GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – Dozens of Malian migrants stranded for nearly three months in Niger by COVID-19-related border closures have returned home. Earlier this week, the International Organization for Migration was finally able to repatriate 179 migrants who had been waiting at IOM transit centers in Niamey and Agadez.
In the past two weeks, the U.N. migration agency was able to return 43 migrants to Burkina Faso and 58 migrants to Benin from Niger by land. However, the return of the Malian nationals was the first by air since restrictions on air travel were imposed to limit the spread of COVID-19.
IOM spokesman Paul Dillon said the airlift was made possible by an agreement between Niger and Mali.
“An additional 1,400 migrants from several, mainly West African, countries remain in six IOM transit centers and quarantine sites in Niger waiting for travel restrictions to lift so they, too, can return to their countries of origin,” he said.
IOM agrees extraordinary measures taken by governments to curb the spread of COVID-19 may be necessary. However, it says they are having a serious impact on many vulnerable migrants. It notes many migrants stranded in foreign countries by travel restrictions cannot work, making them vulnerable to exploitation, including trafficking.
The agency reports around 30,000 migrants are stranded in West and Central Africa. Dillon said more than half are foreigners unable to cross borders to return home. Among them, he said, are Mauritanian herders who need to cross into neighboring countries to graze their cattle.
“The establishment of humanitarian corridors is essential to ensure that people are able to cross international borders in a timely and dignified manner, with their rights respected and public health issues addressed. IOM stands ready to help governments increase disease surveillance at their borders, train and equip border officials, and assist with quarantine measures for those who return,” said the spokesman.
IOM reports tens of thousands of migrants are stranded across the Americas, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. It says it is providing many with financial support, food, clothing, shelter, and other essential relief.
However, the agency says it is limited in what it can do. It urges governments to assist and protect migrants who are stranded on their territory and find themselves in dire straits.