Already vulnerable refugees living in unsanitary and squalid conditions are now bracing for the worst from the global pandemic, writes Eleftheria Kousta
Since the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the Covid-19 outbreak a global pandemic the world has gone into a state of existential panic. With some of the most developed nations failing to contain the spread of the virus the situation for those seeking refuge is looking bleaker than ever.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 96 refugee-hosting countries have reported outbreaks, sparking fears of the virus spreading like wildfire in overcrowded camps that were already at breaking point. Only a few days ago, Lebanon reported its first positive case in one of the Palestinian camps in Beqaa, where refugees have been forced to live in squalid and unsanitary conditions for generations. Meanwhile, deaths have been confirmed in parts of besieged north eastern Syria where 3 million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) have been squeezed into a region of 500,000 inhabitants. Elsewhere in the region, Turkey is pressing for repatriations, whilst Afghan refugees are fleeing from Iran back to Afghanistan in their thousands, adding an extra strain to the sending countries where healthcare systems are already fragile. Meanwhile, camps in eastern Africa and south Asia that can be labelled 'cities of their own' are bracing for the worst.
In the west things are no better, with camps in Calais and Lesbos being far beyond capacity and resources and access to healthcare scarce since the onset of the lockdown measures. In the US, the detention facilities of Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) are becoming death traps for those incarcerated. Isolation and hygiene measures have become mission impossible in these conditions. Amnesty International has reported that ICE does not provide access to sanitary products and keeps on detaining families. With numbers in detention centres beyond capacity from Australia to the US and Europe, there needs to be a serious concern over those incarcerated on the grounds of 'migration offences'.
However, beyond the official UNHCR camps or detention centres, urban destitution where unregistered refugees are forced into poverty is a much larger problem and much more dangerous since access to healthcare is hard to navigate and most funds and NGO programmes are directed towards those living in camps. Urban impoverishment is ever more present since 2015 with most of the refugees leaving the camps and ending up squatting in unsanitary facilities in the big cities, living under threat from rather than the protection of public authorities.
Beyond chronic funding issues and reduced capacity from key organisations such as the UNHCR, state policies and governance deficits are a major liability. Firstly, refugee-hosting countries are usually themselves lacking in capacity to provide quality care for their citizens and have to rely on international aid. Secondly, under law in countries like Lebanon and Jordan refugees have been excluded from access to state resources and care programmes, whilst in other countries access is limited at best. Thirdly, refugees have been frequently used as political pawns and have been caught in a climate of a 'struggle for resources'. Whilst it is clear that refugees cannot be blamed for the outbreak of the virus they are vulnerable to spreading it due to their unfortunate circumstances and have become the targets of misinformation campaigns from far right groups. Last month NGOs had to cease operations in camps in Lesbos as far right rioters attacked refugees and aid workers.
Whilst the beneficiaries of foreign aid will somehow have to cope with the consequences of Covid-19 spreading in refugee settlements, states put under sanctions will suffer greatly. Iran is the hardest hit country in the Middle East and repatriation of Afghan refugees is ensuing on a massive scale, accompanied with all the dangers caused by forced cross-border movement, plus those posed by the pandemic. UNHCR has moved to provide some aid to refugees in Iran, yet, with the organisation facing major funding challenges, Iran is left with one more issue to tackle.
If anything, this outbreak has demonstrated the worst aspects of mismanagement of the refugee crisis and the inhumane treatment of the most vulnerable who have been chronically designated the status of 'pariah' and 'outcast'. The situation for refugees and migrants is dire from the United States to Bangladesh. In short, it is a humanitarian catastrophe waiting to happen unless we act swiftly.
States are slowly realising that there is a strong connection between public planning and refugee protection. For example, Jordan has started following UNHCR guidelines and treating refugee camps as an indispensable part of its public health policies. Also, Portugal moved to give all migrants citizenship rights and Germany is trying to tap in the vast labour pool it has accumulated from the refugee crisis. Yet, after the advent of the disease we should do everything possible so that these rights are not rolled back, in the hope of redefining the debate about refugees and migration.
One way to do this is by highlighting the subject as an issue of community development and shifting away from divisive politics, emphasising that an 'injury to one is an injury to all'. Covid-19 has made it clear that it is time to stop treating displaced people as a mere burden to be warehoused and pushed to the outskirts of society, and instead welcome them into our communities and find streams to utilise their potential, which otherwise would be wasted away in camps.
Crucially, with the first few confirmed fatalities from Covid-19 in north eastern Syria, a need for a global and all-encompassing ceasefire is more pressing than ever. Years of targeting of civilian infrastructure has left conflict zones without capacity to prevent outbreaks and has displaced millions of people from their homes, forcing them into a limbo of uncertainty and deprivation. Governments involved in active combat theatres should reopen all diplomatic channels possible in order to allow the access of aid, and halt arms sales to warring parties, as well as lifting sanctions on medical supplies. Mutual mistrust is of course a major factor, yet extraordinary times are crucial to trust-building and will eventually set the tone for future rapprochement and peace-building processes.
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