If you live in Canada, the United States, Israel, Australia or the wealthier parts of Asia, the COVID-19 pandemic will likely be over this year. Vaccination is happening with such unprecedented speed and efficiency in these countries that life will probably be largely back to normal in the autumn.
For those living in less wealthy countries, however, recovery has not even begun. In the less-prosperous parts of Asia, Africa and the Americas, there have been barely enough vaccines produced or distributed to vaccinate more than a sliver, and there are limited resources to deliver them. The path back to vaccination, indoor gatherings and international travel remains obscure – perhaps by the end of 2022 for middle-income countries, and possibly even later for the poorest, where life, and borders, remain locked down.
Because wealthy countries have decided to vaccinate themselves first, the resulting two-speed recovery has left a lot of people stuck.
Some are caught in their own countries, unable to leave for vital work; some, in the country where they sought work, are unable to send money home; and an astonishingly large number, estimated in the millions, are trapped in between.
In Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries, the City of Agadez has become populated with countless people from Sudan, Mali, Nigeria and elsewhere who were on their way to seek mainly seasonal work in North Africa, the Middle East and Europe when the pandemic slammed borders shut and locked them in place.
Agadez, an ancient caravan-train town, became a major transit hub for cross-Saharan human migration in the 2010s. It developed a lively economy that provided services for these migrants. Now, that industry has dried up, and the tens of thousands of migrants caught there have become dependent on charity and aid.
Their numbers continue to grow. Between January and late April this year, neighbouring Algeria expelled 4,370 people across its southern border to Niger, according to Doctors Without Borders; that followed the 23,175 expelled during the pandemic last year. The chaos and fear of disease in Libya have sent thousands more into Niger.
Most also aren’t allowed to go back to their home countries, which are locked down amid fears their returning citizens will bring infection. There’s a growing recognition that many are no longer “transit” populations but long-term residents. United Nations agencies have begun to provide schooling and health services for their children, and to move them from tents into more permanent homes.
You’ll find a similar situation in the northern border towns of Guatemala, where the pandemic was used as an excuse by that country’s government to close the border with Mexico and drive thousands of migrants back, including a caravan of 9,000 that was attacked by Guatemalan police in January. Most are fleeing weather catastrophes, political violence and economic ruin in countries to the south; these factors, along with the closed borders, prevent them from returning.
This has compounded the situation in Mexico, home to one of the largest populations of trapped migrants. Hundreds of thousands have travelled northward across the country, following the usual routes to the United States, only to find that the outbreak has closed the border, even to much of the legal migration. And, since March of 2020, the United States has expelled more than 600,000 southward, with many becoming trapped in Mexico, living a marginal life in border towns or on the peripheries of cities.
You’ll see similar situations in many parts of Indonesia, where migrants headed south, most unable to return home, have become trapped there by Australia’s bulletproof COVID-19 border shutdown. Similar trapped populations are reported in Morocco, Kazakhstan, Djibouti and other traditional “transit” countries, which are now dealing with the sort of people migration scholars call “the involuntary immobile.”
Last summer the International Organization for Migration estimated that there were three million such stranded people. Many of those have been returned; India alone used its military to bring back hundreds of thousands. But new populations have arrived, driven out by unbearable conditions and unable to continue onward.
These millions fall into a dangerous categorical shadow: Not refugees, but not citizens, and so officially non-existent in many countries. They pose the greatest danger of spreading disease, yet might be the last to be vaccinated. Paradoxically, many were seeking work in fields vital to ending the coronavirus outbreak, including health care and elder care; Europe and the United States have faced dangerous shortages of such essential pandemic workers because of the closing of borders.
Wealthy countries’ self-interested pursuit of a two-speed recovery has hampered the world’s economic recovery and provoked an explosion of dangerous new COVID-19 variants. We need to end the vaccination inequality between countries quickly – but it’s equally important to tend to the millions who don’t belong to any.
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