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Ensuring safe migration routes from Africa


Published in

El País

Javier Larequi

researcher at the Navarra Center for International Development at Institute for Culture and Society of the University of Navarra.

Now that the pandemic seems to be coming to an end, it is necessary to organize migration, help the countries of origin and guarantee legal channels so that there is no repetition of a summer as tragic as the one we have experienced.

Abdou (not his real name) had already prepared the little luggage he had to travel from Gambia to Europe through a dangerous route that would force him to cross Africa until he reached Italy or Spain, if he was lucky. It was March 22, 2020, and although his initial plan was to wait for the good summer weather, he had decided to accelerate his plans in view of the outbreak, also in his country, of the covid-19 pandemic. Just one day later, on the day Abdou intended to leave the country, the government declared a state of public emergency and closed the borders. There was no escape.

Like Abdou, thousands of young Gambians have been forced to delay their dream of seeking a better future in Europe or other nearby countries because of the pandemic. The mobility restrictions of the last year and a half as a result of covid-19 have paralyzed for months the legal migration routes within the continent, almost always with final destination Europe, forcing thousands of Africans to stay longer in their countries or to opt for illegal routes.

At the onset of the pandemic, the closure of international borders increased concerns about the growing use of illegal routes with the humanitarian disasters that often accompany them. In fact, illegal immigrant arrivals in Italy in 2020 tripled and those in Spain increased by almost 30% compared to the previous year. In the case of our country, this increase has occurred mainly through the Canary Islands from countries such as Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal or Gambia. In 2021, the arrival of African immigrants to our coasts had increased by 135% and the different routes to the Canary Islands had cost the lives of 786 people up to August, of which 379 died in that month, a figure we had never seen before.

The closure of international borders also cut off for some months the flow of migrants between some African countries, such as Gambia and Senegal. Tijan Bah, researcher of the Navarra Center for International Development, has studied the effects of covid-19 on the intention to migrate to Europe and other neighboring countries.

The Gambia is a particularly interesting country for this analysis, as it had the highest per capita migration fees of the entire African continent before the pandemic. Although the main route used by migrants from this country is from East Africa to Europe via the Central Mediterranean, they also have the possibility of migrating to Senegal, where there is abundant agricultural work in rural areas and urban migration in cities such as Dakar.

Following door-to-door interviews conducted before and after the health crisis, the Tijan Bah study concludes that in The Gambia, the intention to migrate to Europe has been reduced by 31% and to Senegal by 34% in the case of young people: "covid-19 has had the greatest impact on reducing the desire to migrate in individuals who were uncertain about their decision to leave their country or not and in those poorer individuals who have been severely affected by the pandemic from an economic point of view," assures the researcher of the high school of Culture and Society of the University of Navarra.

One of the main reasons for the decline in the desire to migrate in the early months of the pandemic is the expectation of worse economic opportunities abroad. While it is true that the economic status has also worsened in the migrants' places of origin, this is counterbalanced by higher travel costs, lower ability to pay for them and, finally, worse health conditions in European countries, at least temporarily.

Not to be underestimated is the fact that the pandemic hit from the beginning the two main destinations for Gambian immigrants: Spain and Italy. To this must be added the fact that in rural areas of the country, sanitary norms have hardly been respected, as many people believe that the virus only exists in urban areas. Finally, port closures, quarantines and the reduced presence of maritime rescue teams have increased the risks of irregular migration. In addition to the risk of traveling to Europe by illegal means, the African government is blocking the flights of its nationals deported from Europe on the grounds that it cannot reintegrate them.

However, the dream of young Gambians to improve their future in Europe has not disappeared: 65% of those interviewed insist that it is very likely that they will try to migrate. For this reason, and now that the pandemic seems to be coming to an end, it is necessary to organize migration, help the countries of origin and guarantee safe and legal routes so that there is no repetition of a summer as tragic from the migratory point of view as the one we have experienced.