The community, a cornerstone for aiding refugees during the pandemic

This year’s World Refugee Day will be different, marked by the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has put refugees into an even more vulnerable situation with even greater inequalities. The work of Barcelona’s associations has been essential in improving how these individuals are received and invited to become part of the community.

19/06/2020 12:15 h

Ajuntament de Barcelona

This 20 June is World Refugee Day, a day that aims lend visibility to the plight of millions of people across the globe who live in situations of persecution and violence after being forced to flee from their homelands. According to data from the Ministry of Interior, in 2019 Spain received twice as many asylum requests as the previous year, jumping from 54,065 to 118,264 applications. However, only 1 out of every 20 cases, a mere 5%, received international protection. This application approval rate is far below the European average, which is around 30%.

COVID-19 has triggered a health, economic, and social crisis that has further exacerbated the vulnerability and inequality experienced by refugees. One of most serious consequences is the fact that all asylum application processing activities were halted during the state of alert, which has worsened the backlog of pending applications that was carried over from 2019. Up to now, refugees who arrived in Barcelona had to wait about 11 months before they could get their first appointment with the national reception system, as explained prior to the confinement by Marc Serra, Councillor for Citizen’s Rights, Participation and Social Justice. This wait time is expected to be even longer when application processing resumes after the state of alert is over. In addition, as pointed out in a declaration created by the Human Rights Institute of Catalonia in collaboration with other entities in the city and published by the Barcelona City Council, the closure of borders to avoid the spread of the pandemic and, consequently, of asylum offices located on the borders, means that many peoples’ lives have been in danger because they’ve not had the opportunity to flee situations of persecution and violence.

At the same time, the suspension of administrative procedures and appointments during the state of alert means that many who are applying for international protection now have documents attesting to their situation that are expired, as they had no way to renew them. “Even though an expiring authorization is automatically extended during this exceptional period unless otherwise specified, the lack of documentary support to accredit their situation creates a lot of reluctance from people who are looking at this documentation. This affects asylum seekers’ daily lives, whether this be when they’re trying to sign a rental contract, finding a job, or managing paperwork at the bank or with the government”, says Anna Figueras, legal coordinator at the Catalan Commission for Refugee Aid (CEAR-CCAR). “The documentation issue generates a lot of anxiety and nerves and affects asylum seekers’ daily lives”, affirms the lawyer.

This irregular situation in which so many asylum seekers find themselves has another, even crueller, facet: it makes it impossible for them to apply to most of the support schemes that are being launched, such as the guaranteed minimum income and others. As the declaration states, “the new normal cannot mean exclusion or people not being covered by social protection measures”.

BarcelonActua: forging networks for new opportunities

In these times of crisis, neighbourhood support and solidarity networks for migrants and refugees have also emerged. In many cases, these are backed and sustained by the tireless work of entities in Barcelona’s associative network who have always strived to welcome and provide opportunities for people in vulnerable situations. Such is the case of BarcelonActua, a foundation that aims to create bonds between migrants or refugees and local volunteers. “We invest our efforts into radical socialisation and providing tools that allow them to form social and emotional networks through which they can find new opportunities”, explains Griselda Bereciartu, the leader of the organisation’s refugee arm. The foundation has served more than 500 people through the Landing Barcelona project, which works with a network of volunteers and entities to offer Spanish language classes, IT activities, fun events, sports activities, and much more. “We have agreements with new spaces such as Casa Sagnier, the Unió Esportiva de Sant Andreu football league, who lets us use their facilities, the Urgell Civic Centre, and the solidarity economy-based culinary project Mescladís”, boasts Bereciartu.

In addition, for over a year now, they help homeless refugees and migrants find a place to stay. This project has gained a lot of visibility during confinement and seen the mobilization of greater numbers of volunteers from the entity, since it became quite clear that many asylum seekers didn’t have anywhere to sleep. “Our efforts are multi-pronged: on the one hand, we have the fundamental support of volunteer families who offer temporary housing for three to six months. On the other hand, we have agreements with companies such as Fincas Grau and the Fundación Le Monde Tour, who have let us use flats. We’ve also reached an agreement with the La Salle school in Gràcia to have some temporary housing spaces there, as well”, explains the head of the refugee efforts. “The commitment shown by our network of volunteers and the citizens has been key to achieving all of this”, acknowledges Griselda Bereciartu.

Poble-sec per a tothom [Poble Sec for Everyone]: community synergies to welcome new members

Another established community programme that helps refugees and migrants is Poble-Sec per a tothom, managed by the Coordinating Committee for the Entities of Poble Sec. This is comprised of a group of social and cultural intervention projects. Since 2001, its objective is to foster harmonious coexistence and social inclusion for residents of the neighbourhood through community participation methodologies. “We host a first welcoming meeting for new migrants, and based on the characteristics of each case, offer job placement, psychology, and legal services”, explains Teia Goñi, a specialist in migrant and refugee reception at the Coordinating Committee for the Entities of Poble Sec. The programme also offers courses so new residents can learn Catalan and Spanish, training courses so they can improve job skills (like IT, cooking, customer service, and care taking), groups to participate in, and socialisation via community activities involving the neighbourhood’s children, youth, senior citizens, and entities.

During the pandemic, Teia Goñi explains, the courses were closed, but they set up an emergency telephone hotline that has not stopped ringing. “Many people have called us, both from the neighbourhood and from outside of it, and we’ve basically acted as the bridge between them and the Barcelona City Council’s social services or those of other municipalities, or with entities that distribute food in the neighbourhood”. Goñi also asserts that food drives have helped cover the basic needs of vulnerable families and that the whole neighbourhood has gotten involved in this initiative.

In such a complicated year and with a challenging social and economic crisis on the horizon, community bonds and solidarity are the keys to improving the lives of refugees.

Check out all of the online activities planned by the different entities for World Refugee Day on the events calendar .

Further information

Tags associated with the news item