Refugees face new disaster as COVID-19 threatens camps

Refugees face new disaster as COVID-19 threatens camps

A 9-year-old refugee wears a face mask in the Al-Harakat camp in Idlib, April 10, 2020. (Credit: Islamic Relief/Courtesy to DEC.)

Millions of refugees fleeing conflict are facing the prospect of another disaster: The spread of COVID-19.

LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Millions of refugees fleeing conflict are facing the prospect of another disaster: The spread of COVID-19.

Refugees often live in crowded refugee camps with poor hygiene and health services, making them prime candidates for outbreaks of disease.

In addition, lockdown measures are making it harder for needed supplies to reach the camps, and the pandemic-caused recession means funds are also lacking.

The UK charity Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) has launched an appeal to help vulnerable refugees, joining forces with CAFOD, England’s Catholic development aid agency.

“In the UK, our struggle against coronavirus has entered the next phase, but in many of the world’s poorest communities, the fight has only just begun,” said Christine Allen, the director of CAFOD.

“Families who have fled conflict, and are living in crowded camps or makeshift shelters, are especially vulnerable,” she said. “In many places around the world, there are not enough hospital beds or supplies to treat everyone who falls ill. But promoting handwashing and providing personal protective equipment, health advice and food parcels can make a huge difference.”

CAFOD’s main aims are providing handwashing facilities, clean water, soap, and hand sanitizer; promoting public information messages on ways people can stay safe and protect others; and supporting health systems and aid workers by providing training, personal protective equipment, and medical supplies for frontline responders.

CAFOD is also supporting the training of faith leaders in hygiene promotion and working with churches to use their networks to share clear and accurate information on how communities can protect themselves from coronavirus.

At the July 14 launch of the appeal, Saleh Saeed, the chief executive of the Disasters Emergency Committee said that countries such as Yemen, Syria, Somalia and South Sudan have been weakened by years of war and instability and now face a new threat.

“Here in the UK, we’ve witnessed great suffering and made unprecedented sacrifices to protect each other and save lives. We have seen too the tireless dedication of staff in our amazing NHS,” he said, referring to Britain’s nationalized health agency.

“But imagine living in one of the world’s most fragile states – where there is no NHS – and no other safety nets for the very poorest and most vulnerable,” Saeed continued. “Families who have been forced to flee conflict, drought and floods – living in crowded refugee and displacement camps – with little access to clean water, medical care or enough food – now face a new, deadly and silent threat: COVID-19.”

Alexander Matheou, the executive director of international issues for the British Red Cross, said there was a triple “hit” of humanitarian crises for refugees caused by the pandemic: Pre-existing vulnerability; the health impact of the virus itself; and the secondary economic and social impact of the pandemic.

“People who were already food insecure now face a major hunger crisis. People who were already poor have lost the little income they had. People who were dependent on aid are no longer getting that aid. People who were already at risk of domestic violence are now locked down with the people who threatened them,” Matheou continued.

“We’re not safe until we’re all safe,” he added. “The world is interconnected. We need to help each other in this time of need.”

The DEC appeal came just days after two United Nations agencies warned that severe underfunding, conflict and disasters – as well as supply chain challenges, rising food prices and loss of income due to COVID-19 – threaten to leave millions of refugees across Africa without food.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the World Food Program (WFP) said unless urgent action is taken to address the situation, levels of acute malnutrition, stunting and anemia are expected to rise.

“Millions of refugees throughout Africa are currently reliant on regular aid to meet their food needs. Around half are children, who may develop life-long difficulties if deprived of food at vital stages in their development,” said Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

WFP is providing food assistance to more than 10 million refugees worldwide.

“While the situation continues to deteriorate for everyone, the disaster is magnified for refugees who have absolutely nothing to cushion their fall,” said David Beasley, the WFP Executive Director.

The WFP noted that the Bidibidi refugee settlement in Uganda, one of the world’s largest, reduced rations by 30 percent in April due to lack of funding.

“In the best of times, refugees live in cramped conditions, struggle to meet their basic needs and often have no option but to rely on outside assistance for their survival. Now more than ever, they need our lifesaving support.”

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome

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