Anaik Pian, Victoria Brotto, Salomé Labé *
Like other parts of the world, Europe has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. In France, as has been observed on other continents, foreign, immigrant and racialized populations have been particularly exposed to the virus, due to their precarious living conditions and higher exposure to risk factors (Gaille and Terral, 2020; Brun and Simon, 2020). During the first epidemic wave in the country, in March-April 2020, the increase in deaths, all causes considered, was twice as high among people born abroad than in the rest of the population, according to data from the French Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies (Insee).
The MOCOMI study, funded by the Institut Convergences Migrations (see the website on the study here) and coordinated by Marie-Caroline Saglio-Yatzimirsky, investigates the experience of death in migration during the COVID-19 crisis. As part of this study, Anaik Pian has supervised a research on relationships to the COVID risk and the experience of the health crisis among Syrian refugees that have arrived fairly recently in the Grand Est region of France, where the first wave of the epidemic was particularly brutal.
For the purposes of the MOCOMI study, between February and December 2021, a period spanning over ten months, we met and interviewed some forty Syrian refugees in their living environments. For this population, the crisis came after a long trajectory of exile, during which they already had to reckon with various risks of death, beginning with those created by armed conflicts and the war in Syria. For many of these refugees, COVID-19 made an already precarious socio-economic situation in France even more difficult, and led to further social decline, a downward mobility process that had in many cases begun in the early stages of their exile, in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
A downward social spiral
Indeed, among the Syrians we met in the Grand Est region, many spent a few months or years in Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan before they came to France. Whether they entered France as part of resettlement programs, through humanitarian corridors, humanitarian admission, or by their own means (having crossed the Mediterranean and followed the Balkan route, or flown), many of them saw their living standards decrease compared to their previous standing in Syria. This is particularly the case for those in intellectual and prestigious professions and occupations (doctors, dentists, pharmacists, university lecturers, journalists, etc.) but also for self-employed businessmen (like grocery store owners) and some big farmland owners.
Many have found themselves unemployed or returning to school in an attempt to obtain a certificate of equivalence for their degrees or pursue a new career they believe to be more accessible in light of the language barrier. Others yet have found odd jobs in the food industry, associations or the construction sector. During the lockdowns, the closure of hotels, restaurants and “non-essential” businesses made many of them partially unemployed or put an end to their short-term contracts. These sectors, which were badly affected, are areas in which some of the refugees we met had experience, having already pursued similar jobs in Jordan, Turkey or Lebanon for lack of alternatives.
In France, they hoped to be able to work in a field connected to their studies and qualifications and to recover better living standards. The health crisis thwarted these hopes for the future especially harshly in the sense that it also complicated job searches, as written communication and remote interactions were favored, which turned out to be problematic for those with a poor command of French.
The case of Hayyan, a 31-year-old refugee, provides an illustration of these successive episodes of downward social mobility. In 2015, this chemistry student, who comes from a relatively wealthy family (his father taught Arabic at a university) was forced to leave Syria a few months before graduating to avoid military service. He travelled to Turkey, where over the course of three years he successively worked as a translator and as a front desk clerk in a hotel. Hayyan left Turkey for France in 2018 through a UNHCR resettlement program. Having attended French classes at the International Institute of French Studies (IIEF), he enrolled at the faculty of chemistry in Strasbourg. However, the health crisis and its consequences (the absence of student jobs, administrative delays in the processing of his diploma equivalence, the fear of not making rent) forced him into giving up on chemistry and opting for a shorter program to be able to work sooner and stabilize his situation. Without a scholarship or a student job during his studies at the IIEF, Hayyan had to live off increasingly dwindling savings, and managed to feed himself thanks to aid distribution.
During the lockdowns, associations discontinued language lessons—many refugees say this has slowed down their learning of French, which is perceived as a prerequisite for getting a good job, even though in some cases the health crisis has had a positive effect on employment. Samara arrived in France in 2016 from Lebanon as part of the EU’s resettlement program, with her husband, her three sons aged 23, 16 and 14 and her husband’s aunt, a woman with a physical and mental disability. Previously the owner of a business in Damascus, her husband became a street vendor in Beirut while her sons worked as waiters. In 2017, a few months after settling in the Grand Est region, Samara found a short-term job as a cook in a nursing home for adults with disabilities, a position that became more permanent and turned into a full-time open-ended contract during the pandemic as a result of the facility’s increased needs in a strained sector.
Samara had never had a wage job and was previously confined to the domestic sphere and she experienced this first job on an open-ended contract as a genuine emancipation.
Increasingly complex dealings with administrations
The fact remains that the health crisis has contributed to making a number of administrative procedures (applications for social housing, wait for appointments at prefectures, family reunification proceedings, etc.) more complex as administrations were successively closed to the public and subject to drastic access conditions due to the measures taken to combat the spread of the virus.
The urgency of this suspended temporality has been a factor in reinforcing the precarity of the situation of many refugees, putting them in intensely stressful situations, as exemplified here by Omar, a forty-something literature PhD holder and writer. Omar arrived in France in 2020, having left his wife and children behind in Turkey, in the hope that they would be able to join him using the family reunification procedure. He was regularly put up in emergency shelters due to the lack of openings in reception centers for asylum seekers and spent several nights in the streets during the first lockdown. He describes his experience of the month of April 2020 as follows:
“I was actually on a lockdown within the lockdown […] Thing is, I couldn’t act. I couldn’t take decisions. If something were to happen to my family in Turkey, I couldn’t be with them. I was experiencing the lockdown within myself. When I speak of 2020, I hope to find a language that can express my suffering. I couldn’t breathe anymore, I had twitching lips, high blood pressure. I’m not afraid to die because we’re all going to die someday, but to die far from my wife and my children, especially the youngest one…”
Lockdown, trauma and life-saving returns to family life
While the first lockdown especially rekindled some war-related trauma, others experienced it in more positive ways, as an opportunity to reconnect with family life after months of separation due to armed conflict and exile. This was a life-saving return to the domestic sphere for some in the sense that they were able to distance themselves from an aggressive outside world. Henry, a journalist by trade, who now works as a gardener on government-subsidized contracts, told us he became very sensitive to noise after being tortured in prison in Syrian for having written on poverty under Bashar al-Assad’s regime. During an interview, he stressed that spending the lockdown with his wife in a one-bedroom flat in Strasbourg allowed him to shelter himself from an exceedingly “noisy” and anxiety-inducing world.
Beyond the damaging effects of the health crisis of the situation of these Syrian refugees in socio-economic and administrative terms, most of them, who were spared the most serious forms of the disease, play down the risk of dying from COVID in France, considering the range of trials they have faced over the past few years.
* Anaïk Pian is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Strasbourg, affiliated with the LinCS research team (UMR 7069) and a Fellow of the Institut Convergences Migrations. Salomé Labé and Victoria Brotto were MOCOMI interns as part of the master’s program on “Social interventions, European cooperation and migrations” of the Faculty of Social Sciences in Strasbourg. Victoria Brotto is currently a master’s student at the Institut of Political Studies in Strasbourg.
Translated from French by Jean-Yves Bart.
 Gaille M. and Terral P. (eds), Rapport sur les sciences humaines et sociales face à la première vague de la pandémie de Covid-19 – Enjeux et formes de la recherche, Paris, Alliance Athéna, 2020, http://www.alliance-athena.fr/publication-du-rapport-les-sciences-humaines-et-sociales-face-a-la-premiere-vague-de-la-pandemie-de-covid-19-enjeux-et-formes-de-la-recherche/; Brun S. and Simon P., « L’invisibilité des minorités dans les chiffres du Coronavirus : le détour par la Seine-Saint-Denis », in : Solène Brun and Patrick Simon (eds), Dossier « Inégalités ethno-raciales et pandémie de coronavirus », De facto [online], 19 May 2020, uploaded 15 May 2020. See https://www.icmigrations.cnrs.fr/2020/05/15/defacto-019–05/
 A CNRS research institute specializing in migration-related research.
 It is worth noting that in Brazil, according to the country’s National Committee for Refugees (CONARE), Syrians, alongside Venezuelans, make up the biggest contingent of refugees since 2016. See https://www.gov.br/mj/pt-br/assuntos/seus-direitos/refugio/refugio-em-numeros-e-publicacoes/capa, last accessed 24 February 2022.
 These programs allow persons whose refugee status is recognized by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and who live in precarious conditions in a third-party country without lasting or effective protection, to gain admission in a second host country, provided that it is impossible for them to return to their home country. According to sources from the French Ministry of the Interior, in 2020, 1,200 refugees were resettled in France, a number that falls short of the target initially set due to the health crisis. Between 2014 and early 2021, 15,000 refugees, the majority of whom come from Syria and Sub-Saharan Africa, were resettled in France. Source: Note ministérielle, Instruction relative aux orientations de la politique d’accueil des réfugiés réinstallés pour l’année 2021 [24 February 2021].
 This procedure was introduced in March 2017 and formalized in an agreement between the French ministries of the Interior and of Foreign Affairs and several associations including the Community of Sant’Egidio and the Fédération d’entraide protestante. It provides for the hosting of Syrian or Iraqi nationals living in Lebanon. The eligible individuals meet vulnerability criteria. They have not yet obtained refugee status, but they have been pre-screened in Lebanon by authorized associations. They are eligible for a visa on the grounds of common-law asylum, and have to file an application for asylum upon arrival in France. Over 500 people have followed that route between 2017 and 31 December 2021. Source: Note ministérielle, Instruction relative aux orientations de la politique d’accueil des réfugiés réinstallés pour l’année 2021 [24 February 2021]. As part of this program, the Fédération d’entraide protestante (protestant aid federation) of the Grand Est region receives five to six families per year.
 Humanitarian admission is a scheme aimed at Syrian nationals (or Palestinians in Syria) who are seeking to apply for asylum in France from the Middle East. These are individuals whose refugee status has not been yet examined by the UNHCR in these third-party countries, but for whom a specific vulnerability that would justify their reception in France was identified upon registration. The individuals concerned enter France with an asylum visa after submitting to an interview with the French organization for refugees and stateless persons OFPRA.
 France’s first and strictest lockdown (during which people could only leave their homes for an hour everyday having filled out a form), extended from 17 March to 11 May 2020.