Together, the world’s 71 million forcibly displaced people are numerous enough to constitute the 20th most populous country on Earth, a little smaller than Germany. Scattered around the world by state-ordered bloodshed and genocidal campaigns, they are people of numerous languages, religions and geographies. Some have been stripped of citizenship. All have been stripped of homes. Many have been barred from the most basic elements of self-sufficiency.
What they hold in common is vulnerability and dependency – often on the generosity of foreign countries.
Of the US$8.6-billion spent by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) last year, 86 per cent came from governments. Canada in 2018 donated $72-million; the European Union, US$480-million; and the United States, US$1.6-billion. For Canada, that’s a small fraction of national wealth, equivalent to 0.004 per cent of the gross domestic product.
But what happens as the COVID-19 pandemic causes economies to seize up and governments around the world plunge trillions of dollars into stimulus programs, subsidies and cash handouts to their own people. In the euro zone alone, GDP is expected to contract by between 5 per cent and 12 per cent this year. Will parliaments and legislatures continue to earmark money for the distant disenfranchised when their own budgets have plunged into the red?
“There is now, and this will only grow, a trend for people and their governments, to look inward and ignore the ever-growing number of refugees and forcibly displaced people,” said Bob Rae, Canada’s special envoy to Myanmar, where violence and campaigns of ethnic cleansing have created huge numbers of displaced people.
That worry has spread to the most distant corners of the Earth. In northern Thailand, where people have fled from Myanmar since the mid-1980s, “I am worried about maintaining basic needs for refugees – rice, food and shelter,” said Mubi, a Karenni woman who goes by one name. She was herself a refugee, driven by violence from her home in Myanmar in 1989. “I worry about hunger, because globally many people have already lost their jobs and the economy is falling down. Donors might have priorities other than the refugee camps.”
Such concern comes as the UNHCR asks for even greater funding this year – an additional US$255-million – to help cover the costs of protecting refugees in crowded living quarters from a deadly and highly contagious virus.
“The single worst thing we could ever do is to cut back on the necessary supports for refugees globally," Mr. Rae said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.
If funds dry up, he added: “more people will die. More people will turn to crime, domestic violence and, ultimately, political extremism and terrorism. We turn away at our peril.”
The mud passageways and sandbag staircases of the Cox’s Bazar camp network connect the most dense refugee accommodations on Earth, with nearly 860,000 Rohingya jammed into a small corner of Bangladesh near Myanmar, where most of them fled ethnic cleansing.
The camps may form one of the most difficult places on Earth to fight a pandemic. With just a single case of COVID-19, “a large-scale outbreak is highly likely,” researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health warned, after modelling a potential outbreak in the camps. Even if transmission is low, some 425,000 people would likely be infected within a year.
With a large population, limited health care facilities and a crushing density, it is “very challenging in terms of how we can actually mitigate the moment that the novel coronavirus reaches and spreads inside of the camp,” said Husni Mubarak Zainal, a doctor with Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders). “We basically just keep crossing our fingers that the virus is never going to reach the camp.” So far, they have yet to find anyone infected.
But it’s growing closer. The Cox’s Bazar region now counts 13 confirmed cases, including one near the camps.
And fear is growing. “We refugees are praying to the Almighty to save us from this deadly virus,” said Ro Ro Yassin Abdumonab. It’s not uncommon for a family of seven or eight to live in a 110-square-foot home. On average, 40,000 people live in each square kilometre. “If anyone of us is infected by this virus, many refugees will die in a short time,” he said.
A large number of the non-governmental organizations that work in the camps have halted their activities, and movement in and out has grown more difficult. Many Rohingya who had found jobs can no longer work, leaving them even more dependent on basic necessities provided by the World Food Program and others.
Preparations are underway, with the UNHCR building one isolation facility that can treat 200, and another for about 50. At the main public hospital in Cox’s Bazar, the UNHCR is offering support “to have 10 beds with ventilators and intensive-care capacity,” said Louise Donovan, spokeswoman for the UNHCR in Cox’s Bazar. That will take two weeks to complete. But it’s not much in the way of resources, she said. “It’s very limited.”
And the virus is being felt across the landscape of people displaced by violence in Myanmar. Inside Myanmar, fighting between the country’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, and a local rebel group has displaced at least 60,000 people in the midst of the global pandemic, said Zaw Zaw Tun, with the Rakhine Ethnics Congress. “The Tatmadaw is taking the opportunity, because of COVID-19, since international governments are very busy with the COVID response.”
– Nathan VanderKlippe
After living for nearly six years in Jordan’s desolate Azraq camp for Syrian refugees, Hamdeh Mahmood al-Hussein thought he and his family were finally on their way to better lives in Canada. Then came the coronavirus.
Mr. al-Hussein said he was told in January that he and his family, after years of waiting, had been approved for resettlement to Canada. The Canadian embassy in Jordan made contact again a month later to clarify some details about the family’s application. Since then, the embassy has gone silent as Canada, like many countries, went into lockdown to try to curb the deadly spread of COVID-19.
“The virus changed everything,” Mr. al-Hussein said in an exchange of WhatsApp messages with The Globe this week.
Peter Liang, a spokesman for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, said that in addition to the travel restrictions that Ottawa introduced in response to COVID-19, the UN refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration had temporarily suspended their resettlement programs.
The Jordanian government has managed to keep the outbreak largely under control thus far, reporting just 460 cases and nine deaths in the country as of Sunday. No cases have been reported in either Azraq, which is home to 36,000 Syrian refugees, or the larger Zaatari camp, which plays host to 76,000 people, forestalling predictions of an unstoppable spread if COVID-19 were to enter the crowded camps.
But the measures adopted to control the pandemic have tightened the already constricting sense of isolation for refugees, some of whom have been living in the tent cities since early in neighbouring Syria’s now nine-year-old civil war. Refugees are no longer allowed to leave the camps to find work, cutting off vital sources of income to families that were already struggling to survive.
A study conducted last month by the UNHCR found that half of Syrian refugees had lost work because of the pandemic and 70 per cent said they’d had to skip meals.
Marwa al-Qadri, a 38-year-old mother of four who lived in Damascus until the war erupted, said that while Azraq’s stores were well stocked with food, soap and other supplies, few refugees had any money to buy them with. “Money is food and there is no money,” she said.
“The epidemic has not reached us, but we have fallen into poverty,” said Mr. al-Hussein, a 41-year-old native of Syria’s Idlib province, where the fighting is currently fiercest. He said his family’s predicament was made harsher by the fact it was now Ramadan, a holy month for Muslims that’s supposed to feature a sundown feast at the end of each day of fasting.
But the family of eight can hardly afford to feast on a monthly stipend of equivalent to about $45 a person and no chance to earn any outside income.
“The money lasts only about 10 or 15 days. It is Ramadan now, but I have no money to secure my family’s needs – food, drink or detergents,” Mr. al-Hussein said. “The situation is very bitter.”
– Mark MacKinnon
Coronavirus infections are hitting refugee camps in mainland Greece, but the desperately overcrowded camps on the Greek islands have, so far, been spared. The Greek government and refugee agencies know the islands’ luck could turn any minute.
“The level of overcrowding is severe and the sanitary conditions are terrible on the islands,” said Boris Cheshirkov, spokesman in Greece for the UNHCR. “If an infection hits these facilities, it could spread quickly.”
He was last on the eastern Aegean island of Lesvos, home of the Moria refugee camp, in March and described the situation as horrific. “The camp has 17,000 people, but it was designed to hold only 3,000,” he said. “They’re lining up for a long time for water and to use toilets, and there are far fewer medical workers than are needed.”
Greece’s five island camps held 38,700 refugees at the end of April, according to the UNHCR. Most of them were from Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Palestine and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Collectively, the camps were built to house fewer than 6,000. A third of the refugees are children, 60 per cent of whom are under the age of 12.
The camps are surrounded by piles of garbage, and electricity and water supplies are erratic. Last month, video and photos surfaced of refugees chopping down mass numbers of farmers’ olive trees on Lesvos for firewood and to build makeshift shelters covered in plastic. Other videos show them lining up for hours for food handouts.
As a whole, Greece has been spared the worst of the coronavirus crisis. As of Sunday, it had recorded only 143 COVID-19 deaths.
But the virus caught up to the mainland camps in April, when three sites were put into strict quarantine. Two of them were just north of Athens; the third in the town Kranidi, in the Peloponnese.
The Kranidi camp – a large seaside hotel – along with the entire town, were locked down in mid-April after a hotel employee tested positive for the virus. Subsequent tests revealed that 150 of 470 asylum-seekers staying at the hotel were positive even though they were asymptomatic. Mass testing in Kranidi, whose population is 10,000, is underway.
Mr. Cheshirkov said that the island refugees who are most vulnerable – the elderly and those with underlying conditions such as diabetes – are being evacuated to mainland sites on the expectation that a virus attack is coming. About 500 have been transferred in the past two weeks, with 1,500 waiting to go. The only good news for the island camps is that the arrival of refugees by sea from Turkey has fallen to zero in the past several weeks, meaning that living conditions should become slightly less cramped in May.
– Eric Reguly
When food and clothing is distributed at Nduta camp in Tanzania, health workers ask the refugees to stand a metre apart to protect each other from the coronavirus.
“They do it for a while, but then they crowd together again,” said Tumaini Kombe, a health promoter with Médecins sans frontières.
“They believe us, but they tell us it’s impossible to do. If you’re standing far away and your name is called and you don’t hear it, you’ll miss your chance.”
It’s an example of the challenges at Nduta camp, where about 75,000 Burundian refugees are living in shelters of mud bricks and plastic sheeting after fleeing political violence in 2015.
The Burundians are one of the world’s most underfunded refugee groups, according to Médecins sans frontières, whose 800 workers are the main health care providers in the camp.
The coronavirus has not yet been detected at Nduta camp. But self-isolation here is almost impossible. Masks and other protective gear are in short supply and strict hygiene is difficult in crowded homes where seven people often share two rooms.
“If a COVID-19 outbreak happens here, the spread could be impossible to stop,” said Pete Clausen, country representative for Médecins sans frontières in Tanzania.
Health workers such as Mr. Kombe, who go door to door in the camp, are making some progress. They have persuaded most of the refugees to stop shaking hands – a tough habit for Burundians to break since they normally shake hands when they greet each other every morning.
Masks are still rare – people can’t afford them. But handwashing and other health measures have expanded. “If you cough or sneeze, people stand away from you and tell you to cover your mouth with your shirt or your elbow,” Mr. Kombe said.
Misinformation is among the greatest threats in African refugee camps. At Nduta, people are rummaging through their Bibles in search of stray hairs because of a persistent rumour that they can prevent the coronavirus by drinking a glass of water containing a human hair found in the pages of a Bible.
Nearly 1,000 kilometres away, the same rumour about Bibles has been spreading at Kakuma camp in northwestern Kenya, home to more than 190,000 refugees from South Sudan and other countries. Authorities have banned any movement outside the camp for the past several weeks, allowing rumours to flourish.
“We have 21 nationalities here, and each nationality has its own misinformation,” says Tolossa Asrat, a journalist in Kakuma. “People think the virus is fake, or it was created by Western governments to attack the black community, or you can kill the virus by reading chapters from the Koran.”
In a project funded by a German development agency and assisted by Mr. Asrat, giant speakers are strapped to the roofs of cars at Kakuma and powered by portable generators to broadcast messages about handwashing and physical distancing.
"We explain that the virus is real and could be here any time,” Mr. Asrat says.
– Geoffrey York
The coronavirus pandemic has given Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro an unexpected opportunity to gloat.
“We’re looking out for our compatriots who are victims of xenophobia and have decided to return to [Venezuela], their homeland,” Mr. Maduro boasted on Twitter early last month, as thousands of exiles who had fled his rule began trickling home. “Here we’ve our arms opened to them as we have done with millions of people who have found in our country a land of peace and hope. Welcome!”
That trickle has since grown into a steady stream as COVID-19 has effectively shut down the economies of the neighbouring states that have been playing host to the bulk of the estimated five million Venezuelan refugees who fled their country’s decades-long descent into dictatorship and kleptocracy.
The UN refugee agency reported this week that 12,500 people had returned to Venezuela from neighbouring Colombia in April. That appears to be a low-end estimate. Jairo Yanez, the mayor of the town of Cucuta, on the Colombia-Venezuela border, told The New Humanitarian website on April 21 that between 40,000 and 50,000 Venezuelans had crossed via his town alone during the previous month even though the border is formally closed.
It’s raw economics that are driving the refugees to contemplate a return to the country they had left behind. A UNHCR survey conducted last year found that 80 per cent of Venezuelan refugees and migrants were working in the informal economy, without the protection of a contract.
In Colombia, which is home to 1.8 million Venezuelan refugees, many were making a hand-to-mouth living working in the service and construction sectors. The country’s COVID-19 lockdown, which began in late March, left many unable to pay for food, rent and other necessities. The only option for some is to return to family homes in Venezuela, at least until the pandemic is over.
“If they make $5 or $10, that’s how they eat and that’s how they pay their rent. We’ve seen a huge increase in evictions,” said Fabiano Franz, the Venezuela response director for the World Vision charity. “All the trade and commerce, all their opportunities, have stopped.”
Also unclear is how the returning refugees will be received once they reach their homeland. Despite Mr. Maduro’s Twitter welcome, there have been reports of discrimination against returnees who are seen as potential carriers of COVID-19.
– Mark MacKinnon
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