On 20 October 2021, in the context of the third MIEUX+ Action supporting the Secretariat of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), MIEUX+ and COMESA hosted the ‘Regional webinar on implications of COVID-19 pandemic on border management. Public Officials working in Customs, Immigration, Port Health, Drug Law Enforcement, and Police from 11 COMESA Member States, the IOM, ILO and COMESA Federation of Women in Business (COMFWB) attended the event.
The webinar provided COMESA and its Member States with the opportunity to exchange views on the consequences of health emergencies on border management, best practices and experiences in managing the covid 19 at their border posts.
Divided into four sessions, the first two sessions presented an overview of the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on border management from a global perspective and with the regional experience of West Africa, while the third session presented an overview of the experience of the police force of the Czech Republic in relation to border management. A final plenary session enabled the COMESA MS to exchange views on the subject.
Common challenges at the global level
The COVID-19 pandemic affected all aspects of border management in an unprecedented way, explained Ms Monika Weber, Senior Advisor within ICMPD’s Border Management and Security Programme. Different national regulatory frameworks meant that Border Management officials and agencies all over the world had to quickly adapt their practices and know-how.
In Europe, the most notable example was the temporary suspension of the Schengen agreement. This caused a lack of harmonisation and inadvertently put pressure on the EU Member States to re-apply border infrastructure that have not existed for decades.
- Practical knowledge needs to be complemented by clear and readily available strategies and Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs).
- Cooperation and coordination at the national, regional and international level between national border management agencies and international organisations, as well as with border communities and the private sector.
- Modernisation of equipment, information sharing and continuous capacity development in coordination with training centres should be envisioned for border officials.
Lessons learnt from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)
Dr Tony Elumelu, of the Free Movement Directorate of the ECOWAS Commission, explained how COVID-19 also caused a new policy shift in border management in Western Africa. For example, digitalisation became a priority.
Moreover, the pandemic exposed a lack of coordination among ECOWAS Member States. Thus, ECOWAS sought a common approach to prevent economic breakdown, facilitate the flow of goods, services and people as well as to harmonise guidelines from international organisations including World Health Organization and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
To this avail, COMESA developed new guidelines on mobility in April 2020, applying lessons learned from past crises, including Ebola outbreaks. Once the pandemic hit in the area, border communities played a very important role in border management.
- More efforts should be taken to ensure coordination among border management agencies and mechanisms (health and security among others).
- Intra-regional common approach to mobility and free movement of goods, services and persons is needed between different Regional Economic Communities on the continent, such as ECOWAS and COMESA.
- Steps should be taken to ensure the harmonisation of COVID-19 test requirements, including the provision of free or low-cost COVID-19 tests, which would alleviate the economic burden on the population, especially small-scale cross-border traders.
Experiences from a European Member State: Czech Republic
Dr Petr Malovec, Head of National Border Situation Centre of the Police of Czech Republic presented on the experiences of the Police Force of the Czech Republic. He explained how the temporary resumption of border controls and inter-institutional coordination between the fire brigade, traffic, border police, civil protection and the army was necessary during the initial months of the pandemic. As a direct consequence of the reinstatement of border controls on entry and exit, the use of mobile IT systems became crucial as border officials would collect data from individuals and enter the data through mobile phone applications.
- It is key to have established contingency plans at land, sea and air border control posts and at hot spots to ensure coordination at local, regional and national levels.
- Promote efficient use of human resources in emergencies when immediate reaction proves to be difficult. A greater number of specialists is necessary and should be deployed to key border posts to provide guidance.
- Reduce the digital gap, allow for greater use of new technologies such as kiosks, and face towers, which facilitate border control especially in airports.
Policy coherence and coordination: necessary to advance
During the fourth session, MIEUX+ highlighted the links between the discussions of the regional webinar and the main findings of the Capacity and Training Needs Assessment undertaken during May and June of 2021 by two MIEUX+ experts from Nigeria and United Kingdom. The assessment entailed several consultative meetings on the main challenges and lessons learned following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic with key stakeholders from selected border posts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
The report highlighted several challenges for Border Management in light of the pandemic, namely, the lack of policy coherence; the lack of coordination mechanisms at regional and national levels.; uneven domestication of regional Border Management guidelines; the lack of policy coherence; and differences in approaches to managing the COVID-19 pandemic. The differing approaches have not only brought confusion and lack of cohesion among national border agencies but also with regional counterparts.
Accordingly, COMESA Member States representatives exchanged views on the topics. For instance, Zambia shared some lessons learned such as the integration of tests results within a platform developed with support from the African Union and how they coordinated between health services, border agencies and cross-border partners.
While moderating the session, Jean-Yves Charriou, MIEUX+ Senior Advisor on Border Management, encouraged the delegates to harmonise and simplify procedures, with methodologies such as ‘business process analysis" to see what works, what does not and what can be adapted. Simple procedures and contingency planning are imperative as COVID-19 is only one crisis among other potential health or phytosanitary emergencies, thus simple procedures enable a quick response from the authorities as well as adaptability to other emergencies.
Lastly, new procedures would need to go hand in hand with organisational management, including training of staff and information campaigns for the public.