ROME – As many countries around the world brace for the aftermath of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, concern is rising for vulnerable populations most at risk of the economic fallout, particularly migrant and refugees.
Aloysius John, secretary general of the Caritas International, told Crux that migrants are “the least cared for in the present context” of the pandemic.
“In terms of migrants, we can talk about two kinds of migrants. One kind are those who have the papers, who are regular, and the other type are those who are in an irregular situation,” he said, noting that migrants in the second category are even more vulnerable, because they are ineligible for public aid and often lack access to healthcare.
Caritas is assisting these people in a bid “to help them to live in dignity,” he said, by first ensuring that basic needs such as food security and hygiene are met, as well as psycho-social assistance, particularly for women and children.
Pointing to the African continent, John said there are a high number of migrants in South Africa who come from other countries, such as Mozambique, Angola and Zimbabwe, which Caritas is helping via a migrant center owned by the Catholic bishops’ conference of South Africa, providing food and other basic needs.
In Cucuta, Colombia, which sits along the border with Venezuela, Caritas provides food and sanitary assistance to thousands of migrants who have made their way across the border.
In India, Caritas is assisting numerous itinerant migrants who traveled from the country’s north to the south to find work. Many are stuck without work or the ability to return home due to lockdowns. These migrants often don’t speak the local language, so Caritas has created a center where they can meet, cook their own food and receive other assistance.
In the Middle East, Caritas has also launched awareness campaigns about the coronavirus, in addition to the food and healthcare they normally provide.
This type of service is key, John said, noting that in one government-run center in South Africa, migrants were admitted “without taking any precautions as to whether they are contagious or not contagious” with the coronavirus.
“In other words,” he said, “they are bringing them to their death, because they are going to get the sickness (coronavirus) from another.”
The plight of migrants has also been highlighted in Europe, most prominently with Pope Francis’s Wednesday appeal on behalf of migrant workers in the Italian countryside.
During his May 6 general audience address, Francis noted that on Labor Day (May 1 in Italy) he received numerous messages about farm workers in Italy, most of whom were migrants, who were being “very harshly exploited.”
“It is true that the current crisis affects everyone, but people’s dignity must always be respected,” he said.
Following the pope’s appeal, Italian Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, president of the Italian bishops’ conference, issued his own statement insisting that amid the pandemic, migrants are “deprived of all rights and subsidies,” he said, insisting that they are not only at risk of exploitation, but they are also risking their own health, or they are at risk of becoming, “in spite of themselves, a source of contagion for all.”
In addition to the concrete assistance Caritas is offering to migrants and other at-risk groups amid the coronavirus, the organization is urging the international community to adopt certain measures aimed at easing the impact of the pandemic on vulnerable populations.
These measures include offering support to faith-based organizations; allocating funds to support vulnerable communities under lockdown; ensuring that migrants, refugees and internally displaced people have access to affordable healthcare services; and the lifting of economic sanctions against Libya, Iran, Venezuela and Syria so that essential medicines, medical equipment and other supplies can be shipped in without hassle.
“In most of these countries which today are under embargo, getting across any food aid or any material aid or any financial aid is becoming very complicated and very crucial,” John said, noting that in most cases, “It is the people ultimately who are suffering.”
Pointing to the political upheaval in Venezuela, John said, “we all know that the embargo has never succeeded in bringing about a solution.”
“It can only create more problems, especially today when people are really in a situation where they have to be protected, when they have be careful about their movement, but they are forced to go out of the house to look for food and money to buy food,” he said.
People there “have nothing,” he said, insisting that sanctions against Venezuela, are having little impact on the political situation, but they are “affecting and I would say socially killing the people who are there in these countries.”
“This goes for Venezuela, Libya, Iran and even Lebanon today. Getting money to camps today is very, very complicated, and I would even say it’s impossible today,” he said, explaining that in some places people are trying to raise money locally for food and sanitary needs, “but it is not enough.”
“If you’re really serious about the dignity of the human person, if you really want to help the human person to live in dignity, then I think the first thing for us to do, at least temporarily, is to lift the embargo so that aid can flow and people can start living normally,” he said.
COVID-19 has been a global human tragedy, John said, but insisted that, “if you want to avoid another crisis, we need to act today and acting today is to take care of the most vulnerable. These are the women, men and migrants who are completely lost and there is a need and obligation for the international community on the whole to be ready to help them as quickly as possible.”
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