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An inevitable passageway to Europe under COVID-19: A healthcare and economic crisis without precedence


North shores of Lesbos. Picture by Rosa Maria Rinkl via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

The COVID-19 outbreak is having a huge impact on refugees and migrants. A combination of factors in the country of origin – armed conflict, collapse of the economic system, climate change – leads to a growing number of refugees, internally displaced people and migrants leaving their homes to seek sanctuary and economic opportunities elsewhere. COVID-19 has created an urgent situation in this respect as people see their health, life and livelihood threatened. In this article, we take a bird's eye view to describe migration from MENA countries to Europe. Through personal accounts of people from these countries and regions, we highlight the catastrophic effect of this pandemic, which poses individual healthcare risks and economic threats.


To start with, Syria. Syrians are victims of a war that has entered its tenth year, which has resulted in millions of people leaving the country: 13.1 million are in need, 6.6 million people are internally displaced, and 2.98 million are in remote besieged areas according to the UNHCR. The latest attack on civilians took place in Idlib in the northern part of Syria earlier in 2020, resulting in the displacement of more than 1 million people. The COVID-19 outbreak has made things worse. The closure of restaurants, cafes and markets, and the suspension of many occupations, as part of the preventive measures to contain the virus, have left hundreds of thousands of daily wage workers jobless. Self-employed people also lost their source of income. The value of money has diminished so much that with the little they have, they can hardly buy any food. Without any means to survive, people are dependent on humanitarian aid or fall prey to smugglers for an illegal passage to Europe despite European measures to bring a halt to the stream of people coming from the Middle East and Africa.


Looking at Northern Africa, the situation is not much better. It seems that the ‘production’ of refugees has become a business. Africa as a whole is taking in a disproportionate number of refugees – hosting the largest number of NGOs and charities in the name of support and help. In North Africa, young people – the only ones fit to walk all the journey from war-torn African countries – who have left their own countries due to persecution are now ‘parked’ in Libya and Tunisia. They are not a priority when it comes to the coronavirus. Western governments have come up with policies and funding for refugees in Libya and Tunisia to stay away from Europe. The money, however, does not reach the refugees, and they end up in crowded places and cannot go back home or get refugee status in those countries – they can be seen as modern-day slaves. COVID-19 is expected to have long-lasting effects on all sectors of the economy. According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), predictions show that the continent’s economic growth may reduce to 1.8% instead of the projected 3.2% for 2020. The poorest were already on the brink of starvation even before the pandemic, and things are expected to only get worse.


Many refugees from the MENA region, where fragile and conflicted countries attempt to tackle poverty and political instability, try to make their way to Europe via Turkey and Greece. This has given rise to growing resentment and resistance among Turkish people who believe they have to carry the whole burden of the ‘refugee’ crisis. A recent interview from May 2020 with a Turkish-Kurdish human rights defender shares the experience of a refugee woman who is on the border in the Eastern part of Turkey:


‘Prior to COVID-19, the war in Syria continued internally and externally. During the last wave beginning 2020, new refugees started flooding the border and tents were provided in an area mostly dry, scattered with fauna and some trees. So many families, displaced children, aged and disabled people had no choice but to live in tents. There are 10 families to a tent huddled up together with total strangers!’

This same human rights defender heard about an Afghan refugee who got stuck at the Greek-Turkish border:

‘The Turkish government declared that the border to Europe opened just as coronavirus started to infect people. Thousands of refugees rushed to the border with hope of having a decent life, but ended up having to deal with no shelter, hunger and COVID-19.’


Those who are able to make their way to Europe illegally often get stranded on one of the Greek islands. Lesbos is the biggest one, with the infamous Moria camp as a symbol of the failing European policy towards refugees. Moria is becoming a European ghetto. It is overcrowded with minimal services and zero medical care. The camp, with a capacity that does not exceed 2,500 people, contains at present more than 22,000 people inside and around it. The tents are on top of each other, and there is no space or way for social distancing or privacy. A large number of little children receive no education nor any medical attention. With the coronavirus pandemic, circumstances have worsened dramatically. Refugees are very scared, terrified of the virus because they know that there is no medical treatment and they know that the camp is overcrowded. During the lockdown, authorities imposed strict restrictions on movement and many lost their monthly support as the authorities told them that ‘because of coronavirus, employees cannot process the transfer from the camp to another place’. This left them completely devastated because there is little or very bad food. Refugees were desperately asking about disinfecting gel and masks, which were impossible to find on the island.


It is a chain reaction which causes people to leave: conflicts which destroy the economic infrastructure of societies and regions, loss of perspective to support oneself, the inability to develop any economic activity and a continuous threat to be killed. The COVID-19 outbreak is likely to push millions of households into poverty – up to 60 million extra worldwide. In the MENA region, a sharp drop in household incomes is expected according to the IMF, as export earnings dwindle and social distancing reduces domestic activity, leading to a decline in income, especially for informal and low skilled workers. Loss of income will not only affect individual households but also the local communities they help and support. All in all, this will lead to a continuous stream of people fleeing to urban areas and countries where they hope to have a chance to survive, despite the financial measures taken by the EU to close borders via the Turkey deal and ignite economic activity in the northern part of Africa.

Saskia Harkema, Saadet Ozdemir, Carin Beijer, Alice Mpofu-Coles, Max Koffi & Ghias Aljundi

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Dr. Saskia Harkema is the CEO and founder of Faces of Change. Saadet Ozdemir is Educational Leader MENA at Impact Leaders International. Carin Beijer is a trainer and mentor at Impact Leaders International. Alice Mpofu-Coles is Specialist Ambassador at Female Wave of Change and she runs her own website. Max Koffi is the CEO and Founder of Africa in Motion. Ghias Aljundi is a Human Rights consultant.

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