Nouakchott – Border closures and governmental restrictions in the context of the coronavirus outbreak have left thousands of migrant workers in precarious economic conditions.

These migrants come from neighbouring countries including Senegal, Mali and Guinea, and often earn their living through precarious jobs like street selling, construction, cross-border trade, catering, and domestic work. Already marginalized by the preventive measures ordered by the government, they have been left jobless as the disease outbreak unfolded overnight. 

“I am currently working as a labourer on construction sites. Since the crisis outbreak, works have been suspended and job opportunities have been scarce. I have been unemployed for 10 days,” said Mahamat Adam Salif, a Central African migrant who has been living in Mauritania for more than two years. “My situation was more or less stable before this pandemic, but it has become very difficult since last March. I lead a hand-to-mouth existence and have had to face rent issues,” he concluded.

After the first COVID-19 case was reported in the country in 2020, preventive measures were put in place by the authorities, including closing all land, sea and air borders, establishing a curfew, banning non-essential commercial activities, closing restaurants and prohibiting gatherings.

In addition to supporting the fight against the spread of the disease within migrant and host communities, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) is striving to assist migrants in vulnerable situations through food distribution in collaboration with its civil society partners, such as the Catholic Mission.

“As my husband is sick and unfit for work, I have to feed my three-year-old child and my four-month-old baby. My previous situation was precarious, but it has worsened because of this pandemic,” explained Bintou, a Gambian woman living in Nouakchott. “I used to sell sandwiches in the markets, but now they are closed, I have to stay at home doing nothing. This food assistance helps us a lot,” she added.

The Nouakchott Catholic Mission’s counselling unit, which receives more than 1,000 requests annually, provides humanitarian and emergency assistance to migrants.

Among these people is Kiné, a young woman from Dakar, the capital of Senegal.

“My employer asked me not to go home every night to limit the risk of contamination but as I have children waiting for me at home, it was impossible for me to adhere to this requirement. I ended up losing my job”.

With IOM’s support, which consists of funding emergency food assistance and referring the most vulnerable migrants, the Sister working at the Catholic Mission welcomes migrants who come one by one to collect bags, in order to avoid any gathering. Normally, IOM office in Nouakchott, a city hosting about 84,000 migrants, conducts interviews with 30-40 migrants per month. With the current pandemic, nearly 100 requests for assistance are received every week. To date, 280 people have received food assistance.

“There has been an increase in the number of migrants in vulnerable situations due to the measures applied to combat the virus,” said Sister Anita Matis, who works in the Mission’s counselling unit. “Migrants in vulnerable situations are referred by IOM to the Catholic Mission for food assistance, and the Church has provided a spontaneous response since the disease outbreak in the country,” she concluded.

IOM’s support to the Catholic Mission in assisting vulnerable migrants was funded by the European Union Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF) to foster Migrant Protection and Reintegration as well as Strengthening Border Management in Mauritania through the EU-IOM Joint Initiative