Displaced people are among the world’s most vulnerable. Not only are these communities living in desperate conditions with little access to the sanitation needed to protect against the coronavirus, but many are now suffering as a result of legal and administrative support being halted.
The coronavirus pandemic has changed the lives of communities all over the planet. Yet while many are confined to the comfort of their homes, refugees and people displaced by conflict or persecution face multiple dangers and worsening conditions as a result of the disease.
At present, 203 countries are affected by COVID-19 including 96 refugee-hosting countries, many of whom are reporting local transmission of the disease. The virus threatens not only to cause illness in refugee camps and resettlement sites, but also to exacerbate the vulnerabilities of the 272 million international migrants worldwide - further limiting access to legal provision, basic health services and even sanitation and safe water.
The reason both internally and externally displaced people are particularly at risk from COVID-19 is because over 80 per cent of the world’s refugees and nearly all the world’s internally displaced people are hosted by less developed countries. This means their governments simply do not have the funding to adequately accommodate new and increasing populations.
As a result, these communities are forced to live in poor accommodation, with limited access to water, and health facilities making a difficult situation, critical. Indeed, even relatively developed economies such as Greece are struggling to cope, resulting in Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) issuing a plea to evacuate 42,000 individuals from refugee camps on the Greek islands due to the unhygienic, overcrowded living conditions. Such are the conditions of the camp that MSF describes them as providing "the perfect storm for a COVID-19 outbreak".
Once the virus comes into the camp, the situation is set to deteriorate fast. Tracing and detecting cases is next to impossible, as most people are unable to access health services, while others fear the risk of detention or removal if they present themselves. In addition, exposure to very cold and humid climates, coupled with stress and exhaustion brought on by ongoing uncertainty, means that displaced people that contract COVID-19 are at heightened risk of experiencing health complications if they contract the virus.
Recently adopted ‘confinement measures’ established in displacement camps across Europe are preventing aid organisations entering the camps to offer help. This means poor living conditions are worsening and displaced people, who have already undergone significant trauma in leaving their homes, are left without all types of support. For example, measures brought in to halt the virus in host countries are also preventing displaced people from obtaining the necessary documentation to settle and restart their lives in safety.
In Belgium for instance, the Foreigners' Office has been closed until further notice meaning asylum seekers can no longer register their claim, while in France, confinement measures in administrative detention centres are preventing access to legal assistance usually provided by NGOs, leaving people without legal advice or justice services.
Without administrative support, new asylum claims are not registered, and people are not regulated, meaning the government cannot track who is there and the new arrivals are without access to basic assistance. In addition, where national asylum procedures are suspended, cases and issues are mounting up meaning that authorities will face significant challenges tracking and supporting the thousands of people left suspended in the asylum process when restrictions are lifted.
Whilst the situation is bleak, some organisations remain operational and fight on to protect refugees and displaced people from the potentially catastrophic effects of the virus. For instance, some European countries have adapted their asylum systems to the current situation by simplifying registration procedures, adjusting to allow written or electronic submissions, or combining applications with medical screenings, or automating documentation. Others have adjusted the physical infrastructure in interviewing facilities to ensure social distancing so work can continue, or are testing and upscaling remote interviewing techniques, such as through video-conferencing, to allow asylum procedures to carry on.
In addition, nearly two thirds of European countries have found ways to manage their borders effectively allowing access for people seeking asylum. Many countries are also practising medical screenings at borders, health certification or temporary quarantine upon arrival to ensure those in need of medical assistance, receive it.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) also remain committed to ensuring displaced people are looked after. They say they have “scaled up work to keep refugees and internally displaced people safe by responding to the coronavirus with life-saving support, including water, medical care and hygiene materials.”
The organisation is also doing its best to ensure that the rights and protection of forcibly displaced people are respected, including the right to seek asylum despite border closures. But their resources are limited and they cannot support the number of people they need to. As a result, they have launched an appeal for $255mn to help priority countries hosting large populations of refugees prevent and respond to the coronavirus. Pascale Moreau, UNHCR’s Regional Director for Europe explained that; “There should be no delay or hesitation in our actions when it comes to saving lives. When people desperately searching for safety arrive at our borders, whether on land or at sea, we must never turn our backs or return people back to the danger from which they fled.”
In other cases, refugees are stepping up to help others in the camps during the crisis. Whilst they cannot provide legal or administrative support, people like Maombi Samil, a 24-year-old refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo are adapting to help fellow refugees protect themselves from the physical impact of the virus. Smail runs a fashion design and tailoring business in Kenya’s Kakuma camp and is now using his skills to make facemasks after the government issued a directive requiring everyone to wears a mask in public places.
“There was a shortage of masks and I had seen samples of facemasks made in China on the internet,” said Samil. “I wanted to use my talent and locally available fabric to show that we [refugees] can also contribute to the pandemic and not just rely on assistance.” Within a week, he had delivered 300 facemasks to the office of UNHCR in Kakuma for staff working there. He also gave away masks to refugees and local people who could not afford to buy them from his shop.
Displaced communities are among the most vulnerable to the effects of the coronavirus. Not only are their health and lives at risk from the actual disease, but many are forced to live in worsening conditions and with dwindling administrative and legal support, prolonging their journey towards a new life.
Although aid organisations are doing their best to realign to provide support during this unprecedented global challenge, it is likely that many will die as a result of their circumstances and many more will fall through emerging legislative gaps brought about by global lockdowns. As a result, the coronavirus is set to make an unprecedented global refugee crisis even worse.
The challenge to help the world’s most vulnerable during the pandemic requires global creative, innovative and considered collective response. One that minimises the damage displaced communities suffer as a result of the virus, and ensures that work can continue to help support their plight to start a new life in peace.
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