A Look into the COVID-19 Effects on Refugees

Alexa W., journalist

In times of stress or uncertainty, most people tend to look toward humor as a coping mechanism.  Such remains true of the response to the coronavirus which currently affects the entire world. Although making jokes and poking fun at the disease helps to lighten the mood and make the situation more bearable, it remains important to consider some of the more serious matters at hand amidst the pandemic.

More specifically, it is important to shine a light onto how the coronavirus is affecting refugees in camps across the globe.  Across social media and news sites, people have emphasized unity and coming together as a world, yet these very people have failed to recognize the dire situation of refugee camps as they too embark on a battle against the virus. Refugees are uniquely at risk of contracting this illness, yet many countries’ pandemic plans–including those hosting a large number of refugees, migrants, and displaced persons–do not account for the needs of the refugee population.  

Data shows four of the countries with the largest refugee populations–Germany, Sudan, Pakistan, and Turkey–have reported confirmed cases of the disease, and dozens of other countries with refugee populations have also been hit by the pandemic.  While the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has appealed for $33 million to provide relief and improve conditions at refugee camps, such efforts alone will not be enough. Refugee camps across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia are packed with large numbers of undernourished and vulnerable people, limited access to basic sanitation needs and healthcare, all of which provide the perfect breeding ground for the coronavirus to fester and spread.  The high probability of contagion is further exacerbated by lack of fresh soap, clean water access, and general space in which washing hands and social distancing becomes rare and very difficult. Thus for refugees, the WHO’s insistence that people wash their hands and self-isolate– an otherwise easy and simple task for the average person–is one that is largely impossible for them to follow. Many experts say that in conditions like these, coronavirus could “inflict carnage” on refugees.  Despite these warnings, the media has largely forgotten about the situation of the refugees which is both troubling and sad.

Located in northwestern Syria, Maarat Misrin–just one example of a refugee camp site–is home to a million people who have fled the civil war where they reside in shared muddy tent camps and abandoned buildings and where there is little to no running water.  The WHO currently urges people to wash their hands, even enlisting Priyanka Chopra to demonstrate how to do it properly with the addition of a fun and catchy song. How can these refugees wash their hands, when some people can’t even wash their own kids for a week?  Maarat Misrin as well as other parts of Northwestern Syria have yet to even receive testing kits for the virus, despite the WHO sending them to the Syrian government more than a month ago. With a lack of supplies, space for quarantine, and health care centers due to damage caused by the war, these refugee camps remain helpless amid the crisis, while celebrities like Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello freely walk about Miami without a care in the world.  The Atmeh camp on the Turkish border experiences similar conditions in which sewage runs openly on the road, people share toilets, and relief residents who work at clinics do not even properly sanitize themselves. Yet these represent just two examples of conditions within refugee camps. These very conditions of densely populated camps with poor sanitation, lack of access to water and depleting food supplies, malnourishment, and limited access to medical care plague virtually all refugee camps across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.  Not only will conditions like these make the transmission of the disease easier, but it will also increase the likelihood of the fatality rate being higher in which millions of refugees may die.  While these camps may differ in location or population, they all share the same basic conditions and they represent home to over 70 million people in the world.  

With this in mind, many have begun to voice their fears and concerns.  Some human rights activists, for example, fear that the European Union–particularly Greece–will use the coronavirus as an excuse to suspend asylum and relocation.  While there are laws in place to combat discriminatory measures banning the entrance of refugees into countries other than health risks, many still fear how asylum seekers will be affected as well as worrying that relocation of refugees will be placed on hold and turned into a mere afterthought.  Another fear exists among agencies who worry that health and economic crises in the West will mean less money for refugees or lesser amount of worry from wealthier nations towards the conditions of poorer nations. Another major concern is that aid agencies in the West will not be able to provide response to refugee camps amid travel restrictions and even lack of volunteers.  Should the disease begin to spread, it is very likely that host countries will prioritize their own citizens in terms of providing hospital beds, ventilators, and intubation over the refugees.  It is at times like these that people must remember to place themselves in the shoes of those who do not have the same luxuries as themselves.  Sadly, some of these fears have become a reality. El Salvador has suspended an agreement with the United States to accept deported asylum seekers, Latin American countries that once accepted asylum seekers from Venezuela and some European countries have closed their borders, nongovernmental organizations have ceased search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea for the time being, and many nationalist leaders and politicians within Europe have adopted xenophobic and anti-refugee rhetoric and policies due to the disease.  The issue or refugee relocation in particular, proves to be a dividing one for the European Union as three anti-immigrant EU countries–Hungary, Slovakia, and Czech Republic--broke EU law by refusing to accept refugees under an EU-mandated relocation program.  Actions such as these demonstrate the power of xenophobia over the lives of the refugees. 

What can be done?  Despite many countries turning their backs on refugees, thankfully they can turn to organizations such as the UNHCR or the International Rescue Committee to support them.  Many ground actions depend largely on the state of the area at hand and people have differing views as to how to best provide relief and aid during this time. However, my research indicates that many can agree on three general steps.  The first includes a recognition of the vulnerability of refugees and steps to ensure that they are properly educated in a clear practical manner so that plans can be made.  The second step requires that resources for refugees and forcibly displaced communities be included in national and international funding to fight COVID-19. The third step requires that the UN, WHO, and local and regional health authorities establish trust with refugee communities to ensure that the crisis be handled effectively. However, these plans take time which is why the UNHCR has provided a list of what they are doing to provide basic relief and aid currently.  According to their site, they are: ensuring clean water and soap, providing life saving information to families, increasing the number of hand-washing stations in refugee camps, equipping health care workers with the supplies and training they need, and air lifting medical aid and hygiene items to areas affected by the virus.  

At times like these, it becomes important to consider the point of view and perspectives of the refugees who are human beings like the rest of the world.  These people are human beings and deserve to be viewed as such. Many people say to help the refugees so as to prevent spread into other nations in which their situation becomes reduced to “help them so we can protect ourselves.”  Why can’t we help them for the sake of saving innocent lives. People have a right to be concerned for their own safety and health and many leaders across the globe have a job to ensure this as well. However, these refugees do not possess the luxury of having a strong leader who will defend them, protect them, and shield them from the lurking threat of this virus.  These people are not merely figurines; within the confines of these camps, exists real people and families with mothers, fathers, and children. Refugees are part of the global family too, therefore they must be included in this world unity initiative as well and not forgotten. Not everyone has the means to help them, but those who do should donate to help aid them during this time.

*If you or your family would like to donate visit the UNHCR site: https://donate.unhcr.org/sg/coronavirus-emergency/~my-donation

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