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Why Refugees are more vulnerable to COVID-19?

“Displaced people and host communities all over the world are at heightened risk as the coronavirus pandemic spreads” – UNCHR Coronavirus has caused mass disruption in today’s world. Though the virus has spread to all irrespective of race, colour and nationality, certain communities are more vulnerable to the virus.

During the past couple of years, conflict, forced migration, climate change and political instability have forcibly displaced some 70.8 million people globally. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR), 25.9 million among them are refugees. And it’s reported that 57% of the refugees are from three nations, Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan.

Top five refugee-hosting countries are Turkey, Pakistan, Uganda, Sudan and Germany, Which are also affected by the global pandemic currently making the refugees more vulnerable than any other communities in the world.

More than 80% of the refugees live in low and middle-income countries. The current economic turmoil and unstable supply chains caused by the lockdowns, has made these groups deprived of the access to improved water and improved sanitation. Short supply of soap, water, masks and being unable to practice social distancing in an impoverished, population-dense small area have increased the virus spread causing severe illness and death to refugee communities.

Ellwangen town in Germany reported 244 cases of COVID-19 in 5 days in a refugee shelter house with 606 asylum seekers from all over the world. Amidst the fear of getting exposed to the infection, the residents are forced to share limited living space.

According to the data from the International Rescue Committee, In Syria, 68,000 people are living in Al Hol camp with 27m2 tiny space for one person. Apart from the overcrowding, Syrian refugees also should endure cold and harsh weather conditions and risk of flooding. These conditions make the COVID-19 pandemic intolerable for people who are already in a humanitarian crisis.

Host countries do not have a pandemic plan for refugees whereas their right to health is not met. Inability to access to COVID-19 tests and lack of health care professionals to monitor their health has made the situation worse.

Following the outbreak of COVID-19  among Rohingya refugees, in early march 29 of them were quarantined in an unstable silt island in the Bay of Bengal.

Brad Adams, the executive director of the Asian Human Rights division says “Bangladesh faces the tremendous challenge of assisting Rohingya boat people while preventing the spread of COVID-19, but sending them to a dangerously flood-prone island without adequate health care is hardly the solution”  forces that marginalize refugees has made health care harder to access.

The largest and most congested refugee camp is located in Cox’s Bazar in the far south-east of Bangladesh. If these communities are deprived of medical care and facilities for safety precautions against COVID-19, halting the spread of coronavirus would only be a dream.

In most of the countries with low health capacity, strict rules are imposed on border closings, checkpoints, forces on guard, business closure and adherence to disciplinary policies. Even though these rules helps to flatten the curve by delaying the spread of the virus, for refugee communities with and without documents these regulations have made their lives endangered.

“Both documented and undocumented refugees often work informally and risk arrest, harassment or deportation when identified in public spaces. While government responses to COVID-19 are necessary, it is important for us to monitor the impact of these control measures on populations who have had negative interactions with police, military and other authorities” says Dr.zahirah McNatt researcher specializing in health and human rights among refugee populations.

The world health organization (WHO) requests the health authorities to ensure the measures and messages reach the vulnerable communities, including refugees. Further, it highlights the following points in a WHO comment published in a lancet.

  • 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 to seek treatment or disclose symptoms.

The United Nation and its partner organizations are currently working to step up the needs of the vulnerable communities. Stepping up access to soap and water, masks and other tools to protect themselves from the looming threat of COVID-19.UNCHR has started constructing isolation and treatment facilities for both refugees and host communities and information sharing has been expanded through community volunteers and humanitarian workers. 

“Preventing or delaying outbreaks, particularly among the most vulnerable, is the most important action we can take right now.” Chief of UNHCR’s Public Health Section.

 As a global community, measures should be taken to support and strengthen partnership with host countries and provide necessary medical care facilities. Explicit plans to aid refugees must be put forwarded by host countries, ensuring the right to health of internally displaced persons with availability, accessibility, acceptability and quality. Are we really ready to win this fight against COVID-19 and prejudice?

By Jumana Jabeer

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