The key role of Customs in ensuring a sustainable future for all, through its missions and permanent presence at the borders, was highlighted on International Customs Day, celebrated on 26 January 20201.
The theme, “Sustainability at the heart of Customs action for people, prosperity and the planet”, reflected the importance of Customs missions and the current challenges in terms of protecting society (environmental, socio-economic and health challenges) in the face of threats of all kinds.
Being first and foremost a health crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic has also and above all a more resounding negative economic impact. Indeed, several crises, wars and serious events have taken place, but without similar economic consequences. It is a pandemic that affects all continents, all countries, all races and all economies (formal or informal). There is general helplessness and piecemeal responses; each country is looking after its own people.
The world economy is blocked or stagnant, as sea, air and land traffic between countries or integration blocs is reduced or suspended until further notice. There is real uncertainty as solutions to the pandemic have not yet been found.
The international organisations in charge of economic or integration issues have not been able to anticipate and are aware of the negative consequences on the global economy and regional blocs.
Secondly, the crisis has shown the limits of international organisations. Cooperation between customs administrations has also shown its limits, as the pandemic affects trade.
Above all, the crisis has disrupted customs operations.
First of all, the fiscal and economic mission of customs is clearly declining.
Customs administrations have a fiscal mission, which consists of collecting revenue from imported or exported goods on behalf of the state budget. This function of collecting duties and taxes at the borders varies from one country to another or from one region to another.
In Africa, customs administrations mobilise a large part of the tax revenues that should go into the state budget. Indeed, in most African countries, the duties and taxes collected by customs account for 30-70% of national budget revenues#.
The crisis has considerably affected this mission due to obvious reasons linked to the weakness of trade.
Customs revenues are experiencing a decline that is likely to increase as the crisis continues. The revenue targets set for customs administrations will necessarily be revised downwards to take into account the decrease in international trade volumes and the decline in maritime freight.
The main supplier countries of African countries (Asian countries such as China, India, Thailand…), for example, are very much affected by the pandemic and this has led to a halt in exports.
At the European level, import duties levied at the borders of the Customs Union, as well as part of the VAT, contribute to the general budget of the European Union (EU). But with the crisis, a decision on the temporary suspension of duties on certain categories of goods has already been taken by the EU authorities. Indeed, “the European Commission has announced that it will temporarily waive customs duties and VAT on imports of medical equipment in order to contribute to the fight against the coronavirus “#. This measure to suspend duties and taxes and VAT on imports from third countries was taken to make it easier to obtain certain medical equipment financially.
The economic mission of protecting local industries is being regressed. The crisis has affected commercial, industrial and service companies, in short the entire chain of the formal and informal economy.
However, customs have maintained customs clearance activities and continue to control goods under customs control. Support also consists of managing the issuance of permits and other documents necessary for the clearance of goods that are exempt from or benefit from duty and tax suspension at the time of their importation.
The dematerialisation of certain customs procedures has enabled Customs, even in the midst of a pandemic crisis, to continue to ensure the continuity of its services. In most countries, it has enabled traders to complete almost all necessary border formalities without any physical contact with the Customs Administration.
In view of the difficulties caused worldwide by the pandemic, the Contracting Parties to the Conventions on Temporary Admission were invited to provide sufficient facilities to Ata Carnet holders and their representatives to enable them to carry out their operations as quickly as possible and without additional costs#.
The Ata Carnet allows goods to be transported from one country to another under a single document, without any break in the load. It thus facilitates customs operations because of the flexibility of controls.
This is why it is recommended in times of crisis by the OECD, as its effectiveness is recognised.
Customs also support public authorities in the implementation of contingency, economic safeguard or recovery plans by implementing strategies aimed at supporting the private sector, for example by allowing deferrals of payment or regularisation of duties and taxes, extensions of deadlines for goods under duty suspension regimes, and additional facilitations in customs clearance procedures.
This is the case of African countries such as Senegal# and Côte d’Ivoire# which have taken fiscal measures to better cope with the crisis by supporting businesses.
The European Union has developed a European recovery plan to stem the disastrous economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic2.
The crisis has also had a game-changing effect on other customs missions.
Secondly, the security and support role of customs for other administrations has increased significantly.
Customs also have a mission to support other administrations. In fact, they apply other regulations at the borders on behalf of other services under different ministries (Agriculture, Livestock, Trade, Security, Environment, etc.).
Customs, as part of their mission of assistance in normal times, provide daily support to the services of the ministries in charge of health through the fight against illicit trafficking in medicines, the control of sanitary standards at the borders, the provision of donations to health structures, among others.
In times of crisis, the contribution of Customs to the health authorities is decisive to take into account the urgency related to the handling and clearance of necessary medical products and materials.
It is therefore important to note the importance of strict border control in times of crisis. Customs, because of their strategic position at the borders, are working closely with all the security forces to reinforce the system.
While the fight against the worldwide spread of Covid-19 has required rigorous health controls, especially at land and air borders, it has also necessitated a halt to travel, leading to a halt or a net decrease in trade. As a result, borders were closed and surveillance was stepped up by customs administrations.
The fight against counterfeiting by customs in these times of crisis remains a real challenge. Crime3 is increasing and adapting to the pandemic.
As the world struggles with Covid-19, criminals are taking advantage of the situation to carry out fraudulent activities. An alarming number of seizures have been reported of counterfeit essential medical supplies, such as fake protective masks and hand sanitisers#.
Therefore, the MDG calls on its members to be vigilant. It is determined to continue to work with all its partners to dismantle the supply chains of counterfeit products that put millions of lives at risk.
In response, some governments have taken steps to introduce export licensing schemes for certain categories of essential medical supplies such as masks, gloves and protective clothing.
The African countries that are most affected by counterfeit medical products do not have a plan to respond to this not new phenomenon.
However, the measures taken by governments in conjunction with customs to stockpile medicines and medical equipment, prevent speculation, allow the production of gels and masks at local level and ensure normal distribution and sale are to be welcomed.
In these times of crisis, customs ensure that criminal networks cannot sell counterfeit products. This vigilance at the borders ensures that public health is not further compromised.
The use of non-compliant medicines, masks, gels or other resuscitation equipment could increase the number of deaths and casualties.
Beyond the health system, it is clear that the Covid-19 pandemic is a reminder of the many deficits in basic socio-economic infrastructure in some countries. This health crisis could further weaken a relatively precarious social environment, exacerbating the needs of the population and the precariousness of certain households, with an increase in unemployment in prospect.
This is an opportunity to strengthen the resources of customs administrations whose agents are exposed to risks because of their positions at the borders.
The crisis has a considerable economic impact, as it considerably restricts trade between countries. The world economy is being hit hard.
Moreover, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) is forecasting growth of 1.8%, compared to the 3.2% expected in 2020.
Customs administrations are at the heart of business strategies. They support the States in their regalian security missions.
This is why one of their challenges is to accompany public policies for food self-sufficiency, production and industrialisation that can enable African states to achieve “true and real sovereignty”.
It is time to reflect on concerted customs strategies that can support the private sector: this will involve promoting programmes such as the Authorised Economic Operator (AEO) status, and further accelerating the dematerialisation of customs procedures, which has shown its advantages in these times of crisis.
It is to be welcomed that in many countries, customs have successfully developed and completed the digital transformation, which has produced satisfactory results.
This “successful technological shift” has enabled them, despite the pandemic, to continue to carry out their missions of facilitating and securing the international supply chain.
The Covid-19 pandemic crisis will surely have an influence or impact on customs law, whose rules adapt and evolve in line with all kinds of changes caused by the development of science.
After the crisis, customs standards should be able to undergo profound changes to take into account the new bacteriological threats …
Pape Djigdjam DIOP
PhD in public law
Senior Inspector of Customs
Assistant to the Director of Facilitation and Partnership with Business
Member of the Centre for Studies and Research on Legal and Financial Engineering (Cerif)
Head of training at Sand Consulting