SEATTLE, Washington — The world’s 258 million international migrants were oppressed before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and will continue to struggle after it is over. However, COVID-19 has increased the urgency of the daunting trials they face. The pandemic has further created displacement as countries strive to contain the virus. These new displacements are compounding the legal, emotional and physical challenges that migrants already withstand. Refugee camps are on the brink of explosive outbreaks. The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience hosted a webinar on June 4, 2020. The panel was comprised of staff and members from Asia and the Pacific and the Middle East to elucidate the nuanced relationship between COVID-19 and refugee communities.
The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience is a network that works to connect past struggles with today’s human rights movements through the preservation of historic sites, curation of museums and dissemination of memory initiatives. It highlights the contribution of refugees to the new communities and discussed the discriminations that they face. The webinar is called Exiled: Migration and Refugee Communities During COVID-19. Here are some of the highlights from three of the countries involved.
COVID-19 and Refugee Communities in Australia
Mandy Paul, the Director of the Migration Museum of South Australia, spoke about how Australia’s coronavirus policies exclude migrants both from aid and from the country, itself. According to Paul, there are currently 1,300 people in immigration detention centers in Australia. These populations are extremely vulnerable to COVID-19 outbreaks, especially in light of the country’s offshore detention facilities.
Furthermore, Paul cited the discrepancy from the expected 19,000 to only 7,000 refugees who have been able to relocate to Australia during the coronavirus pandemic. She explained how 300,000 non-student temporary migrants left the country due to the expiration or lack of paperwork. What many Australian nativists fail to consider is that this fall in migration will exacerbate the country’s current economic downturn.
This downturn, too, is disproportionately impacting migrants during COVID-19. The eligibility for stimulus support during Australia’s first recession in decades is severely restricted for migrants and refugees. Paul emphasized that those on temporary and refugee visas are excluded from all governmental stimulus support. This group includes about 1.1 million of Australia’s most vulnerable people.
COVID-19 and Refugee Communities in Syria
Gender and Media Expert and Syrian refugee activist Kholoud Helmi highlighted the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on Syrian refugees. Not only are Syrian refugees suffering from the same displacement and economic burdens that other migrants are but the regime in Syria has specifically politicized COVID-19. According to Helmi, Syria is only testing in Damaskus, which has allowed the regime to cover up the deaths of COVID-19 victims. Furthermore, discrimination in northwestern and northeastern Syria and regime-held areas have delayed or stopped the arrival of COVID-19 health kits.
These kits are vital for Syrians in refugee camps where overcrowding has contributed to a lack of accessible hygiene measures, explained Helmi. Many refugees do not have access to running water or to basic hygiene tools like soap and disinfectants. They must stand in long lines for crowded toilets, and adjacent tents make social distancing impossible. In a camp in Bar Elias, Lebanon, refugees are obeying “lockdown rules put in place by the Lebanese government” to contain the spread of COVID-19. However, intensive social distancing is impossible when whole families live in one tent.
These factors are amplified by the lack of awareness about the coronavirus and how to prevent it in Syrian camps. Many of the refugees previously had little access to education and have no way to engage with the online education that COVID-19 demands. At the Moria camp on the island of Lesbos, concerned members of the Maria Coronavirus Awareness team have teamed up with refugees within the camp to sew and distribute masks. Local organizations have also begun to distribute leaflets and healthcare kits to ameliorate such information and economically-driven hardships.
COVID-19 and Refugee Communities for Rohingya Refugees
Like Syrian refugees seek sanctuary in the surrounding countries, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have left their ethnic homeland of Rakhine State for the district of Cox’s Bazar in Chittagong, Bangladesh. In this camp as well, the proximity of living quarters makes social distancing nearly impossible. Dario Dolmenares, the Program Director of the global transitional Justice initiative at Sites of Conscience, briefly explained this people’s history of marginalization in Myanmar. There, the government deprives the Rohingya of citizenship, considering them to be illegal immigrants. So, nearly one million Rohingya live in crowded camps in Bangladesh.
The Rohingya must remain in camps partly because Bangladesh lacks the infrastructure and economic capacity to support this massive influx of refugees. But, the country is still open to the refugees in the sense that it acknowledges the genocide that the Rohingya people have suffered in Myanmar. Until a recent COVID-19 death in these camps, the Rohingya were not aware of the COVID-19 crisis due to linguistic and informational barriers. They lack access to running water and endure inhumanly crowded conditions with multiple families occupying a ten square foot area, described Dolmenares. Diseases regularly spread in these camps, and it is impossible to predict when a devastating COVID-19 outbreak could hit.
Supporting Refugees During COVID-19
The panelists agreed that countries across the world must do more to support refugee and migrant communities both during and after the coronavirus pandemic. One avenue of change is for countries to take responsibility in their roles of oppression by receiving more refugees and striving to support a dignified life for them. This can take the form of creating jobs or offering governmentally or community-funded financial support for refugees. Many organizations are already compiling and distributing hygiene kits to those in camps, but this effort must grow. Additionally, governments must implement intensive awareness campaigns in accessible languages for refugee populations to inform about the dangers and prevention of COVID-19. This pandemic must not be an excuse to refuse help to migrants. Instead, it should provide another reason to intervene on their behalf.
– Annie Iezzi