Bottom Line Up Front
- While news headlines on COVID-19 are focused largely on its spread in the developed world, the virus has reached many countries ravaged by conflict with large populations in need of humanitarian aid.
- The lack of clean water, sanitary facilities, and space in many locations hosting displaced communities make precautions to avoid contamination nearly impossible to follow.
- The spread of coronavirus to conflict-affected countries could bring down entire health systems, which are already operating far under normal capacity in terms of being able to care for vulnerable populations.
- Against the backdrop of a global pandemic, states have also placed a hold on resettlement arrivals given their public health situation, which impacts their capacity to receive newly resettled refugees.
While news headlines on COVID-19 are focused largely on its spread in the developed world, the virus has reached many countries in conflict with large populations in need of humanitarian aid and forcibly displaced communities which require various forms of assistance. While there is no official count of cases of COVID-19 among displaced populations, cases have been documented in places with humanitarian emergencies and overpopulated settlements like Bangladesh, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Sudan, Venezuela, Somalia, and Burkina Faso. In fact, the lack of testing and awareness in displacement sites makes it extremely difficult to have an accurate estimate of the number of coronavirus cases among displaced communities. With the virus affecting host countries in conflict, displaced populations will once again be on the move. This is the case in Burkina Faso, where Malian refugees are forced to return to Mali despite the ongoing violence and with no guarantee of safety. The risk of the virus spreading will only increase as refugees cross borders.
While most countries have issued precautions to avoid contamination – frequent hand washing and social distancing – the lack of clean water, sanitary facilities, and open space in many locations hosting displaced communities make these precautions nearly impossible to follow. Today, eighty percent of the world’s 71 million displaced people are being hosted by low or middle-income nations with weak health, water, and sanitation systems. Refugees and internally displaced persons often live in overcrowded settlements or with host families in small sized-homes. Self-isolation is simply not possible. In addition, in many of these places, healthcare infrastructures have been ravaged by years of conflict, war, shelling, and air strikes. There are just three ventilators to help save the lives of people who contract the virus in the Central African Republic, a country of nearly five million people.
In a country like Yemen, the fragile healthcare system operates at around 50 percent capacity and the potential emergence of coronavirus would ‘greatly overstretch’ it, according to Yemen’s country representative of the World Health Organization, Alfat Musani. He warned: ‘It is a perfect storm of a disaster should this virus introduce itself.’ The spread of coronavirus to conflict-affected countries like South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo could also bring down entire medical systems, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. In countries where there is an active conflict like Yemen, Syria, Somalia, Mali, and Burkina Faso, another concern is hard-to-reach areas and the millions of people who are left without aid and care due to the presence of armed groups, checkpoints, air strikes and other impediments that hinder humanitarian and health aid access.
With travel being restricted and countries closing their borders, travel arrangements to resettle refugees have been severely disrupted. In early March, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) announced the temporary suspension of travels for refugee approved for resettlement. Against the backdrop of a global pandemic, states have also placed a hold on resettlement arrivals given their public health situation, which impacts their capacity to receive newly resettled refugees. Before departing, refugees who are waiting to be resettled sell most of their belongings, give notice to their employers (if they were allowed to work) and landlords to vacate their residence. For those who had their travel canceled, they are now at risk of extreme vulnerability. Refugee camps, which house among the world’s most vulnerable people, often have only a handful of doctors available for every 200,000 people. If the world’s attention turns away from the coronavirus in the coming weeks as cases in developed countries begin to taper off, the poorest countries are likely to suffer mightily, and perhaps be left to fend for themselves as the crisis spreads through camps and resettlement communities and the developed world is focused inward.