It seems that we will divide contemporary history into a time of before and a time of after the corona crisis.
While the coronavirus is breaking up borders — of any kind — at an incredible speed, national states are closing their physical borders at an equally incredible speed. Even between countries where borders seemed a thing of a long-forgotten past, like Belgium and the Netherlands, roadblocks were placed, marking the end of one and the beginning of another era.
But what about the ones for whom borders were closed anyway? The ones stuck and being played like pawns by governments at the Turkish-Greek border? The ones who are in the most vulnerable position of all? What about the refugees on Lesbos, at the Syrian-Turkish border, or at any other border for that matter?
No matter how bad the situation got in the past months (and so much was published about this), there was no sign of a more humane approach by authorities. Until finally it was so clear that something had to be done that seven countries pledged to accept around 1,000-1,500 unaccompanied minors — children — from the most perilous places.
That was all. And that was the time before the coronavirus.
Even if these countries upheld that pledge, on top of all the past years and ongoing violations of migrants’ rights, the threats and violence by neo-Nazis and comparable groups, being abused as policy tools by governments, the unwillingness of EU states to take in a fair share of migrants, the coronavirus and its consequences might hit the vast majority of migrants even harder.
Greek NGOs sent a strong appeal to the government to move migrants to safety urgently. Their letter gives a horror description of what is going on in the so-called hot spots. The lack of water, the lack of basic hygiene, the lack of space; it can only be imagined what will happen when a corona outbreak occurs. It could mirror the situation from the North of Italy or the Madrid region but without the medical or hygienical infrastructure. Actually, without any decent infrastructure of any kind.
But then, it is inevitable that a (deep) global economic recession will follow the corona crisis. As in previous recessions, this will cause a chain global reaction, including an increased number of migrants. Given the already lesser than friendly receptions and growth of extreme nationalist movements in many EU member states, it is a recipe for drifting away even further from the rule of international law and treaties, especially those concerning refugees and migrants.
On social media, many posted this text, when the impact of the coronavirus just started to unfold: ‘To all those who are hoarding toilet paper and canned food: Remember this the next time an asylum seeker is asking for refuge.’
Well, I hope we will remember. We will need it. For the times after the corona crisis.
Ralph du Long is chair of DiP, Dialogue in Progress, a young international NGO promoting human rights through dialogue with a focus on migration and non-discrimination. He also holds the position of vice-chair of the Regional Parliament Drenthe, the Netherlands. Ralph has been a board member and co-chair of the EU Russia Civil Society Forum from 2014 until 2019.