Refugees can be forgiven for feeling that the world has forgotten them. In just a few short years, affluent nations have gone from opening their arms to outcasts from the Middle East, Africa and Asia, to closed borders, limited corridors of movement and declining global assistance. And now, with the introduction of the Coronavirus terrifying people across the world, any chance of relief has dried up in just a matter of weeks.
All this just as the levels of displacement have reached the highest levels in recorded history. Currently, 70 million people have been forced from their homes. Some are internally displaced, but 26 million are refugees, forced out of their home countries with nowhere to turn. And of these, over half are under the age of 18. They have little access to simple human rights, education, employment, mobility and a future. At the moment, one person is forcibly displaced every two seconds as a result of conflict or persecution.
Powerful alt-right and nationalist tendencies in normally compassionate nations have succeeded in closing borders, denying access, and forcibly deporting entire families. Other countries, like Canada, once a global light on this subject a short while ago, have been beset by other domestic concerns, relegating what used to be an embrace of persecuted peoples to a back page.
Things have been building for years, threatening to burst checkpoints and catastrophically overload beleaguered refugee camps across the world. Only two months ago, the Atlantic ran a feature story titled, “The World’s Refugee System is Broken.” Few argued, as a bad situation threatened to become worse.
And then came the first news of a threatening virus in China that would eventually go global and send everything into disarray, including stock markets.
Every government, whether they admit it or not, are quietly considering the possibilities of closing borders, airports, ports and train stations should the epidemic become a pandemic. Domestic constituencies are increasingly demanding broader protections and to satisfy that demand, governments will have to undertake more serious access restrictions at their borders.
This is serious stuff, and likely inevitable. Airlines, regional and international, could go broke. The stock market could lose confidence altogether. Health systems might well be overrun. Communities will inevitably start closing in on themselves.
But consider all this from the refugee’s point of view. In almost an instant, your possibilities, your hopes, your mobilization to a better life are likely dashed, as your world suddenly just got a whole lot smaller. If you are one of the 12 million refugees or internally displaced people (IDP) in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon or Turkey – countries intricately linked to one of the virus’s epicentres in Iran – you have just become something other than someone seeking a better place for you and your family. You are now perceived to be a threat to the broader world, simply because of geography.
Refugees and IDPs don’t travel first class. They live in crowded camps, with limited health services. They have limited water and sanitation amenities. And they frequently travel in caravans of people. In other words, they are susceptible as victims and potential threats as Coronavirus hosts. Perhaps the greatest irony is that it is these vulnerable populations that are the most at risk and in need of assistance against the virus. If the best way of controlling Coronavirus is through tracing the movements of its victims, how possible will it be to track the mobility of migrants and refugees?
And just how willing will global relief efforts be to assist vulnerable refugee communities as opposed to, say, New York, Mumbai, Rome or Toronto? Media attention will be focused on affluent regions at risk, as opposed to refugee camps that no one has even heard of. And will vulnerable people be willing to report themselves as carriers if it would mean possible deportation to protect the camps?
A global refugee system that is already broken and under-resourced could collapse within its own anonymity and lack of connection to affluent regions. It is likely that those charged with assisting and alleviating the current refugee crisis never had time to consider something like the Coronavirus. They had too much on their plate just keeping migrant humanity alive and protected.
Prior to the virus, David Slater, an American anthropology professor, was already spelling out the urgency:
“The amount of conflict in the world and the number of people who are fleeing are so disproportionately larger now. For us to try to use a framework that was designed under a particular set of conditions and under a particular scale is no longer feasible.”
What happens to this assessment now that the Coronavirus is working its way around the globe? It means that the plight of millions of refugees and IDPs feels increasingly unsolvable – transcended by a virus no one had ever heard of even a month ago. As Min Jin Lee wrote: “For people like us, home doesn’t exist.” In the age of the Coronavirus, this is now the fate of millions. Their world didn’t just turn; it turned on them.
Glen Pearson was a career professional firefighter and is a former Member of Parliament from southwestern Ontario. He and his wife adopted three children from South Sudan and reside in London, Ontario. He has been the co-director of the London Food Bank for 32 years. He writes regularly for the London Free Press and also shares his views on a blog entitled “The Parallel Parliament“. Follow him on twitter @GlenPearson.