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Assisting migrants at risk as coronavirus strikes Italy

As number of arrivals plunges, poor health conditions in reception centers, informal settlements become new social emergency

Giada Zampano   | 24.03.2020
Assisting migrants at risk as coronavirus strikes Italy

ROME

Despite a drastic fall in the number of arrivals on Italian shores in March, the coronavirus pandemic that hit Italy hard is putting the country’s migrant assistance network in a double emergency.

As Italian citizens are imposed strict lockdown measures -- including stringent sanitary rules and social distancing -- thousands of migrants and refugees who live in precarious conditions are faced with increased risks of infection, paired with further social marginalization.

Experts attribute the almost-total stop of migrants’ arrivals this month to the fast spread of the virus in Italy, where COVID-19 has so far claimed more than 6,000 lives -- a grim world record.

“The curve of arrivals has flattened, with the exception of a couple of days in mid-March, when around 150 migrants arrived,” notes Matteo Villa, a migration researcher at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies.

“Most of them continue to depart from Libya, where the situation is so desperate that the outbreak doesn’t represent a deterrent,” he adds.

The first risk now faced by migrants -- who flee poverty and wars in their home countries -- is to be brought back to Libya’s detention camps by the local coast guard. This is currently happening in most of the cases, as the rescue ships run by non-governmental organizations which were once patrolling the central Mediterranean -- the most deadly route -- were forced to a halt due to the pandemic.

According to UN data, Italy hosted nearly 300,000 refugees and asylum seekers at the end of 2018. Two years later -- after a crackdown on Italy’s migration laws pushed by the League’s leader and former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini -- the number of migrants hosted by Italian reception centers is down to about 85,000. For them, the coronavirus is making daily life even harder.

Discrimination risks

“We are seriously worried, as many migrants in Italy were already living in critical conditions. Now, the sanitary standards are reduced to the bare minimum,” Carlotta Sami, UNHCR's spokesperson in Italy, told Anadolu Agency.

So far, the only confirmed case of a migrant infected by coronavirus was reported at a reception center in the northern city of Milan -- one of the worst-hit. The man, who showed only light symptoms, was placed in quarantine, while half of the migrants hosted by the center were moved to a different building.

"UNHCR is advocating for refugees and asylum seekers, including children, to be included in the national health monitoring and response plans," Sami said.

She stressed that the same measures that apply to Italian citizens in terms of prevention and quarantine should also apply to asylum seekers and refugees. But the risks of discrimination and social isolation for them remain high. 

If living conditions in the reception centers are deteriorating, those in the so-called informal settlements spread across the country -- often tent camps in the countryside or in the outskirts of the largest Italian cities -- are becoming extreme.

Limited spaces, lack of ventilation systems and the shortage of water and electricity make even the most basic hygiene recommendations -- like frequent hand-washing -- nearly impossible.

Contagions within camps a social bomb

A contagion within a migrants’ informal settlement would be a social bomb for the local healthcare services, already struggling with the coronavirus emergency and with structural shortages, especially in the poorest south, where many migrants work in the fields as farmhands.

“We are facing an emergency in the emergency,” says Andrea Costa, coordinator of Baobab Experience, a volunteers’ association that manages a reception camp near Rome’s Tiburtina station -- where around 90 migrants currently live.

“We’re doing our best in informing migrants, providing them with masks, hand sanitizers and basic health screenings. But we’re running out of human resources, as many of our volunteers, especially the older ones, are quarantined,” he adds.

The Italian government has imposed an almost-total lockdown to its citizens, in a desperate effort to contain the epidemic, which now counts more than 50,000 contagions. The mantra “Stay Home,” however, sounds paradoxical for many migrants, who don’t have a house where to stay.

Integration services for refugees and asylum seekers -- including key ones like job-searching and Italian language courses -- have also been suspended or heavily reduced due to the outbreak. That leaves those waiting for a response to their asylum request in a sort of limbo.

“They have the perception of being trapped in a situation with no exit,” said Luciano Gualzetti, the director of Caritas Ambrosiana, a religious humanitarian organization that operates in Lombardy, the epicenter of the outbreak in the country. “It’s already hard to tolerate a forced cohabitation when there are no outdoor activities that become almost impossible.”

Phone triages to face emergency

To face the emergency, humanitarian associations on the frontline, like Doctors for Human Rights (MEDU), have launched special multimedia services and tutorials aimed at supporting migrants further marginalized by the epidemic.

“We were forced to review our operations, usually focused on mobile clinics,” said MEDU coordinator Alberto Barbieri, adding: “Now we provide an over-the-phone triage and psychological support to homeless migrants, who often don’t have access even to basic medical assistance.”j

As many other NGOs, MEDU used its own resources to provide migrants with the much-needed protective masks, whose shortage has become critical amid the COVID-19 spread. Now, it has run out of them and is urging the government to act soon, also providing quarantine spaces for cases of suspected infections in migrants’ camps.

Volunteers say most of the migrants are aware of the threat the virus poses, but the perception changes from place to place. For Baobab’s Costa, some of the youngest -- who put their lives at risk along their dangerous trip to reach Europe -- are somehow fearless.

“There are young men and women here who have been beaten, tortured, raped, and have bullet scars on their bodies,” he says. “They ask me: Do you really think a virus can scare me?”

Spread of COVID-19

According to data compiled by U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University, the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 has infected over 382,000 worldwide, killing more than 16,500, while over 101,000 have recovered.

The virus emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December, and has spread to more than 167 countries and territories. The World Health Organization has declared the outbreak a pandemic.

China, Italy, Iran, and Spain continue to be the worst-affected countries.


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