For refugees, a plea: You can’t beat a pandemic by leaving people out

Why We Wrote This

If the coronavirus and its economic devastation are already straining the developed world, how can refugees – the world's most vulnerable – cope? There is no safety net, no margin for error. Six of our writers report.

Elias Marcou/Reuters
Spilling out of the overwhelmed and overcrowded Moria refugee camp are another 5,000 people in makeshift shelters who have no access to showers, electricity, or water, on the island of Lesbos, Greece, April 2, 2020.

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For the world’s 25.9 million refugees, the most vulnerable people on the planet, the pandemic has struck at a time they were already widely viewed with hostility. Almost no one is looking out for their rights or physical health. Most live in dense urban areas or overcrowded camps where social distancing and access to medical care and steady work can feel like an impossible dream.

Refugee experts are urging swift action, warning of a potentially cataclysmic spread of the disease among communities and in locations with little margin for error.

Deepmala Mahla, CARE’s regional director for Asia, oversees COVID-19 response for the world's largest refugee camp, in Bangladesh. She says infection control needs to go beyond a call for social distancing in such impossible conditions and focus instead on what can be done.

The urgency in stopping COVID-19’s spread to refugee populations should be clear, she says: “The world can only be safe if each of us is safe.”

Charlie Yaxley, spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency, reinforces the point. “You cannot beat a pandemic by leaving people out,” he says. “Only by protecting everyone’s health, including the displaced, ensures everyone survives this.”

Eden Gebre spends every day crammed into a single room of a Tel Aviv apartment with her husband, their 6-year-old twins, and 4-year-old daughter.

In the same apartment live two fellow Eritrean asylum-seekers with whom Ms. Gebre is fearful to interact, because she says she is immunocompromised following a liver transplant. She tries to strictly isolate, wary of adding to what is already a mountain of medical debt if she becomes infected with COVID-19.

There is no safety net for Ms. Gebre – or for the 30,000 asylum-seekers from Eritrea and Sudan in Israel and many of their fellow refugees around the globe. She and her husband have no medical insurance, nor have they unemployment insurance to compensate for the jobs they lost in this age of lockdown.

To earn money, the couple sews masks and Ms. Gebre crochets baskets to sell through Kuchinate, a Tel Aviv collective of asylum-seeking women. The name means “crochet” in Tigrinya, a Semitic language spoken in Eritrea and Ethiopia.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

In Israel the asylum-seekers’ hand-to-mouth existence working in restaurants and as cleaners has come mostly to a halt. The coronavirus crisis has forced members of the community to rely on one another and relief groups for food and help with paying rent.

For the world’s 25.9 million refugees, the most vulnerable people on the planet, the pandemic has struck at a time they were already widely viewed with hostility. Almost no one is looking out for their rights or physical health.

Most live in dense urban areas or in overcrowded refugee camps where social distancing and access to hand-washing, medical care, and steady work can feel like an impossible dream.

David Miliband, the former British foreign secretary who now leads the International Rescue Committee (IRC), says that makes “seeking refuge from this virus doubly or triply difficult.”

Refugee experts are urging government and international agencies to act swiftly, warning of a potentially cataclysmic spread of the disease among communities and in locations with little margin for error.

“They should use the small number of weeks that still exist before the disease goes rampant in the poorest part of the world in order to prevent its spread,” Mr. Miliband says.

The next step, he advises, is building up access to basic health care so those who get the disease can survive it. Also key, he says: distributing cash and food to mitigate potentially disastrous social and economic damage.

Keeping refugees safe, “requires a massive, coordinated and collective effort,” says Charlie Yaxley, global spokesman for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

“No country can overcome this pandemic alone,” he says, adding that “it’s not only about controlling transmission but ensuring we have equal distribution of vaccines and medicines when they come.”

Courtesy of Eden Gebre
Eden Gebre's husband, Isyiah, sews masks to make money as his three children, twins age 6 and a daughter age 4, join him, in Tel Aviv, April 2020.

860,000 in one camp

The Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, is the world’s largest, sheltering some 860,000 people, many of them Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar. The camp is so densely populated that in some stretches 70,000 people live in a square kilometer in flimsy dwellings of bamboo and thatch.

Long lines are the norm – for the bathroom, hand-washing, or to clean a bucket for the day’s cooking.

As CARE’s regional director for Asia, Deepmala Mahla oversees COVID-19 response at the camp. She says infection control needs to go beyond a call for social distancing in such impossible conditions and focus instead on what can be done.

More hand-washing stations are needed, Ms. Mahla says, requiring additional soap, water, and buckets. Also critical: the distribution of cash and food so people are less likely to risk breaking curfews and closures to work outside the camp to feed their families.

She repeats a refrain she hears from refugees responding to action surrounding the virus: “Can you also protect us from starvation?”

To reduce crowding at the camp’s medical facilities, mobile clinics are being employed. Also of help are volunteers among the refugees who receive training to spread public health information.

Women and girls are at special risk, Ms. Mahla warns, in need of protection from sexual and physical violence at all times, but even more-so during a crisis like this one.

The urgency in stopping COVID-19’s spread to refugee populations should be clear, she says: “The world can only be safe if each of us is safe.”

The UNHCR’s Mr. Yaxley reinforces the point. “You cannot beat a pandemic by leaving people out,” he says. “Only by protecting everyone’s health, including the displaced, ensures everyone survives this.”

Prevention is “the only way”

Jelda Yayi has faced many dangers in her 70 years, but never one like this.

In her experience, danger had always arrived loudly. It sounded like gunshots and screaming. It sounded like her own rasping breath, hiding from men with guns outside.

It’s that kind of danger that forced her from her home in South Sudan three years ago and led her to walk about 20 miles to the Ugandan border. But now she and the other million refugees in Uganda face the stealthier threat of the coronavirus.

Courtesy of Christine Onzia Wani
Refugees practice safe distancing while in line for a water pump, in Bidi Bidi, Uganda, May 2020.

In Bidi Bidi, Africa’s largest refugee settlement, where Ms. Yayi lives, there have been no confirmed cases of the disease. But the quarter million residents must adhere to the Ugandan government’s strict lockdown, which has shut nonessential businesses. That includes millions of informal enterprises like Ms. Yayi’s, selling brooms she makes.

To help block the disease, programs for farming, improvements to water and sanitation, and the building of houses and schools have all been halted.

And relief agencies have introduced social distancing in the lines for water and food in settlements like Bidi Bidi.

At a Bidi Bidi water pump one recent morning, 10 women sat with their plastic jerry cans inside large chalk circles sketched on the ground, two meters apart. The scene contrasted with the busy, cramped lines that often stretched out from the same spot just last month.

Overhead, mobile loudspeakers broadcast the voices of workers belting out public health messages regarding the battle to halt the virus. Village leaders walk door to door, making sure people are familiar with COVID-19 symptoms.

“We just don’t have the option here for numbers to go up like they have in Europe and the U.S.,” says Niek de Goeij, the representative for Catholic Relief Services in Uganda. “Prevention is really the only way.”

On the move

In Colombia, the pandemic has made things so dire that Snydenys Peña is contemplating a return to her native Venezuela.

She, her husband, and five children are among the estimated 5 million Venezuelans who fled the country’s political and socio-economic convulsions, about a third of whom are in Colombia.

When she fled Caracas last May, driven by a mother’s desire to save her children from hunger and illness, she could not imagine a scenario in which she would return to its mayhem.

Courtesy of the International Rescue Committee, Colombia
Nearly 250 Venezuelans in Medellín, Colombia, received cash transfers from the International Rescue Committee, April 30, 2020. The aid is meant to help them pay rent and put food on the table during the pandemic.

Today the family lives in a one-bedroom house on the outskirts of Cúcuta, a town on the Venezuelan border. They sleep on the floor, the children on mattresses. Her husband lost his work as a day laborer and she hers, sewing dolls for a foundation. Over two months behind on rent, they fear eviction.

“I’m terrified. We stay here and we could be homeless in the midst of a pandemic,” she says. “We return home [to family support], but condemn our children to a life without a future.”

On a recent morning dozens of Venezuelans in Medellín came in shifts to sit six feet apart, in masks, in a line to receive cash transfers from the IRC. The funds were designated for nearly 250 Venezuelans and are intended for them to buy food and pay rent, the IRC said.

The coronavirus has wiped out their already precarious reliance on the informal economy, and now thousands are on the move home, sometimes by foot. They are spurred on by the pandemic’s fallout and spooked by the rising death toll in Ecuador and Colombia.

Local governments are trying to organize their safe passage, in some cases arranging mobile health units, diverting people to routes that circumvent big cities, or arranging transportation – with no social distancing – to the Colombian-Venezuelan border.

The Catholic church, civil society, and international NGOs are trying to help. The church has cafeterias near the Venezuelan and Ecuadorean borders that serve upward of 5,000 meals a day. Small water stations were erected by dioceses along highways for hand-washing and showers.

A camp’s grim conditions

At the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, more than 20,000 asylum-seekers are living at a site intended for just 2,750.

That translates to just one water station per 1,300 people, one toilet for every 200, and one shower for every 630. There are also 5,000 people who have spilled out beyond the formal camp and are using makeshift shelters who have no access to showers, electricity, or water, says Apostolos Veizis, director of the medical operational support unit for Médecins Sans Frontières-Greece.

To date no coronavirus infections have been reported at the camp. Trying to help keep it that way is a relatively new resident, Deen Muhammad Alizadah, a pharmacist from Afghanistan who arrived in Greece six months ago with his wife and 4-year-old son via Iran and Turkey.

Courtesy of Deen Muhammad Alizadah
Deen Muhammad Alizadah, an asylum-seeker from Afghanistan, holds his 4-year-old son inside a makeshift tent in the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos.

Mr. Alizadah is on a refugee-run committee that teaches residents about the disease and how to prevent it by staying in their tents and in the camp as much as possible. Shopping, they are told, should be done by one member of the family. A Greek police checkpoint outside the camp bolsters the guidelines.

Regular hand-washing remains difficult with running water available only intermittently throughout the day. But people are doing their best to be hygienic and stay inside.

“This is the only chance,” Mr. Alizadah says. “If the virus started in this camp it would be uncontrollable.”

Some good news

At a time when most of the world seeks to keep refugees and asylum-seekers out because of the coronavirus, Germany is finding a way to let some in.

Fifty-seven children, all unaccompanied minors – the majority from Syria and the others from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Eritrea – were recently flown in from Moria. They are the first refugees to leave the camp since 2015, relief workers said.

Highlighting its unsanitary, crowded conditions as especially dangerous during the pandemic, Kindernothilfe, a children’s rights and humanitarian assistance organization in Germany, lobbied the government for an airlift.

Frank Mischo, a Kindernothilfe advocacy officer, says his organization and partners provided a list of cities and states that, combined, could immediately provide around 5,000 unaccompanied minors with housing, care, and support.

“We offer safe quarantine possibilities, we finance everything,” Mr. Mischo says of his coalition of partners.

The hope is that this is just the beginning. About 20 cities across Germany, alongside eight countries in the European Union, including France, Croatia, and Belgium, have volunteered to take in underage, unaccompanied refugees from the camp.

The urgency of the pandemic seems to have worked where years of pressure failed.

Finally, Mr. Mischo says, “there is some hope.”

Contributing to this story were Lenora Chu in Berlin, Whitney Eulich in Mexico City, Dominique Soquel in Basel, Switzerland, Christine Onzia Wani in Bidi Bidi, Uganda, and Ryan Lenora Brown in Johannesburg.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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