Dubai: With the spread of the coronavirus, refugees are most vulnerable as millions of them around the world lack access to proper health services. The United Nations and humanitarian groups are calling on host counties to include refugees in their national preparedness plans.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are an unprecedented 70.8 million displaced people around the world today, including nearly 25.9 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.
“The outbreak is a global challenge that must be addressed through solidarity and cooperation. Everyone – including refugees and asylum seekers – should be able to access health facilities and services in a non-discriminatory manner,” says Rula Amin, the senior communication adviser and spokesperson for UNHCR in the Middle East and North Africa. “The battle against this virus cannot afford to leave anyone behind and efforts to combat it will fail if any segment of society is left without access to preventative measures and treatment,” she told Gulf News in an interview.
Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan
At least 57 per cent of worldwide refugees come from three countries, Syria (6.7 million), Afghanistan (2.7 million) and South Sudan (2.3 million). Syrians continued to be the largest displaced population in the world, with 13 million people at the end of 2018. That is more than half of the Syrian population.
More than 5 million people have fled Syria to Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and beyond. The vast majority of the refugees, more than 60 per cent, live under the poverty line and lack access to proper services. Also, as of April 2018, an estimated 671,000 Rohingya children, women and men have fled to Bangladesh escaping persecution in Myanmar since August 25, 2017.
“Millions of conflict-affected people are living in cramped refugee and displacement sites with desperately poor hygiene and sanitation facilities. When the virus hits overcrowded settlements in places like Iran, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Greece, the consequences will be devastating,” Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), one of the largest refuges support group in the world, said in a statement. “There will also be carnage when the virus reaches parts of Syria, Yemen and Venezuela where hospitals have been demolished and health systems have collapsed.”
Amin said UNHCR had been working closely with national authorities of the host governments and health ministries, and other UN agencies and non-government organisations “to ensure best preventative measures are in place and within reach to refugees to reduce the risk of an outbreak and minimise its impact if and when there is one.” This is a challenge, she notes, as most refugees live in countries with weak public health care systems.
“So far we don’t have any confirmed cases of Covid-19 amongst the refugees population as far as we know,” she remarked. Another challenge, Amin says, is that many refugees live in crowded areas, such as camps or even their own dwelling where often several families share one place, “which makes isolation in case of an outbreak of the virus a major challenge”. Access to clean water, soap and sanitisers, and reliable information could also put people’s lives at risk, she says.
Another challenge, Amin says, is that many refugees live in crowded areas, such as camps or even their own dwelling where often several families share one place, “which makes isolation in case of an outbreak of the virus a major challenge”. Access to clean water, soap and sanitisers, and reliable information could also put people’s lives at risk, she says.
“Refugees, whether they live in camps like [Jordan’s] Zaatari and Azraq or in urban individual accommodations, are mostly living in crowded homes and clusters of shelters, which poses a major challenge to protect against the spread of any infectious disease like the coronavirus.”
After 9 years of the Syrian crisis, Amin noted, “refugees’ own resources have been depleted following years of displacement, away from their homes, their families, their property and social safety net.”
She said that in Jordan and Lebanon, the UNHCR is “providing technical and material assistance to national health institutions, through the World Health Organisation (WHO) coordination at country level, to boost the response capacity of local authorities and to allow refugees and other displaced people access to those services. UNHCR is working to strengthen the monitoring of acute respiratory diseases in camps and out of camps when possible to be able to report any suspected cases immediately,” she noted.
“UNHCR has also rolled out health awareness campaigns on the coronavirus in camps and out of camps, especially in areas with a high concentration of refugees,” focusing on handwashing and respiratory hygiene measures and early symptoms identification.
However, most important, she said, UNHCR is “advocating with ministries of Health the inclusion of refugees and asylum seekers in the calculation of stockpile needs of medicines, vaccines when these become available, personal protective equipment, supplementary pharmaceuticals and supplies, and testing.”
The UNHCR has warned against stigmatising refugees as more rightwing parties, especially in Europe, pin the blame on refugees for the spread in their countries.
“The coronavirus doesn’t discriminate; unfortunately people do, UNHCR cautions against measures specifically directed at refugees that may be discriminatory and which are not scientifically sound or do not conform to recommended public health practice and guidance of WHO,” Rula Amin, the senior communication advisor and spokesperson for UNHCR in the Middle East and North Africa told Gulf News.
Italy’s far-right politician Matteo Salvini, a former interior minister, traced his country’s outbreak of coronavirus, the worst in the world outside of Asia, to the docking of a rescue ship containing African refugees in Sicily. “Allowing the migrants to land from Africa, where the presence of the virus was confirmed, is irresponsible.” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban declared there is “clear” connection between the spread of the virus and refugees. “We are fighting a two-front war, one front is called migration, and the other one belongs to the coronavirus, there is a logical connection between the two.”
Amin stressed that “this is a time where we are reminded of our shared destiny and how we live in an interconnected world, reminded of the need to drop any stigma and discrimination. The fight against the coronavirus cannot afford to leave anyone behind, the combating efforts will fail if anyone is left behind, especially those the most vulnerable and marginalised.”