By Ingrid Haack, Macarena Soto, Cristina Cabrejas and Javier Martín
Athens/Madrid/Rome/Tripoli, Jun 4 (efe-epa).- Alfa Jafo wears a puzzled look on his face when asked if the Covid-19 pandemic has killed his dream of escaping poverty and war and making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean.
Europe became one of the world’s worst-hit continents during the pandemic, which confined millions of people who once took cross-border travel for granted, to their homes.
Having been expelled from Algeria, for the past few months, Jafo has been working in the kitchen at a restaurant in the historic city of Agadez in Niger, a launchpad for irregular migration in the Sahel.
He awaits his chance to attempt the nightmarish trip north through the desert, a perilous journey that precedes the European dreams of so many African migrants.
“I am not afraid,” he says. “If we are lucky, and if it pleases God, the coronavirus will not stop us. It is God who will save our souls.”
Andre Chani, who was a people smuggler until 2017 when the Niger government, under pressure from Europe, clamped down on the practice, agrees that for migrants fleeing desperate poverty, the virus is just another hurdle on a path already strewn with deadly obstacles.
“Even with all the difficulties – with the war in Libya, with the coronavirus, the challenges they will find in the desert, with all the sufferings and deaths, with all the disease from coronavirus — they still really want to leave Africa and go to Europe, to make an exodus,” he says.
“They say they prefer to suffer in the reserves and suffer with the coronavirus than to stay here, where there is nothing left,” he adds.
While the pandemic has not had much of an effect on the spirit and determination of migrants heading north, it has had a major impact on their desired destinations in Europe, where borders have been reinforced and the debate between protecting their own citizens and welcoming migrants has once again come to the fore.
“Covid-19 is not the first international crisis to provoke such debates, but it is the most widespread and severe. A virus represents a different order of threat from any terrorist grouping, criminal network or other problems that have been discussed in the debate on migration.” Niall McGlynn, a researcher at Trinity College in Dublin, explained in a Euronews op-ed.
It is a debate that Solon Ardittis, director general of Eurasylum, and Frank Laczko, who manages the statistical analysis center for the International Organisation of Migration (IOM), says will revolve around four central themes once the pandemic has passed.
“Combating xenophobia and promoting inclusion; assisting stranded migrants; ensuring that migration responses support health systems; and reducing negative socioeconomic impacts,” they point out in a policy paper published by SOMA (Social Observatory for Disinformation and Social Media Analysis).
Gillian Triggs, the Assistant Secretary-General and Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), adds the risk of increased stigmatisation of migrants to the debate.
“It is a real risk — and it’s misinformed, I might add — that some in the community will argue that refugees, asylum seekers, displaced people are vectors of the disease, that they will carry virus” to try to avoid humanitarian and international rights obligations, she underlines.
A NEVER ENDING FLOW
The civil war in Libya, a country mired in chaos since the fall in 2011 of Muammar Gaddafi’s decades-long dictatorship, has worsened.
Over the past year alone, fighting to conquer the capital city Tripoli has taken the lives of more than 1,700 people — around 350 of whom were civilians — and forced more than 200,000 people, including migrants living in camps awaiting their chance to escape to Europe, to abandon their homes.
“The latest figures we have on migrants, refugees and asylum seekers being held in detention etners is probably the lowest we have had in a long time. IOM is talking about 1,500 people still held in these official detention centers, but it leaves open a lot of questions,” says Hassiba Hajd Saharaui, spokesperson for Doctors Without Borders (MSF).
There is a lot of uncertainty as to where those fleeing the frontlines have ended up amid discrepancies between the number of people departing the country in boats, those who have arrived in Italy and those intercepted by Libyan coast guards.