By Lizzy Okoji
Between January and April 2019, in just 101 days, over 12,500 migrants and refugees entered Europe through the three main Mediterranean Sea routes, with about 407 recorded deaths, the UN Migration Agency (IOM) revealed in its report.
On its part, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reveals that in 2018, at least 139,000 crossed through the Mediterranean routes with Nigeria accounting for the fifth common nationality on the Central Mediterranean route.
It further revealed that Guinea had 47 per cent of the flow travelling through the Western route, Mali 16 per cent and Cote d’Ivoire 8 per cent.
In Africa, the migration problem appear to be more burdensome in the West African sub-region where there is a record 7.1 million international migrant, according to the sub-regional body, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)
According to ECOWAS of the figure, over 5.9 million (84%) of the West Africans migrate within Africa while about 1.1 million others migrate to other continents of the World.
“Most of these migrants have taken to irregular routes and perilous journeys from Africa through the Mediterranean and Sahara Desert seeking for better life, greener pastures and protection in Western countries,” it said.
The rise in mixed migration flows of ECOWAS citizens across the African region and to other continents particularly Europe has become a concern for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the ECOWAS Commission.
The UNHCR describes mixed migration flows as various population groups which include refugees, Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), asylum seekers, stateless persons, economic migrants, nomadic and seasonal migrants.
Other groups include trafficked persons and vulnerable persons, unaccompanied children amongst others.
UNHCR and ECOWAS expressed grave concerns that along the mixed migratory routes, serious human violations continue to be reported which calls for the development of a regional strategy and legal framework by ECOWAS Member countries to protect its citizens.
As part of the UNHCR-ECOWAS Commission partnership built on a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed in 2001, the duo are seeking for protection and durable solutions for mixed migrants in the sub-region.
Hence, both organizations leveraged on the bi-annual Ambassador’ retreat to bring together ECOWAS Ambassadors representing Member States to brainstorm on the best approach and policies for their governments to adopt in tackling the migration crisis.
The 2019 Ambassador’s retreat held in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State was hinged on the theme “Mixed flows and durable solutions in the ECOWAS Region”.
Discussions at the retreat focused on three thematic sessions: Refugees protection in the context of mixed movements, durable solutions for refugees and statelessness.
The retreat aims at creating a platform for participants to share experiences, practices and interest in other to chart a regional approach that ensures effective protection of, and durable solutions for persons of concerns to the UNHCR in the ECOWAS region.
Mrs Liz Ahua, UNHCR’s Regional Representative said that the there are different categories of people caught in the migratory flow which includes those fleeing conflict, persecution, disaster and insecurity.
She said that when these groups cross the boarders, they become refugees and asylum seekers which is a major concern for UNHCR while migrants in search of better living conditions are the concern of the IOM.
“In that context for UNHCR, we would be concerned that the government or the Member States of ECOWAS are paying attention to the categories of people who are moving from one place to the other.
“If they are moving as refugees or asylum seekers, they are conventions which governments in the region have signed, they are refugee conventions, conventions on internally displaced that the member states of ECOWAS has adhered to.
“There is an expectation and a commitment that we have had from these governments to make sure that these people do not become exposed to dangers against which they are fleeing.
“This current flow of people going towards the west is a new dimension and I think there is a sense of awareness but there is not that similar commitment in terms of legal framework to deal with the new situation.
“I must say that much as it is an old situation, the new dimension of it requires a certain commitments and we are working with the governments and authorities to sensitize them about the gravity.
“There is a growing awareness, growing desire, growing will to support the populations but it is still in the beginning stage”, Ahua said.
Ahua said that UNHCR remained committed to supporting durable solutions to Persons of Concern adding that assistance can come in form of voluntary repatriation, local reintegration and resettlements.
Mr Jean-Claude Brou, President of ECOWAS said that the perilous journeys embarked upon by ECOWAS citizens have resulted in the loss of lives and their enslavement.
Brou, represented by Siga Jagne, ECOWAS Commissioner for Social Affairs and Gender, said that the migrant crisis was a challenge which member states must take seriously, confront and provide an encouraging environment to encourage youths to engage in meaningful activities in their home countries.
“This calls for the development of a relevant regional and country specific legal frameworks, high level advocacy and sensitization for implementation of existing protection related frameworks and improvement of the protection environment in the ECOWAS space.
“The ECOWAS Commission is committed to assisting Member States through our partnership with the UNHCR to accede to, and implement relevant legal instruments, provide durable solutions to persons of concern.
“Accompany them with programmes and activities that will ensure the enhancement of their coping capacities for resilience.
“We are proud to note that today, our effort at assisting Member States sign, ratify and implement the Kampala Convention is yielding positive result as Niger has completed the process and domesticated”, Brou said.
Brou said that there was pressing need for stakeholders including Ambassadors to create a conducive political environment to push for the ratification, domestication and implementation of relevant protection laws in Member States.
Blaming political instability as the major cause of mixed migration flows, Amb. Babatunde Nurudeen, Permanent Representative of Nigeria to ECOWAS called for better leadership in ECOWAS countries.
According to Nurudeen, of all the diverse factors that drive mixed flows conventionally, political instability was the major factor that has that has led to the flow of migrants in the West African sub-region.
Nurudeen explained that the political architecture in Member States was responsible for several agitations against marginalization and tight syndrome of some political leaders which eventually leads to incessant outbreaks of conflicts.
He said that some of the outcome of such political instability includes the outbreaks of restiveness, insurgency, terrorism, intrastate violence in the forms of ethno-religious, political. Criminal and struggle for scarce resources.
At the end of the retreat, participants recommended the adoption of the ECOWAS Regional Migration Policy with corresponding Plans of Action.
One of the participants, Gov. Emmanuel Udom called on governments of ECOWAS Member States to take cue from the successes of Akwa Ibom State which has prioritized capacity building of youths to embrace entrepreneurship.
Udom said that these measures have yielded results and has enabled the State enjoy peace and security, which correspondingly has led to in-flow of Foreign Direct Investments to the State.
“I believe this approach can be replicated elsewhere”, Udom said.
It is however imperative for governments of Member States in the ECOWAS region to address the root causes of mixed migration flows as a best means to tackling the peril.
Tackling insecurity, creating an enabling environment, proving basic amenities like water, power, improved the health sector, education sector amongst others could just be the key for ECOWAS citizens to remain in their home countries.