Rohingya Refugees under quarantine. Photo: Shafiqur Rahman/AP

Humanitarian workers warned of the day the COVID-19 virus reached refugee camps. When two individuals tested positive on May 15th in the Cox’s Bazar district of southern Bangladesh, home to over a million Rohingya refugees, their fears became a reality. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has spread to every country in the world with deadly rapidity, posing unprecedented challenges to healthcare systems, economies, government policies, international travel, and much more. Restrictions in movement and interpersonal interaction have fundamentally changed many aspects of life as we know it. Refugees, lacking the legal protection of a state, are some of the most vulnerable people affected by the  harsh impacts of these new realities.  

Handwashing stations in the Sudanese Capital Photo: IOM/Yasir Elbakri

In recent years, the number of refugees has risen drastically around the world. Over 71 million individuals are recognized as refugees by the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency. Refugee status is reserved for individuals who are forced to flee their country due to war, violence, or a well-founded fear of persecution, and unable or unwilling to return. More than three quarters of the world’s refugee population live in low and middle income countries. As a result, public health and welfare systems in refugee-hosting countries are often weak and underfunded, and refugees’ access to these resources is not guaranteed. International organizations like the UNHCR, civil society organizations, and non-profits therefore play an active role in filling the gaps in protection and aid. In recent months, however, many have been forced to adjust the way they operate to address new challenges posed by the pandemic. 

Refugee populations across the world share a number of characteristics that render them particularly susceptible to the pandemic’s dangerous consequences. For starters, refugees live in some of the most population dense areas. Around 40% of refugees reside in the close quarters of camps, often in shelters shared by multiple families. In the Al Hol Camp in Syria, 68,000 people live on 1.81 km2 of land. This constraint leaves each individual the space equivalent to that of a single parked car. In Greece, the Moria camp hosts 18,324 refugees on only 0.09 km2—roughly 6-8 times denser than the Diamond Princess Cruise ship. And Cox’s Bazar, mentioned above, has a population density of 1.5 times that of New York City.

Refugee camp at Cox’s Bazar. Photo: Nyein Chan Naing/EPA

As a result, social distancing is a luxury many refugees do not have the ability to practice. How this reality affects the spread of COVID-19 in camps still remains to be fully seen. In Bangladesh, where aid workers are handling the beginning stages of an outbreak, the outlook is grim. NGOs and the UNHCR have collaborated to initiate testing and contact tracing, but a lack of information prevents many refugees from getting tested if they present symptoms. The government’s ban on internet use in the camps makes it difficult for its inhabitants to access news from other regions about the spread of the virus and its effects. Furthermore, the camps in Bangladesh currently have no intensive care beds. Only 2,000 ventilators exist in the entire county of 160 million people. 

Refugee camp. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

This situation, unfortunately, is common to most refugee camps. Few possess hospitals, and many lack the medical supplies and personal protective equipment necessary to handle an outbreak effectively. Refugees are also more likely to have underlying health conditions, such as malnutrition, that render them increasingly susceptible to the virus’ physical toll. 

Refugees are not immune from the economic downturn the virus has wrought, either. Many hold irregular or informal jobs that are highly dependent upon the active participation of citizens and tourists in local economies. A recent survey conducted in Jordan revealed that among refugees who held jobs in the first week of the outbreak, 90 percent had lost their jobs by the third week. 

In response to the destabilizing effects of the pandemic on some of the world’s poorest regions, the UN released the COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan (GHRP). The plan brings together humanitarian organizations around centralized goals for fighting the virus and outlines the fundraising efforts necessary for its execution. Already, relief organizations have initiated community response programs in refugee camps, applied infection control measures in hospitals near camps, and developed continuity plans for local businesses, among other responses. 

To achieve its objectives, the GHRP depends on the cooperation and support of the international community. Novel forms of global collaboration, such as cooperation in vaccine development, are emerging as a result of the pandemic. Perhaps these efforts offer hope that the same is within reach in the realm of refugee protection as well. Still, the pandemic certainly holds the potential to push governments towards more restrictive policies, as states may be increasingly wary of allowing cross-border movement and financial resources available to refugees may be susceptible to cuts. The instability caused by the pandemic also has the potential to create new refugee crises, and displace existing populations. 

Conditions for refugees will likely get worse before they get better. But the ability of the humanitarian system to mobilize effective, timely action will be a crucial determinant of the speed at which this transition occurs.

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