According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), nearly 80 million people in the world have been displaced, forced to flee their country because of conflict, violence, persecution, economic and social inequalities or climate change.
This World Refugee Day, as the COVID-19 pandemic worsens in many parts of the world, Action Against Hunger warns that refugee, displaced and migrant populations are particularly vulnerable to the virus and calls for governments to ensure these groups are fully reflected in their health and socio-economic responses to COVID-19.
80% of the world's refugee population lives in low- and middle-income countries, where health infrastructures are often less developed or inaccessible. The consequences of countries’ containment measures can have devastating effects on access to humanitarian aid, food and basic necessities for poor families and marginalized communities.
"Our teams are working to support refugees with food, sanitation, and livelihoods, and focus on people in overcrowded camps and informal settlements that are excluded from emergency or development aid," explains Dr. Charles Owubah, CEO of Action Against Hunger.
In Lebanon, where more than 1.5 million Syrians have taken refuge since the beginning of the war in Syria in 2011, refugees have been spread between urban areas and informal refugee camps. The majority, especially those in informal camps, are not connected to the public water network, leaving many refugee families with limited access to running water, and having to resort to using inadequate sanitation facilities. This situation makes it very difficult to follow basic hygiene measures to be protected from the virus.
While COVID-19 does not appear to have spread widely in some refugee camps to date, refugees are still severely affected by the adverse effects of disease containment measures, which frequently hinder their access to food, basic necessities, and income opportunities.
For the 1.4 million refugees in Uganda, the pandemic arrived just as their monthly food rations from the World Food Program were cut by 30% due to funding gaps. The situation for refugees in urban areas is even more alarming: half of the refugees surveyed in April by WFP in Kampala reported that their household income had dropped by more than 75%. Across the country, for refugees and host communities alike, food prices are on the rise due to limited supplies. The average cost of maize, for example, was 45% higher in April 2020 than in April 2019.
In Colombia, which hosts 1.8 million Venezuelan migrants, Action Against Hunger teams found that 48% of the displaced populations had no source of income after confinement, compared to 4% before isolation measures were put in place, according to a rapid needs assessment completed in May.
The international response to the COVID-19 crisis must account for all populations, including those forced to flee their homes. Among displaced populations, the elderly are particularly vulnerable.
“In the face of the pandemic, national authorities must treat refugees, displaced people, and asylum seekers in the same way as other residents,” says Owubah. “This isn’t only a question of humanitarian compassion, but of equality and human rights. It’s also enlightened self-interest, since none of us will be safe from COVID-19 until all of us are."