By Martha Kean
The coronavirus pandemic tells us a lot about humanity. The sound of clapping reverberates around England as we hail the work of our carers; painted rainbows gaze out of windows in Italy alongside signs reading andra tutto bene; people are singing from balconies and dancing in the streets. Constantly, we are reminded: ‘we’re all in this together’. Only, we’re not; not really.
Across Europe, refugees who have already suffered loss, displacement and hardship unimaginable to many of us, are being ‘quarantined’ in overfilled, unsanitary and unsafe camps. Prior to the pandemic, the conditions in these camps were unacceptable, now, they are quite frankly catastrophic.
On the Greek island of Lesbos, the Moria refugee camp constructed for 3,100 people now contains 18,294. Nearly half of the camp’s residents are children. Violence and disease are already rife and difficult to control, and with the additional threat of COVID-19 the future looks bleak. To prevent infection in the UK, we are incessantly told to wash our hands thoroughly if ever we leave the house. In some parts of Moria, one tap is shared between 1,300 people. Washing hands frequently, or at all, is simply not an option.
Whilst this is unquestionably a humanitarian crisis, what is particularly striking about it is the European’s Union’s role in exacerbating the problem. The EU has a long and complex history when it comes to its treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. Amnesty International estimates that between 2007-2013, the EU spent two billion euros on deterrent measures such as fences, patrols (on land and at sea) and surveillance systems. When held in direct comparison to this, the seven hundred million spent on reception conditions for refugees appears almost as an afterthought.
Member States’ responses to refugee arrivals over the years have been equally problematic. The ‘Calais Jungle’, a former temporary camp for refugees awaiting the outcomes of their French asylum claims or attempting to enter the UK was demolished in October 2016. A Help Refugees census suggests that there were 8,143 people living there prior to this. During the final eviction more than 1000 people were deployed. The CRS (French Riot Police), who have a contentious past, have been reported routinely using violence against asylum seekers who remain in Calais today, including children.
These factors have all contributed towards the current situation, which sees millions of refugees displaced in and around Europe during a global pandemic. These days we consider a trip to the supermarket an eventful outing; we must turn our attention to those still forced to unsafely cross borders, flee from oppressive regimes and travel for days on end just to escape bombings.
In early March as I returned home and prepared for life under lockdown, I saw footage of asylum seekers celebrating as they headed for the Greek border from Turkey, where they believed they’d finally find refuge. Indeed, the Turkish border had been opened, but, unbeknownst to them, the Greek one had not. They were met with tear gas.
A 2016 financial aid deal struck between Europe and Turkey to discourage refugees from entering European territory was never fully settled up. Now, Turkey, which has taken in more than 3.5 million refugees, is refusing to shoulder the crisis alone. The political dispute between Turkey and Europe has caused people’s lives to become the bargaining tool.
We need not necessarily look overseas to find examples of these injustices. Home Secretary Priti Patel is refusing to raise UK asylum allowance by the same amount as Universal Credit, meaning asylum seekers currently receive roughly £5.40 a day even though the prices of everyday items are rising. Others remain in immigration detention centres where social distancing is near impossible, while qualified doctors and nurses are being prevented from working if they have not completed the required language qualifications, which can take 18 months to acquire. Hostility towards those who come to the UK from overseas is not even thinly veiled by our government.
So clap for our carers and put rainbows in your windows; sing and dance and try to stay sane. But as you do all those things, never forget that the arrival of a new crisis doesn’t signify the departure of an existing one. We may be under lockdown but our borders, both physically and metaphorically, must remain open.
Image credit: MalachyBrown via Flickr