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Coronavirus: EU treatment of migrants turns deadly

Updated: Apr 10, 2020

Over-crowded camps, discrimination from healthcare professionals and draconian travel restrictions threaten migrants all the more in the middle of a pandemic. The European Union must act now to protect lives during #Covid19

by Tina Lee

Migrants wearing protective masks walk outside the overcrowded Moria refugee camp on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece, on March 11, 2020.Aggelos Barai / AP

Under normal circumstances, the lives and rights of people who have migrated to Europe are at risk in major ways that most citizens and permanent residents do not experience.

At the edges of the European Union, over-crowded detention camps put men, women and children at risk of contracting illness because of lack of adequate hygiene or healthcare. Recently, increased pushbacks - efforts by the Greek government to stop people from entering to seek asylum - have turned violent, and secret “black site” detention centers have been erected that deny migrants due process.

Meanwhile, people who have managed to recieve some form of protection in the EU face discrimination by healthcare professionals and are subjected to the threat of violence or death by right wing arsonists and terrorists. States like Germany have struggled to contain the risk of right wing violence, partially because the the security forces - police, army, and more- have been infiltrated by members of right wing groups. This, in turn, undermines trust in the authorities to protect communities at risk.

These issues are all part and parcel of the piecemeal, inadequate strategy the European Union has adopted for dealing with the reality of migration under everyday circumstances. Now, a global pandemic threatens to weaponize these risks and make them incredibly deadly. As governments struggle to address the health of their citizens by shutting down borders and restricting travel, the rights of thousands of people who have migrated are of great concern. Anyone in our communities who has the virus can spread it, and the lives of people are not less worthy because they have moved across a border. We must speak up for ourselves by demanding that governments protect everyone, regardless of immigration status.

Here is what the EU should do, immediately.

Put a halt to all deportations.

There is no justification for sending people who are at risk for having contracted the disease in Europe back to other countries, where they risk being turned away from rapidly closing borders, or spreading the disease further. The priorities of governments during this time should be to stop spreading the virus, not enforcing punishment for non-violent legal violations like irregular border crossing. Dublin 2 deportations - wherein people who passed through another country before arriving in one European member state are sent back to their state of entry - should likewise be halted to reduce the burden on border states struggling with Covid-19, like Italy and Greece.

Clear unsanitary, unsafe detention camps and move people to safety.

The European Union should step in immediately to ensure that the over-crowded and unsanitary detention camps in Greece and elsewhere are broken up immediately, and the people within them relocated to safety. Frontex, which has a yearly budget of hundreds of millions of dollars and access to transportation and vulnerability assessment technology, should be tapped to provide support for the relocation of vulnerable people to smaller shelters, outside of Greece, Italy and Spain, with adequate access to sanitation, healthcare, and coronavirus testing. Failure to do this will only hasten the spread of the disease in three states already massively affected and risk transforming migrant detention centers into death camps.

Stop pushbacks and close secret detention centers.

Several weeks before the Corona outbreak had gained momentum in Europe, it was revealed that the Greek government was engaging in organized pushbacks and had even erected a black site” detention center at the border, where individuals alleged they had been stripped of their possessions and sent across the border without being able to claim asylum (this is referred to as “refoulement”). Disappointingly, there has been little reaction from the EU commission to this very flagrant violation of European and International Human Rights law.

Within a pandemic, a secret detention center where basic human rights are ignored is an even greater health risk. Migrants currently arriving to European borders should not be denied their right to asylum nor sent to secretive facilities to have those rights denied. Again, the budget used for erecting these kind of illegal facilities can be used for other purposes, such as ensuring that migrants are brought to safety and have access to testing and healthcare.

Travel restrictions shouldn’t separate families or keep residents from their homes.

Governments all over the world are enacting strict, hopefully temporary restrictions to travel and freedom of movement, despite the fact that the virus has now appeared in most of the world’s countries and is spreading within countries (because again, viruses don’t care about imagined communities or lines on maps). The European Union should guarantee that this ineffective response is short-lived, but more importantly, that it does not violate the rights of EU residents- whether third-country nationals or recipients of some form of international protection- nor separate people from their families. It is one thing to make an effort to reduce travel and tourism- there is no justification from turning people away from their homes during a crisis.

Ensure everyone has access to healthcare, regardless of their immigration status

Unfortunately, European healthcare facilities can be unwelcoming environments for many groups of people. Not speaking the majority language of the country you are in can be a barrier to care, as can having a different form of health insurance or belonging to a group of people that faces pervasive discrimination in European societies, such as Roma, BPOC people and Muslims. The Coronavirus, however does not discriminate, and continued institutional racism puts our whole society at risk- even the ones engaging in it. We should support our healthcare professionals and provide additional help at healthcare facilities, as far as practicable, to bolster translation and to mediate in the case of people being turned away. Again- the personal tragedy faced by someone who gets turned away from care becuase of discrimination or misunderstanding can very quickly become a community tragedy as they infect others or pass on misinformation about the virus.

Europeans are not suffering from a lack of resources or technology to address the issues presented by the coronavirus. If we fail to protect the lives of migrants then it will be a failure of our humanity, and it will haunt us for years to come. Let’s protect EVERYONE in our communities, not just those with the right piece of paper.

Tina Lee is a writer and researcher based in Berlin, Germany and the co-founder of MigrationVoter.com. Tina wrote this article for theleftberlin.com, for which we are very grateful.

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