By Tosin Durodola
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused significant disruptions to the health and economy of nations, including developing countries. This disruption has some new and unfamiliar details: a worldwide health emergency caused by a virus not yet fully understood and a self-induced economic catastrophe caused by countries’ response to contain its spread. While there were notable successes with the restrictions on labour and movement in the first wave, the second wave presents much deeper challenges for refugees, Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), migrants, and other marginalised populations in camps and informal settlements.
In Nigeria, the virulence and mortality of the second wave have increased demands for hospital bed space and oxygen requirements, causing an increase in spending on health services by federal and state governments. This health emergency coupled with the macro-economic challenges and falling per capita income have adverse implications on the lives and livelihoods of the citizens. Although the Economic Sustainability Committee chaired by Vice President Osibanjo developed a 12-month, 2.3 Trillion Naira ‘Transit’ Plan to cushion the effect of COVID-19, the execution of its financial stimulus package has excluded the displaced foreign populations in Nigeria.
This exclusion shows the perennial social injustices, inequalities, and the general deficit in governance that exist in residual refugee camps and informal settlements for decades in Nigeria. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates the vulnerable condition of Liberian and Sierra Leonean residuals who are part of the protracted displacement cases for which UNHCR failed to find a solution to end their exile. Losing refugee status and subsequent closure of the Oru Refugee Camp by the Nigerian government forced them to seek abode elsewhere in the host community, where they are exposed to vagaries of the new, self-made settlement without state or international protection. Outside the realm of the State, these residual refugees have transformed their position of dispossession to a position of influence on spatial, as well as tangible and intangible resources of the hosts, even as their daily mobilities, livelihoods, and thrusts continue to influence contiguous communities, towns, and cities.
However, the transformative agency of Liberian and Sierra Leonean residuals was disrupted during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. The initial lockdown and restrictions on movement by federal and state governments adversely affected the livelihood and income-generating activities— farming, entrepreneurship, trade, transportation, and food business of these residual refugees. The stay-at-home order affected their production and supply of tomatoes, corn, sugarcane, vegetables, potatoes, and cassava products to the local markets. Local block industries and sawmills reduced the workforce mostly comprising Liberian and Sierra Leonean residuals, who were extremely vulnerable to the economic downturn and depended solely on the informal sector for income. In the same vein, border closures and restrictions on intra-state transport service affected the residual refugees whose income was linked to the popular motorcycle business, Okada, that provides speedy transportation for residents and products in Oru town and Ogun State. These trade disruptions and constrained mobility led to the loss of jobs, income reduction, and negatively affected the supply chain amongst Liberian and Sierra Leonean residuals in Nigeria.
As the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic deepens, adherence to the NCDC precautionary measures, especially social and physical distancing, is practically impossible in a crowded informal settlement where Liberian and Sierra Leonean residuals live. These residual refugees are densely packed in a settlement marked by poorly ventilated homes, inadequate social amenities, poor sanitary conditions, and limited access to healthcare. Worse still, losing refugee status exposes them to more complex social barriers they already face to accessing healthcare, testing, protection materials, and emergency services. According to James, a Liberian residual, “We are yet to be tested by NCDC….We are still using the remittance, veronica buckets, detergent given to us by OLICON since early 2020.” This statement reveals that residual refugees still rely on the palliatives from their diaspora association named Organization of Liberian Communities in Nigeria (OLICON) to improve social welfare and adhere to public health regulations.
Although Nigeria has pro-active prevention, treatment, and economic strategy to tackle the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the continuous exclusion of Liberian and Sierra Leonean residuals will restrict their access to aid and social services. As the bid for vaccination increases, the Nigerian government must strengthen the resilience and sustainability of its health system to enable the residual refugee population to access vaccines and achieve herd immunity. Efforts should also be heightened to key them into government intervention funds to stimulate the growth of their volatile small and medium scale businesses. The implications of my findings highlight the urgency for policymakers to ensure the inclusion of residual refugees in national health and social security preparedness and response plans to avoid the risk of becoming hotbeds for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Durodola, Tosin Samuel recently obtained his M.A in African Studies (Diaspora and Transnational Studies) with the highest Distinction from the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, Nigeria. His research interests focus on the intersection of displacement, border and development. He is a Research Fellow of the French Institute for Research in Africa (IFRA-Nigeria) and was a Research Intern at the Centre for African Studies (CAS), University of Mumbai. His work has been published at the University of Oxford’s Centre for Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS), CAS ‘Journal’ African Currents, Oxford Monitor of Forced Migration, amongst others. He is currently the Special Assistant on Digital Communications to the Governor of Ekiti State, Nigeria.