As the Middle East and North African (MENA) region faces the COVID 19 pandemic with fragile public health systems and instability due to conflicts, war and an economic crisis, millions of refugees are suffering from severe financial and social hardships: living in overcrowded camps or sub-standard shelters, loss of jobs, and the meagre income from the work they do in the informal economy. They are often neglected, stigmatized, and already face difficulties in accessing basic services, health care and social protection.
The pandemic has laid bare the many inequalities of our societies, where the vulnerable have become even more vulnerable
PSI and its affiliates in the MENA region organized a webinar on 30th June 2020 as part of the commemoration of 20 June World Refugee Day. The objective of the webinar is to share experiences and good practices towards strengthening refugee protection and assistance in the MENA region, with the view to promoting access to decent work, social protection and access to quality health services during the Covid-19 crisis.
Speakers in the webinar included the PSI General Secretary and representatives of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), International Labour Organization, CARITAS, the trade union network for the Mediterranean and Subsaharan (RSMMS) and PSI affiliates from Jordan and Tunisia.
Rosa Pavanelli, PSI General Secretary, in the opening, addressed the structural global health crisis, where the health system, the economy, the environment and the social fabric of our communities have come to a breaking point, along with the worsening humanitarian crisis in the MENA region that hosts the highest number of refugees in the world. She highlighted how the pandemic has laid bare the many inequalities of our societies, where the vulnerable have become even more vulnerable. She warned that these inequalities will further deepen and will create further division globally and, in our society, if we don't take the necessary measures to change the rules of global governance and of the global economic system.
Only through well-funded, fully equipped and adequately staffed public services can we ensure inclusion
Pavanelli further explains: “In the MENA Region, we know the difficulties and struggles of weak public health systems, resulting from decades of austerity, privatisation, undervaluing of health care work, gender inequality, and the struggle for trade union rights and defending democracy. In the middle of this pandemic, we have seen how public health services remain the best and only recourse to saving lives. Only through well-funded, fully equipped and adequately staffed public services can we ensure inclusion, reaching out to the furthest and most vulnerable in our societies, among them the refugees. Thus, our message is very clear: Secure the Right to Health of Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons and their Inclusion in Public Health Care Systems. Refugees must be part of any government COVID-19 crisis response and recovery, working alongside workers, trade unions and civil society. We must ensure that any covid-19 crisis response is human-rights based, gender-responsive and child-sensitive.”
Dr. Jakob Arhem, Public Health Officer at the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, based in Beirut, explained the support being provided by the UNHCR to refugees in Lebanon. The UNHCR, as a response to COVID 19 is promoting awareness and campaigns targeting both the refugees and the host communities.
Moustapha Said, Senior Specialist for Workers’ Activities at the International Labor Organization (ILO) based in Beirut, raised the issue of the loss of jobs among Syrian refugees in Jordan. In Lebanon, around 86% of the refugees have lost their jobs, with women refugees being most severely affected. Refugees are facing a high level of precarity. He says, “To face the crisis, we should work on 4 axes: (1) offer incentive and facilities to the SMEs to support salaries; (2) provide occupational safety and health (OHS) protection at the workplace, e.g. PPEs, social distancing and hygiene; (3) ensure social protection to include informal workers; and (4) establish Social Dialogue tripartite institutions in order to put forward health, social and economic policies necessary for decent work.”
Samia Letaeif Bouslama, member of the Federation of Health Workers in Tunisia, a PSI affiliate, stressed the role of health workers in fighting the pandemic at the frontlines. As a result of the demands from trade unions and civil society, the WHO and the Tunisian Ministry of Health signed an agreement to provide health care to all refugees and migrants regardless of status.
Also from Tunisia, Naima Hammani, Coordinator Trade Union Network for Migrants in the Mediterranean and the Sub Sahara (RSMMS), underscored the vulnerability that refugees face in the absence of laws to protect them. She stressed the importance of guaranteeing the rights of refugees through application of existing laws and promulgating of new laws, the ratification of ILO conventions on migrant workers, building alliances with the trade union movement and civil society organizations, raising awareness on rights of migrants and refugees, demanding an end to the conflicts, fighting climate change and supporting peace and democracy in the region.
Nouha Roukos, Awareness Project Coordinator of CARITAS in Lebanon, shared the campaign initiated by civil society against the sponsorship system (Kafala) and called for the inclusion of refugee and migrant workers in the labour law. Refugee workers in Lebanon are subjected to the Kafala system.
Ali Al Hadid, President of the General Trade Union of workers in Electricity, a PSI affiliate, explained that the lockdown was very tight in Jordan. As the union, they created a team to follow-up and mobilise support for refugees, including financial support. Ali explains: “Our aim is to target those working on a daily basis, in order to provide them with social protection, and working in cooperation with civil society partners at the national level.”
Further in Jordan, Randa AL KHALDI, Member of the General Trade Union for Medical and Health services, also a PSI affiliate, raised the issue of the lack of preparedness of the health sector in facing the pandemic. She lamented that there is a shortage in hospital beds, problems in admission capacity, protection tools, and the limited medical test supplies. Women at the health sector who form 75% of the total number of health workers, had to work for long shifts, which put them under stress and at risk to be infected and to contaminate their families.
Clearly, PSI affiliates in the region face huge challenges in dealing with the multiple crises exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, the webinar was also an opportunity to launch the second phase PSI’s project on “Trade unions, human rights and access to quality public services for refugee and migrant workers” and bringing it in the context of the COVID-19 response. Plans and activities are underway this year to build the capacity of PSI affiliates in organising efforts and advocacy, in alliance with civil society and other partners. The project is being held in the four MENA countries, namely, Jordan, Lebanon, Algeria and Tunisia.