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JRS prioritises protection of refugees during pandemic

Eugene Quinn, National Director of Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in Ireland, reports on the latest local, regional and global JRS responses to Covid-19. These include a call for vaccine equity for refugees, for prioritising educational supports for asylum seekers in Direct Provision centres in Ireland, and for learning lessons from the impact of Covid-19 on asylum seekers in Europe. Pope Francis has also led the way in responding to the needs of refugees by inviting a group of refugees to the Vatican for their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine.

Global call for vaccine equity for refugees

The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) has called on world leaders to ensure global Covid-19 vaccine distribution plans prioritize all countries equally and are implemented fairly and without discrimination.

In joining this international campaign for vaccine equity, Eugene Quinn, National Director of JRS in Ireland said:

“Refugees and the forcibly displaced are among the most vulnerable people on our planet. 85% of the world’s refugees are hosted in developing countries. There is a moral imperative to ensure equal access for all, including refugees and forcibly displaced persons, to vaccinations in national and global programmes.”

JRS believes the dignity of each human person must be the guiding principle for vaccination efforts. Pope Francis has called upon government leaders, business, and international organizations to foster “cooperation and not competition, and to seek a solution for everyone” rather than “letting the law of the marketplace and patents take precedence over the law of love and the health of humanity.”

JRS supports efforts to temporarily suspend intellectual and patent rights for Covid-19 vaccines, allowing more rapid and cost-effective vaccine production in the developing world itself.

Over Easter a group of refugees at the Centro Astalli, part of JRS in Italy, received their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine in the Vatican, ‘a gift filled with meaning’ from the Holy Father. JRS Italy have called on Italian institutions to replicate the pontiff’s gesture and include in the national vaccination strategy the forced migrants living in makeshift shelters and reception centres.

While the vaccination programme has given rise to palpable hope in Ireland, asylum seekers living in the high-congregated setting of Direct Provision remain disproportionately affected by the pandemic. JRS Ireland welcome that asylum seekers have been included as a priority vulnerable category in the national vaccination strategy and look forward to vaccines being delivered to Direct Provision residents as soon as practicable in the coming weeks and months.

Responding to Covid-19 challenges in Ireland

Throughout level 5 restrictions, JRS Ireland has been permitted to deliver vital outreach and support services directly to vulnerable residents in Direct Provision centres nationwide. The National Resident Helpline, a confidential freephone service run by JRS Ireland, enables residents in 73 centres across the country to have their individual needs and concerns safely heard and responded to confidentially during the crisis.

One of the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic is that education is being delivered largely online. Lower access to technology impacts lower income and socially disadvantaged groups disproportionately. Asylum seekers are one such group, living in congregated settings receiving €38.80 per week, particularly struggling with education because of inadequate access to technology.

Mr Quinn highlighted JRS Ireland’s Covid-19 response to this need:

“JRS Ireland has prioritised supporting asylum-seeking learners, especially children, in education during the pandemic, through the provision of laptops and improving access to appropriate technology. Last year 20 residents in centres in Clare and Limerick received laptops and 4 secondary school students in a Tipperary Direct Provision centre were provided with iPads. Nevertheless, there remains a very significant additional demand for technology across Direct Provision centres and emergency locations we serve.”

Recently, funding was secured from the Mitigating Against Education Disadvantage Fund (MAEDF), the Community Integration Fund and the SJ Curia Hardship Fund, which enabled a further 60 laptops and 110 tablets to be purchased for the benefit of children and adult asylum seeker learners in Direct Provision.

JRS Ireland is developing responses to emerging Covid-19 challenges, including a greater need for material supports for vulnerable and undocumented migrants at risk of poverty and putting in place additional health and wellbeing supports for residents struggling with mental health issues due to the prolonged nature of the pandemic.

JRS Europe publishes research on impact of Covid-19 on asylum seekers in EU

Finally, at the regional level JRS Europe recently published From Bad to Worse: Covid-19 Aggravates Existing Gaps in the Reception of Asylum Seekers, to inform national and EU policymakers of the lessons learned from research conducted on the impact of Covid-19 on the reception and living conditions of asylum seekers in nine EU countries, including Ireland.