For the displaced living in crowded camps, social distancing and regular hand-washing is not an option

Millions of people around the world have opted for self-isolation and social distancing to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) which has already claimed at least 10,000 lives. But tens of thousands of war-affected refugees are living in squalid, overcrowded camps and it is only a matter of time until they will be exposed to the deadly virus. 

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), there are 70.8 million forcibly displaced people around the world, including 25.9 million refugees and 3.5 million asylum seekers. Most of these people are living in refugee camps with limited healthcare, making them extremely vulnerable to a potential outbreak. 

UNHCR spokesperson Cécile Pouilly said they are working with several governments and nonprofits that host the most number of refugees to ensure camps are properly sanitised, which includes distribution of clean water, soap, and disinfectants. The international body has also offered $33 million to improve camping conditions through the training of more health workers. 

Will that be enough?

Many local accounts reveal a dark reality in camps. 

Initially built to house 3,000 refugees, the Moria Refugee Camp in Lesbos, Greece, is currently packed with more than 20,000 people, living in tents and sheds. Some families of six people have to share a small tent while everybody has to wait in lines for hours just to get something to eat and drink, which makes social distancing impossible for the camp's inhabitants. Camp residents claim that the Greek government does not distribute any masks or hand sanitisers let alone provide medicine for the sick. Long before the outbreak, international aid agencies warned that people in the Moria Camp are deliberately being neglected and there are thousands of people in the camp who are in need of urgent medical care.

The Greek government recently announced certain restrictions for the residents of the Moria Camp. Greek Minister for Migration and Asylum, Panagiotis Mitarachi announced that the refugees in Moria Camp will be allowed to temporarily exit the facilities only in small groups, every hour between 7am and 7pm to obtain food and supplies until the end of April. The government previously banned any new entries to the camp as of March 1.

The situation is no different for Rohingya refugees. Bangladesh is known to shelter over a million Rohingya refugees, mainly in Cox’s Bazar. And although the country has declared the first coronavirus related death, the overcrowded mass prayer that took place last week proves that those living in the country are not that aware of the danger this novel virus poses. Currently, there are no coronavirus cases reported from the refugee camps in Bangladesh, however Rohingya refugees claim they are not informed enough against the pandemic and do not have any idea about the symptoms due to the internet restrictions the Bangladesh government imposes on the refugee camps.

According to Save the Children, the refugee population in Cox’s Bazar is the largest in the entire world and there is no system for diagnosing or treating people if a coronavirus spread occurs in the possible future. The World Health Organization (WHO) has started a programme to inform the settlers of the refugee camps through short messages, however with so many ethnic languages spoken among the Rohingya refugees, the organisation is trying to come up with a plan to reach every one of them. So far, the WHO has teamed up with imams, leaders and a network of volunteers to inform the Rohingya about what coronavirus is and how they can stay safe.

Things are much worse in northern Syria and Yemen as the countries are struggling following years of conflict. Displaced people in Northern Syria, near Turkish borders, are trying to live in tents while some have no means of putting a roof over their heads. It has been reported that over a million people rushed to the border in order to escape airstrikes orchestrated by Russia and the Assad regime. Hedinn Halldorsson, spokesperson for the WHO, confirmed that there are no reported coronavirus cases in refugee camps in Northern Syria but he added that Syria’s fragile health system “may not have the capacity to detect and respond to an epidemic". Halldorsson also said in his statement that medical staff are currently being trained to handle the cases if the disease spreads in the refugee camps and diagnostic kits are being prepared in laboratories in Idlib and Turkey’s Ankara.

Although the WHO is reported to be delivering the coronavirus test to the Syrian government, there has not been a delivery of test kits to the refugee camps. Medical staff working with the refugees in Northern Syria estimate that 100,000 to 120,000 could die due to the coronavirus while many could need intensive care. If there were any need for intensive care units, refugees in Northern Syria will not be able to get the help they need as their hospitals are bombed and no formal medical facilities are operational. Right now, the healthcare of the refugees is in the hands of international relief organisations.

After five years of conflict, the healthcare system of Yemen is near non-existent. Yemen has been beset by violence and chaos since 2014.Tens of thousands of Yemenis, including civilians, are believed to have been killed in the conflict since then, while another 14 million are at risk of starvation, according to the UN. People in the country are forced to flee their houses and live in unsanitary conditions. Struggling to find food and clean water, the Yemeni people have experienced a dramatic surge of cholera along with other diseases.

A recent report by Physicians for Human Rights on Yemeni healthcare draws a picture of what would happen if the novel virus spreads among the displaced Yemeni people. According to the report, around 50 percent of hospitals and health facilities in Yemen continue to be “out of service or functioning partially”. Although Yemen has stopped flights in and out from the country, there is still a great chance that coronavirus will hit the refugees since they are already battling with various infectious diseases.

[NOTE: The article came from TRT World’s Eyes on Discrimination (EOD) Centre, which monitors and reports on offences, hate crimes and discrimination on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, national origin and religion, or other related social categories.]

Source: TRT World