Locked Down and Cast Out: Europe’s Migrants Navigate the Pandemic

Locked Down and Cast Out: Europe’s Migrants Navigate the Pandemic

Locked Down and Cast Out: Europe’s Migrants Navigate the Pandemic

A difficult situation just got much harder for undocumented migrants in the European Union.


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When French president Emmanuel Macron announced that his country would be going into a lockdown to halt the spread of Covid-19, Diakité knew there would be trouble.

The sweeping measures, announced in the speech in mid-March, would mean draconian restrictions on people’s leaving their homes and the shuttering of many public institutions and businesses. Some 100,000 officers were to be deployed to enforce the lockdown.

For Diakité and the many thousands of undocumented migrants like him living in France, the implications were more grave than for most French residents. “Identity checks have become more and more common,” he said in a phone interview. “This has created even more fear among the undocumented. There are comrades who haven’t left their homes for more than two weeks for fear of running into the police.”

An encounter with the police brings fear of being detained or deportation. Accusations of racial profiling and police violence against migrants are commonplace. Those with jobs in industries that are still operating—such as in cleaning, food delivery, or security—feel unsafe traveling to and from work. And for the many migrants across Europe who are homeless or live in overcrowded accommodation, “social distancing” is not an option.

“It’s not easy to be locked down in the center,” said Marie Polard, a spokesperson at the Red Cross. The charity manages 25 accommodation centers for asylum seekers, home to around 7,000 people, in Wallonia, the French-speaking part of Belgium. There are sometimes 600 people in a center, and up to 12 to a room. All nonessential activities have been canceled, including homework clubs and language classes. “It’s especially difficult for the kids,” she said.

The most notable difference, though, has been the absence of any new residents. Such centers have not had any new referrals since mid-March when Belgium’s Federal Immigration Office closed its services due to the coronavirus outbreak. Unable to register their claim, recently arrived asylum seekers have nowhere to go.

“That is a big question: ‘Where are all those people?’” Polard added. “A lot of people are probably in the streets.”

Alexis Andries, director of programs for Doctors of the World (DOTW) in Belgium, said the situation risks increasing the number of homeless people at the time when people are supposed to be indoors. Like many charities acting as a lifeline to migrants unable to access state support, DOTW has had to decrease its services, relying on telephone consultations where possible; many of the charity’s volunteer doctors are over 65 and thus most at risk of the virus, so they are no longer working.

The loss of volunteer-led organizations worries medical groups in neighboring Germany, too. Although the country’s approach of vigorous virus testing and tracking has been widely praised, medical NGOs are nevertheless concerned about the hundreds of thousands of people without medical insurance or facing other barriers to receiving care.

Many health care charities have partly or fully ceased operations, leaving those without insurance to wait until their illnesses deteriorate and they can access emergency care—adding more pressure still to the already overstretched hospitals.

For those that do make it to a hospital, another danger looms. “Social services are required by law to inform immigration authorities if an undocumented migrant seeks medical treatment coverage,” Stephanie Kirchner, a spokesperson at DOTW Germany, explained. “This doesn’t apply to emergencies, but of course it’s always a matter of definition what counts as an emergency. Undocumented migrants can risk deportation if they go to the doctor.”

More than 40 health organizations have called on the government to ensure access to tests and treatment for everyone, fearing that otherwise it will be impossible to successfully contain the outbreak.

While Italy has been deeply ravaged by the outbreak, a significant concentration of cases are in the country’s north. “In the south of Italy, we are not experiencing a health crisis, we are in an economic crisis.” Richard Braude, a member of Arci Porco Rosso in Palermo, Sicily, told The Nation. The small community support group offers legal advice, food distribution, and other support to migrants—mainly from West and North Africa—on whom the economic consequences of the lockdown are particularly dire.

“People are calling us not because people are sick from the virus, but because people are hungry.” Braude said. “There was a big community of Africans already on the economic knife edge, and now it’s tipped.”

Around half of Italy’s agriculture workforce are migrants, and in Sicily workers are often from Africa. Even those with papers face exploitative labor conditions, and live in informal settlements where social distancing and hygiene are impossible to maintain. Italian authorities have offered financial support to families and workers hurt by the crisis, but the cash remains inaccessible to many migrants for lack of legal documents.

Those attempting to reach Italy face new complications. While migrants’ journeys across the Mediterranean were always perilous, claiming more than 19,000 lives since 2013, search-and-rescue systems at the national and European levels have been weakened considerably over the past two or three years, and with the outbreak of Covid-19, the operations of private NGOs in the Mediterranean have all but ceased, with much of their medical staff now working in Italy’s hospitals.

There has been a drop in the number of migrants making the crossing over recent weeks, but as the weather warms, that trend is not expected to hold. “We cannot exclude more arrivals in the coming weeks,” said Carlotta Sami of the UNHCR in Italy. “Recently, 150 people were saved by the only ship still operating in the Mediterranean. We hope they can disembark in Malta or Italy.”

Italy has since declared its ports “unsafe” because of the risk of Covid-19 transmission and announced that it would not allow any search and rescue boats to dock there. The ship, and its 150 passengers, have now been unable to disembark for over a week.

Like Italy, Greece acts as first port of call for many undocumented migrants entering the European Union (EU). Similarly, a combination of EU policies, domestic pressures, and years of economic turmoil have meant that basic rights for migrants have long been out of reach. The outbreak of Covid-19 in Greece has only served to “radically exacerbate an already problematic situation,” says Eleni Takou, deputy director of HumanRights360.

The impact of the current situation has been worsened by various measures implemented by the New Democracy government since it took power last summer, including restricting access to health care for newly arrived asylum seekers. Even more drastic was the decision to completely suspend asylum claims during the month of March, as part of efforts to deter migrants from Syria and elsewhere arriving from Turkey. While the suspension is now over and in theory people can apply, the asylum service has closed down because of Covid-19. Thousands of people are in legal limbo.

“People without documents—because they lacked access to the asylum service or because their claim was rejected—are hiding in order to avoid arrest, and this is very worrying in terms of access to public health,” Takou said. Her NGO is advocating for a “tolerance status,” asking Greek authorities to suspend arrests and detentions during the Covid-19 outbreak. “Health should come before legal status.”

Ritsona and Malakasa, two overcrowded camps north of Athens, are in “hygienic quarantine” because of several confirmed Covid-19 cases. A lack of space, hygiene facilities, or adequate health services already made life difficult before the lockdown.

“Where things are very very bad is on the islands,” Takou said. “Social distancing can only be perceived as a bad joke in hot spots like Moria, where people live in tents, in the mud, in horrible hygiene conditions.” The refugee camp on Moria was built for 3,000 people, but currently has over 20,000 inhabitants, almost half of whom are children. NGOs are calling for the “decongestion” of the islands, something that has taken on even greater importance during the pandemic. Several European countries had agreed to take unaccompanied children from the island—a promise now stalled by the outbreak.

While governments including Britain and Spain have extended visas and released people from immigration detention centers, Portugal has gone above and beyond what its neighbors have been willing to offer. On March 28, the center-left government announced that anyone who had a pending immigration claim, including for asylum, would be automatically considered to have regularized status for the next three months. The decree grants people in this position full access to health care and social security, and allows them to work and rent.

Cyntia de Paula, director of Casa Do Brasil, a group representing Portugal’s largest foreign community, praised this “very positive decision.”

“This measure is positive and places Portugal as one of the few countries in Europe with policies to include immigrants during the Covid-19 response,” she said.

There are outstanding uncertainties about people who are left out, what happens when the temporary permits expire, and how the measures will be implemented. Nonetheless, the move was hailed as significant at a time when anti-migrant discourse and legislation is on the rise in Europe.

“We are a country of migrants,” said Amnesty Portugal’s director Pedro Neto, citing his country’s histories of emigration to help explain this positive measure. Neto offered the Portuguese government “a big thank you” for taking this stance.

But with it, he added a plea: “Decreeing is not enough. The government has to provide means for this to happen.”

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