Millions of migrants who rely on Europe's informal economy have hit rock bottom, creating a domino effect in North Africa and the Middle East.

The economic impact of the pandemic is being felt across the globe amongst different sectors of society - from furloughed workers to small business facing challenges. For others in more vulnerable positions like undocumented Africans across Europe and their dependent families back home, lockdowns have made life difficult.

"Imagine being without work and without an income,” said Farah, a 38-year-old undocumented Algerian in Madrid.

“I’ve been eating one meal a day and it’s been two months since paying my bills and rent.”

Pew Research Center suggests there are up to 4.8 million undocumented workers in Europe, 21 percent from the Middle East and North Africa and 17 percent from sub-Saharan Africa.

 “Before the Covid-19 pandemic the informal economy workers struggled to meet their basic survival needs. With the spread of Covid-19, the struggle for survival doubled or tripled,” said Oksana Abboud, International Coordinator at StreetNet International, an organisation representing street vendors around the world told TRT World.

Farah says her journey to Spain was difficult.  She made two attempts. The first time she says she paid over 6,000 euros to “mafias" but had to return home after being caught and held by authorities. On the second attempt in 2006, authorities detained her, sending her to a detention centre in Ceuta. She says she spent six months there with her 14-year-old son, later gaining a temporary residence in Spain. But she says she was denied a renewal, leaving both her and her son undocumented in the country and unable to contribute to things like pensions.

Now Farah is facing economic uncertainty. She usually earns 500-850 euros per month but hasn’t earned anything since lockdown.

“I fell into depression and had to call a psychologist from an NGO,” said domestic worker Farah.

Osama, a migrant from Morocco, wears a face mask as he sits inside a house he shares with around 40 other migrants in Barcelona, Spain, Monday, March 23, 2020.
Osama, a migrant from Morocco, wears a face mask as he sits inside a house he shares with around 40 other migrants in Barcelona, Spain, Monday, March 23, 2020. (AP)

Food security issue

A recent study by the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that 1.6bn informal workers globally have lost 60 percent income since lockdown.

Farah wants undocumented workers to be recognised and formalised by the government to improve their economic standing and avoid risks of deportation.

“You feel you are invisible to society and to the government,” Farah told TRT World.

StreetNet International advocates universal healthcare and a basic emergency living cash grant for those most vulnerable, regardless of nationality and residency status across the globe.

In Italy, authorities are considering the prospect of amnesty, by legalising 600,000 undocumented migrant labourers, following food security and supply chain issues in the country.

IMamadou is a 25-year-old undocumented migrant farm labourer from Senegal. He works in Spain’s fields close to Lleida, Catalunya - a popular spot for west African migrants. He would like to potentially see similar measures introduced in Spain for undocumented migrants. “Now they need people to work in the fields. Working in the fields is hard. It’s work which only migrants do,” he told TRT World.

He says he is paid off the books around 25-30 euros for 10-12 hours shifts.

“After Covid-19, we are looking to keep working to make a better life for our family, to send money to them in Senegal, so that our family can eat, because we don’t want to rob. We want to work in a dignified and peaceful way to help our families.”

“Such undocumented workers in European countries might feel more protected and safer as they get some relief packages support from the European governments (national and local) and of course they would not return to their homes in Africa, in opposite, they help their relatives with transferring remittances for them to sustain somehow,” said Abboud, coordinator at StreetNet International.

A migrant from Morocco, washes his clothes inside a house he shares with around 40 other migrants in Barcelona, Spain, Monday, March 23, 2020.
A migrant from Morocco, washes his clothes inside a house he shares with around 40 other migrants in Barcelona, Spain, Monday, March 23, 2020. (AP)

More than $550bn in remittances were sent last year across the globe according to the World Bank, with $48bn heading to Sub-Saharan Africa - but now the organisation is warning the pandemic has impacted remittances.

“Remittance watchers are predicting a sizable [20-25 percent] downturn in remittance flows in Q1 2020 not seen since the start of the Great Recession in 2008,” Paul Vaaler, a chaired professor at the University of Minnesota's law and business schools told TRT World.

Domino effect

According to the World Bank remittances play a driving role in alleviating poverty for middle and lower-income countries and help to solve food insecurity and livelihood needs.  They warn the decline represents “loss of a crucial financing lifeline for many vulnerable households” during the pandemic.

“In countries like Haiti or Zimbabwe remittances can account for a third or more of total GDP,” said Vaaler.

In Zimbabwe, the UN’s World Food Program has warned at least eight million in the country need food aid during the pandemic, a country which reportedly received remittances valuing upwards of $1.8bn in 2018.

“It’s quite a difficult situation on the ground, people are hungry, people are suffering,” Wisborn Malaya, the Secretary General of Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Associations (ZCIEA) told TRT World.

He says the lockdown is challenging in Zimbabwe. Many vulnerable families work informally and  “live hand to mouth,” as governmental relief has been slow. He says some families only eat once a day.  The country is suffering from 600 percent inflation. Draught has impacted food security and now the country is importing its staple food source, cornflour.

There are humanitarian efforts taking place in other parts of Africa, like in the west where locusts have destroyed crops. The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA) is helping with efforts globally and in Africa to help alleviate hunger and provide medical supplies.

“We have given priority to food distribution. We have already donated last week about 20 tonnes of primary food that Ugandans need, in particular, in the urban areas,” the Turkish Ambassador to Uganda, Kerem Alp, told TRT World.

His team is assisting local efforts alongside authorities and TİKA.

"Those that have lost their daily income, because many millions of people are living from daily income, so those people need food,” he said.

These food packages contain staples like corn flour, salt, sugar, oil and rice.

But the economic effects of the lockdown have created challenges globally for vulnerable sectors, particularly around food security. The UN has warned 821 million are going to bed hungry and that 135 million are “facing crisis levels of hunger”.

“A huge level of Informality and vulnerability became even more visible to all the citizens, including the governments who faced a challenge on protecting them and providing at least some basic minimum relief package,” said Abboud.

The UN has issued a $6.7bn appeal aimed to “protect millions of lives and stem the spread of coronavirus in fragile countries”.

"We are not only facing a global health pandemic but also a global humanitarian catastrophe,” said David Beasley, UN World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director.

"It is critical we come together as one united global community to defeat this disease, and protect the most vulnerable nations and communities from its potentially devastating effects.”

Source: TRT World