Refugee Week 2020

Migrants from the Moria camp on Lesbos arrive at the port of Piraeus, Athens on 4 May. The Greek government has promised to transfer 2,000 asylum seekers to the mainland. Photograph: Miloš Bičanski/Getty Images

A year on from Refugee Week 2019 and our world is unrecognisable. We’ve become accustomed to doing the Corona swerve to ensure a 2m distance between us and others, on the pavement or in the supermarket. Many of us wear face masks, either because it’s required by our governments or because we feel they will protect us or (more realistically) others from us. We’ve all seen the photographs of landmarks around the world, usually teeming with people but now still and empty. Our own streets have been quieter, our air clearer. We become accustomed to hearing the daily death toll, to clapping for the people who are risking their lives to keep us safe, fed and protected.

We’ve adjusted to change that would have seemed unimaginable this time last year, and to tragedy that we could not have envisaged, whether or not it has come close to us and the people we love.

In this new world we have felt at times that we are ‘all in the same boat’, wherever and whoever we are. But it’s truer to say that whilst we are all in the same storm, some of us are in sturdier crafts than others. Those who had safe homes, a robust health service, family support and secure income when the storm hit can hunker down and get through it. Those who have nothing, nowhere and no one will perish. Of course, the former group may perish too, if they become seriously ill, they may fall into one of the risk groups (based on age, gender, ethnicity and underlying health conditions). But many in the second group will fall into the risk categories too, and so are still more likely to die. We say that the virus does not discriminate, and of course it doesn’t, in the sense of actively choosing who to infect. But its effects, and the severity of the effects, are inevitably worse in those who are already vulnerable, and those who have the least control over their circumstances.

The ‘stay at home, stay safe’ message must sound bitter to so many, whose homes were not safe, whose journey from home was to protect themselves and their children from danger.

How do you socially isolate in an overcrowded refugee camp? How do you protect yourself if you are in a detention centre, awaiting deportation? How do you escape the horrors of war, terrorist attacks, desperate poverty and starvation, when even the most porous borders, even the most welcoming countries, are closed? And, if your instinct is to flee a place of danger, how do you ensure you don’t take the plague with you?

This Refugee Week I will try to gather some stories about how refugees and asylum seekers worldwide are living through these perilous plague times. Because there are still wars, there is still famine, there are still terrorist attacks, there are still regimes that oppress on the basis of ethnic origin, religion, sexual orientation and political views. There are still refugees.

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