20 June is World Refugee Day. This year, humanitarian and refugee agencies will mark it very differently due to the coronavirus pandemic, but for millions of refugees and other forcibly displaced people, little will change. For many of them, putting food on the table remains a bigger challenge than avoiding getting infected. I talk about these competing priorities and possible solutions with Reshad Jalali, Policy Officer at the Brussels-based European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE).
Reshad, tell me a bit about yourself. How did you arrive in Europe?
I come from Herat, a city in western Afghanistan. Due to the deterioration of the security situation in Afghanistan and the serious threats to our lives, in 2007 my family and I had to leave our relatives, our home and our country behind to save our lives. We moved to India for a while, later my family moved to Europe while I stayed in India to continue my higher education in the hope that one day, I could return to my country to serve my people. Unfortunately, that still remains a dream as Afghanistan is still suffering from conflict, war and corruption. Like for many Afghans, peace is still a utopia for me. In the late 2015, during the so-called refugee crisis, I arrived in Belgium to join my parents and to start a new beginning. I had to go through a lengthy asylum procedure in Belgium until I got refugee protection.
What do you do in Brussels now?
In 2016, refugees were making headlines every day, they were a daily topic for discussion by government policy makers. Often there were and still are policy roundtables about refugee issues without a single person with refugee status or with a refugee background in the room. This really attracted my attention, I wanted to be part of that discussion to better understand what was going on and what would happen to our future. I became so interested in refugee policy that I applied for a job that matched my profile at ECRE in 2018 and have been in this position since.
If you are still in touch with your family and friends in Afghanistan, do you know how they are dealing with the coronavirus pandemic? What kind of challenges are they facing?
I have strong connections and feelings for Afghanistan. I am in touch with relatives and friends, exchanging regular updates on the situation in the country. At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, most people in Afghanistan didn’t take it seriously for many reasons. They didn’t follow government measures, particularly on social distancing. In the beginning, the number of cases was very low compared to our neighbour, Iran, although the Afghan government feared a wave of infections due to its close trade relations with Iran. When cases increased, people finally saw the problem. More recently, Afghanistan has been facing a big wave, it has reached 23,000 confirmed cases. If the pandemic has created a huge crisis in countries with advanced infrastructure and good health systems, imagine what it can do in Afghanistan where the health system is weak and under-funded. There are lots of challenges now, like testing kits, lack of ventilators in the country and few intensive care units. Currently the capacity to carry out tests is 2,000 per day, but actual cases are probably a lot more. Not having the actual picture of the situation fuels lots of uncertainty. There are also many cases of Afghan refugees repatriating from Iran as many lost their jobs in Iran and had no alternative but to go back to Afghanistan. I believe there is a mix of voluntary and forced repatriation going on.
From your perspective, what are the most striking similarities and differences in the way people are managing the current situation in Europe and Afghanistan?
More differences than similarities in approaches. Unfortunately, Afghanistan’s economy is very much dependent on foreign aid. Long decades of war and conflict ruined the health care system in Afghanistan with millions of people having little or no access to proper medical care. Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, Afghans often had to go to neighbouring countries for medical treatment and diagnosis.
Moreover, many of the measures introduced by the government, such as social distancing, are not possible in Afghanistan, because many labour workers survive on daily wages and lack hygiene products. Hunger is a much bigger problem than Covid-19. My city, Herat, has the highest number of positive cases in the country after [the capital] Kabul. It is believed that half of the population there is infected and the death rate is increasing. My Facebook page has become a funeral place, every day I receive news of the death of friends, family and relatives.
What do you think of the way the EU is supporting refugees living within and beyond its borders in the midst of the pandemic?
Since 2016, the EU and its Member States’ main strategy has been to “externalize” responsibility for [international] protection and to prevent people from claiming asylum in Europe. In the Greek islands, refugees are living in overcrowded camps. However, since the outbreak of the pandemic, there have been both positive and negative developments. At the beginning of the outbreak in Europe there was a negative turn, especially in the Netherlands, Belgium, Greece and Cyprus. These countries suspended asylum procedures due to the coronavirus, when in fact they wanted to limit the right to asylum, as is the case in Greece where the virus is being used to justify new restrictive measures and proposals to downgrade the right to asylum.
On a positive note, reception conditions are beginning to improve. Portugal has provided temporary status to undocumented migrants and those going through the asylum procedure, granting them the right to social security, housing and health care. In Spain and some other EU countries, detention measures have been eased for people who cannot be returned to their country. In Italy, due to a shortage of seasonal workers, the coalition government has decided to regularise more than 200,000 undocumented migrants. Belgium has granted work permits to asylum seekers from Day 1 of their asylum status. The pandemic has also led to acknowledge the role and contribution of refugees and asylum-seekers to the society of their host country. Many of these people are on the front lines, from serving food in hospitals to doing food deliveries.
Some of these positive measures are temporary and are responses to the Covid-19 outbreak. As every crisis opens up an opportunity, I hope this crisis has made states realise that no one is safe until everyone is safe. I hope some of the above positive measures translate into long-term measures.
Let’s talk about the Global Refugee Forum (GRF), when for the first time governments, the private sector, civil society, refugee representatives and other actors came together in support of refugees and their host communities. You attended the Forum as the representative of your organisation, ECRE. What was your experience?
It was very exciting to see such a high-level event focus on refugees. The Global refugee Forum was a successful moment for all of us. It brought together government officials, NGOs, private sector, faith-based organizations and refugees themselves under one roof to discuss refugee issues and to help other refugee-hosting countries to share the burden and responsibility for assisting refugees. It was great to see more than 1,400 pledges made at the Forum.
The Forum took place in December 2019. The world has changed since then – what do you think is the most effective way to follow up on that gathering in the current global situation?
Since December we have been living in a different era – I almost forgot the previous world we were in then. I’m afraid the pandemic might delay the implementation of the pledges made at the Forum. For example, resettlement and complementary pathways have been on hold since the outbreak. Also, at the Forum health sector pledges were not considered so important, but now they are. Governments and agencies need to follow up on those pledges, they should provide hygiene products in camps. The focus should be to move those vulnerable people out of the camps because it is impossible to follow the social distancing rule in refugee camps such as Cox’s Bazaar [the world’s largest].
The Covid-19 pandemic has had a severe economic impact. Many refugees have lost their jobs and incomes, many refugee-led organizations are fighting for their survival due to lack of funding. Governments and other relevant stakeholders should help refugees and support them financially.
World Refugee Day is coming up this week. Is there a special message about refugees you would like to share with the international community and concerned citizens?
We are celebrating World Refugee Day while almost 80 million people are forced to move. Many are living under dire situations with uncertain futures in overcrowded refugee camps. My message to the international community is clear and simple: since the issue of refugees is a global challenge, it requires global and multilateral solutions from states. In the short term, governments should help refugees and create welcoming societies. Importantly, they should include refugees when designing national plans. In the long term, governments should work on the root causes of forced migration.
Anything else you would like to say?
Following the Covid-19 outbreak in Europe, together with the Greek Forum of Refugees in Athens we came up with a crowdsourcing idea called “Support the most vulnerable and still invisible people facing the crisis of Covid-19 lockdown“. The Greek Forum wanted to play a role in host societies by helping refugees and migrants in Athens during these unprecedented challenging times. We collected money and other support for people living in dire situations in Athens. The Greek Forum of Refugees then distributed the money collected in the form of voucher coupons so that people could buy essential food and hygiene products at the supermarket. The crowd funding received a lot of support and donations from our friends, partners and colleagues in different European countries.
Top photo credits: Reshad Jalali