Ticking corona time-bomb for refugees / David Lepeska

<p style="text-align: left;">COVID-19 claimed its first death in Syria this week, where in Idlib province some 2 million displaced people have been huddled together in ad hoc encampments for months, squeezed between the advancing forces of President Bashar Assad and the Turkish border.

The pandemic has also reached the Greek Aegean islands, where some 40,000 migrants have been forced to stay indefinitely after fleeing Turkey in search of asylum. Somehow coronavirus has thus far stayed away from Turkey&rsquo;s land border with Greece, where more than 11,000 refugees have been mostly sleeping rough since the Turkish government told them early last month that the European border crossing was open and helped them get there.

&ldquo;It is only a matter of time before COVID-19 gains a foothold in a refugee camp, crowded reception centre or detention facility holding migrant families,&rdquo; UNICEF director Henrietta Fore wrote for Al Jazeera this week. &ldquo;Given how quickly the virus is spreading, such a scenario is probably unfolding even now.&rdquo;

The millions of displaced people and refugees in Idlib, along the Turkish-Greek border, and in camps in Syria, Turkey, Jordan, Gaza, Lebanon, and beyond, are among the world's most vulnerable populations in a pandemic, living cheek-by-jowl with severely limited access to prevention and care. They have no face masks or hand sanitizer and social distancing is next to impossible.

Steven A. Cook, senior fellow for the Middle East and North Africa at the Council on Foreign Relations, has been closely watching the regional refugee situation, particularly in Idlib, Syria&rsquo;s last rebel-held province, which is said to have just 60 hospital beds after a year of Russian and Syrian air strikes targeting health facilities.

&ldquo;An outbreak there can increase the problems and challenges to Turkey, to Europe, to Iran and Syria itself, exponentially,&rdquo; he told Ahval in a podcast. &ldquo;It is going to be an issue that should deserve significant global attention, that won&rsquo;t get it.&rdquo;

Aykan Erdemir, senior Turkey program director at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a Turkish former parliamentarian, said the Syrian government and its allies, Russia and Iran, had intentionally forced Idlib residents and the displaced from previously retaken areas of the country towards the Turkish border as a way to pressure Turkey and the European Union, both of which fear the political impact of another refugee wave.

&ldquo;All these strategies built on the weaponization of refugees I think need to come to a halt during what the WHO calls a global pandemic,&rdquo; Erdemir told Ahval in a podcast, pointing also at Turkey for its efforts to force asylum-seekers to attempt to cross into Greece by land or sea as a way to pressure the EU. &ldquo;These are all at-risk populations for coronavirus and I think we are beginning to see some precautions, some prudence on the part of all actors.&rdquo;

Turkey has in recent days shut its borders, sent some human traffickers to prison and begun bussing some of the would-be migrants along the Greek border back to their former homes in Turkey, while also settling some in repatriation centers. Greek authorities have become less aggressive in their responses to attempted crossings, while Assad and Russia have halted their Idlib offensive during the ongoing ceasefire.

A Syrian news outlet last week reported that Assad&rsquo;s forces were gathering in Idlib in preparation to resume their offensive, but Turkey&rsquo;s significant military build-up in the province, highlighted by the Institute for the Study of War in a tweet this week, seems to have stayed the Syrian president&rsquo;s hand.

Yet fears of coronavirus carnage among refugee, displaced and migrant populations in Turkey and across the Middle East are unlikely to evaporate anytime soon. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke to the leaders of Germany, France and Britain in mid-March and made near-zero progress on a possible agreement for Idlib and the refugees, despite the fact that far-right parties and xenophobia have surged across Europe since the arrival of some 2 million migrants between 2013 and 2016.

&ldquo;Refugees have created all kinds of political distortions in Europe that are worrying given Europe&rsquo;s history, and something we would not like to repeat,&rdquo; said Cook, wondering why the European Union had not done more to address the refugee crisis and Idlib.

&ldquo;There isn&rsquo;t a very good answer at this point,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;This may be one of the things we look back on in history and say these were short-sighted decisions by people that made situations worse and led to further instability.&rdquo;

Some observers blame this endangerment of refugees on Turkey, which has repeatedly expressed its unwillingness to accept any more migrants, largely because of strong political sentiment against the presence of some 3.6 million Syrians already in Turkey.

In reality, the Turkish government would likely be unable to protect even tens of thousands of new refugees, because according to economist Mustafa Sonmez after the 2018-2019 downturn and recession it cannot even afford a strong response to a more urgent crisis, its domestic coronavirus outbreak.

In addition, the majority of refugees in Turkey live in cramped apartments in densely packed and relatively poor urban areas, which increases their risk. What is more, Erdogan is facing great pressure to impose a full lockdown, which would make accepting any sizable number of refugees all but impossible.

With its Syria incursions, Turkey is responsible for displacing significant populations in Afrin and northeast Syria, including more than 100,000 mostly Kurdish people now in camps north of Aleppo with minimal healthcare. But Turkey&rsquo;s refugee concerns domestically, as well as in Idlib, along the Greek border and beyond, should not all be laid at the feet of its president and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

&ldquo;The opposition has been much more anti-refugee than the AKP, and when you look at what CHP (main opposition Republican People&rsquo;s Party) candidates say about Syria, they don&rsquo;t necessarily have a coherent answer,&rdquo; Nicholas Danforth, senior visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund, told Ahval in a podcast. &ldquo;They imagine engaging in negotiations with Assad would make the refugee problem go away.&rdquo;

As a result, all those displaced are likely to remain for months in highly at-risk conditions in Idlib, while thousands of would-be migrants will continue to attempt dangerous crossings of Turkey&rsquo;s land and sea borders with Greece - and likely in increasing numbers as the weather warms. Each passing day might bring the world closer to an unprecedented outbreak across a vast region.

&ldquo;I think an outbreak is probably inevitable,&rdquo; said Cook, wondering which global leaders, if any, would step up and organize an adequate response. &ldquo;You&rsquo;d like to see the United States, China, South Korea, Japan and others that have handled this relatively well, marshal global resources to fight this pandemic, whether it&rsquo;s in Lombardy or in Idlib. That would be the appropriate thing to do.&rdquo;

Reporter&rsquo;s code: 50101

News Code 97730

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