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COVID-19 is cutting off even more lifelines for people seeking safety

  • 17 Jul 20

Credit: Paul Blow/International Rescue Committee

News Article

Increasingly restrictive border policies have created the most dangerous route in the world. The coronavirus pandemic has made it even worse.

The Central Mediterranean Route runs from sub-saharan Africa through the deserts of Niger, to conflict-ridden Libya and across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy. It’s been named the most perilous migration route in the world by the Institute of Migration as people are forced into destitution by smugglers and risk dying while crossing the desert or drowning in the sea.

COVID-19 restricts movement

Since COVID-19 took hold, the situation has become even tougher for those seeking protection and better lives. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) has found that 83% of conflict-affected countries we operate in have implemented additional border restrictions due to the pandemic. Movement restrictions come with a great risk for those fleeing conflict and persecution or seeking better lives, who find themselves trapped at borders and prevented from seeking asylum.

27-year old Asim*, from Sudan told us that he attempted to cross the Mediterranean but was turned back to the shores of Libya as the borders had tightened since the pandemic. “The corona pandemic had a huge effect on migrants in Libya. Migrants don’t have what they need to sustain themselves tomorrow. Since the imposed curfew, things have come to a grinding halt, there is no one to support.”

More than 80% of the migrants and refugees interviewed by the Mixed Migration Center in Libya affirmed that the pandemic had impacted upon their movement. They reported being constrained both within the country they had arrived in and across international borders. These measures increase their risk of detention and deportation, and interrupt their resettlement process.

Some people on the route are desperate to return home and be with their families. 27-year-old Marie* is trying to get back to Cameroon. She’s currently living in Niger, but was attacked and robbed and is now sleeping on the streets with no way to earn money. “I don't have enough money to travel back. I really miss my family. I don’t know when I will be able to go back because of the coronavirus - it’s disturbing everything.”

People on the move are trying to protect themselves against the virus. In all the countries where we work, they’ve reached out to our medical teams to get advice on preventive measures against the virus.

Daily wages drying up

Along the route, people rely on daily wages in unstable jobs just to be able to buy food and basic necessities. The pandemic has forced people into lockdowns and cut off work opportunities with no savings. This has impacted their ability to cover their basic needs, to afford potential onward travel, and to send home money to their families.

Jidda*, who is from Nigeria and is living in Rome in a government shelter with other migrants and refugees, has lost the bits of work he could find in the city. “It’s a bit tough because most of us, we have families at home that look up to us, we used to do menial jobs but now there is nothing like that, it’s really terrible,” he says.

He also struggles with the lack of freedom that comes with living in the shelter, which provides three meals a day at set times. “They don’t allow you to cook and if you decide to leave the place for three days if you get work, you’re automatically evicted. Everybody is complaining, they have no money. We are fortunate enough to still be here, whether the food is good or not, you just have to manage, you have a place to lay your head.”

Our response

Along the route, the Start Network as part of the Mediterranean Mixed Migration Consortium is helping in a multitude of ways. Here are some of them:

International Rescue Committee (IRC)

In Libya, our expert team of psychologists and social workers are supporting people to recover from the trauma of the journey. We’re also providing antenatal and postnatal care so expectant mothers can receive care when government facilities turn them away.

In Niger, IRC social workers offer psychosocial support, legal aid and free calls home to migrants. We also provide one-on-one case management for the most vulnerable migrants, including many women and children, through individual counselling as well as cash-assistance, which enables people to buy food and other essentials with dignity and choice.

In Italy, the IRC operates Refugee.Info, an online platform that answers questions from refugees and migrants who have arrived in the country. The service helps people navigate their new surroundings and understand the asylum process.

Danish Refugee Council (DRC)

In Libya, DRC is providing protection assistance and shelter solutions for migrants and refugees in urban areas of Tripoli. Migrants, asylum seekers and refugees are benefiting from increased protection services including emergency cash/in-kind protection assistance (IPA), as well as safer and more dignified shelters.

In Mali, DRC has adopted an innovative and successful mobile approach, whereby protection monitors travel alongside migrants in the country. We have also trained focal points who are stationed in key hubs along the route and who liaise with DRC staff if they identify migrants in need of assistance. We are providing protection assistance in the form of IPA and referrals. We are also creating dialogue with Security and Defence Forces around migrants’ rights.

In Italy, DRC is providing legal aid and integration support on the ground at the border crossing with France and remotely through a national hotline, to support durable solutions for displaced people arriving from the disembarkation points or from the Western Balkan route. DRC has also expanded its projects in Torino city and started operating mobile units to reach vulnerable people living in the street who have lost access to food, health assistance and shelter during the Covid19 pandemic. The DRC approach in Italy counts on solid partnerships with national civil society organisations to ensure a harmonised and fast response.


The Mediterranean Mixed Migration Consortium is a partnership between the Danish Refugee Council, International Rescue Committee, Mixed Migration Center and the Start Network, that manages the implementation of a DFID-funded mixed migration programme assisting refugees and migrants across West and North Africa.

*Names have been changed throughout for protection.

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