In Depth

Coronavirus: Refugee camps bracing for ‘devastating’ impact

Looming threat of Covid-19 will be ‘more than a disaster’ to displaced people

The coronavirus outbreak could threaten the lives of hundreds of thousands of refugees, according to warnings from doctors, aid workers and the United Nations.

Refugees in camps are among millions already caught up in humanitarian emergencies and, experts have warned, they are at great risk of contracting the virus.

Which camps are vulnerable?

Refugee camps in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, as well as closer to home in Europe, are in significant danger from the virus.

The sprawling Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos was already under great stress before the emergence of coronavirus as a global threat.

The 20,000 people inhabiting the unsanitary and overcrowded camp, which was built for 3,000, now have to contend with a virus that can only be defeated by physical distancing and rigorous hygiene.

“The one thing that everyone is stressing in combating the coronavirus is to create social distance but that is precisely what is impossible for refugees,” said Deepmala Mahla, the regional director for Asia for CARE, the humanitarian aid agency. “Where do you go to create space? There is no space,” The New York Times reports.

“It’s a disaster – more than a disaster,” Salam Aldeen, founder of the Lesbos-based Team Humanity NGO, told The New Humanitarian.

“Hygiene and sanitation conditions are unsafe,” Boris Cheshrikov, the spokesperson in Greece for the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, told TNH. “Many cannot see a doctor as there are simply too few medical staff.” 

In Syrian refugee camps, patients are dying from what looks like coronavirus, but doctors are unable to treat them because they don’t have the beds, protective gear or equipment.

Meanwhile, in Bangladesh, temporary home to around 860,000 Rohingya Muslims who fled persecution in Myanmar, authorities fear that the coming rainy season will lead to sewage overflowing and flooding of the makeshift shelters.

“We are scared that the virus is killing many people around the world,” Marjuna, an 18-year-old Rohingya refugee in the Kutupalong camp, told the New York Times. “We don’t know how to stop it.”

“If it came into the camp, it would be a disaster,” said Ahmadu Yusuf, a community leader in the Bakassi camp in northeastern Nigeria, whose inhabitants are mainly those who fled the terrorist group Boko Haram. “It would be more devastating than the insurgency that brought them here.”

In Lebanon, where more than a million refugees are based having fled the civil war in Syria, many migrants live in cramped, squalid conditions. They are running out of food and suffer from health conditions which leave them particularly vulnerable to coronavirus.

The UNCHR has suspended some of its work in Libya, and hundreds of refugees have been forced out of UN-run centres.

“We are afraid about this disease, we are confined in our home,” an Eritrean man in Tripoli told The Guardian. “If the disease [comes to] Libya it will be very dangerous, especially for the refugees, because we live densely in one place.”

The number of confirmed cases in camps is currently low, but that is likely down to a lack of testing. Doctors in Syria and Bangladesh say that in refugee camps in recent weeks, they have treated and lost patients with symptoms of the virus.

What do the experts say?

“If we think this is a big issue in the US and Europe, we haven’t seen anything yet if Covid gets into the refugee population,” said Adam Coutts, a public health researcher at Cambridge University. “People can’t even wash their kids, let alone wash their hands.”

“We are preparing for the worst,” said Avril Benoit, the executive director of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in the US, which has deployed teams around the world to work with refugees in need. “We know that in the places where we work we are underequipped and understaffed.”

The UN secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, has launched a $2bn (£1.7bn) global humanitarian response plan to tackle coronavirus in the world’s most vulnerable countries, says Al Jazeera.

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) has said that restrictions on movement as a result of the virus mean thousands of people, including 300,000 in the Middle East, are now out of reach of its help.

Jan Egeland, the NRC’s secretary-general, said: “While governments are taking tough and much needed measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus, millions of refugees and displaced people still depend on humanitarian assistance. Aid workers should fall into the same category as medical staff, food retailers or pharmacists.

“If supermarkets and pharmacies can remain operational during this crisis, then so should the delivery of humanitarian aid.”

In some camps, humanitarian workers have been attacked because they are believed to be coronavirus carriers.

“We are trying to correct the misinterpretations, but the lack of mobile networks makes it very difficult to get out the right messages about health and hygiene,” said Marie Sophie Pettersson, from United Nations Women, working in the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh.

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