Photo: Ninety year-old Ms Ilanjian is among the first refugees in Greece to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. © UNHCR/Socrates Baltagiannis
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that the entire world is interconnected.
But at a time when countries around the world are in a race to vaccinate their citizens against the coronavirus, there’s a population group that’s almost never mentioned: refugees.
Just as the virus does not discriminate, there should be no discrimination against this group when it comes to access to vaccines.
Of the 90 countries which have begun national vaccination campaigns, only 51 include refugees in their vaccination rollout.
Greece is one of the 51 countries that says it will include refugees. It hosts approximately 120,000 asylum-seekers and migrants, including 4,200 children who arrived in the country alone or were separated from their families along the journey.
Photograph: Yannis Kolesidis
Minister of Migration and Asylum, Notis Mitarachi, said asylum seekers and recognized refugees in Greece “will definitely be vaccinated. They will be vaccinated normally, according to age group. Under the Geneva Convention and European law, we provide the same access to health care to everyone in our country. Even asylum seekers who have not been recognized as refugees have a social security number and can be vaccinated.”.
In early May, in particular, special teams are expected to begin vaccinating residents in the camps. But despite the minister's reassuring statement, refugee communities are anxious. Yunus Mohammadi has been living in Greece for 20 years. A refugee from Afghanistan, he founded the Greek Forum of Refugees and provides support to newcomers.
He said "Since the minister made the announcement, why hasn’t there been any organized information given to the refugees themselves? Every day we get calls from refugees with serious health problems, asking if they are entitled to be vaccinated, if they should get the vaccine and how can they get on the list because they have no official information. I'm very worried. I'm afraid they’ll be treated as if they’re citizens of the lowest category.”
Refugees seeking official information from the government face a challenging obstacle: the language, since the government's website for coronavirus information is only in Greek.
At the end of March none of the women who work with Love Welcomes in the refugee camp had received a notification about vaccines, although Greek staff working with us have started to be vaccinated.
The UNHCR offers a multilingual information platform, ‘HELP’, and information can also be found at refugee.info, but all the "How to get vaccinated" hyperlinks lead to the Greek-language government website on how to make an appointment.
In addition, those asylum seekers who don’t have a social security number − a prerequisite for vaccination − are required to obtain a temporary social security number, but the information on this process is only offered in Greek.
"Language is indeed a hurdle that must be overcome immediately. There is a need for organized and systematic information from the state in languages understood by refugees. The authorities recognize this need and intend to create a team that will work towards this end. As UNHCR, we have expressed our willingness to help," said UNHCR spokeswoman Stella Nanou.
The government should expedite the process, as the refugees we spoke to don’t have access to information and are confused. They depend on social media for their information, and some are even led to believe that they should not be vaccinated.
Hosein Ahmadi, 42, has a heart condition and lives in a camp on Lesvos. Although he has not been seen by a doctor, he decided not to be vaccinated. "I think the vaccine is dangerous and will make my health worse. I haven’t spoken to a doctor but I saw on the internet that there were problems in other countries,” he said.
Lisa Papadimitriou, advocacy manager at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said "From the beginning of the pandemic, it was clear that refugees were not included in the Covid-19 response strategy, as they should have been. They did not move the elderly and the chronically ill from the camps to safe places, nor did they carry out tests in a population that doesn’t have access to proper hygiene and can’t ‘isolate at home’. At Moria, they used loudspeakers to make announcements about social distancing, in a place that had 20,000 residents,”
"At least now, vaccination priority should be given to the most vulnerable living in the camps," Papadimitriou added.
Fortunately, stories of optimism and humanity have also emerged.
Linda Ilanjian, 90, from Syria, was one of the first refugees to be vaccinated in Greece. A neighbour made an appointment for her while her friend, Sevan, accompanied her to the hospital so that she would not be alone. With a smile on her face, the elderly refugee wished everyone "health and luck” and urged everyone to get the vaccine.
One thing’s for sure: we need to hear a lot more stories like Linda Ilanjian’s.
If we don’t ensure that everyone has access to the vaccine, we won’t be able to get the pandemic under control and the consequences will affect our entire society.
This content was paid for by Love Welcomes and created by Solomon Studio.