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Coronavirus Is Closing Borders in Europe and Beyond. What Does That Mean for Refugees?

6 minute read

When Wahidullah Rahimi leaves his tent to wander around the refugee camp on the Greek island of Samos, he wears a face mask. But between standing in line alongside other refugees at food distribution centers and sleeping in an unsanitary tent, the 32-year-old Afghan knows there is little he can do to protect himself from COVID-19.

“There is a big possibility of everyone here getting coronavirus,” Rahimi says. “Everyone is worried.”

The E.U.-funded camp in Samos, built in 2016 to house 640 people, is now home to at least 3,745 refugees who live in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. Asylum-seekers, who sleep in cramped tents at night, already struggle to access medical care. In some parts of the camp, there is just one water tap for 1,300 people and one toilet for 167 people.

When Rahimi first arrived at the camp from Afghanistan five months ago, he didn’t think the conditions could “get any worse.”

But then the coronavirus hit, infecting more than 435,000 people and killing more than 19,000 worldwide. The European Union closed its borders to non-nationals on March 17. The next day, the Greek government imposed restrictions on refugees’ movement within the camp, allowing only one person per family out each day.

Now, refugees like Rahimi are wondering what the coronavirus means for their futures in the camps and on the continent. While only one case of COVID-19 has been recorded on the five Greek islands that shelter 42,000 refugees, experts say the coronavirus will spread uncontrollably if it reaches the camps. But the virus puts more than just refugees’ health at risk: it could threaten their relocation to other E.U. countries as part of the asylum-seeking process.

“I’m worried that coronavirus will affect whether I can be in a country that I want to be in,” Rahimi says.

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Human rights activists worry that E.U. countries, particularly Greece, will use the coronavirus as an excuse to suspend asylum or relocation. Greece was already taking a hardline approach to asylum before the coronavirus outbreak in Europe. On March 1, the Greek government suspended new asylum applications for a month, sending military troops to the border with Turkey to stop migrant arrivals. The government was also found to be detaining migrants at a secret extrajudicial location and sending them back to Turkey without due process.

“What we worry about is that when they took that measure two or three weeks ago, they didn’t have coronavirus,” Eva Cossé, a researcher at Human Rights Watch tells TIME. “But now that there is coronavirus, there is a high risk that the government will extend this suspension.” She adds, “they could do it indefinitely by using the coronavirus as an excuse.”

While under international law, nation states have the legal right to regulate who can and cannot cross their borders, they cannot refuse asylum seekers fleeing from persecution. On March 16, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) released a paper which reiterates that though states can implement health or screening measures for refugees attempting to enter its territory, any blanket measures banning refugees without evidence of a health risk is discriminatory under international law.

Yet experts fear that as politicians scramble to contain the spread of the coronavirus, asylum seekers will be affected. They also worry that the relocation of refugees from Greece’s overcrowded camps to other E.U. countries will likely be put on the back burner.

“Relocation may be impacted by the various restrictions that are being put in place by Europe to tackle the spread of COVID-19,” Boris Cheshirkov, a UNHCR representative in Greece tells TIME. A temporary suspension of refugee relocation would delay family reunification, posing particular problems for children currently living in Greece awaiting reunification with their parents.

Some European countries pledged to relocate 1,600 children from the Greek islands,” says Cossé of Human Rights Watch. “But it looks like these kinds of action are going to be put on hold until the situation improves.”

Refugees on the Greek islands also worry about the impact a coronavirus outbreak would have on the camp, where health conditions are already dire. Many refugees living in the camp are disabled, elderly and have chronic health conditions that have gone untreated due to the lack of medical resources on the island, likely making them more susceptible to the virus.

Experts note that if the virus finds its way into the camps, it will be a disaster. “If there is one case of coronavirus in the camp, everyone will get it,” Cossé says.

She added that medical facilities are not equipped to handle the current health problems, never mind “an outbreak of coronavirus affecting close to 20, 000 people.” While medical charities have been operating on the islands since a surge of migrants arrived on its shores in 2015, recent attacks by far-right Greek vigilante groups on aid workers has resulted in many closing down their operations in the camps.

Rahimi, along with other refugees on Samos, have started taking matters into their own hands by disseminating flyers with health advice from Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) about social distancing and effective hand-washing techniques to other refugees living in the camp. Rahimi, who worked on the medic team of a police force back in Afghanistan, has also started providing first aid treatment to young children in an effort to keep them healthy.

But Rahimi knows that as long as refugees are living in overcrowded conditions, little can be done to stop the spread of the virus.

“If they provide everyone with a home, it is possible to avoid coronavirus and protect refugees,” Rahimi says. “But this won’t happen. For five years, they have not provided proper housing.”

For years, human rights groups such as Amnesty International have criticized the EU for turning its back on Greece and failing to support it in addressing the inhumane conditions in Samos.

Though the Greek government has pledged to accelerate the building of new facilities and convert all open structures in the camps to closed ones, rights groups say the government is not doing enough to protect refugees and prevent the spread of the virus. “The government has not taken seriously the risk for refugees,” Cossé says.

Since March 18, the government has restricted refugees’ movement and enforced a lockdown between 7 p.m. and 7am. But activists say these recent measures, which lock refugees into overcrowded and unhygienic camps, are discriminatory.

Cossé says that instead, the government should be relocating refugees with the virus from the islands to smaller controlled health facilities and improving the conditions in which they live. Exasperated, she adds, “but the government’s strategy is to lock everyone in one place and throw away the key.”

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