INTERVIEW: Refugees in the time of COVID-19

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 9 Apr 2020

Director of the AUC Centre for Migration and Refugee Studies Ibrahim Awad warns of the consequences of leaving refugees in double jeopardy during the battle against the pandemic

Ibrahim Awad

This week, amid the fast and thick news of the coronavirus, the world woke up on Tuesday to the story of a 53-year-old Syrian barber who had set himself on fire in Lebanon’s Bekaa after weeks of failure to provide the very basics for his family and himself.

There are around 350,000 Syrian refugees in the Bekaa, who make up around one-third of an otherwise estimated one million plus Syrian refugees, who had fled to Lebanon to escape the bloodshed and atrocities at their homeland. According to UN statistics, around 75 per cent of those refugees have been living under the poverty line, way before the economic crisis that has come with other devastating impacts that the battle against the new coronavirus has caused in the entire world over the past three months.

Today, according to Ibrahim Awad, director of the Centre for Migration and Refugee Studies at the American University in Cairo, those refugees must be facing even harder times than ever before.

“Lebanon is a country that has been playing host to a large number of refugees, including Syrians during the past few years, despite the many economic and political challenges that the country has to grapple with,” Awad said.

Awad pointed out that with a tougher than average economic situation, which Lebanon has been dealing with over the past few months, even before the saga of COVID-19, many of those refugees have been finding it very hard to find jobs.

Clearly, he argued, this has meant fewer job opportunities for the refugees and a lesser capacity of the Lebanese state to cater for the very basic needs of these refugees.

For the most part, refugees in Lebanon, whether Syrians or Palestinians who have found their way to this small Mediterranean country for subsequent six decades, live in very high density camps or allies with challenging sanitation situations and limited access to health services.

“This means that these refugee camps are certainly in harm’s way; it is a very sad situation for those refugees as for other refugees elsewhere across the region,” Awad argued.

In Greece, since last week, the authorities acted to quarantine two large refugee camps, of Syrian and other refugees, after individuals tested positive for COVID-19.

Currently, there are over 100,000 refugees in Greece, half of whom are living in very high density and low sanitation refugee camps.

During the past few days, international organisations working with refugees, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), have warned of the inevitable challenge that the treacherous spread of COVID-19 would leave the refugees with all over the world.   

The Middle East is a region with a challenging refugees' problem. Apart from the unending plight of Palestinian refugees that were forced out of their homeland in subsequent waves starting 1948, the region, especially North Africa, has been a definite passage of refugees and illegal migrants that have been trying to escape the harsh economic realities of several sub-Saharan African countries across the Mediterranean into southern Europe.

A very loose security situation in Libya over the past nine years has made this North African country a hub for hopeful migrants who have been increasingly finding themselves as refugees in this civil war-torn country as countries of southern Europe have been upscaling measures -- in cooperation with the fragmented Libyan authorities, and Libya’s neighbour's -- to block the passage of illegal migrants.

“It is true that there has been a considerable decline, but still there are groups of people who have been trying to cross the Mediterranean into southern Europe; the trouble is today there has been a suspension of the search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean; this is not a small concern; it is a big concern for the lives that might be lost across the Mediterranean while countries around its basin are immersed in the battle against COVID-19,” Awad said.

Across the countries around the Mediterranean, Awad said, there are refugees who are by definition a vulnerable group with serious challenges in accessing sanitation and health services.

 “When we talk about refugees we are not strictly talking about those who live in refugee camps; we are also talking about refugees who live in small, economically challenged and high-density neighbourhoods,” Awad said. “The trouble is that when those refugees are living in economically developing countries their access to health services tends to be less than that of the nationals – more so at a time of a pandemic,” he added.

In 2019, the UNHCR assessed the registration of less than 300,000 refugees in Egypt. However, government authorities say that this is a fraction of the true number, given that most refugees living in Egypt are not in fact asylum-seekers and do not voluntarily for the most part seek registration with the UN bodies because they either find themselves permanent jobs or they get temporary jobs that keep them going until they leave the country for their destination of choice -- Europe, North America or Australia. The unofficial count of government authorities put the number of refugees in Egypt at "well over three millions." 

In a recent assessment of the performance of Egyptian authorities in facing up to the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organisation said that refugees and foreigners are treated from coronavirus “without discrimination.”

According to Awad, providing indiscriminatory health service to refugees is not just a fair choice but also a wise public health decision.

“It is the responsibility of every country now to reach out with all possible necessary health service to the refugees on its territories; this might be an added economic challenge for some countries, especially the developing countries who have weak health systems, but ultimately, attending to those refugees is one way to make sure that the virus is not spreading out of proportion,” Awad said. “This should be the case for sure with refugees living in poorer neighbourhoods because if the states do not attend to those refugees they would be simply harming their very own citizens,” he added. 

Meanwhile, Awad acknowledged the need for the international community to reach out with assistance, both financial and medical, to developing countries who host large numbers of refugees. 

“This should be a pressing item on the agenda of facing up to the spread of the new coronavirus,” Awad said. “And even though this is a particularly tough moment for world economies that have all slowed down under the impact of COVID-19, still this issue should not be overlooked,” he added.

So far, he agreed, this has not been the case. Appeals for donations made by the several UN agencies that work with refugees at many levels have failed to prompt any forthcoming response from donors.

“The world needs to remember that this pandemic cannot be defeated in one place and not the other; to defeat COVID-19, the protection and treatment of refugees has to be included in the plan,” Awad said. “The crisis of this pandemic should remind us all of the difficulties that refugees are often facing to access health services and it should get us to work on solving this problem,” he added.


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