Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
A great deal has changed in the world of late, yet our tendency to ignore the suffering endured by Europe’s refugees has held fast. It never takes much to eclipse news of refugees from the public eye, often it is news as banal as that of a minor royal slip up that takes precedence over reports of atrocities endured by thousands of displaced people. So, given that COVID-19 coverage has obscured almost every other type of news, it is unsurprising that the refugee situation has not got a look in.
Yet, just as COVID-19 began to dig its claws into Europe, many more refugees arrived on its shores. In early March, Turkey’s President Erdoğan abandoned former practice and opened his borders, resulting in the arrival of thousands of refugees in Greece. The new influx of people to Greece’s islands proved incendiary: sparking reactionary aggression among hostile local populations and ramping up the pressure on already overburdened camps and aid organisations. Coverage of this in the news was typically sparse and whilst the events garnered more attention on social media, this remained fleeting.
But, as of the last few weeks, COVID-19 and the refugee situation are no longer two separate stories. In mid-May, two residents of the Lesvos camp were found to have tested positive for the virus, an incident that nudged news of Europe’s refugees back into the headlines.
Of course, it’s not as if Greece’s refugees were immune to the impact of COVID-19 prior to this development. The government’s lockdown measures which restricted people leaving and entering camps curtailed the ability of charities to maintain education and food provision.
On top of this, many international volunteers felt they had no choice but to return to their homelands at a time when the newly increased refugee population and the threat of the virus meant their help was needed more than ever. Indeed, there was growing apprehension among residents of the camp and local aid organisations about COVID-19 reaching the settlements, where overcrowding and lack of sanitation would make its containment challenging.
But, it seemed that these concerns were largely confined to those living and working within the camps. For the most part, the camps continued to exist as isolated entities in the public imagination, their borders fortified by imagined reifications of ‘us’ and ‘them’. These refugees, as alien as they were, were not deemed worthy of the same protection as the rest of the nation.
Now the virus has reached Lesvos, it is harder to ignore. Greece has suffered the virus relatively minimally and whilst the two refugees who have contracted the virus have been quarantined, COVID-19 may still spread across the camp.
Action must be taken to protect refugees. This realisation shouldn’t have to be motivated by an inward-looking desire for self-preservation, but this is better than there being no realisation at all. The Greek government must step up, yes, but so too must other European countries who have sat idly and watched on as Greece buckles under the strain of accommodating refugees.
We must hope that the news of COVID-19 in Lesvos fosters engagement with Europe’s refugees rather than further alienation. We are speaking about a collective who have fled from one hostile environment to the next, whose lack of adequate protection means they are especially vulnerable to COVID-19.
Having to plea for compassion in such a situation is astonishing, and indicative of a stark moral deficit within politics. There have been countless opportunities over the last few years for European countries to act generously towards those hoping to find peace within its borders.
For the most part, they have been ignored. As stories of COVID-19 and Europe’s refugees collide, let’s hope that the acts of community, kinship and care which have so wonderfully characterised much of public response to the virus are extended, too, to the newer members of Europe’s societies.