Europe’s COVID crisis does little to disparage Mediterranean migrants

An activist wears a face masks and holds a banner with the name of the Lesvos-located refugee camp 'MORIA' (that refers to the overcrowded refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos), during a protest against the ongoing holding of refugees in the camps located in various Greek islands, in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany, 23 April 2020. The demonstrators called for immediate termination of the camps and granting shelter to the Refugee inhabiting them. [EPA-EFE/OMER MESSINGER]

Having been expelled from Algeria, Alfa Jafo has spent the last few months working in the kitchen at a restaurant in the historic city of Agadez in Niger, a launchpad for irregular migration in the Sahel.

Asked if the COVID-19 pandemic has killed his dream of escaping poverty and war and going to Europe, Jafo looks genuinely puzzled.

“I am not afraid,” he says. “If we are lucky, and if it pleases God, the coronavirus will not stop us. It is God who will save our souls.”

Although Europe became one of the world’s worst-hit continents during the pandemic, Jafo is still waiting for a chance to attempt the nightmarish trip north through the desert, a perilous journey that precedes the European dreams of so many African migrants.

Andre Chani, who dealt in people smuggling until the Niger government, under pressure from Europe, clamped down on the practice in 2017, agrees that for migrants fleeing desperate poverty, the virus is just another hurdle.

“Even with all the difficulties – with the war in Libya, with the coronavirus, the challenges they will find in the desert, with all the sufferings and deaths — they still really want to leave Africa and go to Europe, to make an exodus,” he said.

“They say they prefer to suffer in the reserves and suffer with the coronavirus than to stay here, where there is nothing left,” Chani added.

While the pandemic has not had much of an effect on the determination of migrants heading north, it has had a major impact on their desired destinations in Europe, where borders have been reinforced and the debate between protecting their own citizens and welcoming migrants has once again come to the fore.

“COVID-19 is not the first international crisis to provoke such debates, but it is the most widespread and severe. A virus represents a different order of threat from any terrorist grouping, criminal network or other problems that have been discussed in the debate on migration.” Niall McGlynn, a researcher at Trinity College in Dublin, explained in a Euronews op-ed.

It is a debate that Solon Ardittis, director-general of Eurasylum, and Frank Laczko, who manages the statistical analysis centre for the International Organisation of Migration (IOM), say will revolve around four central themes once the pandemic has passed.

“Combating xenophobia and promoting inclusion; assisting stranded migrants; ensuring that migration responses support health systems; and reducing negative socioeconomic impacts,” they pointed out in a policy paper published by SOMA (Social Observatory for Disinformation and Social Media Analysis).

Gillian Triggs, the Assistant Secretary-General and Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), adds the risk of increased stigmatisation of migrants to the debate.

“It is a real risk — and it’s misinformed, I might add — that some in the community will argue that refugees, asylum seekers, displaced people are vectors of the disease, that they will carry virus” to try to avoid humanitarian and international rights obligations, she underlines.

A never-ending flow

The civil war in Libya, a country mired in chaos since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, has worsened.

Over the past year alone, fighting to conquer the capital city Tripoli has taken the lives of more than 1,700 people — around 350 of whom were civilians — and forced more than 200,000 people, including migrants living in camps awaiting their chance to escape to Europe, to abandon their homes.

“The latest figures we have on migrants, refugees and asylum seekers being held in detention centres is probably the lowest we have had in a long time. IOM is talking about 1,500 people still held in these official detention centres, but it leaves open a lot of questions,” said Hassiba Hajd Saharaui, spokesperson for Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

There is a lot of uncertainty as to where those fleeing the fighting have ended up, amid discrepancies between the number of people departing the country in boats, those who have arrived in Italy and those intercepted by Libyan coast guards.

“Here, the numbers do not add up. We do fear and we have credible reasons to believe that people have been taken to trafficking rings, people go missing, and that feeds the trafficking networks. People are intercepted at sea, brought or sold back to traffickers when they are back in Libya, and they try (the crossing) again,” she warned.

“These people are very vulnerable, and that vulnerability is heightened now by COVID because people are supposed to implement health measures that their living conditions do not allow them to do. How do you self isolate if you live in an overcrowded place? How do you wash your hands if you don’t have access to water?” she asks.

Refugees at Europe’s largest camp in Moria on the Greek island of Lesbos face similar challenges and conditions.

There, some 20,000 men, women and children live together in cramped and dirty conditions, with just one tap for 1,300 people and a single bath is shared by 200. “It is very difficult to practice social distancing in these homes, without doors, water or space,” said Vassilis Stravaridis, MSF director in Greece.

The situation is the same in all of the country’s migrant camps, which have so far not reported any confirmed coronavirus cases.

NGOs put that down to good fortune rather than proper planning or sound policies and have urged governments to have plans in place for the inevitable, warned UNHCR’s representative in Greece, Philippe Leclerc.

“Until now there has not been a single COVID-19 case, but that will happen, as it has happened in the rest of the world. And we must be prepared,” he said.

There are concerns that despite the pandemic, which struck Spain and Italy particularly hard, that migration flows will continue unabated at similar rates to previous years, largely due to the external debt saddling so many African countries.

“Africa’s external debt is a key element: the increase and lack of awareness from the G20 when cancelling the debt leads to an increase in migration, as it is their only alternative,” said the secretary-general of the Andalusian federation Acoge (“Welcome”), José Miguel Morales.

He added that “there are indications that once the worst is over, there will be an increase” in arrivals. Not even the pandemic can reverse the search for a better life.”

Changing protocols

In April, at the height of the pandemic in Europe, the Alan Kurdi rescue boat pulled 150 people from the Mediterranean Sea and sent out a request for permission to dock at a nearby port.

Italy’s government declared its ports out-of-bounds, citing the health crisis blighting the nation, and left the Alan Kurdi and the 150 migrants onboard in limbo.

Following days of tense uncertainty, the Italian authorities sent a ferry to offload the people from the Alan Kurdi, as well as 46 others who had been rescued by the Aita Mari, another rescue vessel.

The migrants were to be placed in quarantine on the ferry in the Gulf of Palermo.

The compromise had been rushed through as pressure began to mount on officials in Italy and Malta, which had taken the same measure.

Maltese Prime Minister Robert Abela became the focus of an investigation following accusations that his country’s authorities were returning migrants to Libya and that migrants had died due to alleged negligence on their part, following reports in the New York Times and Italian newspaper Avvenire.

Italy’s transport minister Paola Micheli justified the rushed policy, saying it was due to “the lack of capacity to organise the health emergency in hospitals in the case of a substantially increased number of arrivals.”

The mayor of Lampedusa, Salvatore Martello, blamed the “absurd situation” on a toxic mix of an incessant flow of migrant boats, a lack of space and the vicissitudes of the pandemic.

“It’s about everyone’s safety. If the migrant centre is full, you can’t leave them outside. For that reason we requested a boat,” Martello said.

According to previous protocols, before the migrants could be transferred to the centre on land, they had to remain in quarantine at the Favarolo dock, the centre of operations.

However, the suspension of normal procedures with the spread of COVID-19 saw many migrants forced to sleep out in the open after completing the quarantine, prompting protests from NGOs.

“As a medical organisation, we don’t see any fundamental reasons to do anything differently. If you’re on a ship, if you’re rescued at sea, the organisation that rescues you should implement some measures,” said Hassiba, adding that MSF had offered to set up a quarantine centre in Sicily and help manage the migrant arrivals.

“And then upon disembarkation, people should follow a protocol and a quarantine for example.

“But to say that all ports are closed is just an excuse, a rebranding, a repackaging of migration control policies that have been pursued by Italy, Malta, and the EU for a number of years. Now you have this perfect excuse, when really, it’s not the solution.”

Balancing asylum and health

Facing a lack of common policy among European nations, civil society has called for a balance to be struck between respecting international humanitarian law and the integration of migrants into the healthcare system of host countries.

“People should be rescued — this should not be open to negotiation. We are praising the notion of solidarity these days, but then we let people die at sea? It’s quite astounding,” Hassiba said.

UNHCR’s Triggs added they have asked governments to integrate migrants and asylum seekers in their national programmes and health systems, as well as social safety nets.

But many governments, including the one in Greece, have decided to dodge this. Instead, authorities in Greece have insisted that the way to slow the number of migrants arriving in the country is to accelerate the deportation process and beef up maritime border patrols, even if it involves allegedly illegal actions.

Notis Mitarakis, interior minister for the conservative Greek government, said: “It must be known that our country is no longer open to immigration for those who do not have international protection. And that it is a clear political choice by the government.”

Another issue for migrants who do make it to Europe is the risk of being left behind and excluded from the emergency welfare most governments are drawing up in response to the economic damage inflicted by the pandemic.

“The arrival of migrants does not put a burden on the health system, they are young people who are looking to work. But what we have to ensure is that nobody is on the street, because that does cause problems for public health,” said Morales of the Andalucia Acoge.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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