As many countries still struggle to contain the highly contagious coronavirus, the former director-general of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Yves Daccord, sheds light on how the global crisis has influenced migrants and asylum seekers across the world.
In an interview with Haaretz, Daccord explains that many choose not to be tested for the coronavirus or seek treatment if infected, fearing the immigration authorities. Failures in documenting the true number of coronavirus patients around the world has already created an innaccurate assessment of the scale of the crisis, he argues, but migrants face a special challenge.
"Refugees are currently at the highest risk they've ever been, as leaders and heads of states are using the coronavirus crisis to put an end to the immigration waves flooding their countries in recent years,” he said.
As nations are expected to face unprecedented waves of refugees – which may reach the total of half a billion people over the coming decade – due to climate change, Daccord argues the world needs to reform the way it handles migrants and migration. Nations will have to redefine their social conventions regarding immigration, and espouse a more open approach, if they do not want to see conflicts intensify within communities, as well as between countries.
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In March, Daccord, who was born in Switzerland, completed over a decade at the helm of the ICRC, the biggest humanitarian organization in the world, with over 20,000 employees in over 80 countries. Before serving as ICRC director general, he held a series of senior positions in the organization, leading humanitarian missions around the world, including Israel, the West Bank, Sudan, Yemen, Chechnya and Georgia.
Have you noticed a phenomenon of asylum seekers who are afraid of getting tested or getting treatment even if they have the access simply due to their fear from immigration authorities or losing their jobs?
"Yeah, and it’s not just migrants. We see that in a lot of situations when you have people, I would call them 'off the grid,' somewhat unwilling or not in the position to access government services. It's true undocumented migrants are very careful because they are very nervous… the access to health [services] will end their stay in the country. We know that the COVID-19 numbers are not the right ones, they are always underestimated because we don't know how many people have access to health services, how many people are sick."
Is there a possibility that there are millions of stateless people who have the virus and we are just not aware of it?
"I'll be careful about the numbers, I'm not sure we can talk about millions of people, but we should certainly talk about the important number of people who are under the radar. And I think we start to understand that if we want to be serious about public health, and we want to make sure that COVID-19 is really managed, we need to focus on the most vulnerable people. It’s very clear. In our society we see that and among the most vulnerable you have the migrants, including the undocumented ones. And they are part of our response, and that is the critical element. Countries will soon learn that if you put part of the population aside when it comes to health services, your own population would be hit. There's no question, countries must integrate the migrants, otherwise we won't be able to solve this."
Even before the pandemic erupted, over 70 million migrants, refugees and asylum seekers were estimated to be fleeing their countries. Now the United States has stiffened its immigration policy, while others, like Portugal, which grants legal status to all the immigrants who are undergoing the process of receiving residency, and Italy, which has granted unregistered immigrants work permits, are taking a different route. Do you think Trump's intention to suspend immigration to the United States will affect other leaders, and if so how?
"Most of the announcements are of a political nature, and I've seen that in many counties, Denmark, Australia, they are using [these statements] as a way to contain migrants. Leaders in the world are influenced by that and want to control the border. You will see more announcements like that, and the most vulnerable people will be the first to suffer."
U.S. President Donald Trump decided to sever American ties to the World Health Organization, are we seeing a downward trend in international cooperation?
“International cooperation is more important than ever. I think that at this time that we need to have strong cooperation. We gained confirmation that all of us are connected. Everything that is an attack on cooperation is a huge problem. It's a call of ‘us’ vs. the ‘other’ and it is risky, it won't help us as a society. If we won't have consensus on public health I'm very worried about the fate of the world."
Crossing international borders may sound like a faraway dream these days, but in the long run borders will open. Even before the outbreak, UN experts estimated that by 2050, up to a billion people would migrate due to climate change. How do you think the pandemic might affect that?
"I believe the experts are really right. If you look at the number of people in cities below sea level, we should expect to see a lot of people moving within some of the counties and between countries as well. I'm totally convinced that we would at least see 300, 400, 500 million of people moving, without a doubt, over the next decade. I think COVID-19 helped us to understand that we will see more pandemics in the future. One thing we see with climate change right now is that as temperatures are rising, we see clear evidence [of increased] transmission of diseases from animals to humans."
"Countries will be willing to define more specifically who is 'us' in [their communities], who has the right to live in this territory. I believe we would have to define a much more complex 'us' to allow a much more fluid migration. We have to have a global conversation, much more directly about migration. The expected mass immigration should force countries to expand their definition of 'we.' Expedited international cooperation would be needed, as well as a reorganization of the social conventions. If countries will continue having one response – close the borders, contain, and hope the migrants go somewhere else – [we will enter] a much more tense period, in which we'll see more conflicts and more violence between communities and possibly between countries."
What is your view on the situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories?
“The long-term ramifications of the coronavirus should be taken into account. The population in Gaza is at high risk on paper and I think also in reality…since they have a low level of health access and are contained in a small territory. As far as we know, COVID-19 hasn't hit there as hard as we were worried it would, but we should be very careful talking about COVID-19 when it comes to a territory like Gaza. The Israeli authorities [are responsible for] this territory as well when it comes to international law, so they need to look into that very carefully. I think the other issue for me is the impact of COVID-19 over time, not just to public health, but the social impact, the political impact, it's the economic impact and we know that Israel and the region are affected by that. I really hope that we would be in a situation where there would be reflections about how we make sure that there is employment and here once again Israel is responsible for the Palestinians. So, they will have to sit down and find some solutions over time and the solution can't just be a security solution."