On the night of Tuesday, 8 September, fires destroyed most of Europe’s largest refugee camp, Moria, on the Greek island of Lesbos. Some reports claim that they were started by a group of residents in protest at the imposition of quarantine on the cramped, overcrowded camp following an outbreak of at least 35 cases of Covid-19. A former military base repurposed to hold at most 3,000 people, Moria now plays squalid home to some 13,000, about two in five of them children. Most of those are now sleeping in the open, with little food and water. Ships sent to house the most vulnerable are not expected to have enough space.
Moria symbolises many things. One is the brutal methods with which Europe has reduced refugee arrivals numbers since the peak of the crisis in 2015 and 2016. Under the EU’s deal with Turkey, asylum seekers who cross to Greece should have their applications processed rapidly in “hotspots” there and those turned down be returned to Turkey. Yet the application backlog is enormous, many remain stuck in the system for years and EU governments cowed by anti- migrant populists have failed to agree a quota system for distributing those granted asylum. So thousands, including many unaccompanied children, languish in inhuman conditions in hotspots like the one at Moria. Cases of self-harm and even suicide attempts by minors have been rising.
But Moria, and particularly the fire there, symbolises something that goes beyond Europe, something global. In the early weeks of the Covid-19 outbreak, as it became clear that it would spread around the world with little regard for borders, it seemed like the pandemic might serve as the definitive illustration of humanity’s interdependence. It might draw the attention of rich and powerful societies to the world’s neglected and desperate places; the war zones, refugee camps, prisons and failed states. And this recognition might give new urgency to the quest for multilateral global answers to the problems exposed.
But on 10 September, UN officials painted a grim picture ahead of the opening of the body’s General Assembly (the UNGA) next Tuesday, 15 September. UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock noted that of the roughly 26m global cases of Covid-19 and almost 900,000 linked deaths, about a third of both numbers correspond to countries experiencing humanitarian and refugee crises. Citing rising risks of conflict, instability, insecurity, violence and population displacement, Lowcock reported “growing reason to believe that in the medium and longer term, the weakest, most fragile and conflict-affected countries will be those worst affected by Covid-19”. Meanwhile, as my colleague Ido Vock writes in this data piece, the respected US-based Social Progress Index released its 2020 country-by-country assessment on 9 September. It suggests that, overall, Covid-19 sets back achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, for which the deadline is 2030, by ten years; from the previously projected date of 2082 to a yet-more dismal 2092.
Lowcock also warned that the first famines caused by the disruption of the pandemic could soon hit in Yemen, South Sudan, north eastern Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. And his UN political counterpart Rosemary DiCarlo added that temporary truces in international conflicts called as a result of the pandemic had often expired and left “little improvement on the ground”. In war-torn Yemen, one such case, the pandemic has increased the number of children out of school from 2m to almost 8m.
Also on 10 September Francesco Rocca, the President of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), warned that the pandemic had caused the “threadbare social safety nets for migrants and refugees to snap”. In Turkey, the IFRC’s research suggests almost seven in ten Syrian refugees have lost employment since its onset; in central America many thousands of migrants, from Haiti for example, have been stranded on their journeys north between borders closed to impede the virus; this week also saw the first cases of Covid-19 in the giant Azraq refugee camp in Jordan.
Meanwhile in Moria, the night of Wednesday, 9 September, saw yet another fire. The destruction means that those Covid-19 cases that had prompted the original moves to quarantine cannot be isolated. The concern is that, amid the chaos and as residents of the camp scatter across the vicinity, the virus will spread even more rapidly than before. A French-German initiative under which the EU will take 400 refugees from Moria completes the symbolism of the moment; a fraction of the total number of children in the camp, let along its total population; or to put it another way, slightly under one refugee for each one million of the EU’s existing population. The 400 are better than zero, but still it is hard to see the measure as more than bare-minimum gesture to soothe the consciences of Europeans horrified by the images of the fire’s aftermath. The bloc’s essential strategy remains “Fortress Europe”.
So: no, as the UNGA convenes in New York City and online next week, it will not be able to declare that the pandemic has so far proved the wake-up call the world needed, much as it should have been. To at least the extent that it has illustrated humanity’s interdependence it has also spurred on the politics of raising barriers to shield fortunate groups from that interdependence: protections from the virus and its wider consequences distributed only in the locked, walled gardens of the rich world, with at best a passing consideration for those stuck outside.
The surest test of that will be what happens when a safe vaccine is discovered and enters mass production and whether it reaches, as it ought to, the world’s most vulnerable as a priority. Will it, as the aid organisation Médecins Sans Frontières warns, follow the existing “dangerous trend of vaccine nationalism by richer nations”? Or will the world belatedly wake up to the Covid-19 moment?