How Covid-19 breaks down solidarity with migrants

The Mória refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece. Giulio Piscitelli , Author provided (No reuse)

The spread of the coronavirus Covid-19 is pushing governments to act with urgency and define strategies to control the movement of people in the global context. The refugee issue was at the centre of this debate until a few weeks ago, but has now taken a back seat after a foreseeable shift in governmental priorities. However, migrants continue to arrive in Europe and be crowded into reception centres, which are currently experiencing a crisis of tragic proportions.

What is the impact of the Covid-19 emergency on the refugee issue? How can the directives on social distancing be adopted in reception centres, and by extension in all the other sites of collective forced confinement? What effect can the pandemic have on the interaction of migrants and non-migrants, on both the solidarity practices that have emerged since the summer of 2015, and the hostile attitudes toward migrants and refugees?

European disunion

The fragilities and divisions caused by the pandemic are undermining the governance of the European Union, particularly on issues related to the mobility of people. Countries are closing in on themselves, as internal and external border controls are rapidly intensifying.

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At the same time as the first coronavirus infections and deaths were recorded in Italy, Turkey was engaging in a geopolitical conflict with Europe by opening its borders, pushing thousands of migrants into the transit camps in Greece. Athens’ reaction and diplomatic pressure from the EU have held back Ankara after two weeks of border tensions.

Death and violence on the rise on Greek islands

The spread of Covid-19 in Europe coincided with a peak in tensions in the five Greek islands hosting more than 42,000 asylum seekers. Thousands of migrants amassed in and around the Mória camp, the main hotspot on the island of Lesbos, saw their already miserable living conditions worsening sharply.

Suicide attempts and fatal accidents keep occurring with frightening regularity. The European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) held an appeal to the EU Commission to evacuate the most vulnerable population from the camp.

On-the-scene reporters such as German photojournalist Michael Trammer denounced attacks by far-right groups against migrants, humanitarian activists and journalists. These groups come from the Greek mainland, but are likely to be supported by others from continental Europe.

After five years of increasing pressure, part of the local population is now turning against migrants. Hostile sentiments spread among the very same society that had shown great solidarity during the 2015-18 reception crisis. The island of Lesbos is representative of the magnitude of the tragedy that migrants are experiencing in Europe. In many other places, however, similar problems require urgent action, such as on the border with Bangladesh where millions of Rohingyas are at risk within the world’s largest refugee camp.

There is little protection against Covid-19 in the Mória refugee camp.

Unenforceable health measures

Public heath measures and social distancing rules intended to fight the Covid-19 pandemic are absolutely irreconcilable with the reality of imprisonment, as evidenced by the riots sparked in Italian penitentiaries during which several inmates died. These events should draw public attention on the global issue of the application of anti-contagion regulations in overcrowded prisons, where a possible explosion of the virus would be catastrophic.

Other overcrowded places include collective centres for asylum seekers and irregular migrants across Europe, whether they are transit or detention centres. Unsurprisingly, the actions taken by many governments in order to deal with the migration issue under the Covid-19 emergency are oriented toward reducing – and eventually stopping – the arrival of new migrants. For example, the responsible institutions in Belgium and Germany have decided to stop registering new asylum applications for an indefinite period of time.

Pupils in a self-organised school in the Mória refugee camp. Giulio Piscitelli, Author provided (No reuse)

Meanwhile, calls and mobilisations for the regularisation of irregular migrants continue to spread. Hundreds of migrants in the French detention centres are currently on a hunger strike. Humanitarian organisations held an appeal to the Italian government to guarantee the right to health to tens of thousands of irregular migrants employed in the agricultural sector in the country.

For the moment, the only country that followed a principles of solidarity is Portugal, where those migrants who were waiting for their applications to be processed have been temporarily regularised until the 1st of July.

Solidarity at risk

All these appeals and mobilisations show that the principle of solidarity toward migrants and refugees rests on solid foundations, at least within the civil society. However, the coronavirus emergency and the rules of social distancing are leading to the rarefaction – and often the complete disappearance – of the practices of direct solidarity that characterised the 2015-2018 reception crisis.

These practices were often transformed into structured and sustainable supportive actions, and became a fundamental component of the reception and integration network in Europe. The reception centres around which citizen movements had developed, such as the BxlRefugees platform created to help asylum seekers and refugees in Belgium, have now been closed to the outside world.

As one of the most vulnerable, most isolated and less visible groups, unaccompanied minors risk to be abandoned to their fate.

Collective fear fuels xenophobia

As shown in Greece, the far-right did not miss the opportunity to capitalise on the collective fear for the virus and revive their xenophobic message. Also in the mainstream political debate, however, the migration issue often merges with the new virus emergency. This is the case of Viktor Orbán, who directly blamed migrants for the spread of Covid-19 in Hungary.

With similar intentions, Donald Trump has spoken of a “foreign virus” since the beginning of the crisis. In Italy, part of mainstream journalism is translating one of the most recurring leitmotifs from the migration debate into the Covid-19 debate. Those populist politicians and opinion leaders who accused NGOs of facilitating the smuggling of migrants in 2015-2018, are pointing the finger at them today for not being supporting national hospitals during the current crisis. The reality is different, however, as shown by the case of Emergency which is largely involved in first-line care.

A hierarchy of emergencies

It is clear how all these arguments take advantage of the radical shift in priorities that European governments have undergone in the last few weeks. At the national and local level, strategies to face the pandemic have included a gradual increase in social control measures. Police operations have been implemented with the aim of controlling and punishing those who do not comply with confinement rules. There are currently hundreds of thousands of daily checks in Italy, but police corps are active throughout Europe, on the national borders and in the city streets.

In the eyes of millions of citizens trying to cope with the huge stress and anxiety of isolation, any sort of violation to the anti-contagion rules will be seen as unacceptable. Any exception to the rule of confinement will be seen as a privilege at the expense of national security. Hostile reactions in the case that such privileges will be granted to migrants are sadly predictable.

Sadly, the nationalistic egoism that embedded within slogans such as “Britain first”, “La France d'abord” or “Prima gli italiani” – to give just a few examples – risks becoming more present than ever. Until the end of the Covid-19 crisis, any emergency or disaster that forces people to migrate will be seen as less urgent, less important than the emergency that forces us to remain confined to our homes.


The photographer Giulio Piscitelli provided the reportage pictures in this article.

This article was originally published in French

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