This blog is part of the COMPAS Coronavirus and Mobility Forum.
In the past 15 years or so, the European media has been full of images of African migrants trying to enter Europe on overloaded fishing boats. But there has hardly been any coverage of Africans fleeing Europe in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, even though some completed their journeys on the same fishing boats that used to ferry people in the opposite direction. Yet those migrants, many of whom had enjoyed a heroic status as providers of entire households, are now facing social exclusion in Africa, and at a time when right-wing populism is scapegoating migrants, increasing racism and marginalization within the European countries in which they have also established homes. What will the future bring for these migrants and their families?
As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded in Europe in February and March, tens of thousands of Senegalese migrants were caught between a rock and a hard place: if they returned to Senegal, they risked not being able to go back to their lives and jobs in Europe later on. But if they stayed, they risked becoming stuck in Europe for an indefinite period of time, often without an income (most work in service sectors badly hit by the lockdown or, like street vending, destroyed altogether), and with the terrifying prospect of becoming sick and dying far away from home.
This is just another example of how the COVID-19 pandemic has turned the world upside down. Many migrants, whose remittances account for up to a half of household income in Senegal (ANSD 2004), were now compelled to return. The urgency was compounded by the fact that men often live apart from wives and children who remain in Senegal. Indeed ‘living apart together’ is common in transnational Senegalese marriages (Beauchemin et al. 2015). This is not only due to the extreme difficulty of fulfilling family reunification criteria for many Senegalese in Europe, but also due to an expectation, in many families, that wives will live with their in-laws and help to care for them (Hannaford 2017). In addition, for older generations of migrants the perspective of dying far from home right now is all the more terrifying as the Senegalese government banned the repatriation of bodies in early April.
Returnees with undocumented status in Europe, returnees who could not afford the cost of a flight or who were caught out by the suspension of flights from the 3rd week of March, had little choice but to travel by road through Morocco and Mauritania. On the 21st of March however, Senegal and Mauritania announced a joint decision to close their border. Some of the returnees who were stuck travelled on through Mali instead, while others paid Senegalese fishermen to bring them across the border. Similar to the hostility towards cruise ships elsewhere, in Dakar some of the boats were prevented to dock by angry residents. The Senegalese press filled up with coverage of returnees ‘sneaking’ into the country, and many returnees were faced with neighbours reporting them to the police if they did not self-isolate on arrival.
One case, in particular, has captured the national imagination: one man who had flown back from Italy at the end of the first week of March fell ill a few days later, and was admitted to hospital after testing positive for COVID-19. Registered as ‘patient 5’, he is said to have contaminated a large number of people in Touba, the holy city of the Murid Sufi order. He has now recovered, but has been subjected to very public accusations that he and other returning migrants had knowingly brought COVID-19 into the country.
Other returnees have been similarly stigmatized, with their wives and children speaking about no longer venturing out for fear of accusations. This brings to the fore the ambiguity surrounding migrants and returnees under normal circumstances, as scholars working in Senegal have noted in the past. In Senegal, migrants who return visibly wealthier than when they left may be at once admired and subjected to moral judgment as tricksters who are prepared to engage in illicit or even occult activities to enrich themselves faster (Riccio 2005). While such ambivalence goes mostly unnoticed in ordinary times, in times of crisis it may generate violence.
Meanwhile, those who had planned a few weeks of holidays in Senegal (in some cases after saving up for years) are now stuck with no immediate prospect of getting back to their lives in Europe. Some of them risk losing their residency status since they will be out of work, or will not have returned in time to apply for renewal.
Forced immobility is a condition many Africans have experienced at some point in their lives – through the near-impossibility of getting visas in the first place, and through the lack of avenues towards long-term residency once abroad. But the predicament of migrants in the time of COVID-19, whether they have returned ‘home’ or whether they have stayed put, is a major threat to the social cohesion and economic wellbeing of the continent. Europe must therefore resist the temptation of using the crisis to impose even stricter immigration rules. Similar to COVID-19, this would deprive not only the body, but also a whole continent of vital oxygen, and many more would lose their lives to poverty and annihilated public services than to the disease itself.
Hélène Neveu Kringelbach is Associate Professor of African Studies, and Vice-Dean Equality, Diversity and Inclusion for Arts & Humanities at University College London.
ANSD, (Agence Nationale de la Statistique et de la Demographie). 2004. Enquete Senegalaise aupres des Menages (ESAM II). Dakar: Ministere de l’Economie et des Finances – Republique du Senegal.
Beauchemin, Cris, Jocelyn Nappa, Bruno Schoumaker, Pau Baizán, Amparo Gonzalez-Ferrer, Kim Caarls, and Valentina Mazzucato. 2015. “Reunifying versus living apart together across borders: a comparative analysis of sub-Saharan migration to Europe.” International Migration Review 49 (1):173-199.
Hannaford, Dinah. 2017. Marriage Without Borders: Transnational Spouses in Neoliberal Senegal. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press
Riccio, Bruno. 2005. “Talkin’ about migration: some ethnographic notes on the ambivalent representation of migrants in contemporary Senegal.” Stichproben (Wiener Zeitschrift für kritische Afrikastudien) 8:99-118.
 The renewal of visas after a prolonged absence is likely to become a particular issue for those on probationary family visas (1-2 years depending on the country of residence) and on visas tied to employment, as if often the case in Spain and Italy.