During March, 145,000 Afghans returned from Iran, many infected with coronavirus. In Afghanistan, the number of people infected with the virus is increasing every day. This is bad news for Afghan children, who already live in the world’s most dangerous country.
Politically, Afghanistan is in a very challenging situation. The results of last year’s election are disputed, with two men having claimed the post as the country’s president. At the end of February, the United States and the Taliban signed an agreement providing for the withdrawal of international forces in return for the Taliban’s agreement to prevent international terror groups from operating from Afghan soil. The United States is frustrated about the dispute over the presidency, and has cut this year’s aid funding by USD 1 billion. The dispute is not only an obstacle to peace negotations, but has also prevented a rapid and effective response to the coronavirus.
Save the Children’s national office in Afghanistan is seriously concerned about the country’s children. Afghanistan is very high on the list of the world’s worst places to be a child. The vast majority of children in Afghanistan have spent their entire childhoods in wartime. A coronavirus outbreak will have huge consequences, and children will be particularly vulnerable. Millions of Afghan children live in poverty, many are undernourished and already have very limited access to food, education and healthcare. The challenges will become even greater if scarce resources get tied up in the management of a coronavirus epidemic.
Children without access to education will be even more vulnerable to violence and the risk of child marriages will increase. Save the Children is working with the Afghan authorities both to provide vulnerable children with access to education at this time and to ensure that they can return to school as quickly as possible.
The large numbers of people who are now returning from Iran, where there are up to four million Afghan refugees and migrant workers, is causing concern. The government in Kabul sought to close the border on 23 February, but was forced to reopen it the following day. Tens of thousands of people who fled the virus were trapped in no-man’s-land between the two countries. In total, almost 200,000 people have returned to Afghanistan so far in 2020, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
The healthcare system in Afghanistan is not capable of dealing with the virus without significant foreign help, even though it has been significantly strengthened by foreign aid since 2001. The WHO is now assisting the Afghan authorities with testing and building up the necessary infrastructure along the border. Funds from the EU and elsewhere are helping to secure equipment to prevent infection, including PPE for health workers. Even so, the needs are overwhelming.
The consequences of the virus for the global economy also represents a serious threat for Afghanistan. International aid comprises almost 20 percent of Afghanistan’s total gross national product (GDP) and more than 75 percent of the central government budget. If donor countries start cutting their aid budgets in order to deal with their own economic crises, the consequences for Afghanistan will be catastrophic. Norway is recognized as an effective and flexible provider of aid to Afghanistan over the course of many decades.
The Norwegian authorities must now increase their aid to Afghanistan in order to finance the country’s plan for a response to coronavirus, and humanitarian organizations must scale up their efforts as quickly as possible. This means providing funds for badly needed equipment such as tests, PPE for health workers, and ventilators for the sickest patients. It is important that the needs of the most vulnerable are prioritized. In addition, Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries must ensure free passage for important supplies, and aid workers.
It is equally important that all parties to the conflict immediately comply with the call by the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, for a global ceasefire during the pandemic. This could form the basis for the peace that Afghanistan so badly needs. Afghanistan must now use all available resources in the battle against coronavirus, but the country is completely reliant on support from the rest of the world!
The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered the suspension of international resettlement for refugees. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), resettlement-related travel will resume as soon as prudence and logistics permit. Meanwhile, individuals and families that were set to go are in limbo for the foreseeable future. However, this is not the first time that resettlement has been suspended on account of a public health emergency – and it may not be the last.
Before the pandemic, it was already clear that resettlement would struggle to make the comeback predicted at the 2016 UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants. There had been a sharp decline in resettlement to the US, which historically took the largest number of resettled refugees, and resettlement had been suspended altogether in some traditional receiving countries, such as Denmark in 2017. There was also the manifest unwillingness of the European Union (EU) and its member states to redistribute refugees hosted by Greece and Italy during the influx from Syria in 2015–16, and the EU’s push for emergency resettlement in African states rather than the EU.
Yet, the discretionary nature of refugee resettlement as a durable solution – rather than an obligation under international law – has long caused strong and seemingly sudden fluctuation in resettlement numbers for a variety of reasons. Therefore, it is far too early to assert the ‘death of resettlement’. Rather, it’s the time to revisit key debates to provide pointers on resettlement post-COVID-19.
A volatile instrument of refugee governance: discretion and historical shocks
Resettlement does not entail a firm set of obligations under international law. Resettlement is one of three non-hierarchical durable solutions for refugees. According to the definition used by UNHCR, resettlement involves the selection and transfer of refugees from a state in which they have initially sought protection to a third state that has agreed to admit them with permanent residence status. The actual mechanisms of the resettlement process are largely unregulated by the 1951 Refugee Convention.
The discretionary nature of resettlement means that there is a lack of harmonisation as to who will be resettled across resettling countries. Groups prioritised by one country – for example women at risk or LGBTI refugees – may not be on the priority list of others. Moreover, there is a gap between UNHCR statistics on refugees put forward for resettlement and those who actually have been physically moved by the various receiving countries. Therefore, one should execise caution when reading resettlement statistics.
Furthermore, given the discretionary nature of refugee resettlement, numbers have varied significantly over time in response to external shocks. For example, the 1980s saw a decline in resettlement. This followed a nearly 40 year-period in which resettlement was the preferred durable solution of UNHCR and states for many refugee populations (though not for African refugees). Western states became increasingly reluctant to resettle people whom they considered to be ‘would-be economic migrants’. In addition, the end of the Cold War saw a shift towards temporary protection and repatriation instead of resettlement. By the mid-1990s, however, UNHCR sought to reframe resettlement as a humanitarian act, and argued in a seminal report that it was a strategic instrument of international protection by states. The clearer doctrinal separation between refugees and migrants, and the provision of ‘soft law’ guidance to states, contributed to a resurgence of refugee resettlement from the mid-1990s.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks led to a significant decline in resettlement, particularly in the US. Prior to 9/11, processing time averaged one year; after 9/11, it stretched to a two- to three-year process. Immediately after 9/11, the number of refugees resettled in the US plummeted—from more than 73,000 in 2000 to less than 30,000 in fiscal years 2002 and 2003, as the Bush administration developed more stringent security screening protocols. These protocols remained in place through the Obama administration, and were expanded under the Trump administration’s ‘extreme vetting’ protocols.
Health concerns, such as COVID-19, have also been a reason why resettlement has been delayed or suspended. With regards to infectious diseases, stigma and the fear of contagion has affected the willingness of states to resettle refugees. For example, UNHCR has decades of experience in trying to overcome medical bans to resettle HIV-positive refugees. In 2014, and noting the lack of a public health rationale, UNHCR reported that some resettlement selection missions to Ebola-affected regions in West Africa had been cancelled. Australia went as far as to suspend humanitarian visas for refugees from Ebola-affected countries.
Preserving and expanding the resettlement space
Scholarship is divided on the best ways to preserve, and perhaps expand, resettlement. Focusing on Europe, Thielemann argues that a clear, binding legal framework is necessary to strengthen resettlement. In contrast, Suhrke considers that the adoption of binding resettlement targets would only be accepted by states if the targets did not required them to do more than they are already doing. Rather than legal developments, she argues, it is political leadership (and a conducive domestic and international environment) that matter. Actual developments reflect both academic perspectives, and innovations may also help preserve the resettlement space.
Regarding political leadership, at the international level, UNHCR has focused recently on broad alliances, including with the private sector, and supported ‘complementary pathways’ of admission to expand resettlement. Some have criticised this approach for being too top-down because the actual needs of refugees and their agency are overlooked. Canada’s response to the resettlement needs of Syrians branded it the new global leader in resettlement – although resettlement advocates note that there has been no announcement of a considerable, longer-term expansion of resettlement. During the COVID-19 pandemic, while resettlement is suspended, states, UNHCR, and civil society will need to provide strong statements supporting the swift resumption of resettlement activities and an expansion of resettlement intakes.
Though innovation is not a panacea and must be given critical scrutiny, technological innovation has the potential to expand the resettlement space as well. For instance, a project run out of Stanford University, experimenting with the use of algorithms for assigning placements for refugees, suggested that such placement – allegedly at no cost to the host economy – would increase refugees’ chances of finding employment by roughly 40 to 70 per cent, thus helping resource-constrained governments and resettlement agencies find the best places for refugees to relocate.
It remains to be seen how long resettlement will be suspended due to concerns about COVID-19. As we have seen from history, when politics or pandemics have slowed down resettlement, it has had the ability to bounce back. Eyes will be on how international organisations, states, and civil society act in the coming months to shape resettlement in the future.
Written by Nina Wilén (Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations & Lund University)
This post was originally published in Africa Policy Brief by the Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations. You can find the original post by clicking here, along with a list of references. The post also appears as part of the PRIO blog series Beyond the COVID Curve.Nina Wilén is Research Director for the Africa Programme at the Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations and assistant professor at the Department of Political Science at Lund University as well as a Global Fellow at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).
African governments have been faster than most of their European counterparts in imposing measures to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak despite dealing with numerous other challenges. However, context matters, and for Africa, the political and socioeconomic consequences of the lockdown measures may cause more havoc than the actual virus. This brief identifies political, economic and social risks related to coronavirus responses in Africa and emphasises the disproportionate burden carried by women. It argues that localised measures, which include dialogue, transparency and flexibility, may be the only realistic way forward, while underlining the need for wealthier states to provide generous aid packages, debt cancellations and continued investments, in spite of current challenges, in order for Africa to pull through yet another challenge.
As Europe and the United States grapple to cope with the effects of COVID-19, Africa is getting ready to add the coronavirus to the long list of challenges the continent already faces. Against a backdrop of widespread poverty, armed conflict, terrorism and climate change, African governments have reacted surprisingly swiftly, many imposing social-distancing measures and closing borders early on. But extensive lockdown measures are probably not, as others have already pointed out, [i] the right, or even the possible, way to go for most African states. For a continent where 70% of the population are under the age of 30 [ii] and around 5% aged 65 or over, the political, social and economic consequences of isolation measures are likely to cause more havoc than the actual virus.
This policy brief analyses the risks related to the spread of, and the responses to, the coronavirus in an African context. In particular, it looks at the political risks of emergency laws, extended powers and suspended elections; the economic risks related to both Western and African states’ lockdown measures, including rising unemployment figures, food insecurity and deepening debts; and the social impacts to which hard-hitting isolation measures may lead, focusing on how women are disproportionately affected – even though men are overrepresented among the victims of the virus. Finally, it points to the fact that Africa is a continent composed of highly heterogeneous states where localised measures that include dialogue, transparency and flexibility may not just be the most appropriate response but also the only realistic way forward.
Above all, it underlines the necessity for the continent’s wealthier neighbours in the North to ensure that the desperately needed solidarity is extended further south in the shape of generous aid packages, debt cancellations and continued investments. While this might seem like a utopic vision for an ever-more isolationist United States and an EU that faces problems raising solidarity among its own Member States, a quick glance at the repercussions that an Africa in crisis might have, in the shape of more refugees, starvation and a vaster breeding ground for terrorists, should convince the Northern states of the necessity to extend backing to the continent. If those arguments are still not enough, the leeway left for Chinese and Russian influence on the continent should alter the balance in favour of reinforced European and American economic, political and social support to Africa, even if it will be challenging as the former face their own crises.
Emergency powers, suspended elections and political tensions
The current pandemic has provided political leaders with the opportunity of a lifetime to extend their powers through a variety of different measures. In Europe, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has pushed through a bill that allows the government to maintain the state of emergency as long as it wants, while in the United States, Trump’s vast emergency powers and history of attempts to erode institutional checks and balances, should send shivers along any democratic citizen’s spine. The risk of political leaders using the coronavirus crisis as a means to grab more power is thus a global phenomenon.
Yet, this risk is especially worrying in states with a history of weak democratic institutions, which are overly represented on the African continent. The 2019 Democracy Index, where half of the 44 sub-Saharan governments included are categorised as authoritarian and the remaining 22 as hybrid regimes or flawed democracies (with the exception of one state), paints a bleak picture of the strength of the continent’s democratic institutions. [iii] Furthermore, a worryingly high number of senior political officials have contracted COVID-19 incountries that are already unstable gerontocracies, including Burkina Faso and Nigeria. Popular unrest and increased political instability related to power competition are just two of the consequences that the death of a leader can trigger in states where politics are highly personalised and democratic institutions weak.[iv]
In 2020, Africa is set to host a dozen presidential or general elections, the majority of which will be held in countries confronting or emerging from conflict. COVID-19 is likely to disrupt electoral processes because of public health concerns and logistical impossibility of organizing them. Ethiopia has already postponed its first election, scheduled for August, since Prime Minister Abiy opened up the political space. While this decision has been taken in accordance with some of the opposition parties, in other states, less democratic leaders may use this as a precedent to circumvent elections. However, leaders inclined to stay in power may also choose to go ahead with elections, benefitting from the limited possibilities that the (few) opposition parties will have to prepare and execute election campaigns. They may also use emergency powers to extend their time in office. Somewhat ironically, Uganda’s 2013 law against meetings between more than three people, aimed at stifling the opposition, was declared unconstitutional on 26 March, yet the nation-wide lockdown, which, among other measures, prohibits public transport and exercise in public, will supersede it for the weeks to come.[v] In sum, the options for undemocratic leaders to avoid elections, extend powers and suppress opposition are disturbingly many this year.
Burundi, which is preparing for presidential elections in just a month,[vi] has so far not put any additional restrictions on political or sport-related gatherings, claiming that the country is protected by God’s grace.[vii] This should, however, be seen in a context where members of the opposition have faced heavy-handed clampdowns that have reduced their camps and sent most opposition members into exile. The appreciation for God’s grace also means that people continue to visit churches en masse, which may increase the spread of the virus and work against God’s protection.
Unemployment, food insecurity and the risk of increasing debts
The vast majority of the world’s poorest countries are located on the African continent, with over 40% of sub-Saharan Africa’s population living in extreme poverty [viii] and 55% of the urban population living in slums.[ix] A large part of the urban population gets by on work in the informal sector, such as street trading and open markets, with no access to unemployment benefits or sick pay. Imposing isolation measures in such contexts is not only practically impossible but also counterproductive, as it will increase poverty and lead to food insecurity. Outcries against lockdown measures can already now be heard across the continent, with people rightly identifying starvation as a bigger threat than the virus.
Africa is an integral part of the global economy and, as such, the economic downturn related to China, Europe and the United States’ quarantine measures has seen the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) give bleak prognostics for the continent. Africa may lose half its GDP due to the COVID-19 crisis, due to falling oil revenues, disruption of export trade, and a decline in tourism and investments. [xii] In addition, African states importing goods such as basic food and medicines see their currencies losing value against the dollar in an instable economic context. Predictions of the loss of nearly half of all jobs in Africa underline how the corona crisis is likely to deepen socioeconomic inequalities, unless wealthier states help carry the disproportionate burden shouldered by many of the states in the southern hemisphere. [xiii]Few states on the continent have the financial capacity to offer a sufficient number of welfare packages or adequate support measures for lost incomes. South Africa, the continent’s most industrialised economy, has yet to come up with a way to compensate the loss of income for the three million informal workers who dominate the day-to-day economy in the country’s townships and downtown areas. [x] The Nigerian government has promised a subvention of ten billion naira (23 million euros) to alleviate the economic consequences felt in Lagos, a city that is home to more than 20 million people,[xi] and while the initiative is important, it is uncertain whether it will be enough to cover the loss of incomes.
The UN launched a two-billion-dollar coordinated global humanitarian response plan to fight COVID-19 for the world’s poorest countries, while the EU announced 15 billion euros to fight the virus in vulnerable countries, with EU High Representative Borrell promising that Europe would not forget its sister continent – reflecting the new EU-Africa strategy proposed only a few weeks earlier. [xiv] Wealthier states and individuals have also made contributions to fight both the virus and its socioeconomic consequences on the continent. The Chinese billionaire, Jack Ma, has donated a total of 1.1 million testing kits, six million masks and 60,000 protective suits to help Africa, [xv] while the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will provide up to 100 million dollars to improve detection, isolation and treatment efforts and protect at-risk populations in Africa and South Asia.xvi
Upcoming discussions between the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the G20 leaders about debt reliefs [xvii] and the creation of one-trilliondollar special drawing rights (SDRs) to offer grants and loans provide short-term relief for many African states. Yet, delaying debt payments while giving greater access to credit only risks delaying the economic shock until a later date. Debt cancellations and increased aid budgets in the current context are not only signs of solidarity but also self-protective measures for wealthier states that are otherwise likely to see spillover effects from their Southern neighbours’ crises. Importantly, the consequences of the responses to COVID-19 will not be limited to the political or the economic sphere but will also increase social inequalities.
When social distancing is not an option
Social distancing and hand washing have been hammered into populations across the world as the main measures to avoid spreading the virus and to flatten the curve of its exponential growth. ‘Flattening the curve’ implies slowing down the rate of infection so that the number of severely ill patients is reduced, allowing countries to prepare and increase hospital capacity. This three-headed strategy presupposes that 1) social distancing is feasible; 2) there is an access to clean water and soap; and 3) that health-care sectors can ramp up capacity in a short period. Even in richer countries on the continent, such as Nigeria, South Africa and Angola, all three of these assumptions pose problems.
African urban areas are often densely inhabited even in relatively sparsely populated countries in the Sahel. Public transport often consists of privately-owned vehicles where people are sitting shoulder to shoulder, and access to clean water is limited for the poorer part of the population even in many of the major cities. [xviii] Of course, there are enormous variations between different areas, even within the same country. While the large majority of white citizens in Stellenbosch, a university town outside of Cape Town, may not have difficulty social distancing and hand washing, only 20 kilometres away in Khayelitsha, the largest township in Western Cape, which has five times the population density of Stellenbosch, this will be considerably more difficult. This is especially the case because, just days before the lockdown was enforced, the City of Cape Town decided to temporarily cut water access for those who had not paid their bills in time. [xix]
Increased tensions in areas where lockdowns have severe repercussions on the population may provoke clashes with security forces. While South African president Ramaphosa urged the military to be a force for kindness and not might, the use of water cannon and rubber bullets to enforce lockdown has been difficult to associate with kindness and is likely to have increased rather than diminished tensions. In the DRC, the head of the Kinshasa police force sent a video to Reuters of police officers beating a taxi driver for violating a one-passenger limit, to encourage others to obey the rules.[xx] These examples of forcible impositions of lockdown are not only likely to lead to largescale evasion and subversion, but also risk crowding in the streets and increased distrust of government motives.xxi
Women on the frontlines
While, thus far, men seem to be overrepresented among COVID-19 casualties, women are more likely to suffer disproportionately from the socioeconomic consequences of the virus’ spread. Women make up 70% of health workers globally and provide 75% of unpaid care, looking after children, the sick and the elderly.[xxii] Women are also more likely to be employed in poorly paid precarious jobs that are most at risk, while access to healthcare for sexual and reproductive health will be constrained during the pandemic. In addition, domestic abuse, which affects women disproportionately, has already seen a horrifying surge in places like China and France, and is likely to continue to rise worldwide, as stress, alcohol consumption and financial difficulties – all triggers for violence at home – increase during isolation. [xxiii]
While these aspects affect women globally, they will most likely hit women harder in poorer countries where the health sector is weak, traditional gender roles are deepseated, and the majority are employed in the informal sector. Entrenched gender roles can be seen in the exceptionally high percentage of single mothers in sub-Saharan Africa – 32%, compared to the global average of 13% [xxiv] – while women’s sexual and reproductive healthcare is likely to be sidelined. In Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak, for example, more women died of obstetric complications than the infectious disease itself. [xxv] In places with ongoing conflicts, like Mali, Burkina Faso, South Sudan or the Central African Republic, the risks are obviously even greater as healthcare sectors are already under enormous strains, violence normalised and infrastructures weak.
It is utopic and unrealistic to attempt to change gender roles in the midst of a pandemic. However, it is irresponsible not to do a gender analysis of how the measures to contain the spread of the virus will affect women and men, boys and girls differently. Humanitarian aid should take into account these differences, earmarking funds for the disproportionate risk of domestic abuse that women face during quarantine periods. Providing emergency child-care provision, economic security even for informal sector workers and shelters, which can host abused women and children, are aspects that are needed now. Collecting high-quality data about how women and men are affected differently, both by the actual virus and the socio-economic consequences, also needs to be done now, to be better prepared for the next pandemic.
Africa is a large continent with over 50 highly diverse states. Any analysis that attempts to capture the whole continent is deemed to be general, superficial and miss important differences. This brief is no exception. Similarly, any ‘one-size-fits-all response’ to a global epidemic is likely to neglect crucial local variances. This is why it is critical to take into account countryspecific demographic patterns and make sure to communicate with concerned populations. This is not only for the sake of transparency and compliance, but also to improve the efficiency of the measures. Africa has proven to be more resilient than expected in the face of earlier epidemics like Ebola and HIV. One of the reasons for this is, paradoxically, popular distrust of governments and, instead, reliance on families and communities, prompting innovative local solutions. During the Ebola outbreak, smaller community care centres replaced larger hospitals and allowed for closer cooperation between Ebola responders and families, while communities’ self-quarantine measures often proved more effective than heavy-handed whole impositions by the government. [xxvi] Letting communities propose their own ideas of how to control the spread of the virus, while providing the essential epidemiological facts, is one way to take local differences into account. Here it is essential that both men and women are consulted to ensure that diverse gender needs meet fitting responses.
While Africa’s young demographic seems to make the coronavirus less of a lethal threat than in Europe, the political and socioeconomic consequences will most likely hit Africa harder. Their impact risks undermining significant advances made during the past few decades in terms of democratisation, economic growth and improved living conditions. This is why Africa cannot and should not be facing the coming crisis alone. As US and European states struggle to show solidarity among themselves, they should be rigorous in extending solidarity further south and show that slogans of partnership, sister continents and equality actually reflect values and guide action.