Two women at a market wearing face masks

COVID-19 and forced immobility in the Horn of Africa

Oliver Bakewell, Research & Evidence Facility


The COVID-19 pandemic overlays a new form of disaster on the already complex array of chronic and periodic crises that beset the people of the Horn of Africa. It has had an immediate effect on human mobility across the world and the region. This paper will explore the nature of pandemic’s impact on mobility compared to the impact of other crises.

Most other crises affecting the region, such as conflict, floods or droughts, give rise to displacement and forced migration as people flee to seek safety or get access to resources or services. In response to these movements, states, regional bodies and international organisations often take emergency measures: on the one hand, offering humanitarian aid for those displaced; on the other, seeking to reduce the movements of people, whether by addressing the conflict or other ‘root causes’ of displacement, or at times even closing borders. The COVID-19 pandemic does not trigger forced movement in the same way. Perhaps those who are sick may move in search of medical help but they do not seek to run away from the disease; it is everywhere and, for most people, flight is not an option. Instead of seeking to respond to crisis-induced movement, which is the humanitarian norm in the region, the pandemic is triggering response to restrict any movement. Instead of forced mobility, we are seeing forced immobility.

This has two immediate implications. First, those who move are regarded with even greater suspicion as potential carriers of the virus. In this sense, the pandemic magnifies the idea of migration and migrants as a threat to human security, reprising the familiar rhetoric from refugee crises. However, there are important differences. In this pandemic, the threat from the movement of people may be more real in relation to health impacts. Second, at the same time the response to the virus that has brought the world juddering to a halt has highlighted the fundamental importance of mobility for people’s day to day lives and functioning of the national economy. The paper looks at some of the opportunities and threats that the COVID-19 pandemic may create for the transformation of ideas and policies on migration and development in the Horn of Africa.

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Top image: UNICEFEthiopi/2020/NahomTesfaye

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