A pandemic is frightening. A pandemic of a confusing, volatile, and deadly respiratory disease like this coronavirus is even more so.
Yet the effects of COVID-19 have been exacerbated by the existing health, welfare and space issues across the world: where there is no running water and soap, and you share a single room with your entire family, being able to wash your hands and self-isolate are privileges you simply cannot access. The universality of this fact is nowhere more obvious than within refuge-seeking populations all along the established MENA-Europe migration route, from Lebanon, Syria and Yemen to the UK, France and Spain. To get a better understanding of the ways in which this pandemic has complicated the existing issues for refuge-seeking populations, I spoke to organisations that support refugees at all stages of the migration route.
Farah Al-Haddad, Programmes Officer at Help Refugees/Choose Love, gave me an insight into the impact of COVID-19 on the frontlines. Help Refugees/Choose Love “grew from a hashtag” in 2015 and found itself stretched attempting to meet the additional demand for services created by the pandemic. The organisation, Farah explains, was originally a purely front lines operation – a mere five years ago when the infamous image of Alan Kurdi made front pages, and interest in refugee causes had a well-meaning but all-too-brief high – but has since evolved into a “holistic response” to all of the issues faced by the refuge-seeking populations and those attempting to support them.
Help Refugees/Choose Love is now primarily a major logistical co-ordinator, streamlining donations, legal expertise and training to over 120 partner organisations in 14 countries along the migration route. Providing everything from food baskets, hygiene kits and PPE at a local level, to unconditional funding for new NGOs, Farah suggests that perhaps their most important role is supporting grassroots organisations with structural support, such as advocacy advice and best practice protocol. The vast majority of the organisations in the Help Refugees/Choose Love network are founded “by Syrians, for Syrians” or similar; an example of the effectiveness of empowering communities to identify and provide for their own needs.
I asked Farah if she felt it was possible to identify specific catalysts within the broader timeline of ‘The Refugee Crisis’ which has rumbled on for decades, and she painted a picture of a region already struggling with economic and political instability, hunger and poverty. Farah explained that the Arab Spring, with its protracted periods of violent war and foreign intervention; the Syrian crisis that followed; and more recently currency depreciation and widespread unemployment in Lebanon have accelerated an “already catastrophic situation” into a perfect storm for mass infection. Cheaper rents in dense urban areas, fuel scarcity, and the very real threat of starvation have meant few can afford to social distance or isolate: Farah emphasises the reality that many fear hunger far more than yet another ambiguous disease. In many of the camps, scabies and polio outbreaks were already signposting the potential for these areas to become hubs of infection – COVID-19 is just the latest in a series of unbridled public health crises.
For a truly comprehensive understanding of the impact of this pandemic on refugees, I moved towards the end of the migration route and spoke to Avril Bellinger: Honorary Associate Professor in Social Work at Plymouth University and Chair of Students and Refugees Together (START). She was one of the founding members of START – a UK organisation founded on ‘the strengths approach’; a social work principle which advocates that individuals in need are best placed to identify their own solutions. As she explains in our interview, START seeks to exploit the perception of students and refugees existing as “parallel burden[s] on host communities”, in order to create opportunities for immersive further education and community support. The organisation works with those who have been granted ‘leave to remain’ in the South West of England, and Avril explains that one of the things that makes university students and newly-arrived refugees such an effective collaborative force is that they are often facing many of the same kinds of decisions, in the process of “assessing [their] ambitions and aspirations” for their futures.
The difficulties that have been faced by the organisation and its service users during this period have been enormous. START usually runs a number of programs to facilitate positive community engagement, such as a Job Club, a communal Allotment, and Cultural Kitchen; all of which were forced to close during lockdown. Accessing local authority services, such as identity verification or interpreters, has become increasingly difficult; often involving the ridiculous task of holding two phones, one with an interpreter and one with the service user, up to each other while speaking. Moreover, and more concerningly, the existing housing policy framework meant that many refugees are placed in multi-occupancy housing by the local authority once they are granted their ‘leave to remain’ – a policy that has created immense challenges to physical and mental health during the pandemic and increased the risk of infection. At both ends of the migration route, there has been a worrying rise in gender-based violence, mental and physical ill health, and concerns about politically-motivated mistreatment as a result of refugee status.
Essentially, it’s a compounded crisis: a scenario in which dozens of communities and thousands of people, who were already deprived of their basic needs and facing imminent hunger and health risks, find themselves in the middle of a pandemic which has brought those troublingly quotidian issues to the doorsteps of those in privileged Western homes. The vast majority of people in Europe and the US know little of the fundamental instability that haunts refuge-seeking populations, and a taste of it – a spate of panic buying and rumoured food shortages; a deadly and highly infectious disease in general circulation; and a resurgence of populism and political exploitation – caused near mass hysteria.
So, what can be done to help? Perhaps more importantly, what can you do?
With the recent explosion in Beirut having killed 100 people and left nearly 300,000 homeless, now is a more compelling time to act than ever. Farah outlined a series of simple steps that make a massive difference: donate whatever you can afford (through Help Refugees, 89% of the money goes directly to frontline services); contact your local lawmakers to petition them to support organisations in the region or legislation that will facilitate safe refuge; and vote for meaningful change. Finally, “stay in the loop” says Farah – be aware of key events but avoid compassion fatigue.
By doing so, you will be contributing to a wide range of positive and sustainable opportunities for change. Help Refugees/Choose Love, through partner organisations like Molham Volunteer and Women Now, provides a huge variety of programs: safe spaces and self-defence training for women and victims of domestic abuse; practical training in new skills like sewing and IT; continuing education provided in Arabic and English; mobile clinics; orphanages; and much more. START have worked to protect accommodation for settled refugees, ensuring minimal risk from unnecessary travel, and provide services like grocery shopping and food delivery. They have also recently re-opened their allotment and are moving towards new working practices that will allow staff to support service users in person.