As many people around the world self-quarantine to protect themselves against what has now labelled as a pandemic, others in less fortunate circumstances seem forgotten.
People under siege in Gaza, in other conflict-torn countries, refugees in crammed camps and people living on the streets have seldom been mentioned recently, even though their situation might put them at a higher health risk.
“Although overall there are rational measures and precautions in place, we have not seen much regarding the situation in camps or an overall response towards refugees,” said Nadina Christopoulou, co-founder of the Melissa Network, an organisation for migrant and refugee women and children in Greece.
According to the founder and Director of the Human Rights 360 NGO Epaminondas Farmakis, there are officially 150,000 refugees in Greece. “About 45,000 out of the 150,000 are geographically restricted in the three main islands, in terrible conditions, which makes them very vulnerable to an outbreak like the coronavirus,” said Farmakis.
Many refugees in camps do not have the option to self-isolate or the material to properly prevent the virus from spreading between them.
“Officially there have not been any Covid-19 cases among refugees so far, in Greece at least, but that does not mean that they don’t exist because this population is not tested,” said Farmakis.
One devastating portrayal is of the Lesbos-based camp, Camp Moria, which was constructed for only around 3,000 people and is now home to over 20,000 men, women and children.
“Our greatest fear remains the moment that we hear something like that happens in a place like Moria, where the situation is appalling, and overall sanitation is extremely poor. There is approximately one bathroom for 50 or 80 people,” said Christopoulou.
“There is insufficient soap and sanitiser; there is insufficient medical support; there is insufficient access. The islands don’t have the essential infrastructure to deal with something like this. If something happens inside the camp it will be spread and not easily dealt with,” she added.
Uncertainty levels in the camp rose as a fire also broke at Moria on Monday, where Greek media reported that it was difficult for fire trucks to manoeuvre due to the overcrowded situation at the camp.
Although there has only been one case who tested positive on Lesbos, the global spread of Covid-19 and lack of preparations have caused fear levels to spike. Anxiety grows also become of language barriers. Unable to communicate, the refugees are not able to understand the precautions they need to take and how to look after their families amid the pandemic.
Many non-profit organisations are advocating for the evacuation of camps like Moria and those on other islands. “The situation in Moria, for example, over the last few months has reached a point that is absolutely unmanageable. The population has increased tremendously; it keeps increasing every day,” she said. “We believe that travel restrictions to the Greek mainland should be lifted, and that other European countries should share responsibility for the people at our borders.”
According to Christopoulou, the growing situation has caused panic and aggression; that there has been a lot of xenophobic and racist reactions towards the people in the camps and at the borders. Asylum applications have also been suspended. In the context of the pandemic, it is all the more important “not to sacrifice our humanity”, she added.
Amid the pandemic, refugees are being tossed back and forth between borders which, according to Farmakis, has increased tension in the region. “A lot of people, even those who responded well at first, now think the refugees should go back, or the refugees should go away. On the islands, there were some attacks on refugees and NGOs. They burned some storage areas that NGOs were keeping supplies in, they attacked NGO personnel, they attacked reporters as well,” said Farmakis.
“Now we see other governments stigmatising refugees as if they are suspects of being carriers of the coronavirus in an effort to put more barriers and deter them from coming,” he added.
Additionally, within the camps themselves more restrictions have been implemented, evidenced in a press release recently published by the Ministry of Migration and Asylum announcing that only one member of a refugee family can go out of the camp.
Many NGOs, like Human Rights 360, feel that the refugees should be included in a general lockdown under general provisions, without having additional provisions put in place just because they are refugees.
“For vulnerable people, including the homeless, substance users, the HIV positive etc, as with every health crisis they are left outside the protection system and they are very easy to blame. Societies have to blame somebody, and now it’s the refugees. It is very easy to make a narrative against refugees in connection with Covid-19, even though there is no scientific proof that refugees are carriers of the virus,” Farmakis added.
Al-Ahram Weekly spoke to the former vice mayor of Athens Lefteris Papagiannakis, who coordinated the 2015-2016 refugee arrivals response and who is currently the head of the NGO Solidarity Now, about how this pandemic is taking a toll on the vulnerable.
“Human rights are being violated and it is being justified. The fear of others has risen, the term social solidarity should be changed; we need physical distancing but social solidarity,” said Papagiannakis. “We have not heard anything from the homeless and the drug addicts, those who are vulnerable, because minorities do not have the space to speak. The instruction stay at home does not apply to the homeless,” he added.
‘DEAR WORLD, HOW IS THE LOCKDOWN?’
Many countries around the world are in lockdown due to the uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus, but for some, this was already the norm. Gaza had been in lockdown for 14 years prior to the virus outbreak.
“Now that everyone is panicking about the quarantine, Gaza has already developed its own modus vivendi — a way of life — and UNRWA has become the primary provider of assistance and services to over one million Palestinian refugees, 70 per cent of the population,” said United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) advocacy and communications specialist Tamara Al-Rifai.
In Gaza, in particular, although it was already in lockdown, UNRWA says that before there was access, though in exceptional cases, to the West Bank and Egypt. But now, after the pandemic, it is in complete and total lockdown.
One of the main concerns for Gaza at this moment is that if there is a Covid-19 outbreak, it will be extremely difficult to contain, because of the density of the population where social distancing will be very difficult, and also because the overall health structure in Gaza is near collapse because of the conflict, a lack of maintenance and the lack of supplies and medical aid entering the country.
Additionally, 97 per cent of Gaza’s water is unfit for human consumption, so under today’s circumstances, if the few running services stop working, these people will be deprived of the most basic elements of the right to human health.
“The fact that there is a blockade on Gaza does not mean that the virus will stop outside the blockade,” UNRWA’s spokesperson said. “We are still working on raising funds for something as basic as purchasing and distributing soap and hand sanitiser, and also protective gear for our health staff, and purchasing medicine in case there is an outbreak. We do not have what it takes to respond,” she added.
Al-Rifai mentioned that the organisation is already underfunded and that the lack of finance started before the virus spiralled. Current funds barely cover regular programmes, including food distribution and schooling. If the money needed is not raised soon, this could immensely impact the organisation’s emergency response to a coronavirus outbreak.
UNRWA issued an appeal Wednesday morning calling for $14 million to be able to put together an immediate humanitarian response. “If you break down $14 million over three months, over five places in which we operate (the West Bank, Gaza, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon), that is less than $1 million a month. That is really nothing to avert a humanitarian catastrophe of the size that could happen in Gaza if we are not ready,” said Al-Rifai.
“These are refugees who people stopped seeing and treating as refugees, because they’ve been in that status for 70 years, and because the camps they live in have turned from camps to shanty towns. And so, in a sense, people stopped thinking about these 5.6 million refugees as people who deserve emergency humanitarian assistance,” said Al-Rifai.
As the days pass, and with the virus causing global havoc, many have become numb to other people’s suffering and are focused mainly on their own situations.
“Now that this corona crisis has hit, it’s very important to remember that in places like the West Bank, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, these Palestinian refugees are amongst the most vulnerable of the population,” said Al-Rifai.
With restrictions imposed now due to the pandemic, an even larger toll has been placed on organisations that struggle to provide basic necessities to vulnerable people, including life-saving medication used to treat diabetes and hypertension.
“How do we keep running our health centres; how do we ensure education for half a million boys and girls while schools are closed?” she added.
Even with the below average services Palestinian refugees are getting, restrictions added as a precaution against the virus outbreak have added to their anxiety. They do not know whether they will be able to get food supplies, adding on top of anxiety over the virus growing fears that they will not be able to feed their families.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly