Needless to say, there are a number of reasons to be deeply concerned about the impact of Covid-19 on displaced individuals across Europe – in particular those who are undocumented, facing uncertainty about their legal status, and those held in immigration detention. As the far-right and some European governments have started capitalising on the spread of covid-19 to feed into anti-migrant narratives, it must be repeatedly emphasised that there is no evidence indicating that displaced people would be bringing this virus into their countries of refuge.
Meanwhile, there is a real concern that the virus, once it has taken root in marginalised displaced communities, where access to medical care is very limited to non-existent, the outcomes risk being detrimental. In addition, safeguarding and preventive measures adopted by several European states, such as confinement and shutdown of public and NGO services, might disproportionately affect displaced individuals unless adequate mitigation actions are put in place. These severe concerns give rise to certain recommendations for European governments to adopt in order to respond in the most adequate way possible to the current challenges – in ways that will safeguard displaced populations and host communities alike.
The overcrowded Greek islands
In the context of the Greek islands, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has issued loud and clear warnings that the evacuation of squalid Greek camps is more urgent than ever. Due to the unhygienic, overcrowded living conditions, the threat of an outbreak among camp residents is extremely serious, yet there are reportedly no epidemic response plans in place. MSF describes these conditions as providing “the perfect storm for a COVID-19 outbreak”, given the lack of adequate sanitation services and the extremely limited medical care. This means that the risk of the virus spreading in the camps in Greece is very high.
Whereas the World Health Organization continues to emphasise the importance of ‘social distancing’ and with governments ordering lock-downs across Europe, followed by continuous guidelines regarding safe handwashing, individuals on the Greek islands have no option of observing any of these precautions. RRE therefore fully supports MSF in urging for the immediate evacuation of the 42,000 individuals in the camps in the Greek islands, moving them to appropriate accommodation. We moreover continue to press for the emergency relocation of children from the islands to other European Union member states.
The border land in northern France
In the absence of accommodation provision, displaced people in northern France are experiencing extremely poor living conditions. The sanitary conditions are deplorable and there is a severe lack of sanitation facilities and water points (often located hundreds of meters or even kilometres away from settlements), meaning that the risk of the virus spreading, once it has taken root, is critically high. Exposed to a very cold and humid climate, coupled with stress and exhaustion brought on by ongoing uncertainty and daily evictions of living spaces, the individuals here are moreover at heightened risk of experiencing health complications if they contract the virus.
The detection of cases is moreover next to impossible, given that most people are unable to access health services, while others are likely to fear the risk of detention or removal if they present themselves. They are therefore much more likely to go undetected and untreated. Moreover, many will be unable to call the emergency services even if they dared try, both because they might lack a mobile phone, or sufficient phone battery to make a call, due to the closure of day centres. The recently adopted confinement measures are further exacerbating the poor living conditions, as frontline organisations are not currently allowed to go to the settlements to provide support.
Therefore, RRE joins partners on the ground to call for immediate measures taken by the French authorities to respond adequately to the situation. Robust measures for infection prevention and control, increased dissemination of information in relevant languages and formats, rapid identification and isolation of existing cases, and of course, the treatment of individuals experiencing severe cases are urgently needed. Adequate accommodation must be provided, irrespective of immigration status, in addition to special support and care for unaccompanied minors. Meanwhile, RRE welcomes a recent decision by French authorities to extend the validity of immigration documents by three months, including long term residents permits, asylum claim certificates and receipts of residence permit requests, where such documents would otherwise expire by 16 March.
Individuals in Immigration Detention
As for displaced individuals held in immigration detention, the risks are also severe. As highlighted by the Global Detention Project, individuals placed in immigration detention centres are “frequently confined in facilities with inadequate sanitary provisions and limited health care, and all too often they are forced to share rooms with countless others”. It is clear that the only option for ‘social distancing’ would be to place individuals in full isolation, which in itself risks leading to deteriorating mental health, hence not being an acceptable alternative. The risk of contamination is therefore greatly increased for individuals in this context. We therefore fully support the calls of the Board of Border Criminologies, and demand the increased use of testing in immigration detention context, and for immigration authorities to release individuals where feasible.
This has now been done in Spain for instance, whilst in the UK a number of lawyers and campaigners have called for immigration centres detainees to be released because “there is a very real risk of an uncontrolled outbreak of Covid-19 in immigration detention”. In France and in Italy several NGOs are also calling for immigration centres to be gradually closed down to avoid further spread of illness. In France, one case of a detainee being infected by the virus has already been reported in the detention centre of Lille-Lesquin. Detained individuals have now issued a statement to alert the authorities and the general public regarding this critical situation. On top of the health argument, NGOs also argue that the legal ground for detention no longer exists, given that individuals cannot be deported due to the closure of borders and should, therefore, be released.
Maintaining access to rights and services for displaced people
In a number of European countries, safeguarding and preventive measures have been taken to avoid further spread of the virus. Amongst them, public institutions and services have been shut down and staff must be confined and no longer remain in contact with people. This can have dramatic consequences on ensuring the most basic rights of displaced individuals. In Belgium, for instance, asylum seekers can no longer register their claim to the Foreigners’ Office which has been closed until further notice, without any alternative plan being defined, contrary to France.
Although temporary suspension of asylum registration may be allowed by EU asylum law under certain conditions, the current situation does not constitute a valid legal argument for such suspension (the only one existing, for now, is large-scale arrivals). Such suspension of service provision also affects the ability of NGOs to support displaced people. For instance, in France, legal assistance usually provided by NGOs in administrative detention centres is suspended due to confinement measures adopted by the government.
Not leaving displaced people behind
Overall, health authorities across Europe must present a plan relating to refugee camps and settlements on their territories, which includes measures for infection prevention and control, dissemination of information in relevant languages and formats, rapid identification and isolation of existing cases, and of course the treatment of individuals experiencing severe cases. The European Commission must also assert its influence to ensure that EU member states are indeed drawing up and implementing such plans. It must be made clear and communicated proactively, by all European states, that individuals who present themselves for testing and/or health care will not face the threat of detention or removal.
In addition, suitable accommodation provision must be made a priority for individuals trapped in unsanitary informal settlements across Europe, again without conditions of claiming asylum and without the risk of deportation. Individuals in detention must have access to testing and should be released wherever feasible. Despite confinement measures and shutdowns of public institutions and organisations, the right to asylum must be guaranteed across Europe. No suspension of asylum registration and provision of reception conditions can be justified by the current virus outbreak.
In countries where NGOs and public service providers must confine their staff and close their offices, governments urgently need to ensure a continuity of access to rights and basic support provision (food, medicines, clothes, etc.) to avoid further isolation, disease outbreak, and to ensure the dignity of displaced individuals. In the specific context of the Greek islands, the Greek government and EU member states must act to ensure the immediate evacuation of the 42,000 individuals in the camps in the Greek islands, moving them to appropriate accommodation.
EU member states must seek an emergency plan to relocate the approximate 1,800 unaccompanied children from the Greek islands to other countries. These are just a few key recommendations for European governments to adopt in order to respond in the most adequate way possible to the current challenges – in ways that will safeguard displaced populations and host communities alike. Displaced people, now more than ever, must be treated with dignity, respect and humanity.