of new opportunities.

But be aware, however, that I don’t like to categorize migrants. This is an exercise that I think is difficult and too biased, because all human migration is a story where different factors mix.

As for the numbers of migrants, international migrants, that is, those who cross a border to settle in another country, are estimated at 272 million people in 2019 according to the United Nations. Among them are 25.9 million refugees and 3.5 million asylum seekers, according to the UNHCR. The number of international migrants is therefore not that explosive when you know that there are nearly 8 billion people on earth. However, most of the migration takes place within countries. It is estimated that between 750 to 800 million people have migrated within their own country or are internally displaced due to conflict and the climate.

Migrants are even more fragile when faced with coronavirus, why then?

Even more, you said and you are right. Migrants were already in fragile situations before the coronavirus crisis. Many asylum seekers and undocumented migrants lived in tents, crowded into overcrowded camps, community ghettos and unsanitary buildings. Their health situation was already worrying.

Whether or not they have papers, many migrants are in precarious jobs. They are discriminated or forced to hide to avoid checks and arrests. With the coronavirus crisis, they find themselves without income like all citizens of countries operating in the informal sector. A migrant with no income also means less remittance for his family who stayed behind. The health crisis is leading to an economic crisis with the risk of long-term unemployment for migrant workers like those in the Gulf countries.

The drama for other migrants comes from the fact that they are either isolated from national or community support networks, or that they are even more targeted by the confinement’s measures that they cannot respect because of life in ghetto. The issue of access to health care when you catch the virus should also be highlighted. It is not easy for a migrant to be taken care of by the health system of certain countries which is very expensive. Finally there is the question of the management of dead migrants and the repatriation of corpses. These are quite sensitive subjects at the moment.

International institutions seem worried about the situation. What resolutions have been adopted? Are they sufficient?

If you talk about solutions for migrants facing the coronavirus crisis, it varies from country to country. We have had countries that have taken utilitarian measures by asking undocumented migrants with medical skills to help care for the sick. Others were asked to replace missing people in businesses or plantations. Some countries have taken humanistic measures, deciding to extend the residence permits of migrants or to no longer aggressively prosecute those in an irregular situation. There are also countries which, despite the crisis, have continued to track down migrants living in community camps or ghettos because they would not respect measures of confinement and social distancing. Finally, there were actions of solidarity with migrants carried out by NGOs, associations or ordinary citizens whom I greet from the bottom of my heart.

Are global migration and refugee protection policies up to the challenges?

This is not a new question. For us, the decisions of international organizations and governments in terms of migration policies or the protection of refugees do not yet meet our expectations. Migrants are treated as goods and asylum seekers do not have all the necessary solidarity. Either the migrants are supposed useful for the countries and the leaders make decisions to open borders. Either they are considered a burden and they are expelled, isolated in deserts or persecuted daily by the police. Migrants are often not seen as humans with rights and ambitions. Unfortunately, the non-binding nature of the United Nations Global Compact on Migration (Marrakesh Compact) does not lead to any major changes within countries. The migration policies implemented in certain countries remain unworthy of our humanity. Even more in this century of abundance and technological progress.

Several European countries are regularizing refugees at the moment, NGOs are crying out for scandal, what comment do you make?

The NGOs which cry out to scandal to my knowledge, are those who denounce the “let-die” in the Mediterranean Sea. In fact, there have seen boats of illegal migrants adrift that no one wants to help because the ports and borders are officially closed (Except for the very wealthy).

As for regularizations, I have only heard of promises and not yet of administrative actions because the officials are confined. But as I said before, it is for utilitarian purposes. Regularizations are promised to those who can help solve the problem of lack of human resources during the crisis. But, remember, political promises are only binding on those who believe in them.

No movement is possible today, are there any attempts of migrant’s move?

Of course yes. Confinement is not the same for everyone. We have rich migrants who can move to stay in countries where they can be well cared for. They don’t talk about that much. They prefer to put the spotlight on less fortunate migrants. Those who, at the risk of their lives, try to reach Europe via Niger, Libya, the Maghreb to go and run aground in the Mediterranean Sea. Those who cross the Red Sea to go to the Middle East. Those who are confined to the Greek islands. Those who cross the Rio Grande or the Rio Bravo to reach the United States. The crisis creates despair, some respond by fleeing. But we also notice some return movements. Indeed, in West Africa, despite official closings, we have seen migrants who have taken advantage of the porous borders to return home. In fact, according to them, you can suffer far from home to earn a living, but it is better to die near your family.

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