Main page content

Moving between the frontlines: Migration and EU External Action during the COVID-19 pandemic

People migrate for a variety of reasons. For many, it is in search of better and more secure opportunities, particularly when climate and conflict risks have made livelihoods too precarious at home. Scholars caution making an explicit causal link between climate and migration – but context matters, as factors related to governance, security, and socio-economic conditions play an important role in enabling and strengthening a climate-migration link.

The nuances of scholarly debate have not stopped the need for people to move, however. Recent figures show that international migration has been on the rise in the past few decades in all regions, and that international remittances continue to surpass predicted levels. Although highly uncertain, various projections have indicated a further rise in mobility in the coming years due to the adverse impacts of climate change.

Then came the pandemic, which, as the International Organization for Migration put it, became the “greatest disruptor” to migration. Travel bans have essentially ‘trapped’ populations whose livelihoods are heavily dependent on migration – or the remittances that come from it – as a means to adapt to difficult socio-economic and environmental conditions. In the Sahel where seasonal labour migration is crucial for many livelihoods, pandemic-related restrictions have increased the costs of migration, while causing the demand for products and supply of labour to shrink, thereby straining livelihoods of the most vulnerable.

Even for those who have already moved, the pandemic has further affected their livelihoods. Many migrants who have lost their jobs due to the economic impacts of the pandemic may decide to return home, sometimes even back to the precarious conditions that they had tried to escape from in the first place. Similarly, those who remain in their host destinations, either voluntarily or as a result of travel restrictions, or are on the move could become more vulnerable to exploitation and violation of their rights, as evident in the increase in reported cases of smuggling in parts of North Africa during the early months of the pandemic.

As much as COVID-19 has disrupted the ways of life of migrant communities, it has also created obstacles for actors such as the European Union (EU) in their work on international development that could help alleviate the risks that migrants face. For one, travel restrictions have slowed down negotiations and decision-making processes within and between national and international development and security organisations and institutions, consequently delaying the decisions and actions that should have ensued. One example is the sixth African Union-EU Summit, originally scheduled to take place in October 2020. The Summit was expected to see the Joint Africa-EU Strategy turn into a more strategic partnership between both continents, but the repeated postponement of the high-level meeting may slow down or even jeopardise Africa-EU cooperation in areas related to sustainable development, security, and migration.

Furthermore, the pandemic has shifted the priorities of many development actors. This has resulted in a reformulation of development strategies to take into consideration the more immediate health impacts of COVID-19. The EU’s ‘Team Europe’ package is one example of such shifts – while it aims to tackle the “humanitarian, health, social and economic” effects of the pandemic along with the EU’s objectives on the environment and climate, the new package could draw funds away from planned or existing budgets. For the Sahel, the EU recently launched the Integrated Strategy in the Sahel which explicitly stresses the simultaneous impacts of COVID-19, environmental degradation and climate change on Sahelian populations. Whether or not this new strategy, which comes amidst a slew of other EU-level strategies for the region, would shift priorities and resources away from existing plans remain to be seen.

At a more operational level, pandemic restrictions have impeded the ability of peacekeeping and humanitarian aid organisations from providing the support and security needed by remote and vulnerable groups, as was the case for peace operations and missions in Lebanon, Mali and Somalia during the first year of the pandemic. By extension, this could feed into the impetus for people to migrate from fragile situations.

Regardless of the state of the pandemic, the impacts of both climate change and conflict will continue to manifest, with migrant populations being particularly vulnerable. As migration has become a highly polarised topic within Europe, policymakers in the EU will need to tread the line between these multiple challenges carefully so as to avoid migration and development-related topics from being distracted by pandemic-related concerns. If anything, the pandemic has illustrated how inter-connected societies across continents are, therefore highlighting the need for a closer and more clearly defined (migration) partnership between development partners.

How has COVID-19 affected EU policies in addressing climate-fragility risks in its partner regions?

Read the new CASCADES paper.