Eritrean migrants arrive in Messina.

The COVID-19 Roads: From Tripoli to Rome

Informal routes of transporting people and materiel have long played a central role in the history of the Arab World, however the Middle East and North Africa region has not been left untouched by the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, with these routes in many cases undermining or influencing government efforts to stem the flow. In the second part of our two-part series, Edwin Tran examines how some of the major routes of migration are being stemmed by the pandemic.  


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Previously, we discussed the potential ramifications of COVID-19 via the informal pathways found in the Middle East and North Africa. At the time, much of the analysis was focused on how COVID-19 might spread through these routes and their downstream effects. Much has passed since then. In the last few months, states like Lebanon have trended further downward in an economic spiral veering towards collapse. Across the world, weak states with fragile economies have shown significant signs of fracture. From higher debt spending, collapses in political institutions, and an overall decline in state capacity, the outlook for many nations has never been bleaker. In this report, we will assess the ongoing impacts of the disease on specific areas of the region. However, instead of an assessment of the nations impacted by the disease, we’ll instead analyse the situation from a regional perspective, and viewing new trends that have emerged.

In the last report, we discussed the many possibilities that would emerge from unregulated travel through Libya and Egypt. Illicit smuggling and human trafficking had the potential in exacerbating COVID-19’s spread. While much of the focus was placed on a route that went from Libya and Egypt to the Levant, there does exist another major nexus point of human migration in that part of the world. In the North African states of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya, the mass migration of individuals moving to Europe has, in many ways, been a defining characteristic of the region.

Over the course of the last decade, thousands of migrants have made the sea voyage across the Mediterranean Sea in hopes of better living conditions. For countries like Tunisia and (to a lesser extent) Morocco, economic prospects are low and the advent of major events like the Arab Spring and the Libyan Civil War have only exacerbated already poor economic outlooks. 2016 alone had over 180,000 individuals illegally enter Italian shores. In 2017, Spain saw around 22,000 individuals enter the country from Algeria and Morocco. While many of these migrants are native Arabs and Berbers of the Maghreb, a large contingent come from a wider network that originates in sub-Saharan Africa. Hundreds of thousands of Nigerians, Ethiopians, and Ghanans have trekked northward, where they are trafficked by smugglers in North Africa to European destinations. To further complicate the situation, these economic migrants are often accompanied by refugees and asylum seekers, and the lines between these groups can often be blurred.

With the advent of COVID-19, concerns were raised over this particular pathway. Many feared that unregulated and illicit migration from North Africa could both increase the risk of infection and also strain the resources of nations already dealing with problems as a result of the disease. Many European nations quickly strengthened their coastal defences. On May 20, the Armed Forces of Malta forced a migrant boat off its shores over COVID-19 fears. At the same time, Italy announced that it would be deprioritising attempts at rescuing migrant vessels. Two rescue boats, the Alan Kurdi and the Aita Mari, were impounded by Italian officials, with some viewing the incident as an attempt at halting any rescue attempts of sea-stranded migrants.

For migrants already in Europe, the advent of COVID-19 has resulted in harsh changes. Some have reported increasing xenophobia, with stores outright refusing service to immigrants and in the French city of Calais, deputy mayor Philippe Mignonet announced that busses would “no longer stop for large groups of migrants.” Several NGOs have revealed cutbacks in logistical capacity as a result of the disease. Refugee camps now face even dire circumstances as waste collection and other services become cut or reduced. While many of these measures can be viewed as necessary ones to slow the spread of COVID-19, it has led to a significant deterioration in the well-being of refugees and migrant workers.

It should be noted that these stringent measures have coincided with a drastic change in the nature of these migrant pathways. While migration to Europe was starting to slow in the years prior, COVID-19 has radically decreased the flow of migrants. Italy, for instance, has only seen 4,000 migrants enter its shores since January this year. Meanwhile, the economic impact of the pandemic has seen an increased need for essential workers, such as health care professionals. France’s foreign Health Minister Bernard Kouchner “called for the estimated 4,000-5,000 non-EU doctors working in French hospitals to be ‘fully integrated’ into the country’s health system.” Western European agriculture has also been hit significantly. Germany and the United Kingdom have flown in thousands of Eastern European migrant workers as a result of limited manpower, and similar trends can be seen in France and Spain. In fact, French policymakers in March announced the need for an additional 200,000 seasonal labourers to maintain agricultural output, and some French firms have turned to African migrant labour as a result.

Although the numbers of migrants may have decreased because of the pandemic, these numbers will almost certainly come back up. As nations slowly open up and as markets try to recover, opportunities in Europe will continue to bring in refugees and migrants. Other developments may also help increase these numbers. Turkey’s ongoing support for the Libyan Government of National Accord has resulted in heightened fighting in Libya, causing many to flee the country.

While it is difficult to assess how things will play out, some believe that COVID-19 may fundamentally change the way migrant workers are viewed in Europe. There are several ways this may play out. Some human rights groups view the dynamics of the disease as indicative of the significant role migrant labour has in Europe. To such organisations, the employment of over 200,000 undocumented agricultural workers in Italy clearly shows just how necessary their labour is. As a result, groups like Caritas Europe have called on governments to officially recognise the employment of these labourers and to provide key protections to them, citing precedent from other European measures at “regularising” migrant labour in the European Union.

For others, the pandemic has the potential to increase xenophobic, racially-driven, and isolationist policies. Such developments also have historical and contemporary precedence, with the rise of Euro-sceptic and anti-immigrant sentiments emerging with political parties like UKIP and the Italian 5-Star Movement. In a broader sense, COVID-19 has the potential of destabilising the international system that characterised the last few decades, and the flows of migrant labour may be one of many casualties.

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Edwin Tran is an analyst focused on the Levant following time spent living and researching in the region. He specialises in hybrid organisations and their historical contexts in order to understand their popularity and political successes within civil society.

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Photo: VOA – Nicolas Pinault