Across Africa, tens of thousands of migrants are trapped in perilous conditions at borders, mines, ports and in transit camps after states shut their borders in an attempt to stem the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
Some have been abandoned by smugglers unable to take them further on their journeys to Europe or elsewhere. Others were returning home or moving across the continent in search of work when frontiers were closed in March.
A voluntary humanitarian return scheme run by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) is their only option to go back home.
The IOM is trying to negotiate a humanitarian corridor across closed borders to allow repatriation as tensions at the transit centres rise.
Among those stranded include large numbers of Chadian students in Cameroon, about 1,800 Nigerien workers stuck in remote gold mining areas in Burkina Faso, and more than 1,000 migrants from Mali and Senegal trapped in Mauritania.
In east Africa, about 2,300 migrants are stranded in Djibouti after being abandoned by traffickers. Most were hoping to cross the Red Sea to Yemen and then reach Saudi Arabia and the Arabian peninsula, mainly in search of work.
The migrants are among the marginalised communities who are most vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many are women and children.
Africa has more than 46,000 reported cases of the disease and 1,800 deaths. However, the numbers are believed to be a fraction of the real toll so far, highlighting a recent warning from the World Health Organization that the continent of 1.3 billion people could become the next centre of the global outbreak.
The pandemic has pushed some migrants to take enormous risks on the final stages of their journeys to reach Europe.
There are reports that smugglers are taking migrants in unseaworthy boats on long journeys across the Red Sea to remote beaches in Yemen. On the northern borders of Niger, migrants are forced to use remote paths in the desert, travelling in small groups to avoid detection, to cross from Niger into Libya or Algeria.
The combination of increased risk and demands for bigger bribes from corrupt border guards have pushed transportation fees for the trip across the Red Sea to US$1,000 (£800), up from US$500 before the pandemic, while the fee to cross the desert frontier from Niger into Libya has gone from about US$80 to as much as US$300.
Large groups of migrants often find themselves abandoned in perilous situations. In late March, 256 migrants from across west Africa were left by smugglers in the desert at the border with Libya, a day’s walk from the nearest settlement.
Along with hundreds forcibly expelled from Algeria between mid-march and mid-April, they are now stranded in transit centres and across Niger. Some are living in harsh conditions in makeshift quarantine camps in Agadez, the town in the north of Niger that has historically been a hub for migrants. They include children, pregnant women and older people.
Barbara Rijks, the head of mission for IOM in Niger, said the organisation was stretched to the limit, as new funds had yet to come in.
“While waiting for the thousands of migrants in our transit centres to return to their countries of origin, new migrants are continuing to arrive from neighbouring countries or having been abandoned by their smugglers in the desert, adding to the number of people in need of assistance,” she said.
“In addition, all of the transit centres have already reached maximum capacity and we can no longer admit new migrants, despite the high demand,” Rijks said.
There are also concerns about thousands of people stuck in poor conditions in overcrowded accommodation or in detention facilities in Libya, where they are vulnerable to COVID-19.
About 1,500 people are stuck in the unstable country’s official detention centres suffering poor hygiene conditions, limited food and constant risk of abuse, rape, forced labour and trafficking.
“COVID is exacerbating increasingly negative trends seen over five years,” said Hara Caracostas, a Tunis-based migration specialist for the Danish Refugee Council. “It is not just that movement has stopped but work has stopped too. So people cannot continue their journey but they can’t survive where they are.”
For those without reliable accommodation, curfews imposed to fight COVID-19 mean constant fear of arrest and extortion by unscrupulous security forces.
Migrants have also been caught by border closures in southern and central Africa. One group has been blocked from entering Uganda from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Every year, thousands also travel down the continent’s east coast to reach the relatively developed economy of South Africa – passed down a chain of smugglers who use rickety boats, overcrowded lorries and dangerous paths through the remote bush areas to cross frontiers.
The dangers of the route – and the numbers using it – were highlighted when 64 people believed to be from Ethiopia were found dead in a container attached to a truck in Mozambique in March.
Others have been blocked heading back to Zimbabwe. In Musina, the last town in South Africa before the frontier, hundreds of people have gathered in increasingly harsh conditions.
“People are really suffering. They don’t have enough to eat. They are stuck. There is no movement and the police are patrolling,” said Jacob Matakanye, of the Musina Legal Advice Centre.
The migrants in Musina are not eligible for the emergency relief grants recently announced by South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, and lack food. Matakanye appealed for help from international NGOs and governments.
The xenophobia prompted by the pandemic has caused real problems for migrants everywhere, legal and illegal.
Last month, the captain and six crew members of a Panama-registered bulk carrier pleaded guilty to charges of attempted murder in Cape Town, after allegedly forcing two Tanzanian stowaways overboard because they feared they had COVID-19.
The men drifted in a home-made raft off the KwaZulu-Natal north coast before eventually washing up on a beach. (Source: The Guardian)