'No one should be left to die': Fighting to protect refugees in Europe amid Covid-19

'No one should be left to die': Fighting to protect refugees in Europe amid Covid-19
6 min read
26 May, 2020
New groups are mobilising across Europe to demand an evacuation of refugee camps as the Covid-19 pandemic makes already bad conditions for asylum-seekers untenable.
New campaign groups have sprung up amid the pandemic to protect refugees in Europe. [Getty]
"This is the time we have to show humanity to everyone, regardless of what papers they've got. No one should be left to die from this virus because of their migrant status".

This is the hope of Philippa and Ruby, two of the people behind the campaign group 'Demands From a Pandemic'. "If there's ever a time to change things it seems like it's now".

The Covid-19 pandemic has made already bad conditions for asylum-seekers in Europe's refugee camps untenable. With groups mobilising across Europe to demand an evacuation of the camps, The New Arab spoke to three organisations about their strategies.

Building solidarity

'Demands From a Pandemic' groups exist in Denmark, France, the UK and Ireland.  "It's a really simple idea: we organise simultaneous banner drops out of people's homes across the country with slogans that raise the profile of the struggles of people in various forms of imprisonment," Philippa told The New Arab.

They organise through small groups who already work supporting refugees, migrants and detainees to "link up the local struggles and make clear that a lot of these demands are connected," says Ruby.

The Covid-19 pandemic has made already bad conditions for asylum-seekers in Europe's refugee camps untenable

It is also a creative solution to difficulties in demonstrating under lockdown. "Because of this virus, normal protesting has become very difficult," says Cyan from the German solidarity group Coloured Rain.

The banners capitalise on the solidarity that can be found between people's experiences of lockdown and the experience that those detained live through every day.

"For a lot of people this is the first time that they can't go and see their family on their birthday, or attend a funeral. As somebody with a European passport it might be the first time that the borders of Europe are shut to you: there's an opening there for feelings of solidarity," says Philippa. "Although obviously life in the camps and detention centres is much worse".

A banner in London urging solidarity with refugees. [Demands From a Pandemic]

Rose Aitchison is a young person living in Glasgow who has been moved by the banners. "The windows in my local area are plastered with demands for an end to detention centres, evacuation of the camps, and papers for all. In times like these where we can't come together physically, these remind us of what's important, and of the strength in a community's solidarity."

The banner campaigns have also allowed the similarities between different local issues - such as the situation for asylum seekers in Glasgow and of those suffering under Direct Provision in Ireland - to become apparent. 

Protest in the camps  

Every Wednesday, groups of residents of the infamous Moria camp in Lesbos have been protesting at the gates. The first , on 22 April, was led by French-speaking African asylum seekers, and was joined by many members of the Afghan community in the following weeks.

No one should be left to die from this virus because of their migrant status

They do not fear the effects of such a gathering in the same way as their counterparts in Germany and the UK because in the camps, social distancing is not possible.

Meanwhile detainees in the pre-removal centre in Moria - known as the 'Moria prison' - attempted a hunger strike. The prison is a holding centre for those who have violated asylum rules (for example, by leaving Lesbos before their interview) or who have been deemed to have a low likelihood of success due to their country of origin. 

'I am on hunger strike!' [Coloured Rain]

A large number of inmates went on hunger strike to demand their release in order to avoid the catastrophic consequences of the spread of the virus in the prison, where they remain indefinitely until deportations are resumed. 

"All the prisons in the world have released prisoners. We have decided to choose between death and freedom," their statement read. However, the protest was put down by force within the week and the prisoners remain.

Marinblue and Cyan, from Coloured Rain, are employing similar strategies in solidarity. "Our group began the hunger strike on the 29th of April," they said. "Hearing about the Moria hunger strikers made us more determined, because they are not able to do it. Together, we will be heard". 

The demands of the different groups differ in their specificities, but the same message recurs:

  • Safe housing for everybody! Rehouse people from camps and detention centres into adequate and safe accommodation! Stop ongoing and new evictions of people from UK Home Office accommodation - Demands from a Pandemic
  • Establish resettlement programs for people, whose lives are in danger due to lack of basic hygienic supplies and medical care in the Greek island camp! - Coloured Rain   
  • Immediate action from all Member States to decongest the Aegean Islands of Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Kos and Leros through fair relocation of asylum seekers across European countries for the sake of universal human rights and in accordance with obligations set out under Art 78(3) of the TFEU and the 2001 Directive on Temporary Protection - Europe Must Act 

Pressuring municipalities

Whilst the actions of groups like 'Demands From a Pandemic' seek to build solidarity amongst communities more generally, the group Europe Must Act focuses on municipalities as a way to force the EU to act. 

This is the time we have to show humanity to everyone, regardless of what papers they've got

"We decided that the only way to get long lasting change was to channel our demands at the highest level," Campaigns Co-ordinator Kirsty told The New Arab. "The only way to be noticed was to raise the voices of those living, volunteering and working in the Aegean and to encourage European people to speak out against the conditions". 

They began by writing an Open Letter to the EU Commission and EU Parliament demanding a decongestion of the Aegean Islands and fair reception, relocation and integration of people. It was signed by 100,000 people, over 160 NGOs and 10 MEPs.  

"After a meeting with Ylva Johansson (EU Commissioner of Home Affairs), we realised that, in order to ensure positive change, we require representation at the municipal level... If the pressure comes from the city level, this will be raised up to the national level and so on to the EU level where the compassionate change can be enacted".

A banner drop in Dublin. [Demands from a Pandemic]

So far, they have had success: the city of Landau in Germany has pledged to take in 50 refugees in response to the campaign.  

Everything still to play for

It appears then that amongst the chaos there is everything to play for, especially as the Greek government seizes this moment of rupture to accelerate plans to transform camps into "closed controlled centres". They have also rolled out plans to build more "pre-return detention facilities" like the Moria prison. As Ruby remembers, "a few weeks before the lockdown there were riots against this stuff".  

"It's been shown that there can be huge change overnight if governments want to, they can do it. It's like trying to grasp at things in all this chaos; things that you'd never think would happen have been happening overnight," Philippa adds. "If there's ever a time to get really angry, it's now."

Keira Dignan is a freelance journalist and librarian based in Athens, Greece

Follow her on Twitter: @refugeelibrary