The refugee crisis and the Covid-19 emergency

The refugee crisis and the Covid-19 emergency

At the beginning of March, photojournalist Lynsey Addario went to Turkey to document the evolution of the refugee crisis on the border with Greece. Tens of thousands of people – mostly Syrians – fled to this area after Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said his government would no longer obstruct their entry into Europe. The decision generated scenes reminiscent of the refugee emergency of 2015 when boats loaded with migrants left for that dangerous journey that would take them to the Greek island of Lesvos, complete with violent clashes with border authorities.

During the following week, Addario interviewed about 150 refugees, who had been brought back from Greece to Turkey, and who currently live in makeshift tent cities. As the days go by, clear similarities emerge in their stories: “Many have been robbed of their belongings, identification documents have been taken away or burned; some were stripped and sent back across the Evros River, ”Addario tells us. “Among men, someone raised his shirt to show the signs of whipping on his back. They were stopped by the civilian population and turned over to the local police; that’s when they say they were beaten. “

Syrians, Iraqis, Pakistanis, Afghans, Iranians and other refugees are collected in a service station by Turkish security officials as they return to Turkey after crossing Greece, March 3 2020

© Photography Lynsey Addario / Getty Images Reportage

Then, days later, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus a pandemic and the Addario reportage is overwhelmed by this news. In the weeks that followed, the refugee situation was mostly ignored by the mass media: a humanitarian crisis still going on ‘engulfed’ by a global health emergency.

How to manage a crisis during a crisis

When living in a refugee camp, it is impossible to implement protective measures against the virus. “How can I tell people to stay home to avoid contagion? Which house?” comments Cristian Reynders, the field coordinator for Doctors Without Borders (MSF) operations in northwestern Syria. The Idlib province is the last bastion of the rebellion against the Bashar al-Assad regime that exploded about a decade ago. “We are talking about almost a million displaced people, at least a third of the population of Idlib, who mostly lives in tents. They no longer have a home. “

Until the March 6 ceasefire between Turkey – a NATO member – and Russia in favor of Assad, the danger to Idlib was tangible, with the sound of bomb explosions and artillery fire rumbling everywhere. Such agreements have been violated by Assad and his allies on numerous occasions but, at least for the moment, indiscriminate attacks on civilians have been blocked.

Doctors Without Borders distributes basic necessities in Syria

© Photography Omar Haj Kadour / Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)

“We have developed medical operations designed to respond quickly and efficiently to an emergency and save lives,” Reynders tells us. “There are hundreds of camps here, so we use mobile clinics that offer healthcare and treatment. In addition, we participate in the management and support of various hospitals, supplying them with medicines, personal protective equipment, logistic equipment, medical personnel and so on. “

Covid-19 was announced in Syria on March 22nd. There has been no confirmed case in Idlib camps but, since only 64% of hospitals across the country can be considered fully functional, Reynders and his team took action as quickly as possible to implement measures to emergency that warded off the worst case scenario. “We have reinforced the infection protocols in all the hospitals we support in order to exercise greater control over the hygiene of the various clinics. The flow of patients has been adapted so that we can quickly identify anyone with coronavirus-compatible symptoms, then put them under observation and block the spread of the virus within the hospital. “

A nurse from Doctors Without Borders speaks to a woman during a consultation in a mobile clinic in Northern Syria

© Photography Omar Haj Kadour / Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)

Although MSF reacted quickly to the epidemic, resources are limited. “We must set priorities and always ask ourselves’ How can we maximize our impact? How can we improve our means of treating respiratory infections and pneumonia? In terms of population, we need to focus our efforts on the largest catchment area, “says Reynders.

The ‘worst refugee camp in the world’

MSF is organizing projects in new countries as they are declared hotspot pandemic and has programs in over 70 countries. That of Moria on the island of Lesvos has been described by the NGO as ‘the worst refugee camp in the world’.

Built to accommodate 3100 people, it currently hosts more than 20,000 of them, mainly from Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia, returning from unimaginable trauma. Here, they continue to suffer frequent episodes of violence – just last week, two of its inhabitants were victims of a shooting. Overpopulation conditions are disastrous, with families of five or six people forced to sleep in a space of no more than 3 square meters and, in some parts, there is only one tap for every 1 300 individuals. “A wave of Covid-19 here would be a tragedy that I don’t even want to contemplate,” says Josie Naughton, CEO of the British NGO Help Refugees. (Although some residents of minor refugee camps, such as Ritsona and Malakasa have tested coronavirus positive, there is no confirmed case in Moria.)

“We are doing our best to prevent an epidemic by providing people with hand gels, soap and masks, and trying to create as much space as possible inside the camp,” explains Naughton. “But at the institutional level, there is a need for a plan to move unaccompanied minors, the elderly, the sick and people with previous illnesses to suitable housing or in areas of mainland Greece or elsewhere.” Help Refugees – Naughton tells us – “fills the gaps left by governments” in offering support to internally displaced persons in various countries through partnerships with local organizations. In Moria, this includes a little bit of everything – from improving sanitation and water systems to offering support for medical infrastructure, both on-site and at the local hospital, which does not have enough intensive care beds for population residing on the island.

Moria camp, Lesvos Greece

© Photography Help Refugees / Alice Aedy

Elena Moustaka lived in Lesvos for five years and in 2016 she founded Better Days, an NGO that deals with meeting the needs of refugee children and unaccompanied minors. “We meet sixteen year olds who don’t even know how to hold a pencil; if they are Syrians, they often have not been to school for six years or more, “says Moustaka. This particularly vulnerable group makes up about 5% of the population of Moria camp – many live in the suburbs or in an adjacent unofficial settlement known as the ‘Olive Grove’, with poor access to shelters and supplies.

Although Moustaka and her team continue to ensure that children are as safe and healthy as possible, giving them vitamins and other essential goods, the Better Days community and education spaces have been closed due to the threat of COVID-19. “We have been working with some of these children for a year or more and are currently collecting ideas to offer them personalized education kits based on their school level. We would like to distribute these kits weekly and each child would receive instructions on how to do their homework, with the name of a contact person to contact in case of difficulty “. Unfortunately, however – and this is the most distressing aspect: “There is still a lack of tools and internet access that is not available here.”

Public opinion can influence policies

Even before the pandemic was declared, Naughton had noticed that it was becoming increasingly difficult to voice the refugee issue and to ensure that it was not forgotten by the noise of current affairs. “When we founded our 2015 organization, the conditions in which these people lived seemed to be perceived with greater indignation. But the daily news has become so overwhelming and, politically, we are witnessing a clear shift to the right, which means that politicians are not feeling under pressure to try to remedy the complete lack of human rights to which refugees are subjected. For example, trying to get a resettlement plan approved is quite difficult when Brexit is the only topic on the agenda. “

Ghada al Ayeesa: a 32 year old mother with her baby near the border between Turkey and Greece, March 2020.

© Photography Lynsey Addario / Getty Images Reportage

In mid-April, the positive news arrived that the first of a series of operations was underway to move children from the fields of the Greek islands to Luxembourg and Germany. In fact, however, statistics show that the international community, and especially the wealthier nations, are unable to protect those people who have been forced to abandon their homes due to wars, persecutions or natural disasters. Of the 25.9 million refugees worldwide, 80% are welcomed by developing countries. Moustaka, who has personally experienced what he describes as “a reluctance to find solutions at the government level”, invites us to “act as ambassadors for refugees”.

How can you help

Everyone we interviewed for this article believes that we should not underestimate the power to write to local politicians to express our concerns about the refugee cause. For those who can, the invitation is to make a donation to local specialist organizations or those in the field such as MSF, Help Refugees and Better Days – the respective websites contain specific information. Just as important, he says, is “to declare anti-immigration attitudes and policies and to ensure that refugees are treated with respect”.

As long as the primary needs of the refugees are not met and their fundamental rights are not recognized, they will remain the most vulnerable of the vulnerable, even outside the fight against Covid-19, a disease that knows no borders. These artificial demarcations that we have drawn on earth can also be used to delineate countries, states, regions, provinces and even cities, but they must never divide humanity.

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