Refugees, internally displaced: The sitting ducks of Covid-19 pandemic

Saturday April 04 2020

A Somali woman carries wood to make a shelter in an internally displaced people (IDP) camp on December 18, 2018. PHOTO | MOHAMED ABDIWAHAB | AFP


Refugee International, an advocacy group that has been assessing the preparedness and capacity of refugee camps to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic has a dire warning: The social and health infrastructure in the camps is weak and ill-prepared for an outbreak of this magnitude in the event that infections spread the virus through these communities.

The group warned in a report released last Monday and titled Covid-19 and the Displaced: Addressing the Threat of the Novel Coronavirus in Humanitarian Emergencies, that the ease with which the coronavirus is spreading could be a severe blow to millions of refugees in the region.

It is asking governments and humanitarian organisations to prioritise access to water, hygiene and related interventions in facilities for refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), especially those in camps or camp-like settings. It should also include distribution of essential personal hygiene items such as soap, disinfectants and sanitisers.

“Focus on decongestion and disease surveillance in camps and camp-like settings. Services like food distribution should be restructured to avoid large gatherings. The good news is that many formal camps already have epidemiological surveillance systems already in place. These need to be strengthened and adapted to screen for Covid-19, especially for all new arrivals in the camps,” says an advisory in the report.

The Horn of Africa is home to some 5.3 million IDPs and 2.5 million refugees, who are likely to be hit hardest by the unfolding catastrophe.

The advocacy group said refugees are disproportionately at risk and circumstances could leave camps exposed, worsening spread of the virus in the region.


It is now calling on governments to recognise the unique circumstances of refugees, asylum-seekers, IDPs, and other forced migrants in light of the threat an outbreak presents, even as countries institute measures to forestall a full blown disaster.

Refugee International further urges the UN High Commission for Refugees and other donors to step up and supply critical items to the fight against the coronavirus.

“Our assessment found health workers there lack personal protective equipment such as gloves and masks,” says the report, adding that health experts the group spoke with in Somalia are particularly concerned that the spread of the virus in the country, with an estimated 2.5 million IDP population and more than 16,000 refugees, could potentially be among the worst in the world.

Decades of conflict have ravaged the country’s health system and other institutions and governance is weak. Al-Shabaab, an Islamic militant group affiliated with al-Qaeda, controls large swathes of territory, limiting the state’s reach and humanitarian workers’ access to populations in need.

Humanitarian workers also warned that the consequences could be devastating for the 3,000 families living in Nabadoon camp, just outside of Mogadishu.

“These are shelters in crowded, informal and underserved camps and settlements. The coronavirus has the potential to wreak havoc in these settings,” notes the report.

“Existing humanitarian actors may not have the training or resources to respond to such an unprecedented crisis, yet governments have been restricting the travel of international personnel and the movement of vital supplies. Steps to close borders, halt transportation, and shutter businesses are interrupting supply. The resulting shortages of goods could have devastating consequences in many humanitarian contexts. The lasting economic impact on the global economy will only aggravate the problems faced by refugees,” the report concludes.

The UNHCR has already privately warned that it anticipates major problems in managing the spread of the virus with its own international workforce, much less across the refugee population. And on March 26, called for $255 million as part of the wider UN appeal, to focus on priority countries that will require specific action.

“I am deeply concerned at this unprecedented pandemic and its impact on refugees and their host communities. The Covid-19 crisis has already had significant consequences for our operations, forcing us to rapidly adjust the way we work. However, we are sparing no effort to help and protect refugees the best we can under these difficult circumstances,’’ said Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

“Our top priority in the Covid-19 crisis is to ensure that the people we serve are included in response plans and are properly informed, while we supplement governments’ preparedness and response efforts wherever needed,’’ he added.

The report highlights Ethiopia’s precarious situation with the more than 900,000 refugees and more than 2.6 million IDPs. In its western Oromia region, hit by intercommunal violence, a months-long government-imposed shutdown of mobile phone networks and Internet service is further restricting the ability to provide real-time information on the spread of the virus.