The cramped conditions in refugee camps. Image used under Creative Commons License
By Michael Murphy
The social impacts of COVID-19 on the global population have been well known since its declaration as a public health emergency. Each nation has been forced to negotiate its own priorities and plan accordingly, often creating a patchwork of different plans in different areas. While the citizens of each country have had varying degrees of difficulty adjusting to the new international situation, refugees have been ignored, sidelined, and immobilized.
In order to contain the unchecked spread of the virus, many countries have taken the precaution of closing their borders, thus halting the migration of every kind. Resettlement paperwork has also been put on hold as social distancing measures shut down offices, interview locations, and transit. This has led to a build-up of cases that will need to be handled when these restrictions are lifted, although there is no telling when that might happen. However, some advocacy organizations like the International Rescue Committee are preemptively filling out as much casework as they can in order to get a quick start once processing of refugee paperwork resumes.
If international migration has come to a standstill at the moment, then it is important to consider what refugees are and are not able to accomplish in the meantime, down to the basics of acquiring food. Many refugee camps have been locked down in order to prevent the spread of the virus to vulnerable populations. This has created difficulties cutting off resources for food, work, and education, while also creating an overcrowded environment.
Many refugees are dependent on sanctioned or unofficial work outside of the camp for funds to meet basic needs. With many non-essential businesses closed and camps being isolated for the time being, those funds have suddenly come to a complete halt.
Overcrowding has always been an issue in refugee camps, but it has become a massive concern in the struggle against COVID-19. If people cannot leave their areas for work or leisure then the entire population is confined to the area of the camp, often leading to a maximum social distancing limit of only a few feet. Housing, sanitation, and healthcare continue to be critical issues in camps, with authorities dreading a possible spread of the virus in camps. Recently, these conditions have led to clashes and a communal fear for their wellbeing.
So what is being done?
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has implemented a program called WASH, which aims to focus on access to water, sanitation, and hygiene in camps. One critical element has been teaching refugees to make their own soap to improve the availability of sanitation materials and decrease shipments into the camp. Messaging and health education has been a vital undertaking as well, with UN agencies reaching out not only to donors but to the international refugee community themselves via Twitter, Zoom, and TikTok. They have also fallen back on tried and tested methods of mass communication, especially where the internet is unreliable. In an online public forum, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Jana Mason said that UNHCR workers had returned to using megaphones and putting up posters, but UN agencies have also taken nonlinear education strategies.
UNESCO has partnered with a number of nations to guarantee general education is broadcast on television, with each grade level receiving an hour of televised class time each day while schools are shut down. Additionally, student education has become a method for spreading health and safety information throughout camps. The UNHCR distributed books for children to read with their parents explaining the steps to prevent contamination and the importance of diligence in combating the virus. They have also taught children nursery rhymes and a popular Vietnamese boy band song to increase awareness about sanitation and personal hygiene. These oblique paths not only educate the tens of millions of refugee children, but their parents, siblings, and caretakers as well.
It is important to note that refugees are not simply victims of this crisis, but also that millions around the world have stepped up to help their communities and host countries in acts of solidarity. Refugees who have worked as doctors have volunteered to staff hospitals and clinics. Others have helped care for the elderly where they are able to. Many governments have appealed for aid from retired or out of work nurses and doctors and hundreds in the UK and Germany have responded. Meanwhile, artists, tailors, and manufacturers have gone to work making face masks and protective equipment for their communities and workers around the world.
Community organizers within refugee populations have also played a key role in highlighting the unforeseen needs of families effectively locked in quarantine. I spoke with one Somali community organizer who told me that his days are filled with remote communication with his neighbors through WhatsApp. He spreads educational material, continues to teach language skills, and writes letters to UN and government agencies to advocate for those who fall through gaps in policy.
As governments explore options to ease restrictions, refugee populations will continue to be one of the most at-risk populations. Massive unemployment will make it harder for many refugees to find even unofficial work. The danger of a second wave of infections only increases anxieties. Governments will need to include refugees into a broader plan to avoid agitating the already struggling refugee populations.