By Patrícia Nabuco Martuscelli
On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 a pandemic. At the time, few people imagined that within a year more than 131,487,572 people would be infected, and 2,857,702 would die as a direct consequence of this disease (WHO, 2021 – data of April 06, 2021). Since 2020, people’s lives have been affected by the measures adopted to control the pandemic, including the closing of borders, schools, and non-essential services, as well as general lockdowns. Amidst new mutations of the coronavirus and competition for the recently approved vaccines highlighting global inequalities between developed and developing countries, experts and international organizations have reinforced the necessity of not leaving anyone behind, including migrants and refugees (people forcibly displaced of their countries of origin due to persecutions based on race, nationality, religion, political opinion or membership in a particular social group).
However, migrants and refugees tend to be ignored in sanitary emergencies (Ventura, 2015). As non-nationals they are deprived of access to information and services. Besides that, they tend to be blamed as “responsible” for the transmission of illnesses. Experts have reflected on the challenges refugees face in protecting themselves from this disease, especially people living in crowded detention centers and refugee camps with no social assistance and limited access to hygiene measures and healthcare even before the outbreak of this pandemic (e.g., Ponce, 2020; Raju & Ayeb-Karlsson, 2020; Riggirozzi et al., 2020; Sandvik & Garnier, 2020). According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR, 2020), 85% of all forcibly displaced people live in developing countries. Besides that, many refugees (especially in Latin America) live in cities and not in refugee camps. Therefore, it is essential to understand how the refugees themselves experienced the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic to understand their challenges, lessons, and expectations. Refugees are experts of their own lives. Suppose decision-makers decide not to leave refugees behinds in the COVID-19 responses. If that were the case, it would be necessary to understand their views.
Brazil presents an interesting case for the analysis of the situation of refugees. It has progressive legislation towards asylum (Law 9474/1997) and migration (Law 13.445/2017) with an expanded definition of refugees (including those fleeing a situation of severe and generalized violation of human rights) and the guarantee of rights with no discrimination to refugees and asylum-seekers including the right to work, education, access to the public healthcare system (Sistema Único de Saúde – SUS) and social benefits. Brazil ranked sixth in the world-wide admittance/reception of asylum-seekers in 2019 (UNHCR, 2020). With more than 331,433 deaths, Brazil is one of the countries most affected by the pandemic, (behind the United States of America) (WHO, 2021). The Brazilian government ranked the worst in terms of its responses to the pandemic (Lowy Institute, 2021). This has repercussions for the refugee population living in the country.
As part of my research, I interviewed 29 refugees of different nationalities (Syria, Venezuela, Mali, Cameroon, Guinea, Guyana, and Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC]) living in the states of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo (where the governors initially adopted the WHO measures of social distancing and closure of schools and non-essential business) between March 27, 2020, and April 06, 2020. The interviews were conducted by means of Whatsapp audio calls following the ethical Recommendations of the International Association for the Study of Forced Migration (IASFM, 2019). The refugees’ narratives on how they were coping with the pandemic and the recommendations to stay at home present a unique picture of the pandemic’s initial outbreak in Brazil. This blog post presents the refugees’ main reflections on their problems, lessons, and expectations for the future in times of COVID-19. In sum, they highlight a general uncertainty regarding the disease and the future.
Refugees perceived that they were left behind by Brazilian responses (or lack of them) to COVID-19 since the government was not acknowledging or addressing their needs in the pandemic. Most of the information translated/adapted for refugees and migrants on protection measures, how to access healthcare, and the federal emergency benefit was produced by civil society organizations and universities with programs geared to support this population (like the Universidade Federal do Paraná – UFPR). Refugees were at risk of believing in fake news since their primary source of information was social media like Facebook and Whatsapp. Recently arrived asylum-seekers that could not speak Portuguese faced the worst situation. There was much uncertainty if refugees and migrants had access to the emergency benefit package discussed by the government at the time. Some refugees had already received false links promising access to benefits (that were not in place yet at the time of the interviews) to steal people’s data.
Refugees were also afraid of facing discrimination when seeking out healthcare because they believed that if the medical personal were put in a situation to decide who should receive treatment, they would prefer Brazilian citizens over foreigners, that is, the refugees. Another challenge was the closure of essential refugee services such as the Federal Police responsible for naturalization and documentation appointments, the civil society organizations providing migrants and refugees with services and information online, and stores sending remittances to the home countries (like Western Union) and offering international phone calls. Many refugees were worried that they could not send vital remittances to their families abroad. Besides that, the Brazilian borders were closed, creating uncertainty if refugees’ relatives with family reunification visas could enter Brazil. The closure of borders also prevented asylum-seekers from entering Brazil and claiming asylum, especially Venezuelans.
A final challenge that appeared in the interviews was that refugees were “living the pandemic twice.” They were facing the COVID-19 pandemic in Brazil, and the Brazilian government was not doing a good job about it. However, at the same time, they worried about their loved ones that were facing the pandemic in the countries of origin that were less equipped than Brazil to fight the pandemic. Most refugees in Brazil come from Venezuela (near 65,49%), Syria (11,79%), and the Democratic Republic of Congo (3,79%), countries facing armed conflicts and humanitarian emergencies (CONARE, 2020).
In fact, refugees from Venezuela, Syria, and DRC felt that they were better prepared to stay at home and follow the WHO measures as compared with the local population because they had already faced war, other diseases (like the Ebola epidemic), and humanitarian emergencies in their home countries. They believed that these past experiences helped them to better understand and follow health recommendations without panic. This also allowed them to empathize more strongly with other groups affected by the pandemic, like recently arrived people, people living in abandoned buildings called occupations, elderly people, poor people, and homeless people. Many refugees depended for their livelihood on catering businesses, which were severely impacted by the canceling of events, fairs, and parties; they were unemployed or were in fear of losing their jobs due to the economic crisis. At the same time, they took action to assist those who were more vulnerable by sharing food with them, distributing food packages and hygiene kits, and offering information. Refugees were worried about the Brazilian population’s well-being and requested that the Brazilian government help everybody (including wealthy Brazilians) and not only refugees. They felt that, as everybody was being affected by the pandemic, everybody needed help.
The interview’s final questions invited the refugees to reflect on the future: the next three months and the future in general. Most refugees’ answers showed that they expected the pandemic to be over soon and that they could resume their previous mode of life after one month. I believe most of my interviewees feel disappointed considering that we are facing this pandemic for more than a year now and our lives are far from “normal.” Nevertheless, the refugees had an optimistic view of the future in general. They expected that humanity would be able to fight the COVID-19 pandemic in the same way as we have fought other pandemics that are now part of history books. They also expected that people would learn to take better care of themselves, their houses, and the planet in general. The refugees hoped that the pandemic would help people to improve, be less selfish and appreciate such vital values as health, family, and life. Actually, the refugees generally agreed that life itself was most essential. That is why they argued that the Brazilian government should save people’s lives first and put the economy in the second place.
The refugees in Brazil reflected on their problems, lessons, and expectations during the outbreak of the country’s COVID-19 pandemic. It is crucial to understand their perspectives to adopt responses to this crisis that take their particular needs into account and do not leave them behind. This essay briefly presented the main findings of the research entitled “Refugees and COVID-19” developed at the Núcleo de Pesquisas em Relações Internacionais (NUPRI) at the University of São Paulo (USP). More studies should consider refugees as experts for the impact of the pandemic on their lives, especially because we have been living the COVID-19 pandemic for more than one year now.
CONARE. (2020) Resumo Executivo - Refúgio em Números, 5th edition. Brasília: CONARE. https://www.justica.gov.br/seus-direitos/refugio/anexos/RESUMOEXECUTIVO_REFGIOEMNMEROS.pdf Accessed 07 Apr 2021.
International Association for the Study of Forced Migration. (2019). IASFM Code of Ethics: Critical reflections on research ethics in situations of forced migration. Forced Migration Review 61, 13-14.
Lowy Institute (2021) Covid Performance Index DECONSTRUCTING PANDEMIC RESPONSES. https://interactives.lowyinstitute.org/features/covid-performance/
Ponce, D. (2020). The impact of coronavirus in Brazil: politics and the pandemic. Nature Reviews Nephrology, 16, 483. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41581-020-0327-0
Raju, E., & Ayeb-Karlsson, S. (2020). COVID-19: How do you self-isolate in a refugee camp?. International Journal of Public Health, 65: 515–517. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00038-020-01381-8
Riggirozzi, P., Grugel J., Cintra, N. (2020, June 26). Protecting Migrants or Reversing Migration? COVID-19 and the risks of a protracted crisis in Latin America. Lancet Migration. https://socialprotection.org/sites/default/files/publications_files/188e74_543cbb0400824084abcea99479dfa124.pdf
Sandvik, K. B., Garnier, A. (2020, March 27). How Will the COVID-19 Pandemic Reshape Refugee and Migration Governance? PRIO Blogs. https://blogs.prio.org/2020/03/how-will-the-covid-19-pandemic-reshape-refugee-and-migration-governance
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (2020). Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2019. https://www.unhcr.org/5ee200e37.pdf
Ventura, D. (2015). Mobilidade humana e saúde global. Revista USP, (107), 55-64. https://doi.org/10.11606/issn.2316-9036.v0i107p55-64
World Health Organization. (2021). WHO Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Dashboard. Data last updated: 2021/04/06, 5:42pm CEST. https://covid19.who.int/?gclid=Cj0KCQjw6575BRCQARIsAMp-ksMsS4pwW8AXkGEwT7PN0DvyKCrbShCYW3NhkERbqy4LEoB8Xv7CjLcaAuNKEALw_wcB
 For further methodological discussions of this project, see Martuscelli, P. N. (2020). How are refugees affected by Brazilian responses to COVID-19?. Revista de Administração Pública, 54(5), 1446-1457. Epub November 02, 2020.https://doi.org/10.1590/0034-761220200516x
 See https://www.ufpr.br/portalufpr/noticias/projeto-disponibiliza-informacoes-sobre-auxilio-emergencial-em-cinco-idiomas/?fbclid=IwAR0vqVlDXsq89l1fQd0dac6tbnC7X2FSRLUMFhjUWVrdLbR-Xu7Mj_NwgJQ
by Lisa Wolfsegger
The NGO asylkoordination österreich is a networking organization that stands up for the rights of vulnerable groups. Particular emphasis is laid on child refugees. This blog post draws attention to major shortcomings in the provision and implementation of children’s rights for child refugees.
In 2020, 5,522 children applied for asylum in Austria. While 1,467 have entered the country without their parents and are, therefore, unaccompanied, most of them, that is, 4,055, have entered Austria with their parents. All adults and accompanied/unaccompanied minors – have to apply for asylum. This is the only possibility for legal residence in Austria. Other forms of legal entrance are rare. In the asylum process, three points are checked: asylum according the Geneva Refugee Convention (1), subsidiary protection according the European Convention on Human Rights (2) and humanitarian residence permits: §§ 55 and 57 (3).
Discrimination of children
In Austria, there are two groups of children– children and child refugees. There are systematic shortcomings before, during and after the asylum process concerning minors. The state does not provide children that fled to Austria without their parents with a guardian for extended periods (weeks or even months). During this initial process, no one is responsible for them. As a result, about half of the unaccompanied minors disappear altogether. No one keeps track of the missing children. In 2020, 764 children disappeared in this way.
After passing through the initial phase, unaccompanied minors are provided with accommodations with 24/7 care. However, they are disadvantaged compared to Austrian children in the custody of state-provided child-care accommodations, as the state provides fewer resources for their care.
Study on accompanied minors
In 2019, some colleagues and I jointly published a study with UNICEF. It focused on the situation of accompanied minors, particularly on the rights of accompanied child refugees during the asylum process and on the contribution of existing support services serving their best interest. The focus group were children in families during the asylum process in Austria. As our study shows, most protection is provided through the voluntary commitment of supporters or teachers. Despite this considerable voluntary effort and individual engagement, we found clear deficits in the implementation of the Convention of the Rights of the Child for child refugees. In particular, the state authority providing infrastructure and supporting structures, does not take the best interest of the child and the protection of the children’s rights sufficiently into account.
No place for being a child
The asylum procedure is stressful, for children and parents alike. Children have to take the role of adults and therefore involuntarily encounter the world of grownups. There is no space for being a child. Leyla (14 years) described her daily life with “three times a week crying, four times a week being happy”. The eight-year-old Rami wished for a kind fairy to grant a legal residency status (“Aufenthaltsstatus”). While other eight-year-olds desire Lego, Rami dreams of a legal residency status – actually a word that an eight-year-old should not even know.
Asylum seeking children are explicitly excluded from the law that prescribes minors to be educated until the age of 18 (“Ausbildungspflicht”). Their parents are not allowed to work, and the families often live in cramped housing without any private room for children. The parents’ lack of system knowledge prevents them from giving adequate support to their children.
Children often do not know any other place than Austria. Nevertheless, they experience racism and the feeling of being unwanted every day. Although some of them have been born in Austria, this does not entitle them to legal residence. In Austria, children always get the citizenship of their parents, no matter how long they have already lived in the country. This discrimination in the asylum process leads to an enormous physical and psychical burden on them.
As part of guardianship, parents are their children’s legal representatives. When parents cannot afford a lawyer, there is no preparation for, or support at, the interview. Accompanied children often become invisible in this legal context. While the authorities recognise unaccompanied minors as autonomous parties, accompanied minors are seen as “appendix” of their parents. The focus on the violation of children's rights and child-specific grounds for persecution disappears. Families with a positive asylum status can receive minimum benefits (“Mindestsicherung”). If they have subsidiary protection or humanitarian status, it depends on the region whether they get any social welfare at all. If the asylum procedure ends with a negative decision, many families fear deportation. In early 2021, the case of Tina received media attention. The 14-year old Tina was born in Austria and lived here for 12 years. In January 2021, she and her family were deported to Georgia. As we will see below, this case is not an unpleasant exception. Deportations of minors are cruel everyday occurrences in Austria. Even though it would be legally possible, authorities refuse to grant humanitarian status to families. Consequently, Austria deported 67 minors in the pandemic year of 2020. Also detention (“Schubhaft”), the cruel imprisonment without crime does not stop at children. In 2020, 13 children were in detention, eleven of them being unaccompanied minors.
What do we need?
The focus should be on the best interest and the rights of the child. Currently, the best interest of the child hardly matters. According to the law, people receive humanitarian status when the right to a private and family life prevails over the interests of the state. This consideration is in the discretion of the authorities. This humanitarian status is not humanitarian; it simply does not work anymore. In recent years, high legal barriers have been created by the deciding immigration authority, the “Bundesamt für Fremdenwesen und Asyl” (BFA), which is subordinate to the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The BFA is over-financed and uses its large personnel of about 1,000 employees to file legal appeals (“Amtsrevisionen”) against positive decisions by the Federal Administrative Court, which is the second instance. As a result, the criteria for admission and the legal reasoning have become so complex that they beat even specialized lawyers. The entire legal apparatus is inscrutable for all parties involved.
What happened before the deportation of 14-year-old Tina?
In the case of Tina, the mother applied for a humanitarian status and, therefore, for a re-examination of the best interest of the child in May 2020, that is, nine months prior to the deportation. Thus, the mother did her best to safeguard the best interest of her child. The authority ignored the application, although it was required to deal with it within six months. This was contrary to law!
The best interest of the child had been examined 1 ½ years before the deportation. A proper procedure would have included a re-examination before deportation. This did not happen. In the long interval since the last examination, the children had become integrated in Austria and their ties to the country of origin had decreased. Therefore, their adaptation to the country of origin had become more difficult. If the authorities take children’s rights seriously, they have to re-examine to decide if the deportation indeed corresponds to the best interest of the child.
We see that the shortcomings in the proceedings for children and asylum are systematic. Children’s rights are consistently ignored; child refugees are not recognized as children Just as in the case of Tina, our study shows the need for a stronger focus on the rights of the child in the asylum process. The current situation is a systematic failure that is politically intended. For many years, asylkoordination österreich has been working to improve conditions in the field of children’s rights for this vulnerable group. Each and every one of the 67 deportations of a minor in 2020 was cruel. Altogether, we need better options for the legalization of undocumented persons in Austria – not only for children.
 Source: parliamentary query response from NEOS (AB 4983/AB) – 15.03.2021
 Source: parliamentary query response from NEOS (AB 4983/AB) – 15.03.2021
 Andrea Fritsche, Katharina Glawischnig, Lisa Wolfsegger: „Dreimal in der Woche weinen, viermal in der Woche glücklich sein“. Zur kinderrechtlichen Situation begleiteter Kinderflüchtlinge und ihrer Familien. UNICEF Österreich / asylkoordination österreich. 260 Seiten. ISBN 978-3-200-0664-1.
 Source: parliamentary query response from NEOS (AB 4983/AB) – 15.03.2021
 Source: parliamentary query response from NEOS (AB 4983/AB) – 15.03.2021
By Rainer Bauböck and Gerd Valchars
Early in the morning of 28 January, heavily armed police escorted four children of rejected asylum seekers (three minor girls and a boy) to the airport from where they were deported to Georgia and Armenia. The incident caused widespread protests because the children had been living and attending school in Austria for many years and were considered well integrated. The social democratic governor of Carinthia, Peter Kaiser, and others called for a debate on ius soli, the attribution of citizenship by birth in the territory.
In a guest commentary in one of the Austrian leading newspapers "Der Standard", political scientists Rainer Bauböck and Gerd Valchars show that Austria's citizenship law is in urgent need of reform - and how other countries handle this. The text below is a slightly modified English translation.
Children who were born and went to school in Austria are being deported because their parents have no right to asylum. The ongoing discussion focuses on whether the Minister of the Interior could have refrained from deporting them despite the negative decision of the courts, whether the best interests of the child should take precedence over state interests, whether such cases should be examined by a hardship commission in the future, and whether the federal provinces must be re-involved in this examination.
A few voices state the obvious. Because of their circumstances of life, the children who were deported are Austrians. They can only be deported because they do not have Austrian citizenship. Our citizenship law only provides for the possibility of naturalization for children born in Austria after six years of residence, and they must meet the same harsh conditions as first-generation adult immigrants.
When asked whether the citizenship law should not be reformed, ÖVP parliamentary faction chairman August Wöginger answered twice on ORF (the Austrian public broadcasting corporation): "We have a well-functioning citizenship law." No, Mr. Chairman, we don’t! In December, the Brussels Migration Policy Group published the current figures of its Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX), which social scientists consider a solid measurement tool for integration policies. In a recent comparison of access to nationality in 52 countries Austria ends up in last place, together with Bulgaria.
Born in the country
The NGO SOS Mitmensch (SOS fellow human being) has therefore called for children born in Austria to be automatically granted citizenship if one parent has lived in the country for six years prior to birth. With such a conditional ius soli Austria would join Germany, Finland, France, Greece, Great Britain, Ireland, Luxembourg or Portugal. In the case of Tina and her little sister, however, this would not have prevented the deportations because the mother had not been in the country long enough before giving birth and her stay was linked to her ongoing asylum procedure. Only an unconditional ius soli, in which birth in the country alone is sufficient for the automatic acquisition of citizenship, would have protected the girls. According to GLOBALCIT, such a birthright exists in as many as 31 countries worldwide, most of which are in North and South America. In Europe, there has been no unconditional ius soli since 2004.
One argument against unconditional ius soli is that it creates an incentive for "birth tourism". This cannot be dismissed out of hand. Middle class mothers from Mexico and China pay a lot of money to deliver their babies in specialized birth clinics in the US so that their children get American citizenship. One can also rightly object that the mere coincidence of birth in the territory is not a sufficient indicator of attachment to a state. However, when children grow up and go to school in a country, this is certainly enough evidence that that country is their home.
So, in addition to birth, socialization in the country needs to be added as a second and crucial indicator for belonging. And here there are several European countries that can serve as models. Let's look at the two European MIPEX leaders: In Portugal, minors are eligible for naturalization if they were born in the country and have been in school or training there for at least one year. In Sweden, underage children with permanent residency get citizenship after three years (or two years for stateless children) with no further conditions, based on a simple declaration by their parents.
Is there a chance for reform?
The obvious solution, then, would be to reform the Austrian citizenship law to introduce both a conditional ius soli and an entitlement to citizenship for minors regardless of their place of birth and their parents' residence status. Would that create an incentive for abusive asylum applications? This cannot be completely ruled out, but the answer is surely obvious: fair and speedy asylum procedures would eliminate this incentive.
Is there any chance of such a reform in Austria? The Green Party is currently being harshly criticized by many for not having the courage to risk even breaking up the government coalition on this issue. Green MP Sibylle Hamann is right that this would not help anyone. However, there is not a single word about citizenship in the coalition agreement. This issue was obviously left out because the Greens were not in favor of further restrictions. In view of the continuation of the agenda of the right-wing ÖVP-FPÖ government (2017-19) in the other areas of migration and asylum policy, this silence on naturalization was a small and little-noticed success for the Greens. Now, however, they are challenged to actually use this leeway. Given the unattractive alternative coalition options for the ÖVP, it is not very likely that Chancellor Sebastian Kurz will let the coalition fall apart if the Greens make a push for the overdue reform of the citizenship law.
What is needed now for the deported children is a humanitarian repatriation campaign. For thousands of children who are threatened with deportation from their Austrian homeland in the future, a reform of the citizenship law is needed.