CHRISTIAN campaign groups and aid agencies have expressed deep concern about the potentially catastrophic impact of the coronavirus on the millions of refugees living in overcrowded and unsanitary camps around the world.
The extent of infection in the camps is not yet known, but campaigners have warned that living in makeshift tents and shelters in close proximity with others, and without clean water and sanitation, puts the inhabitants at high risk.
Refugees, many of whom have fled from war-torn countries, are also more likely to suffer from underlying health conditions that have not been properly treated, making them even more vulnerable to the coronavirus.
The head of the humanitarian division at Christian Aid, Nick Guttman, explained: “All health crises affect the poor and vulnerable the most, and Covid-19 is no exception. Refugees are some of the most vulnerable people in the world. They do not have the luxury of social distancing in cramped refugee camps and they do not have homes in which to self-isolate. Access to medical facilities is limited and the destabilisation of the global economy is likely to have an impact on their livelihoods and the flow of humanitarian aid.”
Ten days ago, People not Walls, a campaign group backed by the diocese of Canterbury, expressed concern that infections “may get out of control in an unprotected environment” such as the camps surrounding Calais, after several cases of coronavirus were confirmed in region (News, 13 March).
On Tuesday, French media reported that migrants and homeless people in the region were to be removed and placed in a confinement centre in Paris later this week. Confirmed covid-19 cases have also been reported in overcrowded detention centres in the city.
Ben Bano from the refugee support group Seeking Sanctuary, one of the founding members of People not Walls, said: “The government intends to find more suitable conditions for the migrants, but there are still people in tents as of now.”
The situation remained critical, he said. “While the authorities have distributed additional supplies of soap, there are no additional water points and the volunteers do what they can at risk to themselves with few means at their disposal.
“Given the rapid propagation of the virus in France, where nearly 9000 people are hospitalised, it is all too likely that the migrant population with no recourse to proper hygiene measures will be affected. We call on the French government to take concrete measures to avoid the potentially disastrous effects of the virus spreading across the migrant population.”
Clare Moseley of the group Care4Calais said that French and UK volunteers were classed as key workers, and therefore were able to leave their homes to support migrants and refugees. “The key associations have permission from the Prefecture to continue operations. Aid workers are basically front-line workers and the work needs to go on. We are all very low on volunteers right now. But the ones we have are total heroes.”
The Bishop in Europe, Dr Robert Innes, said on Tuesday: “In many parts of Europe, we are now confined to our homes. But migrants and refugees frequently have nowhere they can call home or isolate themselves. Many NGOs have had to stop work due to the virus. Migrants may be in poor health with weakened resistance to the disease.
“Whether in official camps or rough settlements, they are exceptionally vulnerable. In these circumstances, there is little that most of us can do except pray. But prayer changes things. So, I urge people to pray fervently for migrants and refugees who are so much at risk during the crisis.”
Mr Guttman of Christian Aid said that “it was a matter of time” before Covid-19 cases were seen among the one million Rohingya people who are living in camps in Bangladesh. “It is likely to spread to many of the other places with high numbers of refugees like Syria, Lebanon, Nigeria, and Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory.”
The Christian charity Tearfund continues to distribute hygiene kits to camps in Bangladesh, but access to the camps is becoming increasingly difficult as the country goes into lockdown.
Its country director there, Sudarshan Reddy Kodooru, said: “Life for refugees living in Cox’s Bazaar camp will likely become even more miserable. Sanitation and hygiene facilities are already inadequate, and the streets are narrow and crowded. The handpumps and sanitation facilities we’ve been able to provide will be more important than ever.
“There is no internet provision in the camps and the mobile network is currently suspended, so getting the message out about the dangers of the virus relies on word of mouth. Tearfund’s partners are distributing leaflets with information in the Rohingya language to educate people about handwashing, distancing, and recognising the symptoms of coronavirus.”
Tearfund’s country director for Jordan and Lebanon, Karen Soerensen, said: “Many of the refugees we work with rely on cash in hand for informal work day-to-day. They can only buy a day’s food at a time and do not have savings to fall back on. People are stuck indoors in cramped conditions. Deliveries of bread, water, gas and medicine are permitted but unaffordable. The consequences of the restrictions people now face are overwhelming. Without work, their families won’t eat.
“As Christians, we need to reach out to people who are in need and to keep up people’s hope for the future. The situation was already so desperate even before the coronavirus outbreak.”
She continued: “Our partner in Lebanon is keeping support for young people going through social media and regular calls. Another partner in Jordan is offering online gym sessions to men to help them deal with stress and anxiety whilst restrictions are in place. We are all praying for peace in the home during this difficult period.”
There are 70.8 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, of which 41.3 million are internally displaced, and 25.9 million are refugees in other countries, the UN refugee agency UNHCR reports. Almost two-thirds of all displaced people come from three countries: Syria (6.7 million), Afghanistan (2.7 million), and South Sudan (2.3 million).
Christian Aid’s Senior Advocacy Advisor for Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, Máiréad Collins, said: “Across the Middle East, conflict has left millions of Syrians and Iraqis profoundly unsettled and desperately fearful for their loved ones, as they are moved time and time again to flee violence, unable to return home. As the numbers of those testing positive with Covid-19 rises in the region, the impact on these communities who have experienced year after year of crisis will be catastrophic.
“The million Syrians displaced to the border with Turkey since December do not have the luxury to wash their hands several times a day to prevent infection, a desperate lack of sanitation makes this impossible; the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis internally displaced do not have the possibility to self-isolate in over-crowded, under-serviced camps and unfinished buildings.
“The displaced across the region have known nothing but uncertainty for years, but there is an awful certainty with this new crisis — it is certain that death will sweep through these incredibly vulnerable communities if action is not taken as quickly as possible.
“Medical aid along with other humanitarian aid (food, shelter, water) must be delivered quickly and safely. While this crisis is a global one and all of us are impacted, we cannot take our eye off those who are in a much more vulnerable situation than us in this crisis.”
More than 37,000 people a day are forced to flee their home because of war and persecution. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, said last week that, while many countries were rightly adopting exceptional measures to combat the spread of the virus, including limiting air travel and cross-border movements, “wars and persecution have not stopped.
“People are continuing to flee their homes in search of safety. I am increasingly worried by measures adopted by some countries that could block altogether the right to seek asylum. All states must manage their borders in the context of this unique crisis as they see fit. But these measures should not result in closure of avenues to asylum, or of forcing people to return to situations of danger.”
Screening arrangements, testing, quarantine, and other measures should be put in place, he said.
As of last week, the UNHCR and International Organisation for Migration (IOM) began to suspend temporarily resettlement departures for refugees “for as long as it remains essential. As resettlement remains a life-saving tool for many refugees, UNHCR and IOM are appealing to states, and working in close coordination with them, to ensure that movements can continue for the most critical emergency cases wherever possible.”
On Monday, the UNHCR airlifted more than four tonnes of food and medical supplies to Iran, where the virus has spread to 31 provinces. The nearly one million refugees in the country have access to national health services, but hospitals are struggling to cope with demand.
A UNHCR spokesman in Iran said: “We stand in solidarity with the people of Iran and are fully mobilised to help contain the spread of Covid-19 and mitigate the impact on the most vulnerable, amongst them refugees.”