With restrictive measures imposed across Europe, authorities are struggling to provide food and shelter for migrants and asylum seekers sleeping outdoors, aid organisations have warned.
In France, hundreds of refugees living outdoors without proper sanitation or shelter now face food shortages as well, according to charity ‘Refugee Info Bus’.
Grassroots aid groups that have served daily hot meals to migrants and refugees in Northern France have been forced to suspend their activities due to COVID-19.
The organisation providing wireless access, phone charging facilities and asylum information to refugees said that more than 1600 people are forced to sleep in muddy makeshift campsites around Calais, home to a busy ferry port and the Eurotunnel.
Despite the countrywide lockdown, migrants and asylum seekers are unable to practice social distancing or self-isolation.
“At present the prefecture is bringing buses every two days, which takes 30 people to accommodation at one time, although there is not enough space on the buses,” Sarah Story, director at ‘Refugee Info Bus’ told EURACTIV.
Refugees are unable to print declaration forms required by strict quarantine measures when residents leave their homes. The forms are needed to enter supermarkets.
Since charities have been required to stay home, they have stopped their food distributions, leaving migrants and asylum seekers relying on basic food packs served by the local authorities, which consist of a piece of bread, cheese and butter.
“All homeless refugees in Northern France must be provided with safe, obligatory accommodation and food, not just for their safety, but for us all,” Story said.
Authorities across the continent are facing the challenge of providing basic needs for migrants while keeping coronavirus at bay.
On Sunday (5 April), Greece has quarantined a second migrant facility on its mainland after a 53-year-old man tested positive for COVID-19. Authorities have largely sealed off the Moria camp, which houses 18,000 refugees on the island of Lesbos.
New camp in Bosnia and Herzegovina
In Bosnia, local authorities in the northwest Una-Sana canton ordered the mandatory relocation of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers sleeping outdoors into a temporary camp currently under construction near the village of Lipa, some 25 kilometers from the Croatian border.
Authorities have since agreed to have the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the Danish Refugee Council manage the new camp on behalf of the government.
An estimated 3,000 of those who are trying to make their way into the EU through Croatia are squatting in abandoned buildings or sleeping outdoors in the region, while another 4,100 are accommodated in facilities managed by IOM.
“IOM is trying their best to create dignified conditions and ensure adequate access to health and other support services. However, the camps remain overcrowded and unfit for prolonged stay,” said Jelena Sesar, a researcher at Amnesty International.
People who did not enter the official camps during the winter months cannot effectively self-isolate and are often barred from health institutions available to ordinary citizens.
“The [Bosnian] state authorities for the past two years have done next to nothing to deal with the migrant crisis in the country and have practically left the Una-Sana canton to deal on its own with the flow of refugees,” Sesar told EURACTIV.
Bosnian authorities have previously come under heavy criticism by civil rights groups for the Vucjak camp, built on a former landfill near the Croatian border in an area with landmines from the 1990s war, where migrants lived without heating, running water or toilets.
Last December, authorities dismantled the Vucjak camp and transferred hundreds of people who were living at the site to a new camp near Sarajevo.
However, human rights organisations remain concerned about the capacity of Bosnian authorities to support the increasing number of refugees and migrants arriving into the country.
“It’s simply difficult to see how now, in the crisis conditions, the local government is going to get organised so quickly and in a week do something that they have not been able to do over the past two years,” said Sesar.
Authorities are procuring 40 tents which are each able to accommodate up to 50 people.
“Such tents are already used in other camps. They don’t offer much privacy and there’s certainly no place for self-isolation or social distancing, the measures that are necessary to reduce the spread of the virus,” Sesar warned.
Another issue is the safe transport of thousands of refugees to the new site while keeping distancing measures to prevent new infections.
“At a time when governments across Europe have started thinking about releasing people from migration detention in order to decongest these areas where people are confined together and therefore at greater risk, Bosnia is doing the opposite,” said Sesar.
“While finding adequate housing for refugees and migrants sleeping outdoors is certainly welcome and necessary, Bosnian authorities must ensure that this new camp gives maximum protection by providing access to clean water, sanitation and essential healthcare, as well as resources to ensure necessary physical distancing.”
The EU on Wednesday (8 April) announced a €15.6 billion support package for foreign countries hit by the coronavirus pandemic, with €2.8 billion earmarked for research, health and water systems, which includes supporting equal access to health systems for migrants, refugees and host communities.
However, EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell confirmed that “there is no fresh money,” and that funding will come from reallocation of existing funds and programmes.
Inside the bloc, the EU has been pushing to relocate vulnerable migrants to hotels and accommodation that are currently left empty during the pandemic.
“What we should do now is to immediately evacuate the most vulnerable individuals out of these camps so that they can be secured in hotel rooms or apartments and not be affected if the virus breaks out in these camps,” home affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson told Deutsche Welle.
(Edited by Frédéric Simon)