COVID CONVERSATIONS: FRED

A conversation with Fred Bordon

Meet Fred. He may come across as joyful and calm but there’s more to him than meets the eye. Fred is in charge of external relations for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency for Belgium and Luxembourg. Covid19 hit the world. Corona made everybody feel vulnerable, revealing how interconnected and interdependent the world is. Do not stop here and read what Fred has to say about dealing with a humanitarian crisis during a health crisis and what you can do to help people who have been forced to flee. 

Did you see the lockdown coming or were you surprised? 

To be very honest, probably like many other Belgians, I didn’t see it coming. I was under the false impression that it would not spread beyond China but when it reached Italy and the situation escalated rapidly, I started to get slightly worried. I also remember very well that when I took the metro and the tram, I started being careful to touch anything because it could actually mean I could catch a potentially deadly virus. And I guess I realized at that moment that the lockdown would also be a reality in Belgium soon.

How do you experience the Corona crisis on a professional level?

I am in charge of external relations for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, for Belgium and Luxembourg, which means that I could easily switch to working from home because a lot of the daily communication work can be done from anywhere. I can still pick up calls from the press and as long as we have access to a computer and internet, me and my team can continue updating our website and social media channels. I have to admit that I had to go back to the office after one week to get an additional (bigger) screen because I was going crazy working on a laptop. In addition, with modern day technology you can easily function as a team by having have regular virtual meetings, chat conversations and sharing documents online. But I do miss the social interaction with colleagues because I like to discuss with and consult my team on a very regular basis which is a bit less spontaneous now. I was also forced to postpone some planned activities such as shooting videos for an awareness raising campaign but I hope I can go out soon to start filming again. I think that all in all the most important thing is that I have been able to continue working despite the lockdown measures because for many people and businesses these are challenging times.

What were your first thoughts / action points on how to handle the Covid 19 crisis for the refugees?

It is clear that the epidemic is a threat to everyone, including refugees and asylum seekers. So as soon as the crisis broke out, the UNHCR team in Belgium immediately started monitoring the situation for refugees and asylum seekers very closely and advocated to ensure that refugees and asylum seekers were still able to find safety and protection. For some of them, especially unaccompanied minors and vulnerable profiles, the corona crisis means that they had to deal with an additional challenge in a sometimes already difficult situation. We were happy to see that many federal and NGO actors very quickly developed a wide variety of information tools on COVID-19 in more than 14 languages. So we decided to publish an overview of all the available tools on our website and shared it through social media.    

What is the most remarkable effect of covid 19 on your job/sector? Are there things you are trying out which would not be discussed otherwise? 

It is important to know that more than 80% of refugees and almost all internally displaced persons are hosted in low- and middle-income countries, some of which are hard hit by conflict, hunger, poverty and disease. In addition to this, a large number of refugees live in densely populated camps or in deprived urban areas with inadequate health, water, sanitation and hygiene infrastructure. This means that people who are forced to flee war or persecution are at greater risk of the disease as they often lack access to adequate medical care.

Although in Europe and Belgium the situation is stabilising, for many the worst might yet be to come. For millions of refugees, the coronavirus is a health crisis in addition to a humanitarian emergency. In many countries where UNHCR is active, the COVID-19 pandemic is an “emergency on top of an emergency”. Even though the disease is not expected to peak in the world’s poorest countries for the next three to six months, UNHCR teams are already stepping up their efforts and preparing for the worst. My colleagues who work in the field are staying true the humanitarian tradition of “Stay and Deliver” which means that whatever the situation and despite the difficulties encountered in some areas, UNHCR is doing everything in its power to protect the more than 70 million forcibly displaced people around the world. 

Do you notice a significant change in attention for the refugee problems in Belgium? Physically by the number of volunteers for charity work or financially in the donations?

The corona crisis has made everyone in the entire world feel vulnerable, revealing how interconnected and interdependent the world is. Luckily we have seen initiatives showing human solidarity. One of these initiatives was organised by the Plateforme Citoyenne de Soutien aux Réfugiés with the support Rapper Romeo Elvis and his girlfriend and managed to collect tons of clothes, shoes and hygiene products for refugees in Brussels. In addition, we have seen in the media recently a series of stories of refugees and asylum-seekers joining the ranks of local citizens who, all in their own way, have helped here cope with the crisis. Some of them are active in the health sector helping to prevent the spread of the pandemic, and others were able to work in other sectors which are struggling with a lack of personnel such as the agricultural sector. The UNHCR team in Belgium also recently launched a fundraising and awareness raising campaign to be able to further increase vital protection and assistance in vulnerable countries and provide better health care, shelter and water, sanitation and hygiene. For this we decided to work with a young illustrator from Brussels Krump who designed a beautiful illustration which was published in the press and on our social media channels. So far, the campaign has been a real success and was received very positively by the general public. Maybe people are more inclined to donate now because they are faced with similar challenges that many refugees go through, such as living in fear of a threat and being far away from your family.

How can the refugees  adapt to the (changing) Corona measures? Are there sufficient effective initiatives to inform and supply them with the necessary protection knowledge and material?

Since March UNHCR teams are on the ground and adapting to a new reality to protect the most vulnerable. A series of prevention and response measures have already been taken, including distribution of soap and face masks, improved access to water in the camps and improvement of shelters in overcrowded facilities to prevent human-to-human transmission. Of course, prevention is also done through mass awareness raising campaigns to inform people about the health measures implemented by the government and provide advice on preventive measures. 

Do you feel as if the refugees – like for example the elderly care centers – are “forgotten” in the corona policy by the Belgian government?  Are you satisfied with the Corona policy? Which measure is still missing in your opinion?

Because of the difficult context in which national institutions had to operate the registration of asylum claims in Belgium was temporarily suspended limiting access to reception facilities for persons seeking international protection. Fortunately, since the beginning of April registration resumed and refugees and asylum seekers whose claim has been registered in Belgium are able to access health facilities and services in a non-discriminatory manner. In order to effectively combat any public health emergency, everyone – including refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants – should be protected. This is also why UNHCR continues to advocate for flexible and inclusive policies which help to ensure refugees and asylum-seekers can continue to contribute and play a positive role in their host countries; meaning access to the job market, education and having a safe place to stay.

What can any of us do to make a difference, locally and/or internationally? 

There are many ways to make a difference, for instance by volunteering for one of the many organisations helping refugees in Belgium. Interested people can consult our website via www.unhcr.org/be/nl/wat-u-kunt-doen/word-vrijwilliger. We will also be launching a campaign soon on how citizens can become a buddy to help refugees integrate into their new host society. Being a buddy is not only an opportunity to contribute to a more inclusive society but it is also a way to discover a new culture. For those who don’t have much time but would like to support the work of UNHCR in the fight against COVID-19, donations can be made online via https://donate.unhcr.org/be/covid-19-emergency/~my-donation