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A Luxury Refugees Cannot Afford

Updated: May 17

Social Distancing - a term designed to explain the importance of keeping 6 feet (2 meters) of distance between individuals during the time of this global pandemic. To most of us, this entails staying at home and avoiding contact with people - a cumbersome, monotonous task, but at least we remain safe. To refugees, however, the story unfolds a little differently. In refugee camps in Syria, Greece, and Bangladesh, people face a heightened risk of COVID-19 due to more densely populated circumstances than even the Diamond Princess — the cruise ship where transmission of the virus was said to be four times faster than in Wuhan.


In a recapitulated effort to curb the spread of COVID-19, countries have been toughening border control and putting travel stipulations in place. This, in turn, has had consequences, affecting migrants and refugees worldwide. The International Organization for Migration and UNHCR announced on March 10, 2020, that “resettlement travel for refugees would be temporarily suspended.” However, non-governmental agencies that protect the rights of these individuals have appealed to states to warrant that emergency incidents are exempted.


The pandemic has incited some countries to take steps towards further diminishing population movement that hits humanitarian corridors around the world. Simultaneously, this risks cases of refoulement with asylum seekers having to return to their countries of origin, where they are in danger of persecution and an apparent breach of international law. As of March 29, 2020, the World Health Organization reported 146 countries and territories with cases of COVID-19 from the local transmission of “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-2,” many of which have massive refugee populations.


Search and rescue operations in the central Mediterranean, where more than 16,000 migrants have died since 2015, have been suspended due to logistical difficulties caused by COVID-19. The few search and rescue operations conducted before the COVID-19 nationwide lockdowns led to the immediate quarantine of migrants in reception centers. Despite no confirmed case of COVID-19 in Africa at that time, there was an implementation of these measures. Some refugees and migrants, unfortunately, are forced to travel from countries not yet considerably affected by COVID-19 and infiltrating countries with escalating numbers of COVID-19 cases.


Stratagems to counter the COVID-19 pandemic are a locus of communities in countries, but mobility plans should acknowledge refugees and migrants and their requirements. Data shows that this vulnerable population has a low risk of transmitting communicable diseases to host communities in general.


However, refugees and migrants are conceivably at amplified risk of incurring diseases, including COVID-19, because they typically live in overcrowded conditions without access to fundamental sanitation. The ability to access health-care services in humanitarian settings is usually imperiled and exacerbated by shortages of medicines. Moreover, refugees typically face administrative, financial, legal, and language barriers to access the health system - which has been a singularly terrible hindrance in light of this pandemic. The absence of basic amenities, such as clean running water and soap, insufficient medical personnel presence, and poor access to adequate health information, are significant problems in these settings.


Necessary public health measures, such as social distancing, proper hand hygiene, and self-isolation, are thus not possible or extremely difficult to implement in refugee camps. If no prompt measures to correct conditions are put in place, the concern about an outbreak of COVID-19 in the camps cannot be overstated. Site-specific epidemiological risk assessments must be done to determine the extent of the risk of COVID-19 introduction and transmission in such settlements, together with case management protocols and rapid deployment of outbreak response teams if needed.


But the Global Community is responding to hear the quietest voices.


When member states adopted the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, they promised to ensure no one will be left behind. In Europe, with no emergency COVID-19 plan in place by governments, Médicins san Frontières has demanded the evacuation of 42,000 asylum seekers on the Greek islands to suitable accommodation. In a Lancet Comment, WHO leaders appeal for more attention for refugees and migrants, including in humanitarian settings, which are facing disruption of essential supplies of food, medicines, and aid workers.


The World Health Organization published the following concerning dealing with the crisis:


WHO calls on health authorities to consider the impact that the current pandemic and response measures have on refugees and migrants. It further highlights the need to:

  • assess the risk of COVID-19 introduction and spread in refugee camps;

  • ensure access to safety, health-care services and information;

  • lift all barriers to accessing health services, including language and physical barriers, as well as legal, administrative and financial constraints;

  • avoid forced returns based on fear or suspicion of COVID-19 transmission and ensure refugees and migrants are not stigmatized, so they are not fearful of seeking treatment or disclosing symptoms.

Unfortunately, the worst might be yet to come. 80% of refugees live in low-income and middle-income countries, the sites of the presumed “fourth wave” of COVID-19 behind China, Europe, and the USA. In these places, the governments don’t have the financial means to protect the refugees and migrants. These settings already have weak health-care systems, scarce protective equipment, and inadequate testing and treatment capacity. 


This virus disregards all borders, and refugees need enormous global support to prepare for the impending refugee crisis.


Social distancing is a luxury that refugees cannot afford. Do your part to make sure the virus is gone before it affects those with no escape.


Author : Alekhya Bhat


Bangalore, India | epicenter.newsmedia@gmail.com

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