Commentary 

How Europe’s Refugees Deal with the COVID-19 Pandemic

Refugees and other displaced people are frequently marginalized and vulnerable. But in this crisis refugees are rarely only “victims.” They are, in fact, active citizens, doing their part in shielding public health systems. The International UN Watch sought out a network of Afghan refugees, from Athens to Stockholm and from Barcelona to Oslo.

How Europe’s Refugees Deal with the COVID-19 Pandemic

Kostandis Kabourakis

Refugees and other displaced people are frequently marginalized and vulnerable. But in this crisis refugees are rarely only “victims.” They are, in fact, active citizens, doing their part in shielding public health systems. The International UN Watch sought out a network of Afghan refugees, from Athens to Stockholm and from Barcelona to Oslo.

“The government supports the people that need it but not the people without any documents or those who are not citizens. If you are not citizens of Norway it is much more difficult to have support” says twenty-two-year-old Nazari Jomaa, living in Oslo Norway for the last 6 months.

Nazari works with the Afghan Diaspora Network in Norway for the “Europeans’ Global Civil Society Organization” (EGCSO). Their organisation provides a range ofservices to refugees and migrants in Norway.

“The last few months are much better compared to Italy and Spain,” Nazari say, noting the smaller number of people affected.

The role of the Afghan Diaspora Network at this point in time is to disseminate information that is inaccessible to people who do not speak Norwegian. “There are also some Norwegian radios that provide the information to different languages” Nazari says, adding that “the last few months have shown that people didn’t have enough information about being able to control the situation and keep social distance.

According to UN reports, over 80 per cent of the world’s refugees and nearly all the world’s internally displaced people are hosted in low and middle-income countries, where health systems are mostly weak. As of 16 April, 122 refugee-hosting countries reported local transmission of COVID-19. Greece is one of them.

“In Greece we have a lot of problems with the health system, many times people who are living in the refugee community they don’t know the language and we don’t have enough interpreters to go to the hospitals”, says Mirzae Mohammed who has been living in Athens, Greece since 2006.

Twenty-eight-year-old Mirzae works with the ‘Generation Outside of Afghanistan Network.’ The network has been providing refugees and immigrants information concerning COVID-19 through articles and social media platforms. In cooperation with other NGOs, they also disseminated Greek government social distancing policies, which impacted migrants’ everyday lives directly.  

“We are trying to translate a lot of information and we publish everything in the right way and are always cooperating with the doctors. Many people who are living in the camps they can check and follow our Facebook page. … we translate into English Greek, Farsi and French, we don’t target just the Afghan communities, but everybody”, states Mirzae.

Mirzae highlights the fact that the corona virus “doesn’t only affect refugees and migrants” and adds “we feel the same responsibility as other people in Greece. So, we are passing the same message through our networks”.

Of course, the situation during Ramadan is hard for a lot of people who are religious but as Mirzae tells us people pray in their homes and the Greek law is upheld and respected by all “We follow the state law which doesn’t allow any social gatherings, even for Christians, so we respect the law.”

The same attitude is shared by thirty-five-year-old Mirza Hussain Atae who has been living in Vienna, Austria since 2013. Despite the good Austrian health system, through the Generation Outside of Afghanistan Network they try to inform people to “pray at home during Ramadan”.

Spain has recorded over 200,000 confirmed cases and it has one of the highest death tolls in the world. On 6th May 2020 the country’s immigration facilities were completely emptied in response to the COVID-19 crisis, a first in the history of that country.

Bashir Eskandari (37 years old), from Afghanistan, has been living in Barcelona for the last 11 years. He works with the “Afghans and Catalans Cultural Association” and provides a range of support services to immigrants and refugees. He tells us that the association is struggling to make ends meet as “the Spanish government does not provide financial assistance to the association and does not pay any office fees because members are mostly immigrants and students.”

However, even in this difficult context, the “Afghans and Catalans Cultural Association” in Catalonia has tried to support immigrants and asylum seekers. “We have voluntary cooperation in the distribution of food and masks; most immigrants and asylum seekers need food and we help them,” Bashir says.

Bashir also disseminated information, translating “most of the recommendations of WHO into Persian and other languages {and} we also made them into the form of animations so that refugees and asylum seekers understand.”

Providing people with the right information and in a language which they can understand is a crucial part of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Migrant community groups play a very important role in disseminating this information.  

Thirty-five-year-old Hemati Arash left Afghanistan in 2001 and has been living in Goteborg, Sweden, for the past 2 years. He works with the Europeans Global Civil Society Organization (EGCSO) and administers their Swedish Facebook page “Mohajer News” (Refugee News). “Mohajer News” has a 130.000 following. Arash explains that the page “is for the health and social support of refugees but during coronavirus we mostly speak about this” adding that they receive “more than 100 questions from people in a day.”  

Such questions range from health issues that centre around Ramadan and COVID-19 as well as other problems that refugees face in their day to day lives.“We translate all the information from English to Persian and publish it on the page” says Fatima Haidari who contributes to Mohajer News and has been working in Swedish schools helping refugees for the past two years.

In Between the hammer Norway, Greece, Spain, Austria, Sweden, refugees and migrants play an important part in sharing life saving information about the ways of staying safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. As UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi stated “If ever we needed reminding that we live in an interconnected world, the novel coronavirus has brought that home”.

Kostandis Kabourakis is an Addiction Consultant and Human Trafficking Expert. He is the founder of the first refuge for male trafficking victims in Athens (2006-2009) and ActUp Greece, a human rights organisation specialised on HIV/Aids and Street Work and a member of ECOSOC that works closely with the International Organization for Migration. Kabourakis has worked with the Greek Ministry of Justice and was the former liaison officer of the Anti-Trafficking officer of the Ministry of Health. He has also worked as a political aid to the Minister for Migration Policy (I. Mouzalas, 2015-2016) and a special associate of the Medical School of the University of Athens (2017-2018).