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Refugees fade into the background amid pandemic

January 27, 2021

Amid heated debate about the long-term effects of the lockdown on children, business and the arts, Germany's refugees seem to have been forgotten.

Samir Al Jubouri stands in front of a fence
Samir Al Jubouri at Bonn's refugee centerImage: Oliver Pieper/DW

When Samir Al Jubouri arrived in Germany last January, life seemed to be looking up. He was happy and relieved to have made his way from Iraq to Germany and, like most Germans, had not yet heard about the coronavirus

A year later, the 39-year-old is still housed at a refugee center in Bonn, where he wears a mask to cover his nose and mouth. "I am happy to be in Germany, especially during the coronavirus pandemic," he says. "Health care in Iraq is a disaster."

Al Jubouri has already been tested for the virus twice. Both tests came back negative. There was an outbreak at the center in December. Over the course of the month, there were 50 infections — the crowded conditions are ideal for the virus to spread are ideal for the virus to spread. One floor of the refugee center was quickly declared a quarantine station. Because most of the people affected were young, there were no serious outcomes. 

COVID-19 measures getting in way of integration 

But the lockdown has had a serious effect on life for the 200 people living here. No sports. No visits to the library. Childcare in groups of eight only. No cozy chats in the tea room. 

Why Syrian refugees in Germany fear deportation

Al Jubouri, who studied IT at the University of Baghdad, says he cannot make any headway. German courses are taking place online only and his case has made little progress through the bureaucratic machine. A job seems a distant dream. To keep busy and improve his chances when lockdown ends, the Iraqi has taken the initiative. "I volunteered to work in the kitchen and did an apprenticeship with the head cook."

Did Germany perhaps lose sight of its refugees amid the fuss about intensive care units, vaccinations and masks? The answer is yes, says Memet Kilic of the German Council on Immigration and Integration (BZI).

The fear of COVID-19 and of deportation

"Refugees are the group suffering most in the pandemic and the ones who have been, simultaneously, forgotten," says Kilic. "Naturally, they still can't articulate themselves very well and are, above all, happy to have escaped with their lives."

Kilic, a lawyer, has been giving refugees a voice since he co-founded the BZI in 1998. His main preoccupation right now is the case of a police officer who fled from Turkey, where he had been tortured. "We tried to have his asylum case fast-tracked but because of the coronavirus, we haven't even been able to get a date for a hearing."

A picture of Memet Kilic, Vorsitzender BZI
Even if people are worn out psychologically, we can't forget the issue of refugees Image: privat

Refugees face double the burden. Not only do they live in constant fear of deportation, they also have to live with the fear of contracting the virus and the effects of the lockdown on their mental health. Memet Kilic is calling for a meeting of federal and state authorities with non-governmental organizations to identify challenges and propose solutions. 

Kilic is calling to rehouse families with children, in particular, away from refugee centers, and more digital access to schools and language classes for both children and adults.

"And we have to make sure their part-time jobs are protected so that they can't simply be let go,” says Kilic.

Refugees losing their jobs

The increase in joblessness caused by the pandemic has hit non-German citizens disproportionately hard, according to a study recently completed by Yvonne Giesing, a research associate at the Ifo economic research institute in Munich. 

"Immigrants and refugees are often the first to lose their jobs since they were frequently in precarious employment situations even before the pandemic, as a result of temporary and part-time jobs," says Giesing. "According to the German Labor Agency, unemployment rose disproportionately among refugees in 2020."

A picture Yvonne Giesing
Refugees are dependent upon routine in their daily lives, in part because of the traumatic experiences they've lived through, says Yvonne GiesingImage: Yvonne Giesing

Jobs in harvesting, in slaughterhouses or cleaning hotels were among the first to fall victim to the pandemic. Giesing says the problem is compounded by the fact that refugees cannot start new jobs at the moment either. "Many people would only just be starting out, but now find themselves in a particularly difficult situation."

Deportations continue despite the pandemic

All this affects residence status, explains Wiebke Judith. A lawyer for the NGO Pro Asyl, she outlines the vicious circle in which refugees find themselves. "If all you have is a temporary permit to stay and are hoping to get what is called a limited work permit, you have to be able to show that you worked for a relatively long time without interruption." No job means no income, which in turn means no prospect of staying. 

Judith says it's especially bitter that it's business as usual for the German authorities when it comes to deportations. "We're back to normal in that regard. There are regular group deportations to various countries."

A picture Wiebke Judith
It's more difficult to remain in contact with a lawyer when asylumseekers receive rejection notices Image: Wiebke Judith,

It started with Eastern Europe, then flights resumed to Africa and Pakistan. Since December, deportations to Afghanistan have been taking place as well. Despite the coronavirus pandemic. Wiebke Judith says this is both ludicrous and cynical. "On the one hand, the authorities are asking us to avoid all travel but then these forced deportations are still going ahead, despite the high numbers of personnel required, with several police officers and doctors on board."

The article was translated from German.

Oliver Pieper | Analysis & Reports
Oliver Pieper Reporter on German politics and society, as well as South American affairs.
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