Vulnerable as never

This sunny day at the beginning of the autumn, a time of the year when French vineyards are particularly beautiful and fruitful, Zakaria’s hands were sticky because of the raisin juice. Working on the vineyards in the Bordeaux region is not easy but safe and satisfying. Zakaria is from Sudan and the small sunny fields around an ancient chateau are new for him, but he seems happy. Here, in one of the most famous winemaking Grand Cru regions of France with centuries of reputation, he found home and friends. 

Zakaria and dozens of other refugees became a part of the efforts to integrate immigrants into the society and satisfy the demand for labor in the winemaking sector. 

The idea belongs to Ovale Citoyen, an association that uses rugby and other sports as a way of promoting team-building and inclusion. 

Even though the Covid crisis made the harvesting project tougher, 90 refugees could participate in the vendange last year. A further 15 took part in training for other jobs in viticulture, such as tractor driving, which offer the possibility of year-round employment. Ovale Citoyen also offers training for a wide range of careers in the wine industry, as well as social and legal support.

Unfortunately, Zakaria’s story is rather unique and he was much luckier than other refugees around the world during the pandemic.

For example, Faiza, a 24-year-old Eritrean refugee in Egypt, who was the only breadwinner for her family before the pandemic, lost her job at the library because of the crisis. Being one of the 259,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers in Egypt, Faiza had to now fully relate to the international organizations as the only source of income to buy basic necessities and pay the rent. She desperately wishes for the pre-pandemic time to return, even if it was already hard for her and her family.

Most of the refugees were already by definition vulnerable before the outbreak of COVID-19. The pandemic further impacted their living situation.

At the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 experts predicted that the crisis will most hardly hit the displaced people.  Predictions were right but not in a way that was expected.  “Border closures, slumping economies, the overlapping of crises, increasing xenophobia, and the use of the virus as an excuse to restrict access to asylum” - will for a long time worsen the conditions of lives and extend an already unspeakably long process of registration. 

“It's the poverty and inequality that kills people, not the virus.”

There are some really disturbing trends around the world:  already marginalized refugees and displaced communities have been forced further into poverty, women and girls are facing increased exposure to gender based violence and worsening gender inequality, access to education has been further reduced, and people are under increasing pressure to return to unsafe or unstable situations in countries like Syria and Venezuela, according to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. 

At the same time, lockdown measures have led to a dramatic decrease in mobility for the refugees and asylum seekers. “Asylum claims in EU countries dropped by 31% in 2020, for example, and migration from the Horn of Africa to the Arabian Peninsula – the busiest maritime migration route prior to the pandemic – reduced by 73% ”.

Obviously, such a worldwide crisis highlights the inequalities in the way our world functions. When in the West politicians and media debate around how many millions of people were vaccinated and why vaccination is happening so slowly, the people in the refugee camps wonder if they ever get the vaccine at all. 

Many experts confirm the concerns estimating that many countries hosting refugees will prioritize their citizens while refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants will largely be left out.

“Usually, when economies go into recession people become a bit more conservative or nationalistic, and ‘let's care for our own population first’, It's not a very conducive environment to progressive approaches towards migration.”

On top of that, there are specific countries and regional issues and stigmas that came to the surface with or due to pandemics.

For example in Turkey, Afghan refugee children have struggled to continue their education because of a lack of access to computers and internet connection. It is estimated that at least 80% of Afghan refugee children who were in school before the pandemic has dropped out.

Or different stigma in Asia which has more unconscious and unlogic nationalistic character:

[It] is placing into the social discourse the idea that refugees carry disease, that refugees are dangerous to society, that refugees should be contained, detained, and removed,” - says Themba Lewis, secretary-general of the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network.

Following its political and economic agenda countries don’t precipitate long about refugees’ lives. Like Kenya on Wednesday who ordered the closure of two camps, the Dadaab, which once was the world's biggest refugee camp, and the Kakuma in northern Kenya. Together they host almost half a million refugees from neighboring countries like Somalia and South Sudan. UNHCR now has two weeks to present a plan of resettlement. Otherwise, Kenyan authorities plan to take the refugees to the border with Somalia if the camps are not closed.

Besides all other preoccupation for the safety and health of the people in camps, this movement will have a great impact “on the protection of refugees in Kenya, including in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” - says UNHCR.

The story of Zakaria who works in the French vineyards is rather unique but inspiring. There are solutions and there are people who have ideas. As the founders of the Ovale Citoyes see it “Whatever a person’s origin, religion, sexual orientation or even their history, every human has the right to happiness.

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