How coronavirus is worsening the perilous plight of refugees

“WE ran short of food and water. Many children and women were crying. We all started losing hope as the bodies of other refugees had to be thrown into the sea.”

Mohammed is a 40-year-old Rohingya refugee, one of thousands who have fled Myanmar since 2017 following a brutal army crackdown described by the UN as ethnic cleaning.

The majority crossed the border into neighbouring Bangladesh, but some are now trying to reach Malaysia by boat.

He told The Guardian: “Within a week or 10 days after setting sail we reached close to Malaysia, but the Malaysian coastguard stopped [us]. They would not let us get closer to the land.

“We knew that because of the coronavirus outbreak [there] the authorities became unusually strict and did not allow us to land there.”

The Malaysian military claimed those onboard would bring Covid-19 into the country.

The boat was eventually forced to turn back to Bangladesh, and after being at sea for 58 days Mohammed was rescued along with nearly 400 other refugees by the Bangladeshi coastguard, but at least 30 died at sea.

The survivors have now been placed in quarantine, perhaps the responsible thing to do as Covid-19 continues to spread.

Allowing hundreds of desperate men, women and children fleeing persecution to suffer and die at sea for whatever reason is surely indefensible, however.

“The Covid-19 pandemic does not create a justification for risking the lives of refugees on overcrowded boats,” Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson told the organisation’s website.

“The Malaysian government can both protect against the spread of the virus and ensure that those risking their lives at sea are rescued and given a chance to seek asylum.”

Sadly, this is happening elsewhere.

Redaction Politics recently reported how some EU countries such as Italy and Malta appeared to be using the outbreak as an excuse to refuse help to Libyan and Syrian refugees drowning in the Mediterranean.

“If people are drowning then they need to be rescued. It doesn’t matter where you came from. If you’re drowning you need to be saved,” Ben Cowles of The Morning Star told Redaction.

READ MORE: How the EU is using the pandemic to disrupt migrants

Human Rights Watch claim such heavy-handed responses breach obligations in international law which state that public health measures must be proportionate and non-discriminatory.

The UK has also been accused for getting in on the act, with many refugee campaign groups reacting with alarm to the government’s decision to suspend the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme.

The UK government has worked with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to bring almost 20,000 refugees to the UK since 2014.

A temporary suspension to all resettlement programmes was announced by the UNHCR on March 17 as Covid-19 spread, but with a call for states to continue resettlements in emergency cases where possible.

Wandsworth Welcomes Refugees chair Ellie Cusack told Redaction Politics: “We are deeply concerned about the millions of refugees stranded in camps which are particularly prone to the spread of coronavirus.

“We must remember that it is a human right to seek safety.”

Such help is needed now more than ever, with the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) revealing on April 28 a record 50.8 million people worldwide are now internally displaced due to conflict or disaster.

The vast majority have been forced to abandon their homes due to violence.

The Home Office has promised to resume VPRS resettlements “as soon as conditions allow.”

Such apparent reluctance to help the most vulnerable seems conspicuous, especially since thousands continue to pass through UK airports each day without any kind of screening in place.

Many flights are operating from the US, Spain and France, which along with Italy and the UK have seen the world’s worst outbreaks.

The relaxed policy, which is “under review” according to the government, is very different to those in other countries, many of which are closed to all foreign visitors or have introduced screening or quarantine measures for all new arrivals.

New Zealand is closed to travellers from abroad for example and has now declared its outbreak under control with community transmission “eliminated.”

If destitute refugees from countries with relatively low levels of infection such as Syria are such a risk, why is the UK accepting more affluent visitors from the world’s Covid-19 hotspots with open arms?

Those genuinely in need deserve so much more.

Coronavirus is holding up a mirror to society. Some seem determined to ignore the opportunity to learn from the reflection, preferring instead to smash it.

But can any of us really afford seven years bad luck right now?


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