Covid-19 and the Refugee’s Experience in Nigeria

1.0       Introduction

1.1       COVID-19 and Immigration in Nigeria

The pandemic SARS-CoV-2 otherwise known as Coronavirus-2019 (COVID-19) originated in Wuhan, People’s Republic of China in December 2019. Ever since, the pandemic has ravaged the whole world. It has affected more than 19.8 million people globally spreading across 213 countries as at10th August, 2020 resulting into over 730,000 deaths globally while Nigeria had 46,577 confirmed cases, 33,186 recoveries, and 945 deaths spread across 37 states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) (Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), 2020). With COVID-19 in Nigeria in particular, the apprehension of many has been about how the frail health systems would respond to this major health emergency.

On the other hand, Nigeria is an important destination country for emigrants in the West African region. The majority (about 74%)of these immigrants in Nigeria are from neighbouring Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) countries, (Cameroon- 7%, Benin-29%, Ghana-22% and Mali-16%) with females representing an increasing proportion of its population (Afolayan, 2009). 

These migrants include those who enter Nigeria in a regular situation and overstay their visa, and those who enter through the unofficial routes (via adjoin border towns such as Shaki, Adawawa, Bornu, Badagry, Cross River, Edo, Lagos, Calabar, Kano and Benin) including refugees, asylum seekers, labour immigrants and tourists/visitors. Refugees constitute a large proportion of the overall immigrant stock, majority of who are Liberians (75%) while the asylum-seekers who are rescued victims of human trafficking are from the Great Lakes Region of Africa (65%) with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (88%) being the major source country(Afolayan, 2009).

About 58,000 Cameroonian refugees were registered in south western states of Akwa Ibom, Cross River, Imo and Benue States in 2019 owing to intense security conflicts in the country (Unah, 2020). While some of these refugees stays in camps many live in amongst host communities. They become homeless and are found in urban slums and squatter settlements in Nigeria. This article examines the experiences of refugees in Nigeria in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.

2.0       Covid-19 and The Refugee’s Experience

The government announced some set of guidelines to help prevent and curtail the spread of Covid-19 in Nigeria. This include enforcing lockdowns and stay-at-home orders; closure of schools, borders,  domestic and international airports; wearing of face masks; social distancing; and restriction of social activities, including hotels, club house, malls, parks and religious gatherings. The results of the stakeholder engagement undertaken by the University of Ibadan Urban Health Research Team reported poor adherence to social distancing and scarcity of facemasks, while health care providers lacked essential protective kits in many slums in Ibadan. Most refugees who live in highly stressful situations face same health risks as host populations owing to lack of health care facilities as observed in the study (Omigbodun, 2020).

Majority of refugees become homeless owing to unemployment and poverty. This results them into becoming ‘mobile-street’ beggars, many of who live in formal and informal camps, reception or detention centres while a large proportion in Nigeria live on the streets in informal housing arrangements. As food prices inflate amidst the pandemic, cash-based intervention received by those in camps is getting inadequate to meet their nutritional needs while those who are mobile beggars find it hard to feed. Most lack access to basic services such as potable water, sanitation and health care and at a high risk of contracting the virus. A recently published Lancet Article1 warned of the increased risk facing refugee communities where simple preventive measures are hard to implement. In these settings, how can they protect themselves or self-isolate? How do they sustain themselves during these Covid-19 lockdown? They find refuge under bridges, along walkways and on road medians. They could not continue to stay indoors after about three months of the lockdown owing to deteriorating socio-economic circumstances. As a vulnerable community, they cannot survive without engaging in their daily source of livelihood.

Poor situation in the slums where they reside increases their exposure to various disease incidences such as COVID-19. Begging for alms without face masks, using hands without gloves exposes them to the risk of contracting the disease. In addition, poor observance of social distancing in the communities also put these communities at risks. While there is a provision of hand-washing facilities by the government in these communities, scarcity of water prevented the majority from observing this preventive measure. Adopting a rational choice approach to life decisions, they used available earnings from begging for feeding rather than buying facemasks or sanitizers. Palliative intervention came from so many non-governmental organizations but this was grossly inadequate for these vulnerable populations (Omigbodun, 2020).

Very few studies have been conducted on refugees and their coping strategies during this pandemic. Still very few have focused on how to relief and protect refugees during this pandemic period. How have these vulnerable people coped with the negative impacts of Covid-19? These and many more questions arise and this article is advocating for quick response to the aid of these vulnerable population.

3.0       Conclusion

The rate of COVID-19 outbreak in Nigeria is increasing daily and the frail health system in the country has raised the concern of citizens on how to prevent the spread of the various. It has affected both the host population and refugees in Nigeria. Many of the guidelines and strategies put in place to fight the spread of the virus impacts refugees in so many ways. These ranges from their livelihood issues, food insecurity, sanitation issues owing to lack of potable water, poor housing conditions making social distancing and self-isolation difficult.

To alleviate some of these issues, the stakeholder-engagement asserted that insufficient attention is paid to these categories of people and their access to resources needed to protect and sustain themselves is grossly inadequate. They proposed that, it is vital to distribute free face masks and hand sanitizers for refugees in these urban slum communities to enable them adhere to the advisory notices being issued. Locating COVID-19 testing facilities in these urban slums will enhance early detection of the virus and limit community transmission in Oyo States as well as other parts of Nigeria where they are found. Continuous enlightenment through all media forms on the signs and symptoms of the virus will also increase awareness and reduce disease transmission.


Omigbodun, A. (2020). Preventing Covid-19 Transmission in Nigerian Urban Slums. Available at: [Accessed 12th July, 2020].

Afolayan, A. (2009). Migration in Nigeria: A Country Profile. International Organization for Migration. IOM’s Research Division: Switzerland.

Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) (2020). Covid-19 Situation Report 132. Available at: [Accessed 10th August, 2020].

Unah, L. (2020). Coronavirus Further imperils refugees, internally displaced in Nigeria.  Available at:[Accessed 10th August, 2020].



Mrs Oluwafisayo, D. Ogunmodede is a doctoral student in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, University of Ibadan, Ibadan. She obtained her Masters at the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, and Bachelor’s degree from the Department of Geography, both from the University of Ibadan. Her research interest is focused on social planning.

Mrs Oluwafisayo, D. Ogunmodede
Department of Urban and Regional Planning, University of Ibadan

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