The global explosion of the coronavirus has dramatically brought about fresh challenges for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. With countries adopting strict measures to contain this pandemic, including rigid border controls, the outbreak will not only have a huge impact on those driven out by crisis situations but is also likely to create another refugee tragedy, worse than what has been experienced before.
The global response to the spread of the virus formally known as Covid-19 amid the ongoing refugee crisis has been shaped by the complexity of national political interests, hardened immigration policies and border sovereignty. Xenophobic rhetoric about how migrants and refugees are potential carriers of the deadly virus and pose a health threat has already become a central theme for right-wing populists in Europe, who advocate for cracking down on immigration. And many far-right nationalists are making unverified assertions that African migrants brought the virus to the continent.
As Steven Erlanger aptly noted in an article for The New York Times, Covid-19 is not only proliferating but is also “infecting societies with a sense of insecurity, fear and fragmentation”. The possible outcome in the aftermath of the pandemic, therefore, may be a further othering of refugees and migrants.
This will likely jeopardise their rights and future course. It may set in motion a new wave of xenophobic and racial politics, bolstering far-right groups in many countries as a result. And this global health emergency may allow governments to implement temporary immigration and health-related measures that could systematically target refugees, asylum seekers and migrants on the pretext of containing the spread of the virus.
Whipping the anti-immigration rhetoric
Politicians across the European Union (EU) have already begun to exploit the Covid-19 outbreak by levelling suspicion at refugees and migrants. Ultra-nationalist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán blamed foreigners and migrants for the spread of the virus in Hungary. “We are fighting a two-front war, one front is called migration and the other one belongs to the coronavirus. There is a logical connection between the two as both spread with movement,” he said.
According to Orbán, many migrants come from or through Iran, which has numerous confirmed cases of infection. In response to this, the Hungarian government closed transit zones to Iran. Iranians in Hungary infected with the virus are students who entered the country legally. Some are on government-sponsored scholarships. Hungarian authorities announced the expulsion of two Iranian students on 13 March and a further 13 Iranians on 16 March, prohibiting them from re-entering Hungary and the EU for three years. Orbán’s government also warned Iranians that they face detention and deportation if they do not cooperate.
In Italy, the most affected European country so far with the highest death toll outside China, right-wing political leader Matteo Salvini whipped up anti-immigration rhetoric. “Allowing migrants to land from Africa, where the presence of the virus was confirmed, is irresponsible,” Salvini told reporters, stoking fears about African asylum seekers arriving in the country from Libya.
Greece’s nationalist government has cited the risk of Covid-19 infection as its reason for pressing ahead with a contentious plan to build “closed” camps for asylum seekers trapped on the Aegean islands of Lesbos and Chios. As many as 40 000 asylum seekers are living in Greek camps, which are functioning beyond their capacity, on five Greek islands.
Syrian refugees have been trying to reach Europe, mainly through Greece, by crossing the Mediterranean Sea. By late 2016, about a million Syrian refugees had requested asylum in Europe. Germany, with more than 300 000 applications, and Sweden with 100 000 are the EU’s top refugee receiving nations.
In the Balkans, Croatian Health Minister Vili Beroš said migrants represent a “potential” risk of spreading the virus. In Serbia, there is heightening anti-migrant sentiment over the potential of another wave of refugees coming from Greece. Serbia’s far-right parties have also threatened to expel about 6 000 migrants who are residing in the country. In France, far-right leader Marine Le Pen has used the virus as an opportunity to renew calls for closing the country’s border with Italy and suspending the Schengen agreement that allows passport-free travel among 26 member states in the EU. This was echoed by ultra-right parties in Germany and Spain.
On the United States-Mexico border, there are growing fears over the devastating consequences of a potential outbreak of the virus in makeshift camps where thousands of migrants have been encamped for months, awaiting entry into the US.
Border closures and tighter travel restrictions have been used as preventive measures during previous public health emergencies. Following the outbreak of diseases such as the Zika virus in 2016, Ebola in 2014 and H1N1 influenza in 2009, many countries imposed tight travel restrictions.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that trying to tighten border security will not work and may even impede the global fight against the spread of Covid-19. “We cannot forget migrants, we cannot forget undocumented workers, we cannot forget prisoners,” said WHO executive director and public health specialist Michael Ryan. “The only way to beat [coronavirus] is to leave no one behind,” he added.
An editorial by experts at the Migration Policy Institute think-tank says sweeping measures taken on the pretext of containing the spread of disease are often “fig leaves” for broader objectives. That is, to reduce “undesirable” migration. “It is also unclear whether tools such as border controls and visa restrictions – designed to screen for ‘bad actors’ – can be adapted to address a very different kind of threat. Targeting nationality, for example, may be a blunt tool in the realm of public health; the Hungarian government banning Iranian asylum seekers, for instance, fails to account for those who may have been living in closed camps in Turkey for years and have had no recent contact with Iran,” it says.
A looming health catastrophe
Refugees and migrants have long been reproached for public health concerns. Cholera, for example, was nicknamed the “Irish disease” in the 1800s. And SOS Méditerranée – the aid organisation that runs search-and-rescue vessels for migrant ships with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders – tweeted that it hopes the outbreak of the virus won’t increase the anxiety Italians feel towards migrants, with politicians capitalising on that to put a stop to rescues.
The MSF urged Greece to immediately evacuate refugees and migrants from overcrowded camps on its islands owing to the high risk of Covid-19 spreading swiftly among people living in squalid conditions. “The evacuation of the camps on the Greek islands is now more urgent than ever,” the humanitarian organisation said, asserting that it would be impossible to contain an outbreak in such camp settings and that it had not yet seen a credible emergency plan in case of an outbreak.
Such fears are well placed as a pandemic like this has alarming consequences for countries already struggling with humanitarian crises such as civil wars or large numbers of refugees. These countries usually lack robust healthcare and accurate public health reporting systems. Additionally, refugees who are already economically, culturally and socially marginalised in their host nations generally face legal barriers in accessing healthcare.
Recent humanitarian situations such as the ongoing civil war in Syria have highlighted how the destruction of critical healthcare infrastructure in a country can contribute to the emergence of infectious and communicable diseases. With fears growing over the excessive strain on public healthcare services owing to the coronavirus outbreak, and an inability to cope with the rising number of infected people, the health implications for refugees may be profound.
According to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees data, the major reported causes of death among refugees and displaced populations have been diarrhoeal diseases, measles, acute respiratory infections and malaria, exacerbated by high rates of malnutrition. Other communicable diseases, such as meningitis and hepatitis E, have also contributed to mortality in some settings.
The refugee migration journey often entails situations that are highly conducive for the proliferation of communicable diseases like Covid-19. The potency of infectious diseases in accelerating illness and mortality in migration settings is well established.
Unorganised refugee populations comprise a diverse group of people, many of whom are old, ill or disabled. A virus such as Covid-19 has the potential to spread quickly among them, causing many deaths. Instead of targeting this vulnerable group of people, it is more imperative than ever that they be treated with compassion and looked after on a par with average citizens. With governments across the world taking a myopic perspective of the pandemic, both neglecting and targeting refugees, it may all end in disaster.