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Migrants, refugees are the human cost of coronavirus politics, experts say

March 27, 2020, 2:00 PM UTC

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People across the United States and around the world are restricting their movement and increasing their social distance in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus. But for the more than 37,000 people in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities, social distance is not always an option.

Detainees include families with children as young as 7, according to Amnesty International, some of whom have been waiting for their asylum hearing for months. Conditions are often cramped, with detainees sharing housing too small to allow for the six feet of social distance.

“It’s going to further escalate a public health crisis if we don’t look at the best way to provide public health care to every person, regardless of their immigration status,” says Denise Bell, a researcher focusing on refugee and migrant rights for Amnesty International.

The human cost of the coronavirus in the closed environment of detention centers could be devastating, tearing through populations at a rapid rate, according to advocates. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump recently announced that undocumented people attempting to cross the border from Mexico would be sent back without an asylum hearing—a move that humanitarian agencies say could cause an additional health crisis along the border. Multiple experts told Fortune that the virus is serving as a pretext for Trump and others to carry out their own political agendas. And the border closure put in place—made possible by emergency health protocols—could last for up to a year.

“It has given him the cover to get to the endgame that he’s wanted for a long time, which is to shut the border to people seeking asylum and to other immigrants,” Bell tells Fortune.

For ICE detainees who have medical conditions or are elderly, the coronavirus poses a potentially lethal threat. A report from the Department of Homeland Security last summer described “egregious violations of detention standards,” in certain ICE centers, including inadequate medical care, expired food, and a lack of hygiene items. Several nonprofit organizations—and even a former acting director of ICE—have pushed for the release of some detainees during this epidemic. The ACLU sued for the immediate release of certain vulnerable detainees from an ICE center in Tacoma earlier this month. A federal district court denied that request, but the case is ongoing.

ICE was putting in place protocols to protect staff and detainees, according to a statement shared with Fortune. The agency will “temporarily adjust its enforcement posture,” focusing on arrests based on criminal grounds. ICE also halted social visitation to slow the potential spread of the virus. At least one staff member in New Jersey has tested positive for the virus; no detainees have yet tested positive, according to a spokesperson.

A parallel situation has already been unfolding in Europe, where a mounting crisis on the Greek border has caused EU-wide tensions concerning refugee care and resettlement. The camps in Greece, serving as a makeshift home to men, women, and children—many of them fleeing war in Syria—are unprepared for an epidemic. Greek refugee camps house six to seven times more people than they were designed for, according to Jennifer Sime, senior vice president for refugee resettlement and asylum at the International Rescue Committee. Inadequate shower and hand-washing facilities often make it hard for residents to follow the suggested protocols, and many people in the camps have preexisting health conditions, she noted.

At the Moria refugee camp in Greece, some 20,000 people live in a shelter made for just 3,000. Many volunteers have had to temporarily halt their activities in the camps, both for their own health and for that of the camp residents, leaving refugees and migrants increasingly on their own. Women asylum-seekers in Moria have taken to sewing their own masks to prepare, using cloth and plastic wrappers from the grocery store, the Guardian reported.

Far-right-wing European leaders have used xenophobic rhetoric, stoking fears of the coronavirus in order to sidestep a legal obligation to care for refugees. “We are fighting a two-front war; one front is called migration, and the other one belongs to the coronavirus. There is a logical connection between the two, as both spread with movement,” Viktor Orban, Hungary’s nationalist Prime Minister, said in March.

Orban’s warning—much like Trump’s—ignored the fact that the vast majority of asylum-seekers are coming from countries with drastically lower rates of the virus than Europe or the U.S. While many border closings worldwide are a necessary measure, there is scant statistical evidence for the U.S. decision to turn away migrants and asylum-seekers from Central America over the coronavirus. As of Wednesday morning, the U.S. had 55,238 cases of the coronavirus, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker. The so-called Northern Triangle of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras—where many migrants come from—had a collective 66 cases.

Previous attempts by Trump to issue similar orders along the Mexican border were blocked because the U.S. Constitution protects the right to due process for anyone on U.S. soil. Asylum-seekers in particular have the right to a hearing.

Scapegoating and xenophobia have marked Trump’s discourse around COVID-19, according to historians in the Washington Post who pointed to Trump’s insistence on calling it “the Chinese virus.” Asian-Americans said they fear that the President’s rhetoric could incite further racism against them, as many have already reported being screamed at or even spit on by strangers, according to the New York Times.

Far-right political groups across the U.S. have also tried to capitalize on the chaos of the coronavirus, according to Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a scholar of far-right extremism at the American University in Washington, D.C. Their conspiracy theories blame the virus on a range of groups, from Jews to Democrats to the so-called deep state. Neo-Nazis have even encouraged people infected with the virus to spread it to Jews and to law enforcement, according to an FBI statement shared with ABC News.

“You have the risk of further polarization and the risk of exploitation of the virus by organized far-right groups—both for biological terrorism, which we’ve seen already—but also to spread conspiracy theories and to use it as a way of recruiting youth who are increasingly online,” she tells Fortune.

Anti-immigrant rhetoric—both from Trump and elsewhere—ignores an uncomfortable truth: a risk to detainees and refugees is actually a risk to everyone, according to doctors. Two medical experts for the Department of Homeland Security warned Congress in a letter of a “tinderbox scenario” in ICE detention centers. Rapid transmission in the closed environment of an ICE detention center could lead to local hospitals being overwhelmed, in turn reducing critical resources such as ventilators for entire communities.

“Reassessing the security and public health risks, and acting immediately, will save lives of not only those detained, but also detention staff and their families, and the community-at-large,” they wrote.

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