Freedom of movement and economic integration are the cornerstone of the African Union's (AU) Agenda 2063 which includes, among other things, the progressive aim of abolishing visa requirements for all African citizens. However multiple obstacles to free movement on the continent persist.
A protectionist approach to managing migration still prevails as states avoid ceding their sovereignty to regional and supra-national organisations in migration affairs in the name of state security and national interest. So far, with the exception of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), little tangible progress has been made to implement a free movement regime.
In this context, the global COVID-19 pandemic and states' responses to it, raise questions about open borders and free movement of people. By 29 April, more than 34 000 people in Africa were infected with the coronavirus and just over 1 500 had died.
If governments struggle to contain the spread, strict immigration laws and the militarisation of border control may be invoked, as has happened in South Africa. These types of measures would be antithetical to the continent's integration agenda.
More than half of African countries have closed their borders to human traffic in response to COVID-19
As the pandemic flared up across Europe, borders were progressively shut down until the Schengen agreement was suspended. At the same time, populists have challenged the European Union (EU) borderless system in an attempt to crack down on immigration. French right-wing politician Aurélia Beigneux went further: 'The free circulation of goods and people, immigration policies and weak controls at the borders obviously allow the exponential spread of this type of virus.'
More than half of African countries including South Africa, Kenya, Rwanda, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Sudan and Zimbabwe have closed their borders to human traffic to limit the spread of COVID-19. After closing its borders, South Africa erected a 40 km fence along the border with Zimbabwe. The effectiveness of the R37 million fence is doubtful, as smugglers and desperate migrants are still able to enter South Africa by cutting through the fence or crossing the Limpopo River.
Director of the African Centre for Migration & Society at the University of the Witwatersrand Jo Vearey has also highlighted the risk that cross-border migrants will become targets of xenophobic discrimination for being 'importers of infectious disease.'
We don't know how long this pandemic will last, but it's going to test aspirations for a borderless Africa in the midst of economic uncertainty. A global recession has already begun, suggesting dire consequences for Africa's economies as the continent may see its GDP growth fall from 3.2% to about 2%.
Fragile gains in lifting visa requirements could be threatened as countries close themselves off
Regional integration and intra-African trade may become strategic assets for the continent, particularly with the recent adoption of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA). The deal is expected to be one of the largest global single markets with a collective GDP of US$2.5 trillion and consumer and business spending of more than US$4 trillion.
The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to hamper investment opportunities, including those needed in infrastructure for transport and communication to implement the free trade agreement. AfCFTA's first secretary-general Wamkele Mene, who was appointed in March 2020, has already indicated that the launch of the free trade area, expected for 1 July, will be delayed due to COVID-19.
The potentially negative effects of the pandemic on Africa's integration agenda are cause for concern. Free movement of people and economic integration can deliver significant benefits for the continent, boosting tourism and promoting investment and trade opportunities.
But travel restrictions in response to COVID-19 will reduce the volume of inter-continental trade of non-essential goods. A protracted shutdown of businesses will lower local production and negatively affect small and medium-size enterprises that are expected to benefit from the free trade agreement.
Could Africa's aspirations for unity gain impetus as countries work together against COVID19?
The virus could also hinder Africa's aspirations for unity as countries turn inward and prioritise their citizens' health and security. Since the African Free Movement Protocol was adopted, remarkable progress has been made towards visa liberalisation. According to the Africa Visa Openness Report 2019, African countries have become increasingly open to visitors from the continent over the past four years.
Currently Africans need visas to travel to 49% of other African countries (down from 55% in 2016). The rapid passing of the free trade agreement and the signing by 21 countries of the Protocol on the Free Movement of Persons are further positive signs. However these fragile gains which were not achieved easily, could now be threatened as countries close themselves off.
So far the African Union has been actively searching for common solutions to the pandemic by, for example, adopting the Africa Joint Continental Strategy for COVID-19. If this approach works, Africa's aspirations for unity could gain - rather than lose - impetus as countries work together to counter challenges.
Travel limitations, the closure of borders and protectionist policies to restrict trade are necessary to curb the spread of COVID-19 but are not advisable for the long term. Nationalist isolation may lead to greater socio-economic disparities between countries and a rise in fear of otherness. Today, more than ever before, African leaders need to revive momentum for deeper regional integration.
Sergio Carciotto, Consultant, Migration, ISS Pretoria