Freedom of movement and Africa’s eternal lockdown

As for many people around the globe, the world has become much smaller for Europeans over the past months. From Norway to Italy, populations are in various forms of “lockdown”, principally confined to their homes for an as of yet indeterminable amount of time. Freedom of movement, a right many Europeans consider the European Union’s greatest achievement, has suddenly become extraordinarily limited: not only is travel into Europe largely on hold, but many countries have even restricted domestic movement

This includes delimiting even the most mundane mobilities of work, exercise, leisure or socialising. No longer can people freely move through time and space as they wish. Now, they can only move in line with what is officially sanctioned as absolutely “essential”. When entering public space, everyone’s movement has become potentially illegitimate, threatening and subject to punitive measures for transgression.

As their geographies painfully contract, many Europeans discover how maddening it is to be collectively confined. For many, this may be the first time they learn what it feels like to become subject to punishment for “unauthorised” movement; how draconian it is to be confined to their home, and how limiting it is to have the terms of what is and is not “essential” in life determined for them.

To be sure, the current shock to global and European freedom is extreme. Yet, the unprecedented distress of these momentarily locked-down lives should prompt Europeans to realise how much their leadership, with their consent, continues to curtail the freedom of movement on a permanent basis in Africa. In fact, Europe’s ill-conceived “management” of African migration — a euphemism for containment and carried out in profitable collaborations with partners across both continents — increasingly confines Africans to a form of continental lockdown.

Many of the same European leaders who recoiled at the thought of closing internal borders to halt the pandemic are the ones who progressively undermine vital patterns of regional mobility and integration in Africa, foster exclusionary and territorialised forms of African citizenship, and deliberately endanger the lives and dignity of Africans on the move. 

Using barbed wire, bogus rescues and an often blatantly patronising “concern” for the wellbeing of poor Africans, Europe stipulates that most Africans must stay in their own countries and make do with what they have. With active or passive endorsement by the EU or individual member states, those who move “irregularly” often end up trapped in exasperating limbo and suffering in detention centers, refugee camps, or rescue boats without permission to disembark.

As they are locked down to halt a pandemic, Europeans now too get a sense of what it feels like to have a multitude of different kinds of movements crudely recategorised into legitimate and illegitimate forms. Momentarily deprived of the right to move freely, they grasp, perhaps more viscerally than ever before, the full meaning of freedom of movement. Accordingly, many insist they can only endure this for the time being and keep a close eye on any potential attempts to finagle present-day measures into a new, post-pandemic permanence

As German chancellor Angela Merkel stated, the restrictions during this crisis, indispensable as they may be right now, are “dramatic” and must be strictly “temporary”. With many governments edging towards easing restrictions, Europeans breathe a sigh of relief. Although new lockdowns may become necessary until there is a cure and a vaccine for Covid-19, they have always known that they won’t be confined like this forever. Moreover, many Europeans agree in principle that current measures are necessary for everyone’s protection.

Africans however, locked down indefinitely on their own continent, are not so lucky. Unlike social distancing in the times of Covid-19, claims that preventing Africans from leaving their homes promotes their or their countries’ safety and security remain spectacularly unsubstantiated. In fact, it serves neither their nor Europe’s “protection”, but, in many ways, the exact opposite. The risks and punishments of “illegitimate” movement are infinitely higher for Africans too.

As Europeans currently experience these short-lived restrictions on movement, it is an exceptional time to reflect on what Africans endure permanently in all of Europe’s name and the significance of freedom of movement to everyone in the world.

This article was originally published on Africa is a Country

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Iriann Freemantle
Iriann Freemantle is an associate researcher with the African Centre for Migration & Society at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

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