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Refugees Across Europe Fear Coronavirus Outbreak

February 27, 2020
Aida Ghajar
10 min read
Refugees Across Europe Fear Coronavirus Outbreak

"Do you know what it will mean if coronavirus reaches here? Do you realize what a catastrophe it will be? They were pretending to distribute antihistamines, but they were other kinds of pills. This is nonsense. They came wearing masks. Some people were given tablets inside the camp, but many others were not given any pills. There were several police forces from Athens. We do not know what is going on. But if it is to do with coronavirus, this will mean a massacre."

These are the words of an Iranian asylum seeker on the Greek island of Lesbos, where the largest population of asylum seekers in Greece is being held. The official figure for the number of people staying at Camp Moria is 20,000, but there are many more thought to be living in the surrounding area. People live there without medical facilities or health care, or even any proper sanitary facilities. Health advice about how to prevent the spread of coronavirus states that people should disinfect their hands every 20 minutes, but this is an impossibility here. Every few days, boats carrying migrants arrive on the island, and there is no health check program in place. 

This is only one border of many migrants cross — in this case, people travel from Turkey to Greece, but there are asylum seekers crossing other borders too: from Iran to Turkey, from Greece to Italy and other European countries. At the moment, Iran and Italy are both on high alert because of the spread of coronavirus.

In February, as coronavirus reached European Union countries, the United Nations Refugee Agency called for "emergency measures" to improve the conditions of the refugee camps in Greece, which are at risk of outbreak due to overcrowding and poor hygiene. There has been no official news about the outbreak of the virus in camps in Greece, but fear is mounting by the moment, and Greece announced its first case on February 26, not long after three people tested negative for the virus. 


New Government Insists Detention Centers will Protect the Public

Greece has seen huge numbers of asylum seekers arrive from around the world over the last few years, and the country’s inability to deal with the crisis has been well documented, prompting a new agreement between its government and the EU, known as the Dublin Regulations. The Greek government has been widely criticized by its own citizens, opposition political parties and other countries for not having a clear plan, and for failing to maintain statistics on the number of people entering the country. So its ability to deal with a potential coronavirus outbreak is understandably in question. The new government, which was elected in July, has introduced anti-immigration policies and has already faced attacks from members of the previous government, which had a different approach to the migrant crisis.

Greek citizens have staged a string of protests in recent weeks, particularly on the islands of Lesbos and Samos. People from both sides of the argument have come out onto the streets: those calling for asylum seekers to be removed from the islands, as well as those advocating for the rights of refugees and who are against the government's plans for dealing with refugees. Since taking office, the government has said it plans to close asylum seekers' camps on the islands and set up closed camps, which many pro-migrant groups have labeled detention centers. Protests against the new camps at the end of February were met with violence from police, who used tear gas against demonstrators. Now, with rising concerns about coronavirus, the government has continued to insist that these measures will be helpful in maintaining public health. “It is clear that coronavirus cases can be investigated at effective speed in closed centers, as compared to open and anarchic centers," said government spokesperson Stelios Petsas.

In contrast, members of the previous government, run by the left Syriza coalition party, have argued that setting up detention centers for asylum seekers, especially in the current mood of fear over coronavirus, will lead to violence."The government is also using violence against the islanders without any plans to deal with the chaos,” the party has said, and criticized the government for not being prepared for asylum seekers and refugees in the overcrowded camps.

Asylum seekers, Iranians among them, have also voiced their fears, not only those being held on Lesbos, but also migrants  living in Athens and in other cities and camps.

An Iranian woman living in the Moria refugee camp in Lesbos told me she has followed up with camp officials but was told that there has been no sign of coronavirus in the camp. At the same time, she also reported that people wearing masks arrived at the camp, and appeared to be giving some migrants medication, though she admits no one knows what kind of medication it was. Officials do occasionally bring medication, especially in the cold season, to combat with illnesses such as the common cold and flu, which are widespread among the camp. Walk around some of the camp, and through the rows of tents, one can hear coughing from all directions.  


Turkey-Iran Border

In Turkey, however, the situation is different. There are no crowded camps for asylum seekers and immigrants along the country’s borders. Asylum seekers are scattered throughout cities designated by the United Nations and the Immigration Services to shelter them. The border with Iran, which has now become one of the world’s worst-hit countries for coronavirus after China,  raises serious concerns."We have been detained here and now there is coronavirus,” a refugee living in the town of Van on the border with Iran said. “Hundreds of Iranians used to come to the city every day before Turkey tightened its border controls. There's no control."

Over the last five days, three Turkish and two Iranian nationals were admitted to the central hospital in Van, and all five tested negative for the virus. The Turkish government has announced that it has closed its land and air borders with Iran and that the border forces of the two countries are said to have tightened security. But on February 25, despite Turkey's announcement, a flight from Iran to Istanbul, with an Iranian passenger suspected of having the coronavirus on board, landed in Ankara. Twelve other passengers were reported to have been suffering from fever.

There have also been reports in Turkey that several Iranian travelers suspected of having coronavirus were prevented from entering the country.

The human trafficking industry appears to be continuing since the closure of the border between Iran and Turkey, despite increased security. One trafficker reported that with the greater security came an increased the potential risk of direct confrontation and firing, so many traffickers have delayed their journeys. Recent snowfall in Turkish border villages has also meant increased dangers for migrants and asylum seekers.

Rumor-mongering remains strong within the world of asylum seeking, especially in an environment where official news is scarce. Recent rumors include the story that several asylum seekers and refugees have been detained at borders, and another about the transfer of migrants from camps to hospitals. These stories are unconfirmed

Among refugees, discussion is buzzing, much of it political and some of it humorous in an attempt to cope with the situation. Some migrants have said they are happy the borders are closing, and believe it will stem the spread  of the virus. There are jokes about how clever the UK has been in leaving the EU, mocking the idea that Brexit can protect the UK from the virus. People say, too, that the virus will not observe borders and boundaries, race or gender. It will be a leveler.


Illegal Travel and the Risk to Public Health

Asylum seekers and immigrants who make the journey to Greece and other EU countries illegally pose a new threat now that coronavirus is a concern. Given the length of the time that coronavirus can go undetected in patients, these illegal travelers may be carriers of the virus and visit multiple countries, including Italy, which currently has the highest number of cases in Europe. Many asylum seekers and travelers pass through Italy to reach Western Europe, whether by ferry from western Greek ports or by foot, crossing the Balkans and Croatia to enter the country.

Migrants also head to France, where three new cases of coronavirus were announced on February 26. One patient, who had recently arrived from Italy, died. Meanwhile, along the French-British border, there are thousands of Algerian asylum seekers — and there are recent reports of an outbreak of coronavirus in that country. Although the French government has taken measures to educate and inform its citizens about the virus, it is not clear whether this information is making its way to refugee camps in northern France and near the French coast bordering the English Channel. Asylum seekers living in woods near Calais and other port towns hoping to get to the United Kingdom say officials do not appear to being trying to find out whether the virus has taken hold there, and they do not have access to health facilities.

Many of these migrants are living in France illegally and have no residence documents, so they worry that if they seek medical attention they will be sent to detention centers or be forced to apply for asylum in France, when they had planned to go to the UK. Certainly it is true that if they will probably have been fingerprinted in the first EU country they entered, and so will be returned to that country if identified, as stipulated by the Dublin Regulation that requires people to seek asylum at their first point of entry. Given this, it is unlikely many of these illegal migrants will feel it is safe to seek out and access medical care.


Iranians Unable to Leave

Many Iranians who have secured visas to leave the country are now concerned these visas will not be honored. There is reason to believe there will be greater scrutiny of such documents, and increased measures taken to identify fake visas, some of them issued by travel intermediaries or travel agents within Iran

The director of one of these travel agencies in Tehran, which also handles fake visas used by traffickers, says they have had to close offices for at least another week because of the reduction in travel. But he points out that the visa sales market is still booming, especially, according to him, in recent weeks. Italian visas have been easier and cheaper to buy and sell: "We now do a guaranteed Italian visa,” he told me. "Even if the case is rejected, we will refund all the money. Only 100 million tomans [US$7,000] for a one-month visa." The price of Italian visas used by traffickers had previously cost between 140 to 150 million tomans [between $10,000 and $11,000].

So it appears Iranian migrants are still setting off, hoping to make a new life elsewhere, despite the increased dangers caused by coronovirus. Already vulnerable people are now even more vulnerable. The world of asylum and migration is already a world marked by displacement, lack of information, reduced access to health care and violence. All of this, adding to the problem of overcrowding in migrant camps, mean that Iranian and other asylum seekers could easily contract — and spread — coronavirus. And if they die from the virus, who will know? These people are already difficult to track and identify. 

It is clear that the international community and the United Nations must think now of the tens of millions of displaced people before catastrophe strikes. 




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