COVID-19 Brings Further Devastation to Refugee Camps

Image: Tessa Kraan/BRF

‘Vulnerable women in labour; four-day old babies sleeping in freezing tents.’ – Dr Annie Chapman

COVID-19 is a threat to every country and community, but refugee camps are dealing with impossible circumstances and are housing some of the most vulnerable people in the world. They are nowhere near equipped to deal with a pandemic. This year the Guardian have been very focused on documenting the current conditions in the Moria camp in Lesbos, Greece. One article by Harriet Grant on 11th February 2020 – ‘UN calls for urgent evacuation of Lesbos refugee camp’ –  makes no mention of Coronavirus. But when we consider the devastating conditions that refugees are already facing daily, one cannot help but wonder how it is possible for them to survive coronavirus once it enters the camps. Refugees are already some of the most vulnerable people on the planet right now. How can we protect them against coronavirus when healthcare is already at crisis point? This is a question which is incredibly concerning for women and girls especially.

Grant spoke to Dr Hana Pospisilova, a consultant cardiologist who volunteers at the Moria camp in Lesbos. Pospisilova is deeply concerned that the inhumane conditions could cause “[…]a pandemic breaking out”. Pospisilova told the Guardian that people cannot wash without risking their lives; “[…]they say to wash means waiting three hours and it’s risky: people have knives, and you can only have two minutes in the shower after you wait.” Women and girls also live in fear of being sexually abused. In 2018 Monica Costa Riba, senior campaigner on women’s rights at Amnesty International’s Europe office reported on the daily dangers women face in Greek refugee camps. Riba mentions a woman who lived in Vathy camp on Samos and told Amnesty that “[The] shower in the camp is cold and there is no lock. Men walk in when you are inside. There are no lights in the toilets. At night, sometimes I go to the toilet with my sister or pee in a bucket”. This means hygiene, already difficult to practice, becomes more difficult with coronavirus.

Women are usually the main support for their children in families. The lack of childcare services increases the risk of coronavirus spreading. Everyday refugees are fighting for basic necessities. Pospisilova goes on to say how they are wearing the same clothes for months. Children have scabies but they cannot be treated without washing. What is even more concerning in relation to the coronavirus is that Pospisilova is concerned about respiratory problems. At the time the article was published it was winter, so people were sleeping in wet tents and waiting hours to collect food in terribly cold temperatures.

Exactly one month later on 11th March 2020 an article was published by Grant titled ‘Lesbos coronavirus case sparks fears for refugee camp’ with the news that there had been a case of coronavirus on Lesbos. The week leading up to the article’s publication doctors’ and journalists’ had been ‘attacked by a group of vigilantes’ because tensions were rising and anger was taking root due to migrants arriving in an already severely overcrowded camp. This led to vital care provided Médecins San Frontiéres (MSF) to close for two days but this inevitably meant that on reopening they became overwhelmed with too many patients to care for. The lack of essential items and healthcare access poses an insurmountable risk to peoples’ lives.

Image: Tessa Kraan/BRF

The Guardian published an Observer special report – ‘A doctor’s story: inside the ‘living hell’ of Moria refugee camp’ – on 9th February 2020. The very phrase ‘living hell’ is telling of the severe healthcare crisis and the phrases ‘riot squads clashed’, ‘harrowing account of life’ and ‘crowds of migrants’ in the byline begs for its audience to pay attention. Annie Chapman is a doctor who recently worked with the Boat Refugee Foundation. Chapman states that the camp was built for 3,100 people. It is hard to imagine that there are now more than 20,000. BRF provides emergency medical care across the camp; there is no other. Even trying to stay warm is life-threatening. Chapman treated two children who were rushed to the BRF because they had been sitting by a fire and were unconscious due to the carbon monoxide after sitting around it ‘for a sustained period of time.’ After detailing specific serious cases Chapman writes ‘This is not abnormal. This is daily.’ Violence is daily. Fear is consistent. Calling this a crisis cannot even begin to describe the inhumanity of these conditions which refugees are fighting to live through.

‘The suffering is palpable, the hopelessness is insidious’ – Annie Chapman

With the hashtag #sosmoria across social media. Doctors are urging EU leaders to recognise a state of emergency in order to protect refugees in Greece against coronavirus. In a video published by the UNHCR’s YouTube channel on 19th February 2020, Sardar, a 41-year-old doctor who fled Afghanistan with his wife and children, speaks of life in the Moria camp: ‘Life in the camp is not acceptable for everyone[…]they have toilet, bathroom, for, I think, 3,000[…]If you want to go toilet, it takes hours to wait for the toilet.’According to Chapman, due to the fear of sexual abuse, many women and children wear nappies when darkness falls to avoid the fearful journey to the toilet; the camp is pitch-black. There has been no ‘reliable’ electricity for two months. Sardar goes on to say that ‘The medical care is very poor because of the overcrowding.’ Sometimes they have to return home without water. It also takes hours to queue for food. In this video, Sardar was the 3525th person in line. We need to work together to defeat coronavirus and spreading awareness on social media is one thing we can do to help.

In a time like this, the importance of the work that women and girls are doing cannot be emphasised enough. It is imperative that we spread awareness of the devastating impact that coronavirus is having on refugee women and girls, but we must also spread awareness of the positive work they are doing to create a safer and healthier community. This year for World Health Day the UNHCR published an article on how women and girls in refugee communities are helping to make the camps a healthier place. They celebrate the vital ways that women and girls are doing this and the immense responsibility of this in relation to coronavirus. Refugee girls walk for hours to collect water from safe water sources. This water is crucial for good hygiene which will ultimately prevent illness. One incredible way that women are making a difference is through making soap to help Syrian refugees at the Za’atari refugee camp. You can see a video of the women making the soaps by clicking here.

On 18th March 2020 Help Refugees posted a message on their blog which also provides some light in a situation that only appears to be getting darker. Help Refugees are a charity who work in refugee camps in Bosnia, Croatia, France, Greece, Italy, Serbia, UK, Lebanon and Turkey. They provide local organisations and help them with funding, material aid or volunteers. Help Refugees are working hard to limit the spread of coronavirus such as through prioritising hygiene packs and educating about the importance of hand washing. They are carefully making sure to work with government policy, which is thankfully enabling them to continue providing basic, essential items such as food, water, and safe places to sleep. Incredibly, the partners that Help Refugees are working with are adapting to provide remote psychosocial support, education and children’s entertainment. Help Refugees are truly inspiring. In the midst of dire headlines raising concern for the health and wellbeing of refugees, I am finding hope in the persistent effort of Help Refugees. It is vital more than ever before that we support this amazing charity in addition to all other NGOs who are working so hard to provide care, love and support.

‘Coronavirus knows no borders, Neither does love’ – Help Refugees

 

This article was written by Georgia Bridgett who is a volunteer for The Circle. Georgia is a recent English graduate and is passionate about women’s rights and the underlying issues in the fast-fashion industry.