Wiseman Khuzwayo Scholarship PhD student
Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull
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.