At present, illegal migrants, more often referred to by western media outlets as refugees, remain one of the most vulnerable social groups during the COVID-19 pandemic. An uncontrollable spread of the Coronavirus among such individuals could undermine everything that is being done by the global community to fight the pandemic.
There are currently approximately 70 million refugees in camps worldwide. There is often not much space between their tents, which are used to house as many people as possible. This situation is further exacerbated by the fact that 2 billion people on planet Earth do not have access to running water. Hence, it is probably impractical to encourage them to wash their hands regularly. Common items used for protection against diseases, such as gloves and masks, are probably widely unavailable to them. Such personal protective equipment is even in short supply in rich countries affected by the pandemic. And it is difficult to know exactly what is happening in poorer nations, in Africa, for instance.
We can only hope that living in these poor wretched conditions that refugees have been condemned to for decades will be their salvation nowadays. After all, the Coronavirus is currently spreading rapidly in richer countries, whose inhabitants travel widely, and not in Africa, the Sahel or South Asia where some refugees reside.
Still, the conditions that these displaced persons are forced to live in, as a result of plundering policies pursued by some western nations and armed conflicts caused by them, were already difficult, but they are significantly worse now. Many refugees and internally displaced individuals do not have access to basic medical facilities let alone special equipment used in the fight against COVID-19.
The World Health Organization (WHO), international bodies and governments are aware of the aforementioned problems However, since majority of nations are currently battling the pandemic, help to the most vulnerable individuals is limited to a bit of financial aid, which, in the author’s opinion, mainly reaches officials responsible for such issues and not those in need.
According to media outlets, certain experts admit that applying political pressure on the European Union by threatening it with yet another migration crisis, as Ankara has done, no longer has the desired effect. After all, there are now many legitimate reasons for Europe not to let in refugees as COVID-19 continues to spread in an unprecedented manner. Therefore, European nations have an opportunity of sorts to stop the flow of illegal migrants into their territories.
Still, Turkish government officials continue to blackmail the EU using the plight of Syrian refugees. Very recently, Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu stated directly that his nation was no longer willing to accept any more displaced persons from its neighbor and, once again, accused the EU of not taking a single step towards resolving the refugee crisis.
In the meantime, the European Commission (EC) announced that they would temporarily suspend the implementation of programs aimed at relocating refugees, including unaccompanied minors, from camps in Greece and Italy, stating that, in the current climate, the EU was forced to put a stop to such initiatives because of measures taken to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus.
It is also noteworthy that ships, hired by the EU to “aid refugees”, have recently started sailing in the Mediterranean Sea. These vessels promptly respond to SOS calls from illegal migrants traveling in rafts, take them on board and then hand them over to the Libyan Coast Guard, who, in the best-case scenario, will transfer them to refugees camps resembling prisons or, in the worst-case scenario, “assign” them to one of the armed factions engaged in the conflict there. The ships belong to private entities and not to specific nations. They are under no obligation to provide safe passage, and in the author’s opinion, these vessels obviously “work for” Libyan recruiters who supply mercenaries for the unending armed conflict in this country and clearly wish to derive a financial benefit from the current COVID-19 pandemic. The author thinks that there is an urgent need to conduct an in-depth international investigation into the people and organizations that are involved in such activities.
Turkey closed the Öncüpınar and Çobanbey (Al-Rai) border crossings to civilians in Kilis Province on the border with Syria. And at present, Turkey’s Ministry of Trade has decreed that only vehicles transporting commercial goods are to be allowed to pass through these checkpoints. Individuals, including Syrian refugees, will no longer be able to cross the border.
Still, the issue of Syrian refugees, especially those from the Idlib region, continues to cause a great deal of concern not only among EU nations but also in the entire Middle East. After all, a pandemic in Idlib would have catastrophic consequences for the neighboring nations. Syria is not very far from Europe. And although Europeans have implemented drastic measures in their battle against the Coronavirus, there is still a possibility that illegal migrants could continue to spread the disease. According to some media outlets, the Syrian province of Idlib is more of “a giant refugee camp of sorts”. Closed borders and trade routes have not stopped the virus from spreading. The sad truth is that if there is a COVID-19 outbreak in Idlib, it will inevitably have a devastating effect on Syrians, Libyans, Jordanians, Turks, Iranians, Europeans and even Americans.
Aside from worries about the potential spread of the Coronavirus among displaced persons in Syria, the Turkish society is, at present, very concerned about refugees from Afghanistan who are coming to Turkey via Iran, a nation viewed as practically one of the largest epicenters of COVID-19 in the Middle East.
In addition, there are more and more reports lately about the fact that Turkey is trying to rid itself of fighters from Syria by sending them to Libya, which could not only prolong the armed conflict in the latter but also result in the spread of the Coronavirus. Confessions made by fighters for the Government of National Accord (GNA, led by Fayez al-Sarraj) who have been arrested in Libya more or less confirm that fighters from Syria continue to be sent to Libya. There is very little doubt that such reports are accurate taking into account the fact that it would be otherwise impossible for the fighters in Syria to cross a maritime boundary. In addition, we ought to give consideration to Ankara’s policies in relation to North Africa, and also Libya, which has demonstrated its affinity for pro-Turkey supporters. In fact, it is important to remember that many Turkophiles, descendants of inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire, live in the northern towns in Libya.
This is why the international community, which is not taking any steps to resolve the refugee crisis nowadays, is morally responsible for the deaths in Syria, the Middle East and Europe that could have been avoided.
Vladimir Platov, Middle East expert, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.