COVID-19 Pandemic: How Can Refugees & Asylum Seekers Be Protected?

Most refugee camps around the world are cramped for space & unhygienic. How can displaced people be protected now?

6 min read
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While complete isolation and social distancing are significantly impacting the lives of people around the world, for vulnerable groups in conflict zones who are struggling to survive, isolation comes as yet another challenge.

Refugees, asylum seekers and other displaced persons around the world are one of the most highly-susceptible groups to be affected by the coronavirus pandemic. With camps having little or no access to proper healthcare facilities, informal refugee settlements are likely to become major hotspots for a contagious virus like COVID-19. Being densely populated regions, refugee camps have almost no space for people to practice any form of social distancing. The threat posed by the pandemic has been hard to tackle and is likely to spread quickly if an outbreak occurs in such refugee camps.


Filthy Conditions in Greek Camps

As per the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, over 70 million individuals worldwide have been forcibly displaced while fleeing persecution and violence in their home states. Furthermore, as a consequence of severe worldwide travel restrictions imposed to stop the spread of the virus, many refugee resettlement programmes have been temporarily suspended.

While the UNHCR has been trying to ensure that movements can still continue in cases of emergencies when possible, not much can be done to circumvent the urgent measures that need to be taken in the face of the global pandemic.

In Greece, refugee camps have lacked basic facilities for the past four years. On the island of Lesvos, the Moria refugee camp constructed for the intake of 3,100 people is currently hosting over 20,000 refugees and asylum seekers. Overcrowding in the camp has reached a level so high that an average of 1,300 people are made to share one single water point, and approximately 200 are required to share one toilet.

The camp has, for years, maintained its filthy conditions, with people living in makeshift tents surrounded by rubbish, muck and muddy waters, in other words, breeding grounds for disease and contagion. In these conditions where there has been a failure in prioritising hygiene, a global pandemic becomes a huge cause for concern. It is important that under such dire circumstances, the European Union and the Greek authorities come together with a collective and more humane response to the situation – and it is likely that now, with the threat of an outbreak in such camps, measures be taken to bring into effect emergency plans to improve their condition.


Limited Resources in Developing Nations That Are Taking In Refugees

Similarly, refugee camps in many other parts of the world including Kenya, Lebanon, Bangladesh and Jordan, being developing and relatively poor countries, have highly under-resourced healthcare systems. A pandemic that has left many rich nations to struggle is likely to have catastrophic consequences in such developing countries. Many of the largest refugee camps in the world are located in Africa and conflict-ridden zones of the Middle East, where conditions of healthcare and sanitation are far from being able to tackle a virus like COVID-19.

One of the largest refugee camps in the world located in Jordan, hosts nearly 78,000 refugees and asylum seekers fleeing persecution from Syria.

The country itself currently has limited resources in terms of testing kits for COVID-19 and even basic health infrastructure.

This poses a major risk since the inability to recognise the presence of the virus would in turn make it increasingly difficult to contain its spread. Similarly, in camps for internally displaced persons situated in Syria and Yemen, the situation is even worse, since ongoing war conditions make it difficult to enforce the most basic norms to practice prevention. In such a scenario, most refugee camps around the world have only been able to impose measures regarding the restriction of movement of persons in and out of the camps, which is not nearly enough to prevent a possible outbreak.


No Source of Livelihood For Refugees Amid COVID-19

An additional issue that comes along with the imposition of measures requiring isolation is the inability of displaced persons to earn their daily wages. Many displaced persons around the world live in extreme poverty and often are unable to find stable employment. As per an assessment made by the UNICEF, 85 percent of Syrian refugees are living below the poverty line in refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon. Although the situation may differ in other regions, refugees and asylum seekers often find it difficult to find sufficient and consistent sources of income.

Therefore, with many such displaced persons living below the poverty line, daily work becomes necessary in order to sustain themselves.

In the current situation requiring the isolation of persons and complete suspension of non-essential services in many hotspots, many displaced persons have now been left without any basic resources. Moreover, notwithstanding their lack of access to efficient healthcare services and poor living conditions, the need to find any form of stability leads such groups to deal with consistently high levels of stress. Dealing with high stress often leads to the suppression of one’s immune system, therefore making them even more susceptible to succumb to such an illness.


COVID-19 & ‘Principle of Non-Refoulement’

The situation in camps in highly populated Bangladesh doesn’t seem to be any better. Despite being one of the poorest countries in the world, Bangladesh has taken in many Rohingya fleeing persecution in Myanmar. The conditions of camps are appalling, with resources being insufficient to support large populations of displaced persons. A camp located in Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh is currently housing over 7,50,000 Rohingya’s in cramped and unsanitary conditions. People in the camp are consistently struggling to make ends meet, many are also dealing with chronic health conditions. With aid agencies struggling to serve such a large group of persons dependant on them for food, shelter and healthcare, the current state of the camp is not nearly sufficient to deal with an outbreak of COVID-19.

Another important aspect for consideration in the context of the global pandemic is its possible implications on the principle of non-refoulement.

This principle of international law prohibits any state from returning any person to an unsafe foreign territory by either rejecting them at the borders or not admitting them into their territory. With worldwide travel bans being imposed to curtail the spread of coronavirus, many countries have shut their borders and are not allowing the entry of non-nationals and in some cases, even nationals back into their territory until a necessary period of quarantine is maintained to mitigate further spread of the virus.


Urgent Need for Joint Action By International Community To Protect Refugees From COVID-19

Although such measures have been strictly imposed in multiple countries, as per a recent UNHCR publication on 16 March 2020, it was clarified that under international law, states must continue to respect the principle of non-refoulement. The publication stated that states must “put in place measures which may include a health screening or testing of persons seeking international protection upon entry and/or putting them in quarantine.”

It was also stated that such measures must not result in any denial of the rights of refugees to seek asylum, or in other words, result in refoulement.

Regardless of the UNHCR’s clarification, travel bans themselves are likely to make movement of refugees a more cumbersome task than before. In addition, with an increasing number of people fleeing persecution in conflict-ridden regions, many host countries continue to have inadequate healthcare services and quarantine centres required to comply with such conditions.

Therefore, in light of the current scenario, there is a dire need for joint action by the international community to formulate a humane response to the problem.

While the UNHCR is currently appealing for additional support worth USD 33 million to effectively combat the virus, greater international solidarity and cooperation from member states is urgently required. Measures need to be taken to improve the state of camps, facilitate travel in case of emergencies, create hygienic conditions of living, and provide for appropriate healthcare facilities. In the wake of this pandemic, the world must not choose to turn its back. It is time that action is taken to protect some of the most vulnerable groups in the world.

(Ishita Satyajit is a fourth year law student at O.P. Jindal Global University. Ishita is passionate about international law and politics. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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