Refugees and Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic has made life even harder for refugees and people on the move. Mitch Mitchell, a migrant solidarity activist and founder of Refugee Lifeboat, explains some of the issues facing migrants across Europe.

This is based on a talk originally given to a meeting of Bristol rs21. You can listen to Mitch’s talk here.


To say that the Covid-19 situation is making life harder for refugees and people on the move is to put it mildly.

All across Europe, people are being held in unsanitary conditions without much, if any, food, water or access to medical aid. The whole ‘wash your hands’ mantra doesn’t mean very much when there is no water with which to wash.

Populist right wing governments and politicians are using the current situation as an excuse for new authoritarian measures and are making life extremely difficult for migrants generally. Add to this, violent attacks by fascist gangs, brutal police tactics and the EU’s reluctance to accept that people need help rather than coming up against strengthened borders.

Consequences of imperialism

Again, we have to remind ourselves why there are many refugees in the first place. Western countries colluded to destabilize the Middle East and have plundered resources from many African states over the years. The war in Syria began as peaceful protests against the butcher Assad and he responded by bombing, shooting, and imprisoning the opposition. This opened the door to more radical elements to join the fight against him. And of course, this led to people fleeing the country as they were caught in a sort of pincer movement – opposing both ISIS who had moved in and Assad and his government forces.

America, Britain and Russia have all, for differing reasons, bombed Syria. As one refugee once said to me, ‘I don’t know whose bomb it was, I just know it hit my house when my wife and children were inside.’

Faced with this sort of constant onslaught, it is hardly surprising that many took flight.

Several people have come from African countries which either have famine, drought, flooding or such a dire economy that their only resort to avoid starvation is to take flight and try to find a better life elsewhere.

Also, of course, to be living in a country where to admit to being LGBTQ+ is extremely dangerous makes for another reason to leave.

The EU set up its Frontex agency, ostensibly to patrol the seas in order, they said, to prevent drowning of migrants making the crossing in dangerously unseaworthy craft. In reality, Frontex intercepts boats and turns them back to Libya, where the EU has been pouring money to set up reception centres to hold people. Libya is currently in a state of civil war and people in these centres are subject to beatings, torture, rape and being killed by one side or the other bombing and shelling areas where the camps are.

Turkey recently, in a spat with the EU, opened its borders with Greece and ‘encouraged’ refugees to cross over. In truth, many refugees were forced by Turkey to try and cross. Greece, however, aided by Frontex, opposed this and many migrants were trapped in no-man’s land. If they attempted to turn back to Turkey, border guards shot at them. They were frequently attacked by Greek police or fascist vigilantes.

The background to all this is that Turkey and the EU cobbled together a very shoddy deal in 2015 which meant that Turkey would hold mainly Syrian refugees crossing its border with that country rather than letting them move on into Europe. Turkey has been paid a lot of money for this facility.

Refugees in the coronavirus crisis

All this was before the current crisis hit. I was in Calais on 11 March and things were still hanging together. I was actually a little surprised to see that day-to-day life in Calais was continuing as usual, given that the outbreak was beginning to take hold in France. People were still sitting in bars and cafes. They were still doing the French greeting of kissing on both cheeks and shaking hands.

The voluntary agencies were still there, giving aid and donations to the 1000 or so in Calais and the further 500 plus in Dunkirk. However, since then, several have had to close down. The people at Refugee Community Kitchen who were making and distributing around 1000 meals per day have all returned to Britain. Collective Aid, who took over the work that had been done by Help Refugees are still working, but they have depleted numbers of volunteers, so they are unable to function as they would like.

Making the distributions has become increasingly difficult due to the amount of paperwork and permits required to satisfy the police as to why you are driving a van around the area. The police have also been known to turn people back from making a distribution because the particular refugees they are going to see are, in the cops’ opinion ‘not vulnerable enough’.

There are now some confirmed cases of Covid-19 among the refugees in Dunkirk and also in Calais, and at the moment they are getting some medical help. This cannot be said, unfortunately, for those in the camps in Greece, especially in the Moria camp on Lesvos which was built to hold about 5000 but is now home to around 20000. The camp on Chios was built initially for less people, but it also extremely overcrowded. Both camps and the smaller one on Samos report confirmed cases of the virus. One problem for both Lesvos and Chios is that volunteer medical teams have been attacked by vigilante groups of various stripes, and, unsurprisingly several doctors and nurses have come away as they are frightened for their lives.

In Italy, which is under one of the strictest lockdown regimes in Europe, conditions are only slightly better. Refugees are confined to camps, but there is more food and other needs are being catered for, although it is far from ideal.

Germany initially took a more liberal position than many other countries, particularly with regard to Syrians, and took in around 1 million people. However, the backlash to that policy has made the government rethink and, although conditions are more hygienic there than many other places, life has become tougher although the Germans have been forced, like most of the rest of Europe, to suspend deportations mainly back to Afghanistan.

Unaccompanied minors

Another factor to all this which must not be overlooked is the plight of unaccompanied minors. At any one time since 2015, there has been an estimated 2000 children totally alone in Europe. The actual figure is probably much higher.

The problem has been that many of these young people have simply ‘disappeared’. Many have been kidnapped and sold into slavery or the sex trade. When Lord Dubs eventually got Parliament to agree to taking in several thousand unaccompanied minors, the institutionally racist Home Office threw up as many blocks as it could. As a result, only a few hundred of the many thousands promised actually made it.

These young people are alone for a variety of reasons. Their parents may have died en route, either due to drowning, illness or being shot by border guards. They may merely have become separated and lost. With some of the older children, parents may have sent them alone from their countries of origin in order to give them a better chance of survival and this accounts for the fact that in Calais, the majority of refugees are young boys of around 16 or 17 years.

A few months before the Covid-19 crisis hit, several European countries reluctantly agreed to take in a few of these children and, under terms of conventions signed up to by most states, assist in family reunification. However, Covid-19 hit and this whole process was halted. This means that many children and young people are stuck in transit camps with the usual poor sanitation and levels of food and water.

What can be done?

So, how do we resolve this? Given the reluctance of the current government in this country, and indeed, across Europe to appear ‘weak’, it is an uphill struggle. Our Home Office is, as I have said, institutionally racist, and as such will do as little as possible to help. However, they do have statutory duties, one of which is the 1951 UN Refugee Convention which this country, along with most others in Europe and beyond, signed up to.

Basically, this means that the right to apply for asylum is unassailable. I do understand the need for caution at this time with regard to the virus and here, I would suggest something along the lines of the system instituted in Finland where all people entering the country, no matter whether they are Finns or not are subject to 28 days quarantine.

Make no mistake. I stand for no borders. I oppose Fortress Europe and further oppose Fortress Britain. I see the expression ‘legitimate concerns about immigration’ as being dog whistle for racism. Any immigration policy, no matter how nice or liberally it is interpreted is racist as it will always discriminate against someone.

On the plus side, I have read about a European group called #CitiesMustAct who are coordinating efforts to bring cities across the continent together to aid the 40,000 or so people stuck currently in dangerous and unsanitary conditions on the Greek islands and resettle them. They are campaigning to various governments and to the EU itself to act upon this willingness. Several cities have indicated that they are willing to join this effort.


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