Over the past few months while the world has continued to reel from the COVID-19 global pandemic, there has been increased focus on a shrinking world. Less travel and movement have been encouraged and often enforced to contain the deadly virus. However, one population already contained within a limited area but in close proximity to one another are refugees, particularly those in big refugee camps. In the early periods of the pandemic, numbers of COVID-19 cases in refugee camps around the world were low due to lockdowns and shutdowns. However, it was reported in the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) report released on September 18, 2020 that there are now almost 21,000 positive cases among refugees across 97 countries, including an increase of 3,000 cases since the last report. 

The plight of refugees is exacerbated by the fact that their survival is closely linked to supplies coming in the form of international and regional aid. Closed international borders and even limited local movement meant that the supply chain to refugee camps was hit at a time when refugees also needed supplies like masks, protective equipment, and hygiene and sanitation products. UNHCR’s COVID-19 response report includes information on 42.1 million masks that were procured for refugee camps, but it fails to report on distribution and delivery statistics for masks and other protective gear. 

Too Close, Too Exposed 

Social distancing, one of the best ways to prevent the transmission of the virus, is extremely difficult to accomplish in crowded camps. The Kutupalong Refugee Camp, in Cox’s Bazar, a refugee camp in Bangladesh that is home to 860,000 Rohingya, has a population density 1.5 times higher than that of New York City. To understand the risks of high-population density in spreading COVID-19, a comparison can be made to the Diamond Princess Cruise ship in March. With a density of over 24 people per 1,000 meters squared, the virus spread 4 times faster than it had in Wuhan, China. In Cox’s Bazar camp, there are 40 people per 1000 meters squared of the camp. Social distancing is a luxury many refugees cannot afford, as their only option for some semblance of a home is their crowded refugee camp. Furthermore, most refugees are hosted in less developed countries where COVID-19 testing has been slow, and therefore it is likely that coronavirus cases are underreported and mainly undetected in refugee camps and refugee populations. Additionally, COVID-19 only takes away from the existing response to infectious diseases like malaria and tuberculosis normally present in refugee camps with high population density. 

Restoring Normalcy and a Glimmer of Hope

For many people around the world, work, hobbies, and entertainment have moved online. Restoring normal operations has become a priority. However, “the show must go on” has a different meaning for youth in refugee camps whose critical education and learning has been disrupted. Based on UNHCR data, the Malala Fund has estimated that as a result of the coronavirus, half of all refugee girls in secondary school will not return when classrooms reopen. Education for refugees has also become an area of immense hope and positivity for youth as their teachers and learners have gotten creative during the pandemic. For example, an Afghan refugee girl named Parisa at Vahdat Primary School in Isfahan, Iran shares her sister’s smartphone to access examinations as the two attend classes on television. However, thousands of refugee students in Cox’s Bazar do not have the luxury of maintaining educational pursuits via the Internet as Bangladesh restricted connectivity to the refugee camp in 2019. Education is one of the only aspects of refugee lives that offers hope for their future and restores the sense of normalcy most often lost in the fight for survival. 

In the meantime, everyday struggles for refugee populations have continued as the pandemic has not stopped other issues. Fires engulfed Greece’s largest refugee camp Moria in September, leaving 13,000 without shelter. In May, at least 3,000 Congolese refugees escaped Buda town in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, seeking protection and shelter in the Central African Republic despite closed borders. The Central African Republic is already underfunded by the UNHCR, so refugees are forced to share what little they have from aid agencies.

Social distancing, masks and restricted movement have been used to combat the coronavirus in many countries around the world.. However, refugees and refugee camps may not benefit from the cookie-cutter solutions most governments are using for their own populations. When social distancing is not possible, supplies are limited, access to the Internet is scarce, and refugee populations continue to grow by the thousands, it becomes even more important to give specific attention to refugees around the world. For many countries, the answer to COVID-19 has been to restrict movement and downsize operations involving travel. But the expansion of movement and space might just be the answer for refugees. Crowded camps with high population densities only seem to be a recipe for disaster in a population already exposed to many health and wellbeing threats. It may seem as though the pandemic has put a stop to other atrocities around the world, but it is important to continue humanitarian efforts for refugees and share what we have as the refugees share what little they have amongst them. 

Read More: 

World Economic Forum: “COVID-19: Here’s how we can help refugees”

U.S. Global Leadership Coalition: “COVID-19 Brief: Impact on Refugees”

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Maham Kamal Khanum

Maham is a International Relations graduate from UBC, now working in the university in higher education fundraising and development. Maham is passionate about working in international education programs...

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