The pandemic caused by Covid 19 has affected the lives of millions of people throughout the world and has widened the range and intensity of financial problems and problems of social insecurity that the most vulnerable members of society, like refugees, face. In countries like Greece, where there was a history of a long-time economic crisis, the pandemic had a major impact on the increase in unemployment and poverty, when society was just starting to get back up to its feet.
Following the outbreak, the subsequent health and safety measures that were issued by the Greek state that emphasized policies of severe movement restriction and practices of social and physical distancing had a major negative impact on the health, housing, and living conditions of refugees, especially those who had been living in already overcrowded state-run refugee camps and private refugee housing in city centers. This was made worse with limited provisions in terms of routine virus testing, surveillance, and access to healthcare. Those sub-standard living conditions of poor sanitation and lack of access to adequate - or sometimes any – healthcare, made state health and safety measures, such as frequent hand-washing and social distancing, virtually impossible to follow: Refugee camp residents have to be in close proximity in order to receive food and other essential provisions, and self-isolation away from other individuals was impossible due to cramped conditions.
The pandemic also had a major impact on the refugee’s education. As a response to the covid outbreak, the Greek state launched an overdue mass-digitalization of social services, including education. Although well-intentioned and arguably necessary, those measures presented a new set of challenges, more specifically, significant disadvantages for children in refugee camps on islands, where more often than not state initiatives are largely inaccessible and lack of appropriate technical equipment for education make children in camps unable to attend school. And even when the security measures by the government were partially lifted when the virus distribution was temporarily decreased, e.g. in January 2021, in order to reboot the education process, this did not necessarily mean that for children in refugee camps, their education would resume. For children who had not registered or attended virtual education, entering school in the middle of the year was a challenge.
Lockdown and safety measures also caused a lot of changes and brought up new challenges in the labor market. The pandemic and its related restrictions shifted labor demand globally. A lot of migrants and refugees in Greece worked in the tourism and hospitality sector, and also as domestic workers- all were sectors that were heavily affected by the pandemic. The work of many was depended on seasonal work in the tourism industry during the summer months, and as travel restrictions reduced and slowed international travel, the hit on the tourism industry had a major impact on the lives of many migrants and refugees, leaving them unable to pay for essential household needs and increasing their dependency on civil society support.
The agricultural sector, which employs a significant number of migrants as seasonal workers who come to Greece from neighboring countries during the harvest season, was equally affected because they were unable to cross the border due to closures.
Those were just a few examples that refer to the new challenges in refugee and migrant lives that came up due to the pandemic and the subsequent virus prevention measures that unfortunately intensified the marginalization, stigmatization, and isolation that the refugee and migrant community already felt in a pre-covid era when trying to start a new life in a foreign land.
Members of the scientific community have hinted that the covid pandemic might end sometime in the future, maybe even sooner rather than later, or that it will integrate itself into existing, or new, seasonal viruses. At this point in time, nothing is certain. So, waiting for the pandemic to end is not a viable solution, given that the only thing we know now is that it continues to spread. We have to learn to live with this existing reality. Governments all over the world should see the pandemic as an opportunity to improve public services and make them more accessible and effective, the digitalization of services like education and health should be expanded to be more transparent and easier to access for migrant and refugee communities, ways to improve flexibility in the labor market need to be found, so that the covid 19 virus is not seen as an excuse for the refugee and migrant communities to be shut out, but rather as a motive for a faster and more effective social integration in the European communities, which will benefit everyone in the long term.
This article has been written by George Marandianos of the National Technical University of Athens
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