Tuesday

2nd Jun 2020

Coronavirus

Refugees across Europe help fight the pandemic

  • Governments across Europe are asking asylum seekers for help (Photo: European Commission)

Asylum seekers and refugees in the small Dutch town of Ter Apel are volunteering to help keep local residents free from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Among them is 23-year old Dyar, a Kurdish asylum seeker from northern Syria. Along with two dozen other asylum seekers, Dyar is disinfecting shopping carts and baskets outside Jumbo and Aldi grocery stores.

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"We are cleaning trollies there because we do our best to keep people safe," he told EUobserver by phone on Monday (6 April).

Dyar did not want to disclose his last name. But he said local reaction to their volunteer efforts, often posted on social media, has been overwhelmingly positive.

"We help everyone and if I say the people, I mean all the people," he said, noting many of the volunteers come from Algeria, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria and Tajikistan.

Dutch and English-speaking supervisors help guide the teams to make sure everything runs smoothly with the locals.

With places for 2,000 asylum seekers, Ter Apel is the Netherlands' largest reception centre. It has also been one of strife, following past complaints of shoplifting by a handful of asylum seekers. Such actions painted almost everyone else in a negative light.

"We have good people inside and we have bad people and we do our best to do what we can to change people to be better," said Dyar, noting their efforts are creating new positive connections with local residents.

Public perception aside, the politics surrounding migration throughout much of the European Union is often toxic.

When asked last month if the Netherlands would assist Greece by taking in child asylum seekers from the overcrowded camps on the Aegean islands, the government in the Hague refused.

"We are not willing to take over children," Dutch security and justice minister Ankie Broekers-Knol told reporters in Brussels.

Those comments were in response to stalled efforts at the European Union-level to remove 1,600 unaccompanied minors from overcrowded camps on the Greek islands to eight EU states.

Despite often being subjected to political attacks, refugees across the EU are coming forward to help.

The Seine-et-Marne municipality in the outskirts of Paris in late March asked refugees to step in to help pick strawberries and asparagus crops given a shortage of labour.

Authorities in Saxony in Germany posted similar requests, demanding migrants with medical backgrounds to help fight the pandemic. The region is also an epicentre for the far-right nationalist Alternative for Germany party, which typically rails against migrants. Now migrants are being recruited to shore up medical staff.

Spain also recruited 200 foreign doctors and health workers to help out. And in Austria, civil society has teamed up with the UN refugee agency UNHCR to recruit health workers, rubbish collectors and other needed services.

Refugees feeding homeless in Italy

In the northern Italian city of Turin, another group of refugees are helping out the homeless.

Mosaico is a refugee-led organisation based there, and helps asylum seekers when it comes to legal problems and integration.

But with the pandemic hitting northern Italy hard, the organisation has suspended its activities to focus on how to best fight the virus.

"We help out not only refugees but also the homeless," Yagoub Kibeida, Mosaico's director told EUobserver.

He said some 150 asylum seekers, including families, are living in abandoned buildings in Turin. Others sleep in homeless shelters overnight. Such shelters typically require people to leave during the day.

But the municipality is now allowing them to remain inside the shelter and off the streets. Mosaico has since stepped up to feed those at the shelters, regardless of nationality or background.

The organisation has also developed an app where people can find out where to sleep, eat for free, take a shower, or other services.

"All the people in the city of Torino can make use of it. Refugees, non-refugees," he said.

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Berlin's justice minister Dirk Behrendt has said the city is ready to airlift up to 1,500 asylum seekers and refugees stuck on the Greek islands, as German activists collect money to pay for the evacuation.

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Greece has banned large pubic gatherings to curb the spread of the coronavirus, while imposing a curfew on thousands of asylum seekers and migrants living in misery in overcrowded camps, with one water tap for 1,300 people at one camp.

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Ports in Italy and Malta closed amid claims they are no longer safe because of the pandemic. The move means NGO rescue vessels are in limbo. The European Commission says it cannot pass any judgement on the closures.

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