The COVID-19 virus is putting pressure on even the most liberal governments to restrict freedoms guaranteed to their citizens. From closing the European Union borders to imposing local lockdowns, the world as we know it has altered significantly. Wherever you are at the moment, it is most likely your home. But what if there is no home for you to isolate in during this pandemic? This kind of stress is what refugees worldwide are currently experiencing. By focusing on immigrants trying to find a new life in Europe, this article will explain how this especially vulnerable group is affected by the global coronavirus outbreak.
LIVING CONDITIONS THAT ENABLE A FASTER CONTAGION
Immigration camps are the perfect spot for a virus outbreak. Hundreds of people share toilets and sleeping spaces, and users need to queue in the cold for long before they receive necessities such as food. The camps are overcrowded, lack proper sanitary conditions and medical help for everyone. This makes immigrants unable to self-isolate as a preventive measure, but also to quarantine in case they notice the virus symptoms. Since governments have so far mostly kept the limited number of COVID-19 tests for their citizens, noticing that the virus has entered a camp is likely to happen too late to keep the outbreak under control.
Moreover, most immigrants lack health insurance, do not have a general practitioner they could contact, or even a personal phone to call the emergency when help centres are closed. Many of them also have pre-existing underlying health conditions as a result of living outside without sufficient medical care. According to NGOs’ workers, immigrants often already suffer from underlying lung issues due to stress, fatigue, humidity and cold, making them more vulnerable in case of contagion.
The human assistance provided to immigrants in Europe is weakening as well. Many volunteers need to self-isolate and social gatherings are being restricted, making the support network available to immigrants unstable. Charities and NGOs are afraid of a scenario in which volunteers would get sick without displaying early symptoms and spread the disease in the meantime, but also vice versa. Immigrants coming to Turkey from countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan travel through Iran, which has more than 25,000 registered cases of COVID-19. In addition, help centres that provide food to these people are facing burdens as a result of panic buying. Many canteens specialised for immigrants are being closed as well and ensuring enough food for all those in need is becoming less secure. Charities in the UK have thus warned that immigrants suffer from a risk of starvation during the pandemic and urged the government not to forget this particularly vulnerable group.
Asylum-applications are also heavily reduced. In Germany, asylum can only be claimed after a negative COVID-19 test or a 14-day self-isolation. As Germany has a rare policy of mass-testing, this is an advanced measure in comparison to other countries. In most other countries such as Italy, most employment and legal services have been either closed or slowed down. NGOs that are still working can let only one migrant or asylum seeker enter their office at a time, which reduces the number of people that can be assisted in a day. This is understandable considering the high risk of virus spread but, unfortunately, prolongs the agony of refugees even more.
CALL FOR EVACUATION
To prevent a disastrous outbreak in migration help centres and camps, Doctors Without Borders have urged Greece to evacuate its overcrowded migration camps immediately. Those are often located on islands which lack appropriate healthcare in usual times as well. The largest Greek camp Moria on Lesbos now counts around 20,000 people although it was built for just 6,000. In parts of Moria, one water tap is shared by 1,300 people, one toilet is for 167 people and one shower for 242 people. There is not enough soap for everyone, requiring urgent changes or the evacuation. Greek camps have so far responded by restricting movement; no member is allowed to leave the camp between 7 pm and 7 am, and only one member of a family can go outside per day. Visits to the camps’ reception centres have been temporarily suspended, and those who work there are screened for fever at the entrance.
Although doctors and NGOs are urging governments not to turn a blind eye to immigrants, European countries that are the first place of arrival find it hard to provide proper help to their citizens in the first place. Italy is the first European country to enter for many migrants, but it is now facing a humanitarian crisis. The intensive care units do not have enough space for the already infected patients and taking preventive care of immigrants who are arriving or have already arrived does not seem like a priority considering the limited health resources. Bosnia and Herzegovina, a bordering country to the European Union member Croatia, also has a large number of immigrants trying to enter the Union but is not able to protect them from the outbreak. There is no space to isolate the potentially infected and the country does not have enough COVID-19 tests for its native population either.
MIGRANTS’ PROTECTION IS IN OUR COLLECTIVE INTEREST
In times of crises, we realise what privileges we do (not) have. Focusing on the positive and on what we have instead of what we do not is a coping mechanism for many. This strategy is harder to adopt for those that have already lost so much, such as refugees and other immigrants. In this especially hard time, NGOs are no longer capable of providing the protection they used to, and governments need to step in. If not for the migrants themselves, then for the safety of their own citizens since outbreaks in migration centres will be very hard to control for.