Tag Archives: COVID-19

The dramatic effects of covid-19 on everyday life in Gadarif

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This text first appeared on the Chr. Michelsen Institute website, and is re-posted here. You may access the original post by clicking this link. Professor Hussein Sulieman is Director of the Centre for Remote Sensing & GIS, and Professor at the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, University of Gandarif.

A pastoralist family in southern Gadarif trekking their cattle herd to a watering point. Photo: Hussein Sulieman

Gadarif in Eastern Sudan has been one of the country’s covid-19 hotspots. Precarious food supplies and lacking border control could mean that the chances of containing the pandemic are slim.

When the covid-19 pandemic peaked in Sudan in April/May, Gadarif was number three on the list of the regions with the most covid-19 cases in the country. Up until a nationwide lockdown was implemented in June, the virus had been able to spread relatively easily in the entire region.  In late June, the government issued several orders to reduce the lockdown and the curfew. At the same time, they warned about the risks of a second wave and strongly urged people to take precautions and practice social distancing. But such requests are only useful if people actually have the opportunity to adhere to the advise they are given. Does Gadarif have the infrastructure it takes to succeed or is the easing of lockdown restrictions a disaster coming?

Why did Gadarif become acovid-19 hotspot?
Gadarif’s 265 km border with Ethiopia has made the state vulnerable to the spread of covid-19. The total lack of cooperation between the two countries when it comes to controlling and managing the covid-19 pandemic has become abundantly clear, and made matters even worse for Gadarif. Whenthe federal government in Sudan declared a public health emergency on 16 March 2020 and closed all airports, ports and land crossings, Ethiopia’s international airports remained open. Therefore, many stranded Sudanese citizens who wanted out of the country took advantage of the situation by flying to one of the international airports in Ethiopia, travel to the border in cars and then cross the border to Gadarif. Many of them stayed in Gadarif for quite a while and mingled with people while looking for a way to get smuggled home (as travelling between states was prohibited by that time). People entering Gadarif through the border was not the sole reason for the wide social spread of covid-19 in the region. People fleeing Khartoum and coming back to Gadarif when the rumours of a lockdown started also contributed to spreading covid-19 in Gadarif.

Poverty exacerbates the spread of covid-19
Covid-19 cannot be isolated from the general political situation and economic crisis in Sudan and Gadarif. The fluid and fragile political situation stopped the government in Gadarif from enforcing many of the orders and restrictions that were issued to control the pandemic. Also, the promises of the government to support vulnerable groups through the Zakat Chamber did not come to reality. The lack of essential goods complicates everything. Large crowds gathered in front of pharmacies and bakeries is a common sight. It is hard to adhere to guidelines about social distancing when people have to queue up just to get hold of bread. This already bad situation is accelerated by the closing of inter-state traffic and restrictions on intra-city movement. Loss of income due to the complete lockdown, combined with ever rising prices of necessities substantially increase poverty of people in Gadarif. This has mainly happened to daily wage basis workers who have now lost their household income. In many neighbourhoods in Gadarif, groups of youth and Resistance Committees have done a great effort and played significant role in gathering donations to support vulnerable households during Ramadan and in Eid.

The covid-19 virus has also exacerbated acute malnutrition in vulnerable households in Gadarif. Food security has been dramatically reduced and access to healthcare has been limited. Covid-19 has increased the burden on a health system that is already suffering from three decades of neglect by the former regime.

Despite the health authorities’ stern calls to avoid big gatherings, several protest marches have taken place in Gadarif. The political tension in the area has risen as a result of attacks by Ethiopian militias in the Sudanese territory during the last week of May. Several marches and demonstrations were organized in Gadarif, where people asked for an effective response from the government. Similar marches and protests where large crowds came together took place on June 30. The organization of demonstrations and sit ins have become a major political tool in the hands of people who demand services and rights. On such occasions, social distancing is virtually always ignored.

Seasonal agricultural activities may be affected
In the context of the current covid-19 emergency, increasing attention has been devoted to the possible effects that mobility restrictions may have on supplies from the agricultural sector. Gadarif State has the largest mechanized rain-fed agricultural land in Sudan. This sector provides the bulk of food needed not only by people in the Gadarif, but also by many others across the country. The rain-fed agricultural sector in Gadarif covers about 4.2 million hectares of land. Normally, farmers start their preparations prior to the rainy season in April and May. The preparations include dry season soil working and plowing, routine maintenance of machinery and reparation of field equipment and other activities. The current restrictions have made life hard for the farmers who depend on being able to stick to a calendar that they know work.

The restrictions have also made life harder for the pastoralist groups in Gadarif. They rely on daily and seasonal mobility to manage environmental variability and access resources and markets. April and May correspond to the end of the hot dry season, when fodder and water reserves are depleted and labour demands are high.  Emergency lockdown measures such as restricted movement have disrupted the migration patterns of the pastoralists, creating difficulties for their preparations for the rainy season.

The coming couple of weeks will be a make or break for the agriculture in Gadarif. Weeding season is coming up, with an acute demand for labour. Each year, thousands of immigrant labourers from Ethiopia and other parts of Sudan arrive in Gadarif to work during the weeding and harvesting season, and the agricultural sector is totally dependent on them. Unless the government comes up with comprehensive measures that can balance the need for seasonal workers with the risk of hosting large numbers of immigrant labourers, the agricultural sector in Gadarif may take a severe blow.

Ensuring that there are workers at hand for the upcoming weeding season, and that the farmers can resume their activities when they are supposed to is crucial for a successful harvest. So is transportation of agricultural inputs to the fields. Therefore, farmers have recently used their power (especially large-scale farmers) to push the government to an early lift of restrictions and exceptions for companies and shops in local markets in Gadarif. During the first week of June, the government in Gadarif issued a local order that will make the upcoming season easier for the farmers. Nevertheless, some think that it is too little too late. The covid-19 restrictions may turn out to have had a crushing effect on the production of agricultural products in Gadarif.

In a critical moment for Yemen, donor fatigue can have disastrous consequences

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About the authors: Dr. Ghassan Elkahlout is Head of the MSc. Program in Conflict Management and Humanitarian Action at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. Mr Belal Abdo is a former Yemeni diplomat, and holds a Master degree in Conflict Management and Humanitarian Action.

WFP food distibution in Raymah. Photo: Julien Harneis via Flickr

Heartbreakingly for those of us still watching, Yemen continues to descend further into humanitarian catastrophe. Now the scene of the worst humanitarian disaster on the planet, the country has been spiraling deeper into suffering since the war began in 2015 and the ongoing cholera epidemic took hold the following year. The economy in ruins, healthcare system close to collapse, and infrastructure devastated after years of conflict, a staggering 80% of the population need some form of humanitarian assistance or protection – some 24 million people. And now those people, already teetering on the edge of survival, face Covid-19, leading the head of the United Nations Refugee Agency to warm that the deadly virus could ‘delete Yemen from maps all over the world’.

Limited resources despite deepening crisis

Despite the deepening crisis, humanitarian aid operations in Yemen remain critically underfunded.  The UN warns that 30 of its 41 programmes in the country will have to close in few weeks. Some of the resources pledged last year have not yet materialized, causing financial distress to critical life-saving humanitarian programmes. What is more, humanitarian organizations working in Yemen face tremendous challenges. According to reports, they are threatened if they do not make payouts to warring parties, who are alleged to use the funds to finance their war effort. Humanitarian workers also face threats and restrictions, ratcheting up security concerns and limitations on their movements. During recent years, humanitarian aid is said to have been stolen from humanitarian organizations, in particular the World Food Programme, which declared that it will suspend its operations if the authorities continue to impose restrictions on the programme, their aid personnel, or their warehouses. Last year, Yemeni activists adopted a campaign calling for further transparency by UN agencies, especially in relation to using and disbursing funds for Yemen. Some also levelled accusations of corruption and the squandering of huge portions of funds on international travel, higher salaries for unqualified international staff, and diversion of aid money to warring parties. Activists claimed that only a small portion of funds was reaching those in need – in some cases, less than 30%.

“Pledges will not save lives unless they are paid” 

The dire situation in Yemen has prompted the UN to call, jointly with Saudi Arabia, for a high-level pledging conference for the response to the crisis. The conference convened via an online platform on June 2, 2020 and was attended by around 125 countries and international organizations, UN agencies, and non-governmental organizations. The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, urged donor countries to pledge generously and to transfer the resources as quickly as possible so as major humanitarian aid operations can be maintained. Some 30 pledging announcements were made, amounting to $1.35 billion; around $1 billion less than that promised at last year’s pledging conference. This leaves a huge shortfall in the $2.41 billion needed to cover the UN’s basic humanitarian programmes in the country for the next six months.  UN Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, added that “pledges will not save lives unless they are paid”.

Of the pledges announced, Saudi Arabia, which leads the coalition, is to contribute half a billion dollars – the biggest contribution for humanitarian situation in 2020 in Yemen. About $300 million will go to the UN agencies, and $200 million will support humanitarian programmes run by King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre. Although other Arab countries participated in the Conference, they have not pledged any financial support.  The United Arab Emirates, which is a key actor in the coalition and which directly or indirectly controls some areas in Yemen, has not pledged any money, choosing to refer to funding disbursed to UN agencies or politically charged Yemeni-run organizations. Qatar, among the top ten major donors to OCHA and humanitarian action around the world, did not participate in the conference due to circumstances relating to its withdrawal from the coalition, while Kuwait, surprisingly, did not commit.

Yemen’s hour of need

It is perhaps understandable that donors feel exhausted and despondent, as we see in the language of figures or numbers and as those who once supported Arab Spring issues turn away to focus instead on problems such as coronavirus and the global economic recession. But it comes at a time when Yemen needs more desperately than ever a political settlement which brings warring parties to the negotiating table with the support of Arab countries and the international community.  Donors –– especially those who contributed to what is now the world’s largest humanitarian crisis –– must shoulder their responsibilities by providing humanitarian aid and contributing to post-conflict reconstruction. History will not forgive them if they do not.

COVID-19 could kill off Muslim charities in the West that fail to adapt

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About the authors: Dr. Ghassan Elkahlout is Head of the MSc. Program in Conflict Management and Humanitarian Action at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. Mr. Omar Gamal holds a MSc. in Conflict Management and Humanitarian Action, and is a humanitarian partnership consultant.

Boy in camp. Photo: Danish Muslim Aid via Flickr

Humanitarian organisations have issued dire warnings about the potentially catastrophic impact of COVID-19 in countries already in the throes of crisis. Calling for $2.01 billion to fund a coordinated humanitarian response to COVID-19, the United Nations priorities countries gripped by food insecurity, including Yemen, Syria, South Sudan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Muslim charities are on the frontline in this global health crisis. As national non-governmental organizations they are among the first to reach communities with lifesaving aid. And as international charities, they are providing vital support to vulnerable people who who endure precarious conditions in camps and urban centres.

Incomes drop as needs rise

However, Muslim charities face unprecedented challenges as the coronavirus crisis strangles fundraising and threatens lifesaving programmes in the field – at precisely the moment they’re needed most. Western-Muslim charities.  Lockdowns imposed to save lives in the West have prevented Muslim charities from carrying out their usual fundraising in mosques and through public events. Their incomes are dropping precisely as the humanitarian needs are rising. Many are responding to COVID in the countries in which they fundraise, as well as to complicated crises in Muslim majority countries including Yemen, Syria and Myanmar. They are also providing a lifeline to those affected by largely neglected crises such as in Gaza and Mali.

New ways of humanitarian fundraising

According to the United Nations, funding for humanitarian action has been falling short since 2009, exceeding $13 billion last year. The gap is the result of natural disasters and protracted conflicts such as in Yemen and Syria, and an increase in numbers of refugees and internally displaced people worldwide. Muslim charities are responding to many of these crises, with donations from Muslims making up a sizable proportion of their income. Muslims give sadaqa, voluntary charity, and obligatory alms-giving known as zakat, with many choosing to support programmes serving their local and national communities. However Muslim charities typically focus their humanitarian programming on the Global South, and so they lack implementing bodies in the west.

What’s more, COVID has left their usual donors with less money to give – according to the International Labor Organization (ILO), half of the world’s workers are now in danger of losing their jobs. In response, Muslim charities should develop implementing bodies and strengthen local charities in donor countries and use the opportunity to educate donors about the value of their economic empowerment programming.

As the world looks for ways in which to live with the virus, the ‘tried and tested’ fundraising activities on which many Muslim charities rely may be gone forever.  But without the outlays associated with putting on public events, combined with lower office running costs as staff in lockdown work from home and the expenditure on travel drops, savings can be made. Savvy charities will invest this cash in training staff in new ways of working, and in developing creative and resilient fundraising mechanisms.

Fundraising for sectors such as health or education, rather than countries, would give charities greater flexibility to respond where the needs are greatest. Concentrating on building brand affinity rather than promoting individual projects will boost donor retention. Drawing on volunteers to organise challenges, as an alternative to using alternative fundraising that would reduce costs and better engage donors.

Adapting project implementation

The virus is also presenting significant challenges to Muslim charities as they implement their humanitarian programmes. For example, some are currently distributing Ramadan food parcels, with budgets reaching $5 million or more. They are having to find ways of getting food supplies to vulnerable families while introducing social distancing measures to reduce the risk of spreading coronavirus. Many humanitarian projects are seeing their duration extended by up to 12 months, leaving vulnerable people without the interventions they so desperately need. It is unclear who will shoulder the additional cost of the extensions. Muslim international non-governmental organisations still have to run their field offices, and they have to find the money for unforeseen expenses such as face masks, hand sanitizer, and increased use of private transport. We estimate that the measures needed to protect staff from infection could see the cost of humanitarian action could rise by 15-25%.

Muslim charities must prepare teams to negotiate with donors about the increase in project costs, and to preserve the skills and expertise in their offices, consider reducing all staff salaries as an alternative to redundancies.

A heavy price

The Muslim charities that survive this global crisis will be those that swiftly adapt, and that invest in a new vision for fundraising post-COVID. Those that do not will themselves fall victim to COVID-19. And it will be the world’s poorest people who pay the price.

Ramadan and Social Responsibility During Coronavirus

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This text was originally published in Norwegian in Vårt Land and is-reposted here. A version of the post translated into English also appears as part of the PRIO blog series Beyond the COVID Curve. Translation by Fidotext.

Mosque in Grønland, Oslo. Photo: Oskar Seljeskog via Flickr

Muslims have just celebrated Eid al-Fitr, the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting. The month of fasting, which is demanding in itself, has been even harder this year with the current social distancing requirements. Usually the high point of each day would be gathering with family and friends to break the fast with the evening meal, known as iftar. This year these customary gatherings have not been possible in the same way as in other years, for Muslims across the world.

Religion and risk of infection

Places of worship, like other spaces where large numbers of people gather, were affected early on by the Covid-19 pandemic, and in some cases were early hotspots for spreading infection. A synagogue in New York, a church in the Philippines, and a mass religious gathering in Pakistan were all hotspots for spreading Covid-19 infection in early 2020.

In Norway, mosques were quick to shut their doors and take on an important role in efforts to stop the spread of infection by providing information and advice. Through their networks, mosques have reached out to people who were not easily reachable through the authorities’ established channels. Like for other religious leaders, the decision to ask the faithful to stay at home, away from mosques, has been difficult. In times of crisis, religious beliefs and rituals are important to many people. But the situation has demanded the opposite; not to gather, not to stand close together.

The social responsibility of Muslim leaders

Religious leaders have played a role in fighting coronavirus in many places. While some have promoted conspiracy theories and sown doubts about the true danger of the virus, religious leaders all over the world have contributed to preventing infection, many by putting their religious authority behind official infection-control measures. This is evidence of the social responsibility often taken on by religious leaders. This social responsibility has taken on a new form within the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, but simultaneously it is recognizable, perhaps especially for the enthusiasm with which most Muslims contribute to social initiatives during the month of Ramadan.

In recent months in Norway we have seen a series of initiatives designed to provide assistance through donations of money and food. For many Muslims, the month of fasting is a time of self-denial, for evaluating what one has and sharing it with people who have less. The month of fasting, and the festival of Eid al-Fitr at its end, is a time when many Muslims give a little extra. It is time to pay the annual religious alms, or zakat, comprising 2.5% of one’s total wealth accumulated over the year, which is used to combat poverty and help people to lead more dignified lives.

Coronavirus initiatives in Pakistan, Nigeria and Indonesia

Naturally, the pandemic has triggered a huge wave of social engagement among Muslims all over the world. We have followed developments in Pakistan, Nigeria and Indonesia, three countries included in our study of Muslim humanitarian actors. All three countries have been hit hard by Covid-19. Numbers of infections and fatalities are rising daily. Societies are locked down, with enormous economic consequences for millions of people who now have no jobs or incomes.

In all three countries, the government restrictions are subject to constant debate. Religious leaders and networks have great political influence, and are very important for social services. An effective response depends on religious leaders and organizations taking on responsibility.Pakistan has seen an enormous number of private initiatives. There is a long-standing and strong charitable tradition in Pakistan, through the distribution of money and food. This time, under lockdown, distributions have been mobilized through WhatsApp and social media.

In Nigeria, many of the country’s Muslim organizations have come together to coordinate local responses such as the distribution of food and other humanitarian items. Nationally, the Nigerian Interreligious Council (NIREC), which consists of Muslims and Christians, has organized a joint prayer initiative, intended partly as an expression of the common challenge presented by the pandemic.In Indonesia, religious leaders want to use Zakat funds to help mitigate the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. The leaders emphasize that this is about concern for one’s fellow humans, where seeing a neighbour starve is not a viable alternative, and they call on neighbourhoods to engage in mutual support.

A new UN partnership with Muslim humanitarian organizations?

Covid-19 has affected all of us. We still know little about how the pandemic will change our lives both across different places in the world. But we know already that it will affect some people worse than others, and that the impact will fall disproportionately on the most vulnerable. People who were already the most at risk, with the least access to healthcare and the fewest economic resources, are now those who are being hit hardest.

The coronavirus crisis has shown clearly the importance of everyone contributing, and everyone coming together. Global cooperation amongst different actors – the private and the public sector, secular and religious – has become more important than ever. This is precisely the point made in the UN’s Agenda 2030, which sets out 16 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The global pandemic has lent new relevance to this agenda.

In order to tackle the problems which the pandemic is causing for the world’s poor, the UN wishes to enter into partnership with Muslim actors in aid as well as the Islamic-finance sector. Dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and its complex consequences will require international cooperation and global solutions. How, and to what extent, such new partnerships will function across existing lines of division, remains an important question.

Meanwhile, we send our best wishes for a happy Eid al-Fitr to those of you who are celebrating.

Afghanistan’s Corona Threat Contagion Knows No Borders

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This is an updated version of a text published as an op-ed in Adresseaviden, 24 April 2020:  ‘Afghanistan coronatruet – tikkende smittebomber over grensen’.  Translation from Norwegian by Fidotext. The post also appears as part of the PRIO blog series Beyond the COVID Curve. Birgitte Lange is the Secretary General of Save the Children, Norway. Kristian Berg Harpviken is a Researcher at PRIO and member of the board of Save the Children Norway.

Taxi heading for the Iranian border, Herat 2008. Photo: Kristian Berg Harpviken/PRIO

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.

National borders have been closed all over the world, while at the same time, one border crossing is busier than ever before – Afghanistan’s western border with Iran. In March alone over 145,000 Afghans returned from Iran, a country where coronavirus has caused the deaths of over 6,277 people, while close to a  100,000 have tested positive. Currently there are reports of 2,900 cases and 90 deaths in Afghanistan. Many of those infected had returned from Iran.

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.

Norwegian military personnel running field hospitals in Afghanistan have taken in the first coronavirus patients. They have told the Norwegian tabloid VG of their fears about huge numbers of unrecorded cases.

According to the BBC, the Afghan health authorities fear that 16 million of the country’s population of 30 million could become infected. The worst-case scenario would involve 700,000 hospital admissions, 220,000 patients requiring intensive care, and potentially 110,000 deaths.

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 Resettlement Freeze: Towards a Permanent Suspension?

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This text was originally posted on the UNSW Kaldor Centre blog and is-reposted here. The post also appears as part of the PRIO blog series Beyond the COVID Curve.

Migrants boarding the bus headed towards the processing center in Amman, Jordan 2015. Photo: IOM/Muse Mohammed via Flickr

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.

In recent years, litigation has been used to preserve resettlement. The EU has adopted a binding legal framework on intra-EU refugee resettlement and the European Commission has taken non-compliant states to court.  In the US, resettlement agencies have sued the Trump administration for allowing US states to refuse to resettle refugees. In January 2020, the federal court, granting a first injunction to the plaintiffs, ‘prohibited the Trump administration from allowing states and localities to veto refugee resettlement’.

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.

Context matters – Why Africa should tailor its own measures to fight COVID-19

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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.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa visits Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation COVID-19 Command Centre. Photo: GovernmentZA via Flickr

Introduction

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.

Conclusion

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.

The “real” transformation of migrant smuggling in the time of COVID-19

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This text first appeared on the Public Anthropologist blog and is reposted here. Gabriella Sanchez is Research Fellow at the Migration Policy Centre (MPC) of the European University Institute. Luigi Achilli is a social anthropologist currently based at the European University Institute.

Photo: Christopher Sessums via Flickr

As COVID-19 continues to spread around the world, allegations of migrant smuggling networks evolving, changing, and undergoing drastic transformations as a result of the pandemic are starting to emerge. Claims of this kind are not new. In fact, assertions of smuggling undergoing Darwinian transformations tend to follow the aftermath of border closures, ramped-up immigration enforcement controls, environmental catastrophes, civil war, military conflict and the like. The leitmotiv remains surprisingly unchanged amid changing upheavals and tragedies: migrant smuggling is evolving from a cottage industry into one dominated by highly complex transnational criminal networks.

While successfully peddled among anxious publics by law enforcement and policy makers, this recurring representation has consistently failed to account for the available empirical evidence. A plethora of ethnographic studies have dismissed the claim that crises and emergencies empower human smuggling networks by turning them into veritable criminal conglomerates that systematically enslave, kidnap and deceive masses of vulnerable and desperate migrants, especially women and children. On the contrary, a growing body of work has shown how most facilitators of irregular or clandestine migration come together for profit or partner with others on demand, working directly with migrants on a “pay-as-you-go” basis. In other words, those who we typically refer to as smugglers generally perform specific, single tasks conducive of a clandestine journey – transportation, cooking, housing, trekking across a stretch of the trajectory, etc. – for which they receive a nominal compensation to address their personal needs. They rely on their own expertise and resources, which are often quite limited and reflective of their own precarity. In fact, many facilitators are themselves migrants or asylum seekers who became stranded or unable to complete the journeys on their own.

It is presumable that things will not change radically as the pandemic unfolds. There are two dimensions in smuggling facilitation that will be important to follow in the weeks and months to come, which will give us an indication of the response of smuggling networks to the current epidemic. Both are related to the kinds of interactions that emerge among groups that rely on the same geographies in the exercise of criminal activities. We would like to examine them here.

One is market diversification – that is, the notion that actors in a specific market or activity may opt to pursue a different one in order to maximize profits. As we have witnessed in the past, claims of migrant smugglers “venturing” into the smuggling of other commodities or services, or even into radically different activities are commonplace. Our work, however, has emphasized how the protracted precarity of an already precarious group of people often pushes them, rather than into other criminal fields, into activities that lead to their criminalization. Put differently, it is unlikely that given the structure and organization of the market, smuggling facilitators seeking to temporally cope with market adjustments as a result of COVID-19 will morph into criminal networks. On the contrary, it is more likely that increased controls and enforcement makes them and the migrants they transport more prone to detection, apprehension and criminalization.

Why does this matter? Claims concerning diversification, rather than tackling organized criminal activity, have relied on the notion that people can only venture into other criminal spaces. This is, however, hardly the case among people already facing conditions of precarity, which limited resources affect the likelihood of market expansion. Even in the event the possibility of venturing into other markets exists, that is not necessarily in line with what the person may want to or be able to do. For example, Italian cigarette smugglers were reluctant to go into migrant smuggling in the 1990s. To them, losing a person to drowning would never be the same as losing tobacco, which could be easily replaced. In the US, women who worked housing migrants in their homes would return to low-paying jobs in the service industry during times of low demand, rather than venturing into markets like drug trafficking, which carried more stigma and higher risk in case of detection. As changes and restrictions to mobility as a result of COVID-19 responses are lifted, continue or increase, it is also likely that other criminalized actors and the goods and/or services they peddle gain prevalence, and that struggles over territory, clients and resources emerge. And yet, it will be those operating individually or casually in the facilitation of irregular migration, along with migrants themselves, who will be most at risk of being impacted by territorial and market struggles coupled with COVID-19 responses and their migration restrictions and controls, given the disposability of their lives.

A second notion is market convergence. With the term, the relevant literature broadly refers to the coming together of seemingly different criminal markets. Researchers and other commentators have written about convergence as related to migrant smuggling. In the case of the Central America- Mexico-US migration corridor for example, the alleged takeover of migrant smuggling by drug trafficking organizations is taken as a fact. Similar imbrications have also been postulated between smuggling and terrorist organizations in the Middle East. We do not deny the existence of multiple interactions and collaborations among groups. Yet many claims are often based on sensationalist, graphic and even racist depictions that provide scant and simplistic details of the long-standing interactions between transporters and traders along specific geographies, and more specifically of how state security projects have shaped their actions. There is significant evidence of how both state and non-state actors often impose tax-like fees to groups of lesser rank seeking to operate within their specific territory. Arrangements of this kind have been documented as taking place in migrant smuggling on the US-Mexico border, the Middle East, North Africa, and the Sahel. Imposing payments and regulations, however, does not amount to groups merging or coming structurally together. Yet the dynamics concerning interactions between multiple groups sharing increasingly policed geographies pose interesting questions for the future, especially if migration dynamics and restrictions related to the COVID-19 response last long or become permanent.

The unspeakable stories of pain and tragedy migrants endure might tempt us to accept at face value the claim that as the direct result of the current pandemic, human smuggling groups will increasingly become more complex, organized and technologically advanced – a notion often summed up with/by the term “evolution.” There is, however, scant empirical data to back up these claims. Here we argue the opposite. If the COVID-19 response brings about a transformation in migrant smuggling, this will not be towards increased complexity and structure, but rather towards further individualization, fragmentation and disposability. We recognize that the pandemic might play a role in the adaptation or form of criminalized practices and on the modus operandi of groups. Yet, we argue that the real transformation of illicit markets lies in the progressive precarization of their actors. In other words, rather than organized, structured networks, we see the further proliferation of individual actors in hyper-fragmented markets. These, contrary to the dominant narrative of criminal networks as off-limits and closed, present weak or altogether inexistent barriers to participation, which yet provide scant if any paths towards the social or economic mobility of its participants. If at all, solutions to counter the spread of crime, and in particular of migrant smuggling in the time of COVID-19 should incorporate alternatives to reduce the precarity of all its actors, and their likelihood of being disposed or discarded through state-sponsored mechanisms like border and immigration controls.

“We are all fragile, but we are not all equally fragile”: Humanitarian operations amidst the COVID-19 pandemic

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Illustration: Prachatai via Flickr

As the COVID-19 pandemic is spreading across the globe, its impact touches all corners of society. What happens when the pandemic reaches areas that were already dealing with various sorts of humanitarian challenges, and in what ways are humanitarian operations being impacted both directly and indirectly? In a time where the news are being flooded with information related to the pandemic and much of national authorities’ time and resources are being spent at mapping domestic repercussions, this post is an attempt to highlight some of the potential impacts COVID-19 can have or is already having on humanitarian operations around the world.

Responding to the pandemic and related repercussions has become a key priority for humanitarian actors, and humanitarian information hubs are now posting regular updates related to the pandemic response. The United Nations has launched a Global Humanitarian Response Plan for COVID-19, and SPHERE and its partners have developed a manual with guidance on how to apply humanitarian standards to the COVID-19 response. Reliefweb has established a page devoted to the COVID-19 pandemic, including an interactive map showcasing the pandemic in locations with a humanitarian response, appeals and response plans, manuals and guidelines, maps and infographics, reports by humanitarian actors and more. The Humanitarian Data Exchange (HDX) provides global COVID-19 epidemiological data.

While all areas of humanitarian operations may be critically affected by the pandemic and related mitigation efforts, four thematic areas have emerged in humanitarian circles as the most discussed so far: 1) Health infrastructure and health information; 2) Exacerbation of existing vulnerabilities; 3) Refugees and other migrants; and 4) Access and delivery of humanitarian aid.

Health infrastructure and health information

As the disease has brought some of the world’s most advanced and well resources health systems to their knees, many humanitarian practitioners have expressed concern for what will occur when the virus reaches countries with less developed health infrastructure. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has warned that developed countries must assist those less developed, or potentially “face the nightmare of the disease spreading like wildfire in the global South with millions of deaths and the prospect of the disease re-emerging where it was previously suppressed”. Coordinated global action is also the key message of the recently published UN report Shared responsibility, global solidarity: responding to the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19.

These concerns are not unfounded. For instance, the Central African Republic, a country with a population of almost five million people, only has three ventilators for the whole country. In Venezuela, now with 165 confirmed COVID-19 cases, hospitals were lacking basic resources and health personnel had been fleeing the country already before the arrival of the virus. Moreover, if a large number of people all fall ill at the same time, the efforts to take care of patients contracting the virus is likely to divert resources away from other lifesaving work, such as other health programmes. Senior Policy Fellow at the Center for Global Development Jeremy Konydyk gave a stark reminder that during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, other diseases caused more deaths than what Ebola did.

Konydyk is not the only one to make comparisons to the Ebola outbreak. On a slightly more optimistic note, it has been pointed out that developing countries with recent experience in fighting epidemics such as Ebola are to some extent better prepared for handling COVID-19. For instance, existing Ebola screening systems have rapidly been converted to screen for coronavirus disease at airports and border crossings. Given many African countries’ recent experience with fighting epidemics, overall young populations and less frequent travel, Gunnar Bjune argues that a targeted response towards the most vulnerable populations would be more efficient and appropriate for the region.

Another important lesson from the Ebola epidemic is the importance of accurate and trusted public health communication to reduce misinformation and distrust amongst the public, as pointed out by Christopher Wilson and Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert in their 2018 article on communication technology in humanitarian and pandemic response. Providing accurate information and building trust in health officials will be a key issue also for combating COVID-19.

Exacerbation of existing vulnerabilities

As with all emergencies, the repercussions tend to be distributed unequally in society and exacerbate existing vulnerabilities. The COVID-19 pandemic and the measures taken to mitigate the spread of the disease are likely to follow the same pattern. Those without existing safety nets will be hit the hardest. In the words of Senior Editor at the New Humanitarian Ben Parker during a recent webinar: “we are all fragile, but we are not all equally fragile”. 

The world economy, which was already weak before the pandemic, is falling into recession. Reduced fiscal revenues will negatively impact welfare programmes, leaving the most vulnerable without access to essential services. While a plummeting global economy and international travel restrictions have severe impacts in their own rights, they may also create difficulties in obtaining imported goods like food and medical equipment. Trade-dependent countries will be particularly vulnerable. In a recently published report, the World Food Programme predicts that global food insecurity is likely to increase.

Vulnerabilities on the basis of gender are also likely to be exacerbated, in particular due to the mitigation strategies employed to fight the pandemic. As Margot Skarpeteig, Policy Director at the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD), writes for Bistandsaktuelt, men are more likely to contract the disease, but the repercussions will hit women and girls the hardest. Based on lessons learned from the Ebola outbreak, Skarpeteig points out that lockdowns could lead to an increase in domestic violence, that closure of schools could result in an increase number of rapes and child marriages, and that rerouting of resources could lead to worse maternal care, all of which mainly impact women and girls. Several of these concerns are echoed in the COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan.

Other vulnerable groups who are likely to be severely affected include the urban poor, refugees and other migrants, and groups generally marginalized in terms of access to economic welfare and health services.

Refugees and other migrants

As the pandemic is also turning into a mobility crisis, refugees and other migrants are facing mutually reinforcing vulnerabilities, as they are often housed in crowded areas with limited health and sanitation facilities and now also experiencing enhanced immobility.

Many governments have imposed lockdowns and closed their borders to stop the virus from spreading. This has devastating impacts on many migrant workers, in particular those relying on daily wages, many of which do not have a social network to rely on. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi call for refugees and other migrants – regardless of their formal status – to be an integral part of national systems and plans for tackling the virus, as many of them do not have access to basic health services.

Further, several frameworks put in place for refugees are now temporarily being removed. On 17 March, IOM and the UNHCR announced a temporary suspension of resettlement travel for refugees. In Uganda, authorities have put up a temporarily bar on arrivals of refugees and asylum seekers. Syrian refugees in the two main refugee camps in Jordan have been on lockdown since 21 March. In Greece, there have been major concerns for and calls for evacuation of camps with very limited health and sanitation facilities, and in early April the refugee camp in Ritsona was quarantined as 20 refugees tested positive for COVID-19.

Kristin Bergtora Sanvik and Adèle Garnier have called attention to how the pandemic is reshaping refugee and migration governance through ‘legal distancing’. Countries hastily adopt restrictive regulation on migration and asylum processes on the one hand, while simultaneously slowing down due process mechanisms. The results are further exclusion and marginalization of already vulnerable groups.

Delivery of humanitarian aid: Access and localisation

While humanitarian organizations are working hard to maintain their existing operations, most humanitarian work is affected by the pandemic and mitigation efforts in some shape or form. Through travel restrictions, imposed regulations, and withdrawal of staff, the pandemic is affecting the delivery of humanitarian aid in multiple countries, and the impacts are cascading as the disease reaches new corners of the world.

Amongst the effects on aid operations covered by The New Humanitarian over the past week are: aid access is blocked for ’unsanitary’ quarantine spots in Burundi; transport bans in Burkina Faso create access challenges for humanitarians; non-essential aid workers are being evacuated from the Democratic Republic of Congo creating limits on staff; border closures in Afghanistan threaten supply chains; and flight bans hamper aid delivery in Yemen. Imposed restrictions on gatherings and travel are hampering both delivery of humanitarian assistance and general access to vulnerable populations. On 25 March, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) reported that they were unable to reach 300,000 people in the Middle East alone.

As large international organizations are struggling to reach people in need, the pandemic might turn out to have an unexpected effect on localisation. The so-called ‘localisation agenda’, and outcome of the World Humanitarian Summit 2016, vowed to increase funding to national and local partners, and involve them in decision-making and assistance in humanitarian response. Since 2016, the humanitarian system has been criticised for failing to support localisation (see for instance Sandvik and Dijkzeul’s blog post from 2019). The conditions caused by the pandemic, however, might change how international and local staff coordinate and operate. Similar to how many enterprises are being forced to speed up digitalization to keep in touch from various home offices, the restrictions on travel and limits on international staff might force international humanitarian actors to increasingly rely on local partners in delivery, coordination and management of humanitarian assistance, as well as enhancing communication structures between the local responders and international assistance providers.

Uncertain outcomes and long-term consequences

While the four themes mentioned here seem to be the most frequently discussed in humanitarian circles so far, the range of repercussions caused by the pandemic and mitigation efforts has yet to be seen.

It is highly likely that other issues may emerge as the situation develops, and the long-term consequences remain unknown. Technological measures applied to keep the pandemic at bay are amongst the issues that might cause severe and unintended long-term consequences (such as tracking mobile devises, drone surveillance, collecting biometric data etc.). Humanitarian data governance is not a new issue (see for instance Katja Lindskov Jacobsen and Larissa Fast’s 2019 article for Disasters), as it often deals with sensitive data from vulnerable populations. During previous health crisis people with diseases have faced discrimination and stigma, such as people living with HIV and Ebola survivors. Keeping in mind also future consequences, it is therefore of vital importance that ethics and privacy is considered, and that actors employ responsible data governance and management.

The lack of testing capacities in many countries and overworked international and local staff may also result in the exact impact of the pandemic being hard to state specifically at any point. Yet, there is no doubt that the impacts will be large and long-felt for humanitarian operations and the people already in need of humanitarian assistance.

Governing global health emergencies: the role of criminalization

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This text first appeared on the International Health Policies blog and is re-posted here. Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (S.J.D Harvard Law School 2008) is a professor of legal sociology at the Faculty of Law, University of Oslo, Research Professor in Humanitarian Studies at PRIO, and former Director of NCHS. Her work focuses on refugee governance, technology, innovation and criminalization in emergencies. Her most recent publications deal with humanitarian wearables and digital dead body management in aid. The research undertaken for this blog post was supported by the project Humanitarianism, Borders and the Governance of Mobility.

This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses. Note the spikes that adorn the outer surface of the virus, which impart the look of a corona surrounding the virion, when viewed electron microscopically. A novel coronavirus, named Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China in 2019. The illness caused by this virus has been named coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Photo: CDC/ Alissa Eckert, MS

The point of departure for this blog is the apparent frequency of criminalization strategies in early government responses to the Corona virus. While much attention has been given to the securitization of global health responses – also in the case of Corona – less systematic focus has been given to the partial criminalization of infectious diseases as a strategy of global health governance.

As the scope of the Corona outbreak is broadening, the number of countries deploying criminalization measures is also rapidly increasing. China has introduced harsh regulations to deal with the Corona virus, including ‘medical-related crimes’ involving harassment and violence against medical personnel, refusal to submit to quarantine and obstructing dead body management. Singapore and Hong Kong have criminalized the breach of travel restrictions and misleading authorities or spreading false rumours.   Taiwan plans sentencing the violation of quarantines. Iran will flog or jail people who spread false rumours. A Russian prankster is facing jail-time for Corona ‘hooliganism’. In the US, prospective quarantine violators from the infamous cruise ship Diamond Princess were facing fines or jail time. Beyond governments’ need to be seen doing something in the face of public panic across the Global East and the Global North, how should we think about this propensity to reach for penal measures?

How we explain disease and whom we blame are highly symptomatic of who we are and how we organize our relations with others, in particular the practices and life forms of marginalized elements of society. This will also likely be the legacy of Corona. Moreover, current global health responses to infectious diseases remain bound up with both colonial-era and historical command-and control trajectories of response and needs to be understood in context.

In this blog, I map out three categories of criminalization.  My assumption is that the Corona response will likely involve all three in some form or other. I take the broad conceptualizations of criminalization in circulation in legal, policy and media discourse as the starting point: this includes criminal law sanctions  and administrative and disciplinary sanctions as well as popular perceptions of the uses of penal power and social ‘criminalization-talk’.  The idea is that criminalization can be understood as a strategic tool with multiple constitutive uses in the global health field.  

In the following, I outline three different things that criminalization ‘does’ in the global health field, which may serve as a resource for thinking about how criminalization will shape approaches to the Corona virus.

First, I am interested in the direct and indirect criminalization of health care delivery through the criminalization of individuals infected with or suspected of being infected with specific infectious diseases. The problem with this approach is that it risks aggravating humanitarian suffering because it is either premised on criminalizing the practices and attributes of groups that are already in a marginal position, or that with infection, patients immediately become  socially or economically ‘marginalized’ which allows for criminal interventions. This category of criminalization covers transmission, exposure, interaction with ‘vulnerable groups’ (such as children), failure to disclose or simply physical movement. It relies significantly on the mobilization of othering and of metaphors of fear.  The global health response may also be undermined through the de facto criminalization of individuals by way of the use of compulsory health powers such as surveillance, contact tracing, compulsory examination and treatment, regulation of public meeting places, quarantines and forced isolation of individuals.

These regimes might be so repressive as to have severe humanitarian impact on the populations concerned. Human suffering here does not emanate from the inability to offer health care but from the human rights violations arising from how fear and stigma fuel criminalization of ‘vulnerable/deviant/threat groups (such as drug users, those with precarious migration status, sex workers and the LGBTI population) and how criminalization in turn produces further deviance and marginalization.  A characteristic of early phases of epidemics is that certain groups are singled out as risky and characterized as dangerous, allowing for repressive public health interventions.

At the same time, fear of harassment, arrest and detention may deter people from using health services.  A ‘deviant’ social status combined with health status may lead to discrimination and ill-treatment by health care providers. Criminalization is linked to high levels of harassment and violence, reported by lesbian, gay, transgender people and sex workers around the world (see here and here). Notably, in the context of HIV/AIDS, criminalization, and quarantine and individual responsibility for disclosure have been considered as key tools to halt or limit transmission, despite innovations in treatment that radically transform the nature and lethality of HIV/AIDS. Globally, prosecutions for non‐disclosure, exposure or transmission of HIV frequently relate to sexual activity, biting, or spitting. At least 68 countries have laws that specifically criminalize HIV non‐disclosure, exposure, or transmission. Thirty‐three countries are known to have applied other criminal law provisions in similar cases.

For the fast-moving but relatively low-mortality Corona-virus, these lessons indicate that a marginalized social status can contribute to exacerbating transmission and constitute a barrier to adequate health care, potentially increasing mortality.

Secondly, criminalization and repressive public health measures and discriminatory barriers are also a complicating factor during emergencies caused by other factors. As seen in the context of Ebola, general violence as well as violence against health care workers undermines efforts to end outbreaks. Humanitarian emergencies confront public health systems with often overwhelming challenges. In the midst of this, criminalization of individuals who are infected or perceived as risky or dangerous further compromises the ability to address preexisting epidemics and hamper transmission, thus exacerbating the impact of the overall impact of the crisis. 

Third, in situations when the disease itself is the emergency, criminalization and the attendant practice of quarantines directly hampers efforts. Historically, quarantines have been used for a wide range of diseases including venereal disease, tuberculosis, scarlet fever, leprosy and cholera. Quarantines are co-constructed through the longstanding tradition of framing infectious disease through criminalization, whereby stigma, medicalization and incarceration have worked together to produce colonial bodies construed as racial and sexual threats to national security (see here and here). Quarantine was a widely employed tool against Ebola in Sierra Leone and Liberia.  As noted  by commentators, according to the logic underlying quarantines ‘subjects marked as abnormal, diseased, criminal, or illicit should be isolated for their own betterment and for the collective good’. While resistance becomes a proof of deviance and of the necessity of segregation, in the case of Ebola, quarantines may compel fearful communities to hide  suspected cases. In the contemporary context, with an international human rights framework on health suggesting that rights-based approaches to disease prevention and mitigation should be foregrounded,  problematic tradeoffs between criminalization-oriented public health measures and fundamental rights and liberties are likely to proliferate, as illustrated by the US government’s budding ‘war on Corona’.

This blog has provided an initial map of how criminalization may shape the Corona response. In sum, when criminalization is pegged directly onto suffering human bodies, criminalization hinders global health interventions in three ways. Criminalization might be so repressive that it has severe health-related impacts on the populations concerned. Criminalization also undermines and exacerbates challenges already faced by the public health infrastructure during an emergency. Finally, the repercussions of criminalization are most impactful in situations when the disease itself is the humanitarian crisis and where criminalization directly hampers efforts to contain and mitigate epidemics.