Displaced: Vulnerable in Europe left behind in covid response

Coronavirus: Displaced people are being left without help

By Marta Welander

There's been very little mention of the effect of the coronavirus on some of the most marginalised people in Europe – the displaced.

The far-right and some European governments have started capitalising on the spread of Covid-19 to feed into anti-migrant narratives. There is no evidence indicating that displaced people are bringing this virus into their countries of refuge, but there is a real concern about what will happen to migrants once the virus takes root in marginalised displaced communities where access to medical care is very limited.

There are things which can be done, across Europe. We just need governments to listen.

The overcrowded Greek islands

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) have issued warnings that the evacuation of squalid Greek camps is more urgent than ever. Due to the unhygienic, overcrowded living conditions, the threat of an outbreak among camp residents is extremely serious, yet there are reportedly no epidemic response plans in place. MSF describes these conditions as providing "the perfect storm for a Covid-19 outbreak", due to the lack of adequate sanitation services and the extremely limited medical care. This means that the risk of the virus spreading in the camps in Greece is very high.

The World Health Organisation continues to emphasise the importance of social distancing but individuals on the Greek islands have no way of observing any of these precautions. Refugee Rights Europe therefore fully supports MSF in urging for the immediate evacuation of the 42,000 individuals in the camps in the Greek islands and moving them to appropriate accommodation. We also need an emergency relocation of children from the islands to other European Union member states.

The border land in northern France

In the absence of accommodation provision, displaced people in northern France are experiencing extremely poor living conditions. The sanitary conditions are deplorable. There is a severe lack of sanitation facilities and water points, which are often located hundreds of meters or even kilometres away from settlements. This means that the risk of the virus spreading, once it has taken root, is critically high. Exposure to very cold and humid climate, coupled with stress and exhaustion brought on by ongoing uncertainty and daily evictions of living spaces, means the individuals here are at heightened risk of experiencing health complications if they contract the virus.

The detection of cases is next to impossible, given that most people are unable to access health services, while others are likely to fear the risk of detention or removal if they present themselves. They are therefore much more likely to go undetected and untreated. The recently adopted confinement measures are further exacerbating the poor living conditions, as frontline organisations are not currently allowed to go to the settlements to provide support.

Immediate measures should be taken by the French authorities to respond adequately to the situation. Robust measures for infection prevention and control, increased dissemination of information in relevant languages and formats, rapid identification and isolation of existing cases, and of course the treatment of individuals experiencing severe cases are urgently needed. Adequate accommodation must be provided, irrespective of immigration status.

There is a brief flicker of good news here. French authorities recently made a decision to extend the validity of immigration documents by three months, including long term residents permits, asylum claim certificates and receipts of residence permit requests, where such documents would otherwise expire by March 16th.

Individuals in immigration detention

As highlighted by the Global Detention Project, individuals placed in immigration detention centres are "frequently confined in facilities with inadequate sanitary provisions and limited health care, and all too often they are forced to share rooms with countless others". It is clear that the only option for social distancing would be to place individuals in full isolation, which in itself risks leading to deteriorating mental health.

We therefore fully support the calls of the Board of Border Criminologies and demand the increased use of testing in immigration detention centres, and for immigration authorities to release individuals where feasible. This has now been done in Spain. In the UK a number of lawyers and campaigners have called for immigration centre detainees to be released because "there is a very real risk of an uncontrolled outbreak of Covid-19 in immigration detention".

In France and Italy several NGOs are also calling for immigration centres to be gradually closed down to avoid further spread of illness. In France, one case of a detainee being infected by the virus has already been reported in the detention centre of Lille-Lesquin. Detained individuals have now issued a statement to alert the authorities and the general public regarding this critical situation, which was followed by a call for the unconditional release of all individuals deprived of their liberty in the context of immigration detention. On top of the health argument, NGOs also argue that the legal ground for detention no longer exists, given that individuals cannot be deported due to the closure of borders, and they should therefore be released.

Maintaining access to rights and services for displaced people

In a number of European countries, safeguarding and preventive measures have been taken to avoid further spread of the virus. Public institutions and services have been shut down. This can have dramatic consequences on ensuring the most basic rights of displaced individuals.

In Belgium, for instance, asylum seekers can no longer register their claim to the Foreigners' Office which has been closed until further notice without any alternative plan being defined.

Such suspension of service provision also affects the ability of NGOs to support displaced people. In France, for instance, legal assistance usually provided by NGOs in administrative detention centres is suspended due to confinement measures adopted by the government.

Not leaving displaced people behind

Overall, health authorities across Europe must present a plan relating to refugee camps and settlements on their territories, which includes measures for infection prevention and control, dissemination of information in relevant languages and formats, rapid identification and isolation of existing cases, and of course the treatment of individuals experiencing severe cases. The European Commission must also assert its influence to ensure that EU member states are indeed drawing up and implementing such plans.

It must be made clear and communicated proactively, by all European states, that individuals who present themselves for testing and/or health care will not face the threat of detention or removal. In addition, suitable accommodation provision must be made a priority for individuals trapped in unsanitary informal settlements across Europe, again without conditions of claiming asylum and without the risk of deportation. Individuals in detention must have access to testing and should be released wherever feasible.

These measures will protect displaced populations. But the reality of the virus is that we are all in this together. They will safeguard host communities too. For all our sakes, displaced people must be treated with dignity, respect and humanity.

Marta Welander is the executive director of Refugee Rights Europe.

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