Covid-19 in Camps – How the pandemic is impacting young refugees

Charlotte Russell

Wiseman Khuzwayo Scholarship PhD student

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

c.russell-2018@hull.ac.uk

From the early stages of the pandemic, we have seen the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on minority and marginalised groups. This disparity continues to disadvantage those living in refugee camps across the world. While Covid-19 mortality rates in refugee camps have not been as devastating as was initially predicted, the impacts of the pandemic for displaced people are both broad ranging and ongoing. In the case of young refugees, we are seeing a particular set of adverse consequences which extend beyond physical health.

In my research I’m speaking with NGOs working within refugee camps on the Greek islands, and with people living in the camps who are seeking asylum. Time and time again, when I asked about the safety issues which young people in these camps are facing, Covid-19 came up. Interviewees spoke about the increased, unmonitored abuse and exploitation of young people as a result of Covid-19. One young man referred to this as the ‘hidden pandemic’ in refugee camps. A little more exploration revealed that this is unfortunately very much a trend across camps globally. While every camp presents distinct problems, trends such as this are appearing across the world.

Lockdowns, income loss, restriction of services and confinement to insecure environments are increasing the existing threats to the safety and well-being of young refugees. They are facing higher levels of mistreatment, gender-based violence, exploitation, abusive smuggling, social exclusion and separation from caregivers. In a refugee camp setting, where the stresses of daily life are already severe and child protection services are limited or non-existent, these increased safety risks are felt all the more intensely. While interconnected, these issues can be grouped into three dimensions: provision of services, poverty and xenophobia.

Services which young people in camps relied upon to alleviate the associated problems of encampment are slowed, or unable to function. One example of this is the closure of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) providing education services. Schools in refugee camps provide an informal safeguarding role – one which is rarely filled in any formal capacity. NGO representatives have described to me how getting to know young people and seeing them on a regular basis allowed their teachers to spot indicators that a young person may be experiencing some form of abuse, and to act accordingly. Remote learning is simply not accessible financially to the majority of these young people. It requires a mobile device, mobile data, and very often a long journey on foot to purchase the mobile data, not to mention the risk of exploitation or abuse faced while making this journey to the nearest town. In any case, it is the in-person contact which most effectively alerts teachers or support staff to a safeguarding issue.

Many other support structures are now closed too, including ‘safe spaces’ in camps. In Vial refugee camp on the island of Chios, the ‘safe space’ for women and young people has now been closed for ten months, making it harder for children to report child protection issues and receive the necessary support and care. Closures of support structures such as these are linked by NGOs and refugees themselves to the increasing rates of neglect, abuse, gender-based violence and child marriages occurring in camps.

Shifts in the services processing asylum claims are also having a tangible impact on the overcrowding and poor monitoring of camp residents. United Nations agencies suspended resettlement procedures at the beginning of the pandemic. In many countries, border closures have left displaced people stranded, placing children and their families at risk of further harm and potentially separating families for longer stretches. In the United States, people seeking asylum, including children, have been turned away or deported to their countries of origin at the United States–Mexico border as part of the response to Covid-19. This indefinite prolongation of encampment also further increases the poverty of those living in camps worldwide.

While the pandemic has not only increased the impacts of poverty on displaced people in camps, it has also altered and reduced the means available to refugees to combat these poverty increases. Children and young people are no exception to this change. Families and caregivers of refugee children are inherently more vulnerable to job loss or economic downturns. With loss of access to support services (which have been forced to withdraw or reduce their support due to social distancing measures or lack of funding), comes a greater intensity of need. This increased need for food, clothing, shelter, and income must be accommodated somehow. And with the closure of ‘safer’ channels to do so, there is an increased likelihood of children accessing what they or their family need through means which exploit them. More children are now working to provide income for their families, engaging in coercive or emotional relationships, exploitative or abusive smuggling, or sexual exploitation.

Very much interwoven with these issues is the circulation of misinformation on the spread of Covid-19. Stigma, xenophobia and discrimination towards displaced children and their families are being exacerbated worldwide. In Lebanon, multiple municipalities have introduced restrictions on Syrian refugees to stem the spread of the virus. However these do not apply to Lebanese nationals. Similarly, displaced people on the Greek islands are facing curfews, and even lockdowns that do not apply to Greek residents. In Italy, there have been incidents of police brutality towards young refugees simply for leaving their camp. With these trends a differentiation is made between the rights of nationals compared to those of refugees. They also underscore the overlap between health inequality or the commodification of health, and the enjoyment of basic human rights to safety and protection, a relationship which Covid-19 has highlighted all too clearly.

While it is important not to homogenise the experiences of minority groups, or to associate the personal identities of these people with only the labels of ‘refugee’ or ‘child’, it remains important to demonstrate that they are facing distinct challenges. These challenges need to be tackled with their particular circumstances in mind. The health implications of displacement, particularly in a pandemic, are of course vital to appreciate. However the ‘hidden pandemic’ of unmonitored and unprevented abuse presents an equally vital child health crisis which continues to be overlooked.

Moria Corona Awareness Team (MCAT), a refugee-led initiative working to provide protection from Covid-19 in camps on Lesvos island. Image at https://www.facebook.com/MoriaCoronaAwarenessTeam/

Then and now, campaigning against Modern Slavery in Hull and the Humber

Andrew Smith

Coordinator

Humber Modern Slavery Partnership and the Wilberforce Institute

a.smith9@hull.ac.uk

Times change, as does the seemingly endless tide of social and humanitarian injustice that weighs on some of the most vulnerable members of our communities. Brought to the forefront of the public consciousness once again and increasingly apparent this last decade is the global epidemic of modern slavery and human trafficking. Here in Hull the focus and determination to fight is as stout as it has always been.

Hull has long played a leading role in campaigning to abolish slavery, from the work of William Wilberforce who was the leading parliamentary spokesperson in the movement to abolish the slave trade (c.1759-1833), to Christian preacher and antislavery advocate Salim Charles Wilson (c.1859-1946). Our efforts in Hull have always been focused on one aim, a safer community.

But where are we today? In a somewhat fitting homage to the original Hull Anti-Slavery Committee, our efforts are channelled and coordinated in part by the Humber Modern Slavery Partnership currently based at the Wilberforce Institute next to Wilberforce House Museum on High Street in our historic old town. Today’s efforts are much more of a whole partnership response across statutory, third sector and business organisations. We still focus on the ideas of freedom, equality and social justice as our forebears did but in an updated and more contemporary way.

I have had the enormous pleasure to work in the social sector for the last ten years in my role as founder of a small local homeless charity after my own experience of losing everything. Our approach is holistic at its core, with the aim of – you guessed it – creating safer communities. Over this time, I have seen our collective approach towards at-risk adults and children change, mostly for the better, but I know you will agree that our task is harder than ever before.

It feels to me that poverty, destitution, homelessness, conflict, our fragile global economy, our unquenchable consumer greed and strained public services are making it almost effortless for organised crime groups to exploit our most vulnerable. Be it through forced or bonded labour, sexual exploitation or sex trafficking, county lines, domestic servitude or forced criminality, the trade in human misery is lucrative with often seemingly minimal risks for the perpetrators. The world has shrunk there is no doubt, and in many ways our now close-knit global community is more susceptible to crisis and abuse than ever before. It is often easy to feel like we live in a tiny Tupperware microclimate of injustice and some unseen power is holding the lid down so we can’t breathe. The time has come for us get together and punch some air holes in the side, or even lift the lid.

So, what can we do? I am certain we can use the positives of our condensed world to our advantage, much like exploiters and the countless menacing organised crime groups do. Using instant methods of communication, data sharing, awareness, training, campaigning and positive social action we can strengthen our net to protect victims and make sure the trade in human suffering is no longer an attractive prospect for these criminals. In Humberside we are working closely in partnership across the whole region better than ever, certainly in my professional life, to bring together everyone who can make a difference. Local authorities, the NHS, criminal justice organisations, charities, businesses, the University of Hull, the Wilberforce Institute, places of learning and worship and local support services share a vision of keeping people safe from abuse and making the area around the Humber a hostile environment for would-be exploiters.

Looking honestly at the factors that make people vulnerable to slavery will help us understand the steps we all need to take to make our communities more resilient. If we can prevent homelessness in more cases, empower children to say no to criminal gangs, or help people understand their healthcare entitlements for example, we will stop more people being in a situation of impending risk. Many young people and vulnerable groups on the fringes of our communities are not always aware of what support mechanisms we have in place to prevent crisis; they are, simply put, slipping through the net.

Over the next few years we will continue to make unwavering strides to identify and plug these gaps in provision with meaningful and substantive solutions that will afford everyone equal access to the full range of services that keep us all safe. A community is as good as the people in it, and I believe wholeheartedly that there is no place in Humberside for this woeful and rancid crime. I know that by learning from our past, and adding a spoonful of innovation and lashings of passion, we have a recipe that will transform our region into a safe space for everyone regardless of social or economic status.

#HiddenInPlainSight campaign at the University of Hull. See https://www.hull.ac.uk/work-with-us/more/media-centre/hidden-in-plain-sight

The Impact of Covid-19 on Child Carers in the UK

Saphia Fleury

‘Falling Through the Net’ PhD Research Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

s.fleury-2019@hull.ac.uk, #FallingThroughTheNet

There are an estimated 700,000 young carers in the UK. These children already face huge responsibilities within their families and are at a higher risk of mental ill-health and lower educational attainment than their peers. Due to the nature of caring, it is likely that many of these children will be looking after a relative who is vulnerable to Covid-19. The lockdown and resulting economic downturn have put these children and their families at increased risk of vulnerability, including exploitation and abuse, and make it more difficult for them to realise their human rights.

Mental health impact
Research on mental health in the general population found that anxiety and depression spiked following the lockdown announcement in late March. Child carers are already at heightened risk of low self-esteem, anxiety and depression, so may be considered extremely vulnerable to worsening mental health at this time.

Research on carers’ experiences, conducted in the early stages of the UK lockdown, found high levels of anxiety amongst carers. The mental pressure of isolation, not being able to see friends or go outside for a “breather”, plus the stress of supporting a family’s everyday needs in difficult circumstances, will inevitably increase during the lockdown period. This may be compounded if household income is reduced during or following the lockdown due to underemployment or austerity measures.

Food and other essential goods
In theory, supermarket delivery slots have been reserved for the most vulnerable. However, The Guardian newspaper found that “large numbers of disabled and older people are being excluded from the scheme due to the highly selective criteria”; these criteria may impact on child carers.  Penalties for shopping for fewer items, plus delivery charges, increase the overall cost of shopping online. Equally, delivery services rely on access to the internet, email and a credit or debit card, which young carers may not have. Poorer families are less likely to have been able to “stockpile” essentials at the start of the outbreak and may have subsequently struggled to buy basic goods. These issues are compounded for child carers, who are already more likely to experience poverty than other children.

Families on low incomes are disadvantaged by the rising cost of some items and the need to shop frequently for smaller amounts of goods. Children may be afraid to leave the house to shop in case they contract the virus and become ill themselves, or pass it to vulnerable members of their household.

While some carers noted that they were receiving practical and emotional support from their local community, this is ad hoc and cannot be counted on as a long-term solution. Due to stigma, fear, or lack of social networks, child carers may be less likely or able to seek practical support within the community.

Accessing healthcare
Despite government assurances that the NHS is still open for business, fear of contracting Covid-19 appears to be keeping people away from hospitals. Child carers face a difficult decision if they see a decline in the health of a relative, which may be compounded by long NHS 111 waiting times and the unavailability of face-to-face GP services. This responsibility is likely to put enormous strain on the mental health of the child carer, as well as putting the health and wellbeing of their family members at risk.

Education
Child carers’ education already suffers because of their caring responsibilities. Child carers miss an average of 48 days of school and may struggle to find time to concentrate on homework. In the absence of a parent or teacher to guide them, these children may see a further decline in their ability to learn. This will be compounded by additional stresses and highly time-consuming activities such as shopping for essentials (see above), brought on by the circumstances of the lockdown. In this way, child carers face a double-hit in terms of access to education.

Vulnerabilities
Child carers tend to be highly competent, organised and capable, often as a result of the skills they have acquired from their caring responsibilities. But they may also have mental or physical disabilities, be refugees or members of minority groups, experience child poverty or be the victims of exploitation or abuse.

Indeed, some of these characteristics may be exacerbated by the lockdown itself. Children who are driven further into poverty, mental ill-health and isolation by the lockdown situation may become more vulnerable to situations of exploitation and abuse. In the worst cases, these situations can manifest as sexual and economic exploitation, including forced criminality, which have serious long-term effects on the health and wellbeing of the child.

It is important to contemplate these intersecting sources of vulnerability when considering the impact of Covid-19 on child carers. Being forced by the lockdown to stay away from school, friends and the community at large may mean that children who are at risk may not be seen and offered support. Above all, despite their capabilities, they must still be considered as children, with all the rights and protections due to those under the age of 18.

Researching Forced British Child Emigration

James Baker

‘Falling Through the Net’ PhD Research Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

j.baker-2019@hull.ac.uk, #FallingThroughTheNet

I am one of three funded PhD researchers within the Wilberforce Institute’s ‘Falling Through the Net’ research cluster concerning child migration. My particular area of interest is the forced emigration of British children from the United Kingdom to Australia during the twentieth century. Many of these child migrants had previously been raised within the British care system and were coerced to migrate abroad with the promise of a better quality of life. However, many child migrants were treated poorly, and have shared their experiences of abuse and exploitation while in care overseas.

My dual affiliation with the University of Hull’s Department of History and the Wilberforce Institute has granted me a unique vantage point from which to analyse this topic. Not only have I been able to research the testimony and experiences of former child migrants, but I have also been able to explore how this movement fits into broader issues of slavery and exploitation around the world, both in historic and contemporary societies. This interdisciplinary framework has also helped me to understand that in this case and many others, forced emigration, poverty and exploitation are all one singular human rights issue. This is particularly true in the case of children where discussions surrounding their protection and rights is a relatively recent development in international law.

Events this year, and in particular following the worldwide outbreak of COVID-19, have brought many new challenges into my research process. As a student in my first year of research, this was the academic year for me to begin to present tentative ideas at conferences and create networks with researchers in similar fields to mine. However, the cancellation of academic conferences across the board, coupled with travel restrictions both domestically and overseas, have meant that many of these plans are on hold. Fortunately, conferencing apps such as Skype and Zoom, in addition to social media networks including Twitter, have enabled me to remain in contact with my fellow researchers at the Wilberforce Institute as well as to discover any new opportunities to discuss research in online academic forums.

This global disease pandemic has also witnessed the rapid digitisation of archival material by the National Archives and other such repositories, in addition to books and journal articles being made available online to a wider audience. There are however still a number of limitations that are still present in my current methodology. Digitising archival material is a gradual process and much of what I will need to not currently online, and a number of relevant museum exhibitions that were due to open this academic year have been postponed indefinitely. This includes Departures – 400 Years of Emigration from Britain, an exhibition concerning British immigration worldwide due to be held at the Migration Museum in Lewisham, London. It is also impossible to know how long certain restrictions will last and the extent to which this will impact any field work I decide to conduct in my second year of research. These are all factors that I will need to find ways to remedy in the coming months.

Arguably the most profound impact of COVID-19 has had in relation to this topic has been in the process of reuniting former child migrants with their families. In March 2020, the Child Migrants Trust announced that all prospective travel linked to the Family Restoration fund would be halted with immediate effect. The trust, alongside the national governments of Australia and the United Kingdom, have done excellent work in reuniting former child migrants with their long lost families in recent years. This process can already be a difficult one for many former child migrants as some were long unaware that they had living relatives, and sadly the Family Restoration Fund came too late for others whose parents and siblings passed away before they had the chance to reunite.

The emotional toll of bringing families together has been exacerbated by the uncertainly surrounding COVID-19 and the restrictions that have been put in relation to overseas travel. Given the advanced age of many of these former migrants, these restrictions are understandable and have been put in place with their best health interests at heart. Safety is of course the first priority in these difficult and unprecedented times. Let’s just hope that in the technological era that we live in, former Home Children will be able to find new ways to connect with their families and that their voices to continue to be heard in the ongoing process of reconciliation.

A local memorial dedicated to child migration in South Australia.