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Refugees gravely impacted during this time of pandemic, says European and Legal Affairs Advisor of Mediterranean Hope

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"How can you 'stay at home' if you have no home?"

Refugees gravely impacted during this time of pandemic, says European and Legal Affairs Advisor of Mediterranean Hope

By Elena Dini

ROME — In addition to the health crisis, COVID-19 has had a disastrous impact on many marginalized groups in Italy and around the world, including refugees.

Fiona Kendall, the European and legal affairs adviser for Mediterranean Hope, a project for migrants and refugees established in 2014 by the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy, shared the unique challenges for this population. A longtime friend of The Lay Centre, Kendall asked the oft-forgotten questions: “How can you ‘stay at home’ if you have no home?” and “How can you ‘keep your distance’ if you are sharing cramped accommodation with many others?” Read her interview below.

Q. How did Mediterranean Hope experience the lockdown in Italy?

A. Mediterranean Hope has teams working in Lebanon, Rome, Sicily, Calabria and on Lampedusa, all of which were affected by the lockdown. Our Lebanon team was recalled and, with few exceptions, we are working from home. While direct contact with the migrants we support has necessarily been limited, we have adapted well to using different technological platforms to maintain contact and progress on projects. Any time freed up by the suspension of some work has been used to reflect and develop current and future initiatives. We have continued to lobby, participate in virtual conferences and meetings, write proposals, and engage with the network at large. We are learning to do the same work in new ways.

Q. What were the main consequences of this situation that particularly impacted migrants and refugees? What were the main challenges?

A. COVID-19 has triggered huge challenges for the marginalized, including many migrants. How can you “stay at home” if you have no home? How can you “keep your distance” if you are sharing cramped accommodation with many others? How can you regularly wash your hands if you have no soap and water? How can you ensure that you wear a mask and gloves if you do not have the means with which to buy them? We have worked hard to keep those we support as well-informed and as well-equipped as possible, something which was particularly hard in the shanty towns in Calabria. In the early days, we helped to dispel the persistent rumour that COVID-19 was a white man’s disease. As well, we supplied hand-sanitiser, water butts, and food parcels.

Those who should have travelled to Italy on our humanitarian corridors program have been unable to do so since March. This is frustrating for all involved: for those prepared for departure, for those about to host new arrivals, and for those engaged in making it all happen. The program provides safe and legal entry into Europe for around 1,000 people every two years, offering vital supportand prospects to a vulnerable category of people. We hope to revive the program by the end of the summer and, in the meantime, we continue the negotiations for more arrivals over the next two years, not only from Lebanon, but from Niger and Ethiopia. Those already here continue to receive all the support we can offer while respecting the health measures currently in place.

Q. Could you tell us more about the campaign, “I was a stranger,” and what is the situation at the political level concerning regularization?

A. The overarching aims of this campaign are twofold: expanding legal pathways for migrant workers and promoting integration between migrants and host societies. Consequently, draft legislation proposed by the campaign, back in 2017, provided for permits, and for social and employment integration for migrant workers.That proposal was backed by over 90,000 signatures, but it has taken until now to bear any fruit. Legalizing the position of those who work “in nero” — off the books — to keep us fed and cared for has become a hot topic during the pandemic. These workers, often seasonal agricultural labourers or careworkers, have long propped up the Italian economy. However, they are often exploited, denied basic employment rights, and live in intolerable conditions. After a tough political battle, certain categories of workers are now to be granted temporary permits and enabled to access certain rights. It is a small but significant step.

Q. How can average citizens support refugees in this phase? 

A. The value of an open attitude cannot be underestimated. The way we talk about those on the move and, in particular, the role they have in the societies to which they travel counts for a great deal. We are all potential influencers, whether at a societal level or simply within our own circle of family and friends.

Some people are willing to go further, either by providing time or funding to projects working with people on the move or on the margins. Although many charities and NGOs have had to suspend their frontline projects, there are plenty still underway in Rome. To get involved see: https://www.piuculture.it/2020/03/covid-19-roma/.

Drawing by Francesco Piobbicchi

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