There are more than 70.8 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, including 41.3 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), 25.9 million refugees and 3.5 million asylum seekers – whose already tough lifestyles are being threatened further by the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
Though as of March 23, there were no confirmed cases of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) among refugees in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region but their low quality lifestyle and poor access to basic life amenities may cause a serious problem if coronavirus breaks in refugee camps and shelters.
Social distancing won’t work in these congested camps, as thorough hand-washing is also a luxury in some of the refugee shelters.
As people for whom basic protective measures such as maintaining “social distancing” and regular and thorough hand-washing are luxuries, the threat posed by the pandemic cannot be overstated.
In a desperate effort to curb the spread of Covid-19, many countries are closing their borders and limiting movement to stop the pandemic’s domino effect on all economic sectors – many refugees will become stranded.
Rula Amin of the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees’ (UNHCR) senior communication advisor and spokesperson in Dubai, said refugees are specially vulnerable, with little resources at their disposal to avoid contracting the infection.
She indicated that arranging for the isolation of patients would require additional resources in case of an outbreak.
According to arabnews.com: “MENA is seen as particularly predispose to a coronavirus epidemic with the conflict in Syria, the war against Daesh in Syria and Iraq and ongoing fighting in Libya and Yemen.
This means mean millions of displaced people are currently living in overcrowded shelters, with no good nutrition and good hygiene.
The UN has said an outbreak in Gaza, a coastal enclave under blockade since 2007, could be “disastrous” given the high poverty rate and weak health system.
Beyond the Middle East, infections have been reported in two other war-scarred countries with large IDP populations: Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghanistan”.
Paris-based Migrant Integration Lab official says it will be impossible to contain an outbreak in camp settings whilst treating COVID-19 in camps is another uphill task.
She added that getting refugees out of a camp and treating them in health facilities is almost impossible in many countries, adding that “If they do find cases in camps, they’d need protective equipment for health workers, training in basic isolation care and medical oxygen facilities. The provision of basic oxygen can save a lot of lives.”
Europe is no option as it now the epicenter of the pandemic, as aid groups in Greece and other countries are worried about a dangerous deterioration in conditions in camps that house refugees and migrants.
Germany has suspended refugee intake programs or asylum seeker hearings, raising tensions in refugee communities.
France does not offer brighter hope with Spain and Italy imposing lockdowns on their populations as a precaution against the spread of the virus.
EU member states have also shut their external borders, further adding to the stress and anxiety of large migrant and refugee populations.
Coronavirus is no respecter of persons and refugees are not more vulnerable than other people – minimising impact is the only feasible option for now. Worse still, refugees have less access to the basic hygiene products needed for protection from the virus.
MENA opines that the challenges for refugees are “immense” given that most of them live in countries with struggling economies and weak public health systems. They have to be spurred to protect themselves and take preventive measures to help contain the spread of the disease or prevent infections in their camps.
They also have to be included in all measures and national response plans, as hard as that appear to be.
The UNHCR has issued an urgent global appeal for $33 million to support its efforts to provide protection to vulnerable refugee and migrant populations.