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Refugees must not become the forgotten victims of corona crisis

Syrian refugees are picture in a building under construction they have been using as a shelter in the city of Sidon in southern Lebanon, on March 17, 2020 amidst the coronavirus COVID-19 epidemic. (AFP)
Syrian refugees are picture in a building under construction they have been using as a shelter in the city of Sidon in southern Lebanon, on March 17, 2020 amidst the coronavirus COVID-19 epidemic. (AFP)
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21 Mar 2020 03:03:08 GMT9
Sinem Cengiz
21 Mar 2020 03:03:08 GMT9

The plight of refugees stranded along Turkey’s border with Greece was the top story in the international media, political circles and public discussions — until the coronavirus pandemic turned the world on its head and wrecked the lives of millions of people.

This global health crisis once again proves that when fear comes knocking on people’s doors, desperate refugees struggling to survive in the margins of society are the first to be forgotten.

No one can be blamed for prioritizing the health and safety of themselves and their families, of course, but while life will go on for most, it undoubtedly continues to get worse for refugees who have already been living with the fear of death for many years.

These are people who are now not only still at risk of losing their lives to conflict, maltreatment or bad weather conditions, they also face the added threat of the global spread of the coronavirus. As borders are closed and travel is banned between many countries, there is a growing atmosphere of fear. Refugees and internally displaced people are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus, along with many other diseases. Millions of them around the world lack access to decent health care, many live in overcrowded conditions with poor hygiene and some are trapped in areas lacking even proper shelter from the elements.

Therefore, more attention must be paid to how the pandemic is affecting refugees, and the international community needs to work collectively to reduce the risks at a time of crisis when the need for such assistance is particularly desperate.

On Tuesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan discussed with the leaders of France, Germany and the UK the refugee crisis and the war in Idlib, which has caused another large wave of people to flee Syria. His video conference with French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson came after Ankara last month opened its border with Greece and allowed refugees to cross into Europe.

The move increased tensions with Brussels and Athens, as thousands of migrants and refugees gathered at the border. Both Turkey and Greece have deployed security forces at the border, and the Greeks have used tear gas and water cannon against the migrants. Ankara accuses the Greek forces of shooting dead four migrants, a claim Athens strongly denies.

To get a better understanding of the situation facing refugees at the border and within Turkey, I talked to Metin Corabatir, a former spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Turkey. I had the opportunity to work with him at the UN agency, and he now heads the Asylum and Migration Research Center (IGAM).

The coronavirus pandemic has dealt another severe blow to refugees who are simply seeking a safe haven.

Sinem Cengiz

He said that border crossings are limited and under control, with an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 refugees and migrants in a buffer zone between Turkey and Greece. While the majority of refugees returned to Turkey as a result of mistreatment by the Greeks, he added, those who remain at the border are likely to stay there and await for the outcome of the next meeting between Turkey and EU leaders, according to the International Organization for Migration. This next summit is scheduled for March 26 and the refugees are hoping a new migrant deal will be agreed with Brussels.

In 2016, Turkey and the EU signed an agreement designed to limit the flow of Syrian refugees into Europe. The EU pledged a substantial aid package, while Ankara agreed to prevent refugees crossing into Europe from Turkey. The deal succeeded in significantly reducing the influx of migrants. However, as Turkey’s refugee burden has continued to increase, in the face of a serious lack of European support, Ankara has called for the deal to be renegotiated.

Meanwhile, the already substantial health risks refugees face continue to grow as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Corabatir said that Turkey has opened a field hospital at the border to monitor the health of refugees. The Turkish Red Crescent and some non-governmental organizations also have established clinics, where regular testing is taking place, he added, and

there have been no reported coronavirus cases so far.

However, most refugees have already experienced considerably more trauma than the average person, and many have chronic health conditions as a result. Given that the effects of the coronavirus are potentially much more serious for the elderly and those with existing health problems, the results could be extremely grim if prompt measures are not taken to prevent the risk of the virus spreading to crowded communities of particularly vulnerable people.

Doctors Without Borders has called for the immediate evacuation of squalid camps for asylum-seekers on the Greek islands, over fears of the potential effects of a coronavirus outbreak. This week, a Greek citizen was the first person to test positive for the coronavirus on the island of Lesbos, where a refugee camp designed to hold fewer than 3,000 people is hosting 19,000.

Meanwhile, the International Organization for Migration and UNHCR announced on Tuesday that they are temporarily suspending resettlement travel for refugees.

Corabatir also pointed out that the risk of cross-border contagion is increased by Iranian and Afghan refugees crossing the Turkish border illegally. Syrian refugees within Turkey, however, have the same access to health services as Turkish citizens, he added.

In short, the coronavirus pandemic has dealt another severe blow to refugees who are simply seeking a safe haven. While governments are implementing severe precautionary measures to protect their own citizens during the pandemic, they must not forget or discriminate against vulnerable refugees on the margins of their societies.

Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz

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