The spread of COVID-19 puts Assyrian and other refugees and internally-displaced peoples (IDPs) at particular risk. The majority of Christian Assyrians in Iraq and Syria have been forcibly displaced due to conflict, religious persecution, and targeted violence over the last two decades. More recently, several hundred thousand were displaced following the rise of the so-called Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria.
Refugee: A refugee is a person who has been forced to leave his or her country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.
Internally-displaced person (IDP): An internally displaced person is someone who is forced to flee his or her home but who remains within his or her country’s borders. They are often referred to as refugees, but they do not meet the legal definition of a refugee.
Assyrian IDPs in Iraq
Hundreds of Assyrian IDPs in Iraq still reside in camps, where it is impossible to comply with World Health Organization recommendations pertaining to social distancing, and where proper sanitation measures are not readily available and access to adequate health care is limited. These factors leave these communities especially vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19.
In Baghdad, Iraq, Virgin Mary Complex currently houses approximately 140 families of Assyrian background. The majority of these persons are inhabitants of the Nineveh Plain who were displaced in 2014, while a few are impoverished Assyrian families from Baghdad who have since been admitted to the camp.
Virgin Mary Complex was established in late 2014 by the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM), an Iraqi Assyrian political party, in response to the Islamic State’s takeover of Mosul and the Nineveh Plain. The camp is located on lands belonging to the ADM and continues to operate despite pressure from the federal government to close. Most camps housing Christian Assyrian IDPs, such as those operated by the Chaldean Catholic Church in Ankawa, were closed in 2017. In August 2019, the Iraqi Government consolidated and closed a number of IDP camps across the country, with a stated goal of all IDPs returning home by the end of 2020; though voluntary repatriation remains unlikely given current conditions. Virgin Mary Complex is the only active IDP camp in Iraq exclusively housing Christian Assyrian IDPs.
In the immediate aftermath of the Islamic State assault on the Nineveh Plain, 45 families were temporarily housed at ADM-affiliated facilities in Baghdad; however, as the number of Assyrian IDPs from Ninewa Governorate arriving in Baghdad increased, the camp was established and these families were relocated. Each family was provided with a caravan containing one room, a kitchen, and a bathroom, including a shower. The camp, which was established with the assistance of Baghdad’s Provincial Council and the Ministry of Migration and Displaced Persons, relies on the support of NGOs and private donors to meet the daily needs of inhabitants, including food, water, and medicine. Security is provided by guards employed by the ADM, and the camp is administered in partnership with the Christian Endowment Office.
Despite the liberation of Ninewa Governorate from Islamic State control in 2017, Assyrian return to Mosul has been negligible, and a number of factors continue to prevent repatriation to the Nineveh Plain where roughly 50% of the pre-Islamic State population has returned, primarily to al-Hamdaniya District. Though some of the families previously housed at Virgin Mary Complex have returned home to the Nineveh Plain, many have no plans to return in the foreseeable future. According to camp administrators, the most-commonly cited factors preventing return include concerns about security, lack of livelihood opportunities, and irreparable damage to home/property.
Iraqi Assyrian Member of Parliament Yonadam Kanna told the API, “We will continue to support the needs of displaced persons until we can guarantee the conditions that will sustain their return. We will not force anyone to return home. Security, jobs, and infrastructure are basic needs and many won’t return until these things are guaranteed.”
The Iraqi Government has imposed a curfew and other restrictions to limit the spread of COVID-19. On Wednesday, March 25, 2020, Kanna led an initiative to sanitize Virgin Mary Complex in response to the COVID-19 outbreak and says camp administrators will continue to take measures to prevent the spread of the virus.
Assyrian Refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey
Assyrian refugees residing in countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey generally do not seek shelter in refugee camps due to religious discrimination and fear of targeted attacks. Instead, Assyrian refugees are compelled to rent private homes in urban neighborhoods. While they are generally able to practice social distancing in these conditions, various factors may negatively impact their ability to take all precautionary measures against COVID-19 and to receive adequate medical care if infected. Limited access to health care remains a major concern, as the policies and practices of governing authorities often prohibit refugees from accessing proper care. Moreover, medical experts have concluded that the fragile health care systems in these countries generally lack the capacity to respond to an epidemic. Beyond concerns about health care, the cost of living in these countries is very high, and many of these families rely on remittances from relatives and friends abroad in order to meet household needs. Some Assyrian refugees were employed without legal authorization and are now no longer working. These sources of financial support have now been affected, exposing large segments of the Assyrian refugee community to the possibility of economic vulnerability. Many of these communities also depend on the support of NGOs that are now paralyzed or short of funds due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Though many Assyrian refugees have been resettled to countries such as Australia, Canada, and the United States in recent years, tens of thousands remain in displacement. The majority of Assyrian refugees spend years awaiting resettlement with little to do on a daily basis, and in doing so have already adapted to conditions of thwarted mobility. While the long wait for a humanitarian visa is anticipated, there is no guarantee of resettlement. Following the outbreak of COVID-19, countries around the world have taken necessary steps to contain the contagious virus, such as travel restrictions, quarantines, and the closing of borders.
On March 17, 2020, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced that the UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are suspending resettlement departures. Some countries have also placed their own holds on planned refugee arrivals due to the global pandemic. According to the UNHCR:
As countries drastically reduce entry into their territories owing to the COVID-19 global health crisis, and restrictions around international air travel are introduced, travel arrangements for resettling refugees are currently subject to severe disruptions. Some States have also placed a hold on resettlement arrivals given their public health situation, which impacts on their capacity to receive newly resettled refugees. Refugee families are being directly impacted by these quickly evolving regulations in the course of their travel, with some experiencing extensive delays while others have been stranded or separated from family members.
Though the extreme measures undertaken by countries around the world are necessary to contain the spread of the virus, the suspension of refugee resettlement may exacerbate the existing vulnerabilities of refugee communities and negatively impact their mental health and well-being. For many Assyrian refugees, the uncertainty about the future is often overwhelming and crippling. An Assyrian refugee currently residing in Amman, Jordan told the API by phone, “We have already been waiting for six years for any news on our [resettlement] case. The whole world is on hold, but it’s especially hard for us to accept that now we are just stuck here without any idea of what the future holds for us.
An Assyrian refugee in Fuheis, Jordan stated, “I am very worried about our future. We feel now as though we are wasting our time and our money here, because all cases have been suspended, and we don’t know how long this will go on.”
Jordan has imposed one of the strictest countrywide lockdowns in the world to combat COVID-19. Round-the-clock curfews have been extended indefinitely, barring people from moving except in emergencies. People between the ages of 16 to 60 are permitted to leave their home on foot during designated hours for essential trips, such as purchasing groceries or essential needs. Those who violate the curfew are subject to arrest, up to a one-year prison sentence, and for refugees, possible deportation. While the lockdown aims to limit the spread of COVID-19, it has significantly limited access to vital humanitarian assistance for urban refugee communities such as Assyrians.
In Lebanon, authorities have imposed a partial-curfew and ordered the closure of all nonessential public and private institutions. The Assyrian Support Committee (ASC), a Beirut-based aid group affiliated with the Assyrian Church of the East, recently launched an initiative aimed at spreading awareness about COVID-19 and distributing essential needs. Jack Jendo, a board member of ASC, told the API, “The COVID-19 pandemic has intensively worsened an already devastating economic crisis and exposed the inadequacies of Lebanon’s social protection system. As a small minority, the Assyrians are one of the most vulnerable communities in Lebanon, due to the lack of financial and social resources. The only support available to our people here is the church, which was barely able to meet the urgent needs of impoverished families and refugee families from Iraq and Syria before the global pandemic.”
With the support of Catholic Relief Services, the ASC is in the process of delivering food baskets and hygiene kits to 511 Assyrian families located in Bauchrieh, Hadath, Zahle, and Ashrafieh. While the assistance targets approximately 70% of Assyrian families in the area, Jendo says the ASC recognizes the unique vulnerabilities of Assyrian refugees at this time. “Our main challenge now is to analyze and handle the cases of needy families in light of this crisis,” he says.
Jendo says there are currently no reported cases of COVID-19 among the local Assyrian community. He attributes the lack of spread to the ASC’s early response to the crisis, which included promoting awareness and canceling all public gatherings and events, including religious services. The ASC has also formed emergency response units composed of volunteers in areas with significant Assyrian populations, and has also created a hotline and online form where families can report symptoms and confirmed cases.
In Turkey, authorities have not imposed a nationwide lockdown, but have introduced gradual restrictions on movement, including road closures and a new curfew. Urban refugees in Turkey tend to live in crowded neighborhoods with poor water and sanitation conditions. Refugees in Turkey are entitled to health care provided by public health care facilities; however, barriers to health care persist, including, but not limited to, lack of information of services offered, legal status issues, language barriers, delayed registration processes, a high number of claimants, geographical barriers to accessing health facilities, transportation costs, prohibitive co-payments for treatment beyond primary care, and inequalities in the distribution of health care personnel and supplies. These factors complicate their ability and willingness to seek treatment for illnesses. The Turkish Health Ministry announced that all hospitals, including private facilities, are required to admit and treat all suspected patients of COVID-19, but there are concerns about how the order will play out in practice. There are also concerns about basic health information on COVID-19 and information on access to treatment not reaching refugee communities, which would require overcoming the language barrier.