World Refugee Day: COVID-19, solidarity and genuine integration

20 June 2020
World Refugee Day: COVID-19, solidarity and genuine integration

“We are marking this year’s World Refugee Day against a backdrop of a dramatic global crisis. Not only are record numbers of people forced to flee their homes, but the world is grappling with COVID-19 […], and today many of the most vulnerable – refugees and the displaced amongst them – face a pandemic of poverty”, said today UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, on the eve of the World Refugee Day.

The pandemic has exacerbated the situation of thousands of refugees, asylum seekers and displaced people, who are waiting to hear about their chances to stay in Europe, living in squalid conditions. Local and regional authorities are overwhelmed by the COVID-19 tsunami and the refugee issue is either completely overlooked or simply sidelined. 

Leaving no one behind

Since the beginning of the outbreak, the effects of the crisis on solidarity have been very tangible. The first problems were raised by multiple non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in a joint-letter published on the 18th of March 2020. They pointed out that the situation of exiled people during the first days of confinement was appalling: "lack of accommodation, cold, humidity, stress, fatigue, crowding together in light tents, daily expulsion from places of life, deplorable sanitary conditions.” At that point, the virus was just starting to strip away the support for refugees. The lockdown forced many volunteers to stay at home in order to halt the spread of the contamination and therefore, many vital support services were understaffed. Inside refugee camps, self-isolation and social distancing were nearly impossible to implement. To make matters worse, during the first weeks, the financial support became slowly scarce. Thousands of refugees and migrants were once again among the victims of yet another crisis.

Last Thursday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) published a shocking report stating that in 2019: "One percent of the world's population is now forcibly displaced". This is a total of 79,5 million people, 40% of whom are children. In 2019, according to the UNHCR, more than 63 311 people – running way from persecution, conflicts and human rights violations – have risked their lives reaching Europe by sea. The number of first-time asylum applicants in 2019 was 612 700, but only 38 % of the EU-27 first instance asylum decisions resulted in positive outcomes in 2019. Without citizenship, many refugees and migrants were unable to obtain healthcare during the lockdown period, even though, they were part of the population most exposed to the virus.  However, many socialist and progressive politicians have already presented solutions to tackle this issue and have built the basis for a more inclusive and caring society.

On the occasion of the World Refugee Day (20th June 2020), the Group of the Party of European Socialists (PES Group) in the European Committee of the Regions calls for a genuine integration of refugees, with the means necessary to make it successful. The creation of a Common Asylum System in Europe based on the respect of fundamental rights is therefore an absolute necessity. Given that they are key implementers, cities and regions have a key role to play to put in practice the best measures possible at their disposal. The PES Group sincerely hopes that the upcoming European Commission proposal for a new pact on migration and asylum will be commensurate to the challenge in order to provide a humane, comprehensive and sustainable solution for refugees and asylum seekers.

Today, more than ever, it is important to remind ourselves that running away from misery is not a choice, and that solidarity must not represent an empty word.

The progressive response –solidarity on the ground

Leading by example, the Portuguese government, led by the socialist Prime Minister Antonio Costa, announced on the 28th of March that the government was granting citizenship rights to "all migrants and asylum seekers who have residency applications underway". This initiative represented an important step towards the inclusion of migrants and asylum seekers in the Portuguese society and compelled the public authorities to guarantee essential rights – such as health and public services – for those who needed it the most. This action was praised by Richard Danziger, the regional director of UN Migration, and constitutes an example of solidarity during a period when most national priorities in Europe are concentrated elsewhere.

In Spain – one of the main destinations for refugees and migrants – the socialist-led government of Pedro Sanchez implemented numerous emergency measures to ensure the safe running of the procedures for the integration of asylum seekers. The measures ranged from suspending administrative deadlines for the duration of the pandemic to the on-going provision of aid coverage during this period without the obligation to have valid documents.

At the local level, many local and regional progressive leaders have been sending us their best solidarity practices for the last three months, all publicly presented in our COVID-19 solidarity page. Several initiatives reflect upon the refugee issue.

Two months ago, the socialist Lord Mayor of Krefel in Germany, Frank Meyer, presented us with the solidarity measures introduced during the lockdown period in his municipality. Since the beginning of the outbreak, the tailoring department of the city theatre has been sewing masks and donating them to refugees that are "helplessly exposed to the virus in their wait at the EU's external borders."

In the Brussels-Capital Region, a €30 million fund was allocated to support operators that are in the front line of this crisis. Rudi Vervoort, the socialist Minister-President of the region, told us that among these operators "we can find hospitals, but also sectors of social action (for migrants and homeless people)". The economic and social measures implemented in the region were especially designed to focus on the most vulnerable people such as the homeless, migrants and asylum seekers.

And finally, in the municipality of Fermignano (Italy), city councillor Othmane Yassine alerted us to the "lack of access to certain civil rights for minority groups" such as the right for minorities to exercise their faith during the lockdown. This pressing issue is valid also within refugee communities, currently stuck in various refugee camps, and unable to express their faiths securely.

The above-mentioned progressive solidarity stories have demonstrated us that it is possible to take bold measures towards solidarity. In fact, refugees have not only demonstrated to be an asset for our society in general, but also a valuable ally in the fight against the coronavirus. Many asylum seekers and refugees have offered their help – despite being often subjected to political attacks – by working in shopping malls, assisting in hospitals, giving a helping hand in the agricultural sector or even by helping the homeless.

For these, and many other reasons, we must honour today the numerous refugee heroes who have contributed to our safety and that have kept us free from the Covid-19 pandemic, despite their very vulnerable position. Together with our health and sanitary workers, they are the heroes of this crisis.

“United in diversity”

This is why the European motto of “United in diversity” must mean something more than just a slogan. It must remind us that everyone – without exception – deserves to live a decent life. Repeatedly, many refugees fleeing from war have showed us their courage and availability to help when necessary. Solidarity knows no borders and being a refugee should not prevent any human being from fully enjoying their fundamental rights. As seen above, our progressive national, local and regional leaders have presented concrete and bold solutions and highlighted many issues that need to be solved in the near future. The EU must also take a stance, and support our cities and regions with the necessary means, by effectively implementing the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF) during the next seven years.

The PES Group will always advocate for solidarity and for the effective application of measures, which will allow for the effective integration of refugees in our societies.