Governments across Europe are facing calls to urgently put into place measures to protect refugees and migrants – in particular lone children – as the coronavirus epidemic sees volunteer numbers plunge and many vital support services close.
On Tuesday, groups working with refugees and unaccompanied children in France and Greece implored the authorities in both countries to provide urgent help to refugees and unaccompanied minors, whom they say have been effectively abandoned by the authorities.
In France, a group of 24 organisations sent a letter to the French government and the mayors of Calais and Grande-Synthe imploring them to provide urgent interventions to refugees and migrants in northern France.
In the letter, the organisations, which include Médecins du Monde and Refugee Rights Europe, say: “The situation of exiled people is unspeakable: lack of accommodation, cold, humidity, stress, fatigue, crowding together in light tents, daily expulsion from places of life, deplorable sanitary conditions.”
The groups say that, in the absence of any other protection measures, the state should provide accommodation and basic food distribution as well as access to hot water and soap to try to stop the spread of the Covid-19 virus among the migrant community.
In Greece, organisations working with refugee children across Europe also wrote to senior EU and Greek leaders pressing for urgent action to support families and minors who have arrived in Greece in recent weeks.
The letter stresses that some children are not being properly registered and protected, and requests information on any preparations and protections around coronavirus that have been planned or put in place.
The groups, including the IRC, Human Rights Watch, and the Danish Refugee Council among others, also called for a raft of protective measures including an end to deportations and pressing forward with relocation and family reunion programmes for unaccompanied minors across Europe.
Across Europe, NGOs are preparing for a situation in which staff and volunteers are unable to work because of sickness.
One charity in northern France told the Guardian they are losing desperately needed volunteers as the epidemic takes hold across the continent.
Claire Moseley is director of Care4Calais, a group that has been providing support to migrants in northern France and Belgium since 2015. She said she is becoming increasingly worried as volunteers cancel.
“We have had a lot of cancellations and that really scares me. You know, these people we are helping are just as scared as people in the UK are but they have no sanitation, they can’t wash their hands, they can’t shower. I’m really scared and frightened for them.”
Care4Calais estimates there are around 1,000 people living outside in Calais and a further 2,000 across Dunkirk and the coastal area. She fears an outbreak would be devastating for an already vulnerable population.
“We are incredibly worried about it, there are a lot of people whose health is not good and they are living outside. These people are suffering already from underlying lung issues, from exposure, tiredness, cold and they are obviously not able to self-isolate.
“I’m really frightened, we need the big aid organisations here; [Médecins Sans Frontières] and the Red Cross have been in France in the past, we need them back. ”
Juliette Delapace, project manager for Catholic charity Caritas in northern France, was running a day centre in Calais, which has been forced to close in recent days.
“Now we have had to close the hundreds of people we give somewhere warm and safe to stay for a few hours really have nobody to help them and nowhere to go,” she says. “Before, it was politically expedient for the state to deny help to this community because they knew NGOs would fill the gap, but now we cannot do this because we need to protect our volunteers and staff and limit the potential spread among people who are very vulnerable and have poor health.”
Delapace said it would be impossible for migrants and refugees in northern France to effectively self-isolate if they started feeling ill as they had nowhere to live and no way of getting food.
“They can’t even call the emergency services because to do that you need to be able to charge your phone and the only place they could do that was the day centres and services that have now been shut.”
Concerns over staff passing on the virus to vulnerable migrants is also an issue in Greece, where the International Rescue Committee (IRC) are already taking precautionary steps.
Dimitra Kalogeropoulou, IRC country director in Greece, told the Guardian: “It is is a grave concern for us that we don’t expose the people we work with to the virus. They are massively vulnerable and have limited sanitation.
“Across Greece we are all taking severe measures, we stay at home and places where people gather are closed. However, as humanitarian workers it is our mandate to keep working so we have just stopped activities in closed places and we try to protect the vulnerable by stopping all group sessions.”
The health conditions in the Moria camp in Lesbos are already dire. Last week Médecins Sans Frontières were forced to withdraw vital services when tensions on the island followed an increase in arrivals from Turkey
Kalogeropoulou said one group that is of particular concern is unaccompanied minors.
“The situation of the unaccompanied minors is extremely worrying. We have more than 5,000 in the country and around 1,000 in Lesbos. So many of these young people are living in precarious situations, in detention centres, in camps.”
Despite the may fears of groups working with refugees, Moseley says it’s vital to look at the positive work being done.
She said: “I’m really proud of how fast we have responded, we have done extra work in all locations across France and Belgium, we have given out about 1,000 packs of vitamins and I’m super proud of my volunteers. Even though numbers are down they are working flat out.”
“They are wearing gloves and doing everything they can to stop infection spreading, I believe if we stopped altogether the situation would be much worse.”
According to UNHCR, there are currently about 7,000 migrants in Bosnia, with the current crisis on the Greek-Turkish border expected to push thousands more over the border. Many are located in the camps of Tuzla, Bihac and Velika Kladusa, on the Croatian border, where they live in cramped conditions in abandoned buildings or disused train stations. The heavy snowfall in December and January has made conditions intolerable – all camp residents are living without electricity, heat or drinking water.
Bosnia’s autonomous Bosniak-Croat Federation declared a state of disaster on Monday, which will enable it to introduce emergency measures to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus, the region’s prime minister Fadil Novalic said. Bosnia has reported 24 cases of Covid-19 so far, 20 of them in the country’s other autonomous region, the Serb Republic.
Doctors say that if the virus spreads among migrants here, there is no capacity to contain it. “We don’t have room to put place them under quarantine,’’ said Semra Okanović, a doctor in Velika Kladuša, a town near the Croatian border. “We don’t have enough tests for our population, and we don’t have any for migrants. And really we don’t know if some of them have been infected or not.’’
Dr Dominik Zenner, senior regional migration health adviser at the International Organisation for Migration, said: “It is very concerning that there are thousands of people across Europe who are extremely vulnerable to this epidemic, not only in refugee camps but spread out across the whole continent. .
“The risk of these people being further stigmatised and pushed even further to the margins is increasing. If there is one thing that Covid-19 has shown us is that we’re all in this together. People must be allowed to protect themselves and others no matter what their personal circumstances.”