Worldwide coronavirus cases have already reached 857,850 with a death toll of 42,130. Recent statistics from Worldometers.info showed that the US remains the country with the highest number of cases (188,280), followed by Italy (105,792), Spain (95,923), China (81,518), and Germany (71,808). In terms of the death toll, Italy has the highest number of deaths (12,428), followed by Spain (8,464), the US (3,883), France (3,523), and China (3,305). The number of cases and deaths will only keep increasing as days pass.
While many of us are staying in the comfort of our homes and following preventive measures that our governments instructed us to do, there are millions of families living side by side in overcrowded tents. In these densely populated refugee settlements, families are struggling to keep themselves alive and not acquiring the virus that has already killed thousands and thousands of people. International health experts and human rights organizations are increasingly worried that the virus could ravage these refugees, the world’s most vulnerable people.
The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) said that more than 70 million people across the world were forced to flee their homes due to persecution, conflict, violence and human rights violations. Of this number, more than 29 million are refugees, of whom 84% are being hosted by low or middle-income nations that have weaker health, water and sanitation systems. Current reports show that nearly 200 countries and territories have reported confirmed cases of COVID-19, including four countries with the largest refugee populations such as Germany, Sudan, Pakistan, and Turkey.
Why Refugees Are the Most Vulnerable
Among all people, refugees are the most susceptible to a range of infections because 80% of the world’s refugees reside in low- and middle-income countries, where there are larger numbers of HIV/AIDS cases, lower rates of immunization, and higher rates of malnutrition compared to their higher-income counterparts. This also means that many refugees remain especially vulnerable to emerging threats like coronavirus.
According to The New York Times, an American newspaper based in New York City with worldwide influence and readership, daily life in a refugee camp is an ideal incubator for infectious due to high geographical mobility, instability, overcrowded conditions, lack of sanitation, and lack of access to decent healthcare or vaccination programs. People have to stand in line just to get water for them to take a shower and even wash their hands.
“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. Where do you go to create space? There is no space,” Deepmala Mahla, the regional director for Asia for CARE, the humanitarian aid agency, said.
Recent news also showed that refugee camps located in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia are filled with undernourished people since they have limited access to health care and basic sanitation. There will also be carnage when the virus reaches countries where hospitals have been demolished and health systems have collapsed. According to Aljazeera, an English language website for Aljazeera Magazine, a large number of children are among these most vulnerable populations. As of now, there are more than 31 million children who have been uprooted from their homes.
Most of the time, refugee populations are left out of disaster and epidemic preparedness planning. Governments and international organizations find it hard to reach marginalized refugees and migrants for information and help. One of those who are out of reach of most of the world’s preventive measures is the Afghans, who are fleeing the violence and poverty of their war-torn homeland. Syrians living in crowded refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and elsewhere are also difficult to reach.
Many refugees are also afraid that the spread of the virus could threaten their relocation to other EU countries as part of the asylum-seeking process. According to Time, human rights activists worry that EU countries will use this pandemic as an excuse to suspend asylum or relocation. “What we worry about is that when they took that measure two or three weeks ago, they didn’t have coronavirus. But now that there is a coronavirus, there is a high risk that the government will extend this suspension. They could do it indefinitely by using the coronavirus as an excuse,” Eva Cossé, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, said.
How International Organizations Are Helping
Aside from struggling to survive in populated settlement camps with little to no access to basic needs, refugees are also often the first to be stigmatized and unjustifiably blamed for spreading viruses. For instance, Italy’s far-right politician Matteo Salvini traced his country’s outbreak of coronavirus to the docking of a rescue ship containing African migrants in Sicily. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán had declared a “certain link” between the spread of the virus and unauthorized migrants.
In situations like these, we see why refugees are the most vulnerable. To address these issues, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the World Health Organization, and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies recently released interim guidance outlining COVID-19 readiness and response considerations for refugee camps and camp-like settings. Many international organizations are also working on providing sanitation and hygiene facilities and information in many refugee camps to ensure the most vulnerable are protected.
According to Foreign Policy, an American news publication focused on global affairs, current events, and domestic and international policy, some of the immediate steps governments and international organizations should include are expanding testing services in countries with large refugee populations and setting up screening facilities at camps and settlements.
There’s also a mobilization of health care workers and volunteers to support testing efforts in humanitarian settings, tracing of contacts, and identification and isolation of people who may have been exposed to the virus.“As world leaders brace for the worst within their borders, they must not abandon those living outside them. We must turbocharge our humanity and stand in international solidarity with refugees and displaced people during this time of widespread uncertainty,” Jan Egeland, Secretary-General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said.