COVID-19 presents a huge challenge to low-income countries, and national governments have introduced restrictions on labour and mobility to curb the spread of the virus. While there have been significant successes, the situation has also evoked a new set of challenges for displaced people in camps and informal settlements.
In Nigeria, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates the vulnerable condition of residual caseloads – those who remain in exile despite the repatriation and resettlement of their fellow nationals. Liberian and Sierra Leonean residuals have been in prolonged exile since the loss of refugee status and were later affected by the closure of the Oru refugee camp in Southwestern Nigeria in 2012. They were evicted by the Oru community to an uncleared and uninhabitable bushy location outside the closed camp, where they were exposed to the vagaries of the new, self-made settlement. Without national or international protection and aid, they have transformed the former uninhabitable space to a cultural colony and an economic hub, even as their daily mobilities, livelihoods, and thrusts continue to influence contiguous cities.
However, the agency that these residual refugees deploy to transform their settlement to a colony of influence and pursue income-generating activities is being disrupted by the stringent restrictions and regulations the Nigerian government has enacted to tackle the spread of COVID-19. Although the collective sacrifice in adherence to the Stay-At-Home order and the dusk-to-dawn curfew has resulted in a slow rate of infection in Nigeria, the regulation has disproportionately impacted the diverse economic activities – farming, trade, transport service, and food business – of Liberian and Sierra Leonean residuals in Oru.
Restrictions on movement prevent Liberian and Sierra Leonean farmers from accessing markets in Oru to supply farm produce, particularly cassava and cassava products in large quantity. Temporary closure of local markets, restaurants, bars, hotels, and other relaxation businesses negatively impact various nodes of the supply chain: farmers, crop vendors, food processors, and consumers amongst the Ijebus, who are renowned for cassava production and consumption. These trade disruptions restrict the access of residual refugees, alongside their local counterparts, to sell high-value but perishable items, such as vegetables and tomatoes, thereby leading to food waste and loss of income.
Prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Liberian residuals rely on daily mobility, as well as trans-local and diaspora networks, to beat marketing constraints and connect their garri products to local markets and consumers in neighbouring cities such as Ago-Iwoye, Ijebu-Ode, and other urban settlements in Ogun State. However, border closures, quarantines, the ban on large markets, and other logistical challenges have affected the production and supply of the cassava processing factory located in the residual refugee settlement. They have also laid off host-community members employed in the factory due to limited sales and income reduction.
As the lockdown extends, labour shortages are starting to impact local factories that require workers to be in close proximity to one another. Block industries and sawmills, where Liberian and Sierra Leonean residual refugees work to earn income, have limited/stopped production and laid off residual refugees, who are extremely vulnerable to the economic downturn. Equally, the restrictions on intra-state transport service impact Liberian and Sierra Leonean residual refugees whose income is tied to the popular motorcycle business, Okada, that provides speedy transportation for residents and farm produce in Oru. Babylon, a popular Liberian restaurant in the residual refugees’ settlement, is short of customers and ingredients due to trade disruptions. Residual refugees are now facing catastrophe as the loss of menial jobs and constrained mobility reduce their income and ability to meet basic needs.
Adherence to the NCDC precautionary measures, especially social and physical distancing, is practically impossible, as the residual refugees are densely packed in a settlement characterised by poor standard accommodation, limited basic services, poor sanitation and constrained access to healthcare. Worse still, the loss of refugee status denies these residual refugees access to cash transfers from the Federal Government and other palliatives (including food packs and protective items such as face masks, sanitisers and soap) being distributed during the pandemic.
In the absence of government support and humanitarian aid, these residual caseloads rely on exilic experience, cultural institutions, economic resilience, and diaspora organisation to avoid becoming hotbeds for the COVID-19 pandemic. Liberian residual refugees, for instance, count on remittances and palliatives for their diaspora association named Organization of Liberian Communities in Nigeria (OLICON) to meet basic needs and comply with public health regulations.
According to James, a Liberian residual refugee, ‘We are together with our diaspora association in this war and we use the money they send to help our family. Here, our chairman bought Veronica buckets, detergent, and alcohol for hand wash’. Another Sierra Leonean confirmed that ‘everyone is using the internet to get accurate information on how to prevent coronavirus infection’.
These residual refugees perceive this pandemic as another war capable of causing high mortality. To survive and thrive, they deployed the resilience and solidarity learnt from the civil war to tackle food scarcity and loss of income. Farmers amongst the residual refugees make free cassava products available for the women who work in the cassava processing factory. This chain ensures that every residual refugee has access to food, particularly garri and vegetables, thereby reducing hunger and despondency.
Although collective sacrifice in adherence to the preventive regulations has resulted in no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the residual refugees’ settlement, the impact has been devastating for their livelihoods and income-generating activities which depend on daily mobility and informal economies. Without national or international intervention, Liberian and Sierra Leoneans in Oru are at risk of becoming hotbeds for the COVID-19 pandemic and an outbreak would lead to a humanitarian catastrophe. The implications of my findings highlight the urgency for policymakers and humanitarian agencies to address the socio-economic issues of residual refugees and ensure their inclusion in national responses, support, and recovery programmes during and after the pandemic.
Tosin Durodola is a Master’s student of Diaspora and Transnational Studies at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, Ibadan, Nigeria, where he researches the exilic journey and post-refugee experience of Liberian residuals in Nigeria.