Cardinal Mario Zenari, Vatican ambassador to Syria, has urged the international community not to forget the country during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, and appealed for the international community to help Syrian refugees.
In a video message showed at the May 20 presentation of the 2019 report of the Jesuit Refugee Service’s Centro Astalli, Zenari recalled how when Pope Francis spoke to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See in January 2019, he cautioned attendees against “the cloud of silence that risks falling over the war that has devastated Syria over the course of the past decade.”
Similarly, pointing to the writings of a Syrian journalist who uses the pseudonym Waad Al-Kateab, and who fled Syria for Europe during the battle of Aleppo in December 2016, he said, ‘Syrians are left alone to die. Over the past nine years we have been killed in the cruelest ways, but the hardest thing to accept is to be killed in silence.”
Syria’s civil war and resulting humanitarian crisis have been defined “as a hell, a sea of pain, or a modern Calvary. In addition to the many dead and wounded, it surely is a via dolorosa for many Syrians,” the cardinal said, referring to the street which, according to tradition, Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion.
The war, Zenari added, is “a via dolorosa that is a thousand kilometers long, which winds through the villages and cities of Syria, also crossing the seas. It is a via dolorosa for 12 million Syrians, consisting of internally displaced people and refugees, half of the population.”
“Forced to hastily leave their homes, they only carried a few household goods or even as little as the clothes they were wearing. It is a via dolorosa traversed sometimes in the snow and rain,” he said, noting that it is walked primarily by women and children mostly, “some of whom did not make it.”
Currently in its 10th year, the conflict has left thousands dead and millions displaced, 6 million of whom are displaced internally.
In this environment, the coronavirus pandemic could be devastating.
Though Syria still only has 58 total reported cases of COVID-19, with three deaths, fears are ever present that should the outbreak worsen, it would spark more upheaval and completely break down an already crippled healthcare system.
Syria’s borders have been closed and schools, universities and places of worship shut down since March 12. Later that month, a curfew was implemented, barring citizens from going out for large parts of the day. However, with a large percentage of the population living in poverty, self-isolation in crowded houses without a paycheck is impossible.
Catholic aid agencies have advocated for the lifting of international sanctions in order to allow much needed humanitarian aid into the country.
In his video message, Zenari praised the humanitarian organizations providing aid to Syria and to Syrian people who have fled and are now living as refugees.
“My hope is that those who out of necessity have arrived in Italy and in Europe, or in other continents, may find a concrete and generous solidarity, which is the European idea repeatedly evoked by Pope Francis,” he said, recalling how during a March 27 prayer event for an end to the coronavirus, the pope stressed that “we are all in the same boat.”
“From this, it is easy to understand that if the boat doesn’t hold in Idlib, Syria, or anywhere else in the world, the safety of all is at risk,” he said.
The Centro Astalli, is the Italian headquarters of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) and home to the “Centro Astalli Foundation,” established in 2000 in order to promote a culture of welcome, solidarity and respect for human rights.
According to their annual report, JRS served some 20,000 people at their centers in Italy in 2019, including refugees and asylum seekers, 11,000 of whom were in Rome. More than 3,000 people used JRS soup kitchens in Rome.
The report highlighted forced migrants as the most at-risk category of people in the current pandemic, many of whom have fled violence in their home countries.
Father Camillo Ripamonti, President of Centro Astalli, told viewers of their livestreamed presentation that “war in Syria has caused the same number of casualties as the pandemic.”
He also said a “politics of exclusion” in Italy has made the situation for migrants and refugees worse.
Ripamonti said a reduction in the number of social service and welcome centers has resulted in a spike in the number of “vulnerable people,” which jumped from 30 to 40 percent in 2019. Many migrants have also faced increased difficulties in renewing their immigration documents.
Government restrictions due to the coronavirus have also stalled the process of integration for many migrants, since Italian language schools and life skills courses have all screeched to a halt.
He criticized ideological influences when it comes to drafting laws on the regularization of migrants, saying the biggest emergency migrants and refugees face is “abandonment.”
“The thing most lacking in our country is a continual work in integrating these people,” Ripamonti said, adding that instead of an integration, there has been a “disintegration” of Italian society due to the country’s strict anti-immigration policies.
Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, noted that more than 40 years have passed since the “boat people” crisis which led to the foundation of JRS, when Vietnamese refugees fled after the country’s war ended 1975.
“Since then, unfortunately, the condition of refugees has become increasingly uncertain,” he said, noting that there are currently around 70 million people who have either fled their countries, or been forcibly displaced.
“It is a terrible number that is increasing year after year, not to mention the millions of stateless people deprived of their right to nationality,” Grandi said, adding that in the international community’s struggle to find solutions to the conflicts causing people to flee, “respect for refugee rights by states has also been seriously attacked and limited.”
The UN official said the coronavirus has made things worse, as roughly 90 percent of the world’s refugees live in places with fragile healthcare systems.
“If the health consequences of COVID-19 were to exponentially impact even one of these countries, it would be catastrophic,” he said, specifically mentioning Syria and South Sudan.
Voicing the UNHCR’s commitment to ensuring migrants and refugees are included in treatment campaigns and government plans for financial assistance, Grandi insisted that “it is imperative not to turn our backs on those who flee seeking safety.”
“It is possible to guarantee public health and to protect refugees at the same time: we are not facing a dilemma,” he said. “We must not allow fear or intolerance to undermine respect for human rights.”