Melissa VidaApril 21, 2020
A woman carries bottles of water at a temporary camp for refugees on the island of Lesbos, Greece, Feb. 6, 2020. (CNS photo/Elias Marcou, Reuters) A woman carries bottles of water at a temporary camp for refugees on the island of Lesbos, Greece, Feb. 6, 2020. (CNS photo/Elias Marcou, Reuters) 

Spain, one of the countries hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic with more than 188,000 confirmed cases and 19,600 fatalities as of April 17, has been under a state of emergency since mid-March. But for people like Alejandro Hernandez, an asylum seeker from Central America, life has not changed much. He gets up, goes to work and in the evenings calls his wife and daughter in El Salvador. He considers himself one of the lucky ones, at least compared to other migrant people in Spain who cannot work or do not have a proper shelter during the crisis.

Mr. Hernandez works on a pig farm. “I was a bit worried at first about my job; then I remembered that the farm needs people,” he says, speaking over a Facebook messenger call. “The pigs need to be fed.”

Mr. Hernandez arrived from El Salvador in 2018 and appealed for asylum because of threats from gang members he faced back home. Although his asylum case has not been resolved yet, he is confident that he can build a life in Spain thanks to the full-time contract his employer gave him.

Mr. Hernandez’s work permit was automatically renewed for a year after administration offices closed because of the state of emergency. He lives with his mother in a village in Catalonia. His employer makes sure he and his colleagues, who come from Romania and Senegal, wear masks and practice social distancing at work.

“These are uncertain times; these people have been in the camps for a long time, and they start to get nervous.”

“God blessed me,” he said.

Daniel Martínez, from the Spanish Jesuit Migrant Service, told America that Mr. Hernandez’s case is an exception. Around Europe, asylum seekers typically live in crowded shelters or detention centers, makeshift refugee camps or on the streets. Only a few churches in Spain have opened their doors to shelter them during the pandemic, according to Mr. Martínez.

In 2019 alone, 612,700 people applied for asylum in the European Union, with Germany, France and Spain as the main destination states. Most asylum seekers come from Syria, Afghanistan and Venezuela. In 2019, more than 60 percent of initial asylum applications were denied.

As the pandemic gathers momentum, tensions are rising. Across the Mediterranean, protests erupted at refugee shelters in Melilla, an autonomous city under Spanish rule in North Africa. “One of the people in the camp was infected and an ambulance came to pick him up, but the rest of the inhabitants of the center did not have enough information about it,” Mr. Martínez said. “These are uncertain times; these people have been in the camps for a long time, and they start to get nervous.”

The Jesuit Migrant Service in Spain has appealed to authorities to “decongest” these centers on the African continent by transferring asylum seekers to Spain.

Around Europe, asylum seekers typically live in crowded shelters or detention centers, makeshift refugee camps or on the streets. As the pandemic gathers momentum, tensions are rising. 

In Germany, Mission Lifeline is pressing a similar transfer of asylum seekers from overcrowded refugee camps in Greece. The humanitarian group, which conducts search-and-rescue operations on the Mediterranean, raised enough money to pay for two flights of refugees and successfully lobbied the German government to accept the transfer of 350 to 500 unaccompanied children to Berlin, according to its director, Axel Steier.

More than 18,000 asylum seekers live at the Moria camp on the island of Lesbos in a facility designed for 2,500. Nearly 70,000 more are on the mainland, according to Mr. Steier.

As Greece became an important entry point for people fleeing violence in the Middle East and Central Asia beginning in 2015, the European Union established a containment policy that keeps asylum seekers on the islands until their cases are processed. As a result, many people have been forced to remain in these crowded camps for years.

“It’s a result of deliberate European policies, which were about containing people and introducing measures that make people live in conditions of destitution,” said Catherine Woollard, the director of European Council on Refugees & Exiles. “They remain there, stuck.”

In the past decade, Greece suffered a severe economic crisis that was exacerbated by European austerity measures. Its health care system has become severely overstretched. For now, the country is coping relatively well with the pandemic, but human rights organizations are worried about the situation in migrant camps.

“If the pandemic arrives at the camps, which are overcrowded, where there is no possibility for social distancing, many people will die,” Mr. Steier said. “Some organizations say that half of [camp residents] are high-risk patients.” A camp near Athens has been quarantined after two Covid-19 cases were confirmed there.

“If the pandemic arrives at the camps, which are overcrowded, where there is no possibility for social distancing, many people will die.”

“These camps [in Greece] are in lockdown; they shut the doors and that’s it,” Mr. Steier said. “Nobody can leave and there’s almost no health care [services].”

Under a European migrant relocation plan begun in early March, Germany initially agreed to fly in 50 children, then after receiving criticism for accepting so few, agreed to accept hundreds more. But much more needs to be done, Mr. Steier said. The Greek government supports the initiative, and Luxembourg and Switzerland also pledged to fly in children from the camps.

Human rights organizations have reported that asylum seekers in Hungary are being denied access to health care and in some cases, even to food. In February 2020, the European Court of Human Rights ordered Hungary “for the 28th time” to stop depriving asylum seekers of food, according to Euronews. The nonprofit Hungarian Helsinki Committee has been tracking the condition of migrants who have been denied such basic humanitarian assistance.

In early April, the European Court of Justice ruled that Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic violated their E.U.-member obligations when they refused to participate in the union’s migrant relocation scheme.

“These are long-standing problems,” Ms. Woollard said, “but people in these situations are [now] more exposed to health emergencies.” Ms. Woollard fears that the pandemic will fuel national and xenophobic sentiments in some European states.

Hungary’s President, Viktor Orban, has recently secured new powers to rule by decree indefinitely, provoking concerns over the country’s weakening democratic institutions and the viability of a free press in Hungary.

On April 8, the European Union announced an international aid package of 15.6 billion euros to help the nations around its periphery respond to the pandemic. “The E.U.’s response will focus on the most vulnerable people, including migrants, refugees, internally displaced persons and their host communities,” government officials said.

J.R.S.-Europe has adapted its soup kitchen service to provide prepared food in bags that migrants and homeless people can simply pick up and tries to maintain lines of communication and encouragement.

Well within Europe’s borders, in Calais, France, some migrants sleep on the streets, waiting for their turn in a shelter or an opportunity to reach the United Kingdom. The port of Calais has served for decades as a waystation on the migration route to the United Kingdom, 31 miles from Calais by the channel tunnel.

Since Calais’ refugee camps were dismantled in 2016, people have been sleeping in the woods nearby, waiting for the opportunity to hide in a truck crossing the channel by the tunnel or by ferry. Before the confinement measures were implemented in France, around 200 to 300 would rest, recharge their phones and drink tea at the day center hosted by Secours Catholique (Caritas France).

“But we had to close the center,” Véronique, one of the volunteers at Secours Catholique, said, asking that her last name not be used. “It’s not easy for the exiled people; they are confined outside. They are still harassed by the police and have their tents and sleeping bags destroyed,” she said. Every other week, she said, 80 migrants find a spot in a government-run shelter, and in the meantime, aid groups still hand out cold meals every morning.

Church and secular advocates for migrants in Europe use Portugal as an example of a humane response to the crisis. Portuguese officials have offered residency documents to asylum seekers and migrants during the emergency. That allows them access to a wider range of health care benefits.

In Ireland, too, “people in an irregular situation can now access health care without papers and without the doctors being punished,” Ms. Woollard said. Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom have reported releases from migrant detention centers, although it is not clear if alternative accommodations have been given to the freed migrants or what has become of them.

José Ignacio García, S.J., the director of the Jesuit Refugee Service-Europe, emphasizes that caring for migrants and refugees in Europe is a way to care for everyone in Europe. “You cannot have part of your population without proper health care. It represents a risk for everybody,” he said.

Because of social distancing required by the crisis, J.R.S.-Europe has adapted its soup kitchen service to provide prepared food in bags that migrants and homeless people can simply pick up and tries to maintain lines of communication and encouragement with the migrant people it is assisting through the popular mobile messaging platform WhatsApp.

The outreach nourishes more than their bodies. “People need to know that they are not forgotten,” Father García said.

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