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Guest Blog: Displaced Persons in a Global Pandemic: No Refuge From the Storm

Victoria Simpson, International Public Health MSc Student at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.

Unprecedented times, so we’re told:

Even though we are all keeping a firm two metres apart, the social media narrative that we weave is strong: we are united on our sheltered sofas by the virtue of technology. Sometimes we are miles apart and struggling to cope with this new normality- we fear for the now, the coming months and the greater impact on our economies, healthcare and industries.

Certainly, it’s not a privilege that many people face an indeterminate number of weeks isolating on their own, away from loved ones and dependants. Many people are facing sudden insecurity in their livelihoods, whilst others are being sent to deal with this hidden killer without adequate protection.

Those with underlying medical conditions may equate leaving the house to a death sentence, but if we are all in a position whereby we can sit back and assess these situations from the comfort of four walls, then we by far don’t have it the worst.

Our privilege truly needs to be checked.

For so many of the world’s displaced persons, this disabling lockdown is nothing extraordinary. It is their daily life; it has been for far longer than this lockdown will last.

The national news headlines that deliver our harrowing daily death toll, pales when compared to the number of people living in informal settings and squalor, trapped between borders and conflicts. We might have been displaced temporarily from our social circles, our work and our comfort zones, but for these people, displacement is their way of life.

Of the 100 or more countries affected by Coronavirus, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) recognises that 34 of these have refugee and internally displaced populations in excess of 20,000.

Many of these often-unwelcome residents find themselves pushed into overcrowded informal settlements, where the concept of social distancing is laughable. They find themselves locked out of country-wide statistics and efforts, constantly falling on the unforgiving side of borders and ruling decisions.

Some 860,000 or more Rohingya Muslims dwell in the world’s largest refugee camp, Cox’s Bazar of Bangladesh, having fled Myanmar and the ethnic cleansing they faced at the hands of the Burmese military.

This violence saw their villages burnt to the ground, leaving nothing resembling a home to return to. In this shanty setting, outbreaks of dysentery and communicable disease are rife. A flimsy infrastructure exists to attempt to manage this, in the form of joint response plans between various NGOs and the UNHCR, however they are not prepared for a pandemic.

With local resources already stretched, there is little space for those who never envisaged life under such circumstances.

On the Greek island of Lesbos, volunteers frequently face angry mobs, as the refugee count has grown over five years. Currently, Lesbos has two confirmed cases, but there are only six intensive care beds should a widespread outbreak occur.

Pressure has been placed upon the EU and Greek authorities to facilitate the urgent relocation of some 42,000 people from the island. Neighbouring countries have subsequently pledged to take in 1600 children, but first, age assessments must be carried out on asylum seekers to determine who fits this bill. With face-to-face meetings off the table, the traditional interviews used in this process now take far longer to enact, stalling this proposed salvation.

The infamous Calais ‘Jungle’ camp may have been formally closed in October 2016, but an estimated 1500 displaced persons still wake up to the sounds of police slashing down their tents on their eviction rounds.

Many of those who now find themselves caught between French and British turf have braved oceans, fleeing conflict in the Middle East. The tidal wave of pandemic that now heads their way is something that many of them will not survive.

Whilst we might be odds with having to queue in awkward one-in-one-out systems at local supermarkets, many refugees on mainland Europe find their lack of formal paperwork entitles them to no such access to food.

The grassroots agencies that they rely upon for provisions are running out, as local suppliers prioritise stocking “Mr and Mrs Joe Public” with their weekly rations.

Their fight for recognition in medical centres, remains as futile as it did before hospital beds became such hot property. Many health professionals would change these regulations in a heartbeat if not ruled by their institutions and prevented by so much red tape.

The four main UN agencies, that lead international efforts to support stateless persons, are urging countries to remember those forcibly displaced, fearing that their overwhelmed health systems will hold little to no room for them in the coming months.

At one point, our media was rife with stories of intercepted boat crossings and fatalities in the Mediterranean and Channel, painted in various colours depending on which reporter flicked the brush.

Various organisations and vessels existed solely for the purpose of finding these boats before the authorities did, but for now, only one such boat is guarding the shore off the coast of Libya. Conflicts do not stop simply because we are ceasing to leave our front doors.

As things currently stand, in Calais at least, organisations report that coronaviruses cases amongst refugees are still low for now. Some support has started, with local authorities facilitating the movement of individuals from camp dwellings into accommodation centres, but this happens at a crawling pace, with space for less than a third of the people thought to be living unofficially on northern French soil.

In the UK, we’ve seen mountains of warm sentiment rising, in support of key-workers risking their lives to save others, but displaced people, who have no option but to exist outside of normal lockdown procedures are met with stigmatism. Political leaders in Italy and Hungary, for instance, have declared unjustified links between unauthorised migrants and the spread of coronavirus, which only threatens to widen any pre-existing rifts.

And what of the aid workers, upon whom many refugees rely on for the basic infrastructure that underpins their lives?

In a society where the battle cry has been signalled for skilled professionals to return and serve their countries, those who work in the humanitarian sector are torn. Some 70% of NGOs, responding to a needs assessment carried out by the Assessment Capacities Project (ACAPS), reported that their operations had been halted completely by the global pandemic.

It is not just the coronavirus outbreak that these actors fear for, it is the populations they strive to protect: it is discriminatory quarantine, heightened outbreaks of other diseases and the subsequent threat of starvation as resources dwindle.

They continue to witness governments and authorities around the world neglecting to recognise refugees as human beings.

In no world is it okay for us to compare our quarantine experiences to those eluded to here, and the many more undocumented and unspoken of. When our doors finally do reopen, we will inevitably strive to recover our sense of normality, but we should spare more than a thought to the metaphorical closed doors that displaced persons will continue to be met with.

Just as select branches of our media have sensationalised stories behind who is to blame for this pandemic, it is all too likely that they may continue to feed into populist narratives around the ‘illegal immigrants’ being at fault when the economy is slow to recover and employment is scarce.

For too long, they have become scapegoats; various political parties have used them as bargaining tools to win voters’ favour. We have witnessed what our governments are able to do when crisis hits:

We should hold them accountable to fix the complicated, broken systems that have led to the hostile environments we have created for refugees. We should think twice, having tasted what it feels like to lose some semblance of normality, before we paint them as perpetrators and turn a blind eye.

If, having read this article, you wish to make a donation to the UN Refugee Agency, please click the image below and you will be transferred to their website.

Victoria Simpson is currently studying for a Masters in International Public Health at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, after which she will complete her final year of medicine at the University of Liverpool. She is part of Liverpool Wilderness Medicine society and has a passion for global health and humanitarian aid.


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