UN, aid agencies fear worse to come for refugee camps
As countries begin to ease lockdowns and focus on restarting economies, the UN and aid agencies are warning there could be a looming crisis in refugee camps. So far a major outbreak in a settlement has been avoided but overcrowding and limited access to basic hygiene facilities could lead to a humanitarian catastrophe
Reported by Veronica Kan-Dapaah; data research by Chelsea Bruce-Lockhart and Christopher Campbell; graphics by Russell Birkett; edited by Jamie Han and Joe Sinclair
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Let us remember the most vulnerable of the vulnerable around the world, those in war zones and refugee camps and slums and all those places least-equipped to fight the virus.
It's almost four months since the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 to be a global pandemic. And we still haven't seen a major outbreak in a refugee camp. But the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and Aid Agencies are warning that the threat of a catastrophic health emergency remains.
As the new coronavirus cross borders, governments around the world put in place measures to protect public health. The WHO advised that the most basic population protection against coronavirus meant handwashing frequently with soap or an alcohol-based rub. It also advised people keep a distance of at least a metre between themselves and anybody coughing or sneezing. But in camps like these, that's a huge, often impossible challenge.
This is, by the way, approximately one per cent of the world population. We've never reached this very significant percentage.
One per cent of the world's population amounts to 80 million forcibly displaced people. 26 million of them are international refugees. Many are in camps or in formal settlements. Others live among the wider population of host countries. UNHCR says it remains braced for the worst. It's called for almost half a billion dollars in extra funding.
As cases of the virus spread, local authorities and host countries and NGOs working with the UN put in place systems to prevent controlling infection within the camps. This has included lockdowns, temperature checks, and testing, though that is limited by availability and processing capacity.
According to NGOs on the ground, the biggest factor protecting the camps has probably been the low rate of infection in many of the host countries. Were that to change, it would be difficult to prevent or control outbreaks in even the best-equipped camps.
Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh is a camp that hasn't been able to avoid the Covid-19 pandemic. By the end of April, UNHCR had already reported 24 cases. The camp is home to over 860,000 Rohingya refugees. Unlike many camps, Cox's Bazar was in a country with a significant number of infections. By the end of June, Bangladesh had reported almost 138,000 cases.
The lack of space is the biggest issue within the camp. On average, there are more than 34,000 refugees per square kilometre in Cox's Bazar. While there are ongoing efforts to improve the facilities in the Rohingya camps, the latest count by the UN, there was still 43 refugees for every handwashing station, 39 for every shower, and an average of 18 people sharing a toilet.
Moria Camp in Greece opened in March 2016. The facility was originally designed to accommodate 2,200 people. Now, it has a population more than seven times its capacity at 16,084. The International Rescue Committee says an outbreak inside any of the reception centres on the Aegean Islands would be catastrophic. Refugee camps in Greece they say are some of the most densely populated places on earth.
All health authorities are saying wash your hands, stay in isolation. How do you want this to happen in Moria Camp? There's no place to wash your hands, let alone several times a day.
Using figures provided by the UN, the Financial Times calculates that, right now, there are an average of 37 people sharing a tap in the camp, 63 people sharing a shower, and 47 people sharing just one toilet. However, eight per cent of the facilities are in disrepair. And according to Medecins Sans Frontieres, around 5,000 people in Moria Camp won't have access to any of these basic facilities because they are outside of its official boundaries.
Very few refugees return home. As a result, camps which have been set up as temporary accommodation effectively become permanent. Zaatari Camp in Jordan is one example of this. The camp was set up in July 2012. And by September that year was home to more than 30,000 Syrians, fleeing conflict at home following an uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Today, the camp has a population of more than 76,000. And what began as a collection of simple tents with no services has developed into an established community. With an average of just three people per dwelling each with its own toilet, shower, and tap, the camp is clearly in a better position to manage an outbreak of Covid-19.
By contrast, Moria would need to be 10 kilometre-squared larger to have the same amount of space per person as Zaatari. And in terms of access to hygiene facilities, Moria needs 4,925 more taps, 5,106 extra showers, and an additional 5,017 toilets. For Cox's Bazar, the numbers are almost too large to make sense of. To meet the conditions of a community like Zaatari, 538 kilometre-squared of additional land would be required. Almost 267,000 extra taps would be needed, nearly 265,000 more showers, and close to 239,000 toilets.
In vastly better circumstances, Zaatari residents have been able to follow social distancing recommendations and stay in their homes as much as possible. Yet, even here, if Covid-19 began to spread rapidly, healthcare systems would likely be stretched beyond their limits.
Make no mistake, we have a long way to go. This virus will be with us for a long time.
One hope for the refugee camps is the age of their residents. Typically, camps have a very high share of young people. Only two per cent of the population of Cox's Bazar are over 60. And the figure for both Moria and Zaatari is similar. So far, data from around the world shows that people under 60 are far less likely to have complications if they do catch the virus. But UNHCR points out that there are also additional risks to thousands of other asylum seekers who are immunosuppressed and living in crowded conditions with such limited access to sanitary facilities.
Added to that, while the number of older camp inhabitants is low in percentage terms, in Cox's Bazar, that still amounts to 31 and a half thousand particularly vulnerable people. Amnesty International has warned that, even at the best of times, humanitarian organisations don't have a good track record meeting the needs of older people. The agency has warned that in the case of Cox's Bazar amid the Covid-19 pandemic repeating the usual mistakes would put those 31 and a half thousand lives in imminent danger.