The explosion of the coronavirus has dramatically brought about fresh challenges for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. With countries adopting stringent measures to contain this pandemic, including rigid border controls, the outbreak will not only have a huge impact on those driven out of their countries by crisis situations, but may create another refugee tragedy that may be worse than what has been experienced before.
The global response to the spread of the virus formally known as COVID-19 has been shaped by the complexity of national political interests and hardened immigration policies. Xenophobic rhetoric about how migrants and refugees are potential carriers of the deadly virus and pose a health threat has already become a central theme for right-wing populists in Europe, who advocate for cracking down on immigration.
As Steven Erlanger aptly noted in an article for The New York Times, COVID-19 is not only proliferating, but is also “infecting societies with a sense of insecurity, fear and fragmentation”. The possible outcome in the aftermath of the pandemic, therefore, may be a further polarization of societies and ‘othering’ of refugees and migrants.
This will likely jeopardize their rights and future course, setting in motion a new wave of xenophobic and racial politics bolstering far-right groups in many countries as a result. And this global health emergency may allow governments to implement temporary immigration and health-related measures that could systematically target refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants on the pretext of containing the spread of the virus.
Politicians across the European Union (EU) have already begun to exploit the COVID-19 outbreak by levelling suspicion at refugees and migrants. Ultra-nationalist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán blamed migrants for the spread of the virus in Hungary: “We are fighting a two-front war, one front is called migration and the other one belongs to the coronavirus. There is a logical connection between the two as both spread with movement.”
In Italy, currently the most affected European country with the highest death toll outside China, right-wing political leader Matteo Salvini whipped up anti-immigration rhetoric by suggesting that migrants from Africa may have brought the virus with them. Greece’s nationalist government has cited the risk of COVID-19 infection as its reason for pressing ahead with a contentious plan to build “closed” camps for asylum seekers trapped on the Aegean islands of Lesbos and Chios.
In the Balkans, Croatian Health Minister Vili Beroš said migrants represent a ‘potential’ risk of spreading the virus, while Serbia’s far-right parties have threatened to expel about 6,000 migrants who are residing in the country. Far-right groups in France, Germany and Spain have called for suspending the Schengen agreement that allows passport-free travel among 26 member states in the EU. Border closures and tighter travel restrictions have been used as preventive measures during previous public health emergencies. Following the outbreak of diseases such as the Zika virus in 2016, Ebola in 2014, and H1N1 influenza in 2009, many countries imposed tight travel restrictions.
The World Health Organization has warned that trying to tighten border security will not work and may even impede the global fight against the spread of COVID-19. “We cannot forget migrants, we cannot forget undocumented workers, we cannot forget prisoners,” said WHO executive director and public health specialist Michael Ryan. “The only way to beat [coronavirus] is to leave no one behind.”
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, or Doctors Without Borders) has also urged Greece to immediately evacuate refugees and migrants from overcrowded camps on its islands owing to the high risk of COVID-19 spreading swiftly among people living in squalid conditions. The organization said that it would be impossible to contain an outbreak in such camp settings and that it had not yet seen a credible emergency plan in case of an outbreak.
Recent humanitarian situations such as the ongoing civil war in Syria have highlighted how the destruction of critical healthcare infrastructure in a country can contribute to the emergence of infectious and communicable diseases. With fears growing over the excessive strain on public healthcare services owing to the coronavirus outbreak and an inability to cope with the rising number of infected people, the health implications for refugees may be profound.
About the author:
Haris Zargar is a PhD researcher looking at links between land reforms, social movements and armed insurgencies in Indian-controlled Kashmir. He has been a journalist for the past nine years, writing on the intersection of politics, conflict and human security. He worked as a political correspondent based in New Delhi with leading Indian new outlets including The Press Trust of India and The Mint. He holds degrees in Journalism and Development Studies from the University of Kashmir, and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.