Lending a helping hand or finger-pointing at the migrants and refugees in COVID-19 triggered ‘open moments’ (I)

Gulay Icoz |

Covid-19 (BBC)

My original plan was to write about Polish Presidential elections today, expected to take place in May 2020, despite the calls for its cancellation after the outbreak of the pandemic: COVID-19. The acceleration of the spread of coronavirus, however, have succeeded in drifting my attention to the refugees and migrants.  Particularly their survival in the light of the strict measures adopted by the EU and the MSs in the fight against the pandemic. The limitations brought to air travel and cross-border movements are particularly concerning as far as the migrants and refugees are concerned.

What the ordinary people of the Western World are experiencing during this era of Covid-19 is distinct and onerous; a routine of social distancing and self-isolation are alien to our free, social and swank nature. I do not want to underplay the hardship we are all facing, but the vast majority of us have a ‘home to stay in’ and no one could deny that we have also been practising our’ stockpiling’ skills. However over-stretched, there are fantastic National Health systems, operating with the most qualified doctors, across the EU MSs, who would take care of us when we are in need. Also, let us not forget about our democratically elected political leaders who are determined to take us of this predicament.

(Picture: Rob Timmerman/AFP/Getty)

While this is where we are, I cannot avoid but think about migrants and refugee who cannot self-isolate because they have to share tents with others, be that a family member or a relative, and they cannot socially distance since the camps are overcrowded and each tent accommodate more people than it should. For instance, in Greek island of Lesbos, where the Moria camp operates, designed initially to shelter 3,000 people temporarily, it is now the cramped home of more than 20,000. Similarly, the Vial camp on Chios is one of the smaller camps and holds more than 6,000 people in a space meant for 1,000. As we repeatedly hear from experts, personal hygiene is crucial in protection against Covid-19, can spare a minute to think about what it means to share 30 toilets between 6000 people and one shower for every 200 people at the Vial camp. Thus expecting to see a fully-fledged hospital with ventilators at these camps is unrealistic by any stretch of the imagination.

I agree with Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, who said that measures taken by the countries should not result in the closure of avenues to asylum, or of forcing people to return to situations of danger. However, the choices made by the EU MSs and others are already and unintentionally putting these people’ future in limbo. Additionally, I agree with Grandi who proposed if there are health risks; screening arrangements can be put in place, together with testing, quarantine and other measures. These will enable authorities to manage the arrival of asylum seekers and refugees safely while respecting international refugee protection standards designed to save lives.

As far as I know, there is not a reported case of COVID-10 from existing camps, but it is unthinkable that coronavirus skips the refugee camps. When it begins to spread, the calamity this may entail is the concern; plus whether anyone would volunteer to lend a helping hand, except for the NGOs who are already doing their utmost, is also the fear. Furthermore, my deliberate question concerns what is expecting the refugees and migrants during this chaotic epoch. Particularly after Viktor Orban, the Hungarian PM, the EU’s most anti-migrant Illiberal-Eurosceptic political leader, finger-pointed at the migrants and refugees for a ‘certain link’ between the spread of the virus and them.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (photo by Tamas Kovacs)

Orban’s choice of words is a product of his blame-evading style; thus, it is not surprising that he is linking refugees or migrants to the fast-spreading nature of Covid-19. However, what is distressing is having politicians of this calibre in charge of the management of the pandemic-driven crisis in a significantly relaxed political setting, be that domestic political setting(Hungary) or the EU.

If we recognise our current state being, that is triggered by COVID-19, as a critical juncture that has ultimately put on hold every part of our modern life.  Peter Gourevitch’s (1986) description of critical junctures as “open moments when system creating choices are made” where the rules of decision making are relaxed can help to ask the following questions: what factors may affect their choices during these open times? Whether politicians for their interests could exploit these open moments? What system creating choices shall we expect to see? Should we worry about our politicians operating in a political setting where the rule of decision making is relaxed? Is this a time for politicians to make life-changing decisions for the migrants and refugee? Is this an opportunity for migrants and refugees or a misfortune?

In the coming days and weeks, I will follow on COVID-19 situation with particular attention to the migrants and refugees, as well on political leaders’ choices and decisions in these open and relaxed moments, and the consequences this may have for both those vulnerable and the existing democratic political settings we behold. As I was writing this blog, the Hungarian was discussing introducing a new set of rules that would support the state of emergency in Hungary, which might also allow Orban to rule by decree for an unlimited time. We do not yet know what this means for the illiberal Hungarian democracy.

I will post again.