Mistrust, access issues keep Europe’s asylum seekers, undocumented migrants unvaccinated

There are concerns that undocumented migrants living in Europe are being left out when it comes to COVID-19 vaccines. The European Union has now inoculated over 70% of its population. But in Italy alone, around 700,000 migrants are thought to be flying under the radar. Special correspondent Lucy Hough reports from Naples.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As Europe prepares for the new arrivals of refugees fleeing Afghanistan, there are concerns that undocumented migrants already living on the continent are being left out when it comes to COVID-19 vaccines.

    The European Union has now inoculated over 70 percent of its population. But, in Italy alone, around 700,000 migrants are thought to be flying under the radar.

    Special correspondent Lucy Hough has this report from Naples.

  • Lucy Hough:

    Frustration is running high, first a wait for paperwork, now a wait for the vaccine.

    This pop-up vaccine clinic comes to the town of Castel Volturno on the outskirts of Naples twice a week. Each time, hundreds of people turn up, hoping for an appointment. But there are not enough doses to go around.

    For many people living here, this is the only opportunity to get a COVID-19 shot. Sergio Serraino runs this center, operated by the aid group emergency.

  • Sergio Serraino, Emergency:

    In this area, one of the problem that we face is that they organize the vaccination in a big hub, big vaccination centers.

    But there are many people here, Italians, poor Italians and poor foreigners, that they have no car to reach this place, that they are at 50 kilometers. So we decided to organize this vaccination day. But there are not the space to allow more than 400 people to enter.

  • Lucy Hough:

    Italy, once the epicenter of COVID-19 in Europe, is now beginning its recovery from the pandemic. But residents here in Castel Volturno say they feel left behind.

    This was once a holiday destination for Italy's Southern elite, but after becoming a hot spot for organized crime in the 1960s, its tourists and many residents left. Now a portrait of neglect, its abandoned villas house thousands of asylum seekers and undocumented people.

    Abdoul Thomas from the Gambia is one of them.

  • Abdoul Thomas, Gambian Asylum Speaker:

    Life is very hard. That is true. But it's more — it's getting more hard every day.

  • Lucy Hough:

    He says being unvaccinated makes it more difficult for him to find work.

  • Abdoul Thomas:

    I have to go out and find for a job to do. If I don't do job, who will want to help me? I have to survive.

  • Lucy Hough:

    When Italy started its vaccination program at the start of the year, those without a Social Security number were unable to book a slot.

    In June, the rollout was opened to include migrants and the homeless, around 700,000 people. But, in practice, logistical and cultural barriers remain. Online booking systems can still be difficult to access. Here in Castel Volturno, distrust towards the vaccine runs high.

    The focus is now on outreach to those who feel uncertain. Luciano Gualdieri is from the Italian Center for Migrant Medicine.

    Luciano Gualdieri, Italian Center for Migrant Medicine (through translator): One of the difficulties is getting information out there about what is on offer, accessing hard-to-reach people who don't have documents or access to health care.

    But it can be challenging. There's a lot of misinformation out there about the vaccines, particularly AstraZeneca.

  • Lucy Hough:

    Local authorities say there are around 35,000 undocumented foreigners living near Naples who need to be vaccinated.

    This region of Campania in Southwest Italy was one of the first to start vaccinating its undocumented people. But a very small percentage of that group are taking up the shots, compared to the wider population. That's a pattern that's repeating across Europe.

    There are an estimated 4.8 million unauthorized immigrants living in Europe. Experts are warning that failure to tackle low rates of vaccination in these vulnerable groups could prolong the pandemic.

    Benedetta Armocida is a researcher in public health at the University of Geneva.

    Benedetta Armocida, University of Geneva: COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated those inequities.

    For example, factor that increased migrants' risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2 include working conditions, living conditions, so, living in an overcrowded accommodation, lack of hygiene and sanitation, and lower level of accessibility to public health services, including public health messaging.

  • Lucy Hough:

    Back in December, the European CDC recommended refugees and migrants be included in national vaccine strategies, but only a small number of E.U. countries have put that into practice.

    France and Belgium are amongst those who have prioritized these groups from the start. Belgium runs mobile vaccine units to reach those without a permanent address.

    Sammy Mahdi is the Belgian minister for migration.

    Sammy Mahdi, Belgian Secretary of State of Asylum and Migration: The question is, why is it important to vaccinate as much people as possible and not, what are your documents, in order to know if you should get vaccinated or not?

    I mean, the virus doesn't make a difference between if you have papers in Belgium or not. So, we need to vaccinate as much people as possible to be able to get rid of the masks, to get rid of all the COVID measures that we take nowadays.

  • Lucy Hough:

    But, elsewhere, it's a different story. In Hungary, non-residents are all but barred from vaccine systems. Greece still requires documents to register online.

    In Germany, a law requires local authorities to alert immigration services about undocumented people. That risk of identification means many steer clear of the vaccine. Advocates say European governments need to do more to address issues of trust.

    Alyna Smith works for a group pushing for greater cooperation on migrant issues.

    Alyna Smith, International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants: What we have seen is the importance of countries being very, very clear and very, very strong in their commitments to respecting, for example, the right to data protection and confidentiality, so that data that would become available because the person is seeking to be vaccinated would not then be used for immigration control purposes or any purposes not related to public health.

  • Lucy Hough:

    Europe is under pressure, facing a surge in case numbers of the Delta variant.

    Questions are already being asked about the inclusivity of its member states' health care systems. A fresh wave of migration of those fleeing Afghanistan could add further strain.

    Europe's vaccine rollout may be nearing its final stages, but many people, like these trying to get into Castel Volturno's vaccine pop-up, fear they will continue to be overlooked.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Lucy Hough in Naples.

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