OPINION: The crippling cost of COVID-19 on refugees

by Jan Egeland | @NRC_Egeland | Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC)
Tuesday, 12 May 2020 14:33 GMT

A Syrian refugee woman hangs clothes to dry, as Lebanon extends a lockdown to combat the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at a Syrian refugee camp in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon May 7, 2020. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

We are witnessing a life-and-death struggle for displaced communities, as coronavirus restrictions take a stranglehold on millions of lives

Jan Egeland is the Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council and a former United Nations Under-Secretary General of Humanitarian Affairs. 

In crowded camps from Syria to Bangladesh to Colombia, evidence is emerging of displaced people being severely impacted by the pandemic before the lethal force of the virus hits them. Over 70 million people globally fleeing conflict and persecution are not only at greater risk of contracting the disease, but many will be disproportionately harmed by policy decisions and their consequences long after the rest of us may have returned to a ‘new normal’.

We recognise that public health restrictions are vital to curb the spread of the coronavirus. But these measures must be non-discriminatory and temporary – not misused or exploited for political gain. My organisation, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), is already witnessing the direct and indirect impact of the virus in many of the 33 countries we work in.

FLEEING AGAIN

This health crisis is forcing displaced people to move yet again. They have to flee when lives become unbearable as access to basic services and temporary jobs disappear. Recent lockdown restrictions in Colombia have left Venezuelan refugees unable to earn an income. They are now forced to return to the crisis they once fled.

Others are being openly evicted from their homes. This worrying trend is on the rise in Iraq, Libya and Palestine. In the West Bank, Israeli authorities demolished 28 residential properties and seven water facilities even after the first reported case of COVID-19. Elsewhere, in West and Central Africa we have received reports of the pandemic being used by local authorities as a pretext to close displacement sites.

Even more people would flee if public health restrictions did not prevent it. Border closures in Africa have left displaced people unable to reach safety. Formal crossings are almost entirely closed in Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda, which have resulted in the effective shutdown of refugee transit centres. Refugees are being left in limbo.

Restrictions in accessing medical aid in some countries is being caused or exacerbated by displaced people not having civil documents such as birth certificates and identification cards. An assessment carried out by NRC in Iraq showed 11 per cent of displaced people were denied health services over the last month due to a lack of documents.

HUNGER PANDEMIC

The coronavirus pandemic will wreck total economic devastation that will push countless displaced people over the edge, who were barely surviving before. Surveys conducted by NRC in Jordan after severe public health restrictions were imposed showed that 90 per cent of refugees who had work in week one, no longer worked by week three.

Hunger levels are soaring as a result. The World Food Programme has warned that 265 million people may soon starve across crisis-stricken countries like Yemen, South Sudan, Syria and Afghanistan. A mother in Afghanistan told my colleagues she had not eaten for three days because her husband could no longer access his job during the lockdown. She fainted after breastfeeding her baby.

When the displaced need us most, restrictions are also paralyzing the movement of humanitarian workers. Measures to prevent the virus from spreading have made aid like handwashing posts, toilets and soap, slower to deliver.

A survey carried out in April revealed that 74 per cent of relief agencies are reporting a negative impact on programmes, and 7 per cent of relief operations worldwide have completely stopped. And this is only two months into the pandemic. It is vital that humanitarians can stay and deliver, when so many vulnerable people rely on aid organisations for help.

Sanctions are also restricting aid delivery and the export of crucial supplies needed to respond to the pandemic. Blanket humanitarian exemptions are still not included in all sanctions regimes. Where exemptions are in place, aid agencies and private companies will often not use them because of heavy compliance requirements, and fear of accidently breaching the laws.

ACTION NEEDED

There are concrete measures that can be taken so the impact of the pandemic does not disproportionately hit the most vulnerable. First, countries hosting displaced people must be supported to include these groups in public health and economic compensation schemes. For example, Portugal has granted citizenship rights to migrants and asylum seekers so they can access healthcare and social security during the pandemic period.

Second, governments must ensure closed borders and administrative restrictions are adjusted so they do not prevent displaced people from accessing relief, medicine and other health supplies. Governments should follow the example of Canada in calling out discrimination, excessive use of force and violations of basic rights and freedoms.

Third, national authorities should list humanitarians as key workers excluded from stay-at-home orders, so that both pandemic and non-pandemic critical aid can be delivered. Some national authorities, including in Central and West Africa, are now willing to list humanitarians as critical workers, allowing us to continue our lifesaving work.

Lastly, governments should adjust economic sanctions, issuing broad exemptions to enable aid delivery and pharmaceutical, medical and other crucial supplies to vulnerable people. This will speed up aid delivery and save lives.

With these measures in place, we may prevent the social and economic fallout from COVID-19 from becoming more brutal on displaced people than the virus itself.