As the world adapts to new norms under COVID-19, there are over 70 million people who are forcibly displaced across the globe trying to survive in new environments and to seek protection from this pandemic. Everyone around the world is vulnerable to COVID-19, but not all are equally vulnerable. Although the outbreak of this virus is a global public health crisis, it is important to keep in mind that this is an additional layer piled onto the numerous perils that displaced communities and refugees have been grappling with. Violence and conflict, despite calls for ceasefires, have continued unheeded and people are constantly confronted with the tough dilemma of remaining in their insecure homes or fleeing for safety. According to UNHCR, approximately one person around the world is displaced every two seconds because of conflict or persecution. This hardship has not subsided, despite the outbreak. Displaced communities are disproportionately impacted by such a pandemic because of pre-existing challenges linked to displacement and political dynamics that are further constraining refugees’ ability to be resilient, to recover, and to rebuild.
During this coronavirus outbreak, people in displacement are rarely in a position to abide by preventative measures. Life in displacement is not a conducive environment to stymie the spread of a viral outbreak. We saw this with cholera and Ebola and COVID-19 will likely not be any different.
In many cases, people cannot quarantine in homes that are damaged or destroyed by conflict, that often pushes them to camps. Displaced communities, oftentimes, live in overcrowded spaces that allow no privacy, let alone distance. Conditions in these camps vary but the insufficient funding for aid efforts and host government policies has meant that many have poor sanitation and limited access to clean water. Some camps may not even have functioning latrines, forcing camp residents to use nearby empty land, short of global hygiene standards. Not only are displaced communities unable to practice preventative measures, their living conditions actually make them more susceptible to contracting the virus and falling ill because of it.
Moreover, 80 percent of refugees live in neighboring countries that are, usually, low or middle-income states with weak or overstretched health systems. In some cases, the health infrastructure has been directly targeted by conflicts, completely decimating available medical facilities and equipment. In Syria, systemic attacks on health facilities in Idlib have left displaced communities with very little resources to respond to a potential COVID-19 outbreak. Besiegement, another war tactic, has resulted in a shortage of medical supplies, water, and hygiene in Gaza that has deteriorated civilians’ quality of life. This will negatively impact Gazans’ ability to fight back against this outbreak.
Additionally, displaced populations tend to suffer disproportionately from poor health conditions due to the hardships of displacement that often lead to high malnutrition rates and other underlying health factors, causing weaker immune systems and making refugees more susceptible to illnesses. As the coronavirus outbreak reaches Yemen, not only are the medical facilities severely ill-equipped to handle the outbreak, years of malnutrition and malnourishment could result in hundreds of thousands of deaths among Yemenis weakened by the conflict.
The other set of major challenges facing displaced communities during this pandemic are man-made and political. As governments take stricter measures to secure their borders and protect their populations, some are moving to use these policies to block refugees and restrict their ability to seek asylum.
Displaced communities are usually the first to be blamed and stigmatized for spreading viruses. The Hungarian prime minister accused refugees of spreading the pandemic and, therefore, necessitating their deportation. Other populist politicians in Europe and the U.S. have scapegoated displaced communities for the pandemic outbreak, despite there being no evidence to support this. When refugees are stigmatized, it risks them hiding symptoms or failing to seek treatment, putting everyone’s health at risk.
With increased restrictions on movement, humanitarian organizations’ access to vulnerable populations becomes significantly harder. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, areas like Sinjar in Iraq and Taiz in Yemen were difficult for humanitarian organizations to reach. The plethora of armed actors, numerous checkpoints, and ongoing conflict have always been impediments in reaching vulnerable populations. Now, however, these areas risk becoming more isolated and secluded as their vulnerable inhabitants struggle to combat the spread of this virus.
According to the Norwegian Refugee Council’s experience, displaced “populations are often left out of disaster and epidemic preparedness planning, even at the best of times.” Therefore, local authorities, international organizations and donors must work jointly to ensure full inclusion of displaced communities in national response plans. The international community also needs to ensure that displaced communities are prioritized in vaccine programs and other response efforts to tackle this outbreak.
All displaced communities should have equal access to healthcare services, particularly in areas where living conditions for refugees and internally displaced communities are currently dismal. Local governments must allow humanitarian access to all populations and not politicize aid to areas exclusively under their control. All preventative measures undertaken by governments must be applied to all populations in its territory in a non-discriminatory manner. Additionally, it is imperative that this outbreak does not lead to further stigmatization of already vulnerable and marginalized groups.
Humanitarian donors have role to play as well. Humanitarian organizations need the funding flexibility to be able to scale up water, sanitation, and hygiene programs, improve the health response, and take other necessary actions to help avoid a catastrophe.
Humanitarian organizations also play a critical role in combatting panic and misinformation. Part of the humanitarian communities’ work is ensuring displaced people have access to accurate information and raise awareness on how people can protect themselves. The alarmist language often used to describe this virus risks raising fears among the displaced population—a group that has already been exposed to trauma—and humanitarians play a role in balancing raising awareness with calmly setting realistic expectations.
Although governments around the world are working to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important that refugee populations are included in these protection efforts. The world is dealing with an indiscriminate virus, meaning inclusive and non-discriminatory policies are the only way to eliminate this pandemic comprehensively.
Basma Alloush is a former Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP focusing on humanitarian trends and emerging issues in MENA.