Refugees in the pandemic

Menna Khaled, Tuesday 13 Oct 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has further exacerbated the difficulties faced by many migrants and refugees, leaving them to face often disproportionate impacts, writes Menna Khaled

Refugees in the pandemic
Refugees in the pandemic

Having spent 20 years of his life in a Kenyan refugee camp and now living in Nairobi, Mohamed anxiously describes the situation of refugees living in the camp during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“The World Health Organisation [WHO] keeps saying wash your hands for 20 seconds, but people don’t have sinks —they don’t even have water. The WHO is saying use hand sanitisers, but people don’t have soap. They can’t buy it. They can’t afford it,” he said.

The coronavirus pandemic has had important implications for refugees and asylum-seekers across the world. The virus has spread widely, with cases now exceeding 28 million worldwide. Leaving aside the often dire economic consequences on a global level, the repercussions of the crisis have made the lives of migrants and refugees even harder.

Prior to the outbreak of the pandemic, refugees were already often exposed to constant struggles and challenges, sometimes entailing violence, racism, exclusion from society, cultural loss, and exile. The coronavirus crisis has further increased their hardships by threatening their livelihoods and adding more barriers to their inclusion in society. It has impacted refugees differently depending on their location and host country, yet all with no exception are facing important additional socio-economic and psychological issues as a result. 

“The coronavirus has worsened our situation even further,” said one 37-year-old Syrian refugee mother of four children who described her traumatic situation. “Before the coronavirus, we were in a vulnerable situation. Now we have been destroyed,” she added. 

The virus has also introduced additional risks for refugees living in camps. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), some 2.6 million refugees live in camps today, where the risk of infection is higher due to overcrowding and often a lack of hygienic measures. According to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which works with refugees, “people in refugee camps in Syria, Greece, and Bangladesh face a heightened risk of Covid-19 due to more densely populated conditions than even on the Diamond Princess, the cruise ship where the transmission of the virus was four times faster than in Wuhan” in China. 

In addition, refugees tend to have lower immunity levels than many other people due to the limited quantity or low quality of food, which increases their chances of being infected by the virus. According to the IRC, “in the Moria camps in Greece there are 204 people per 1,000 metres square, and in the Cox’s Bazar camps in Bangladesh there are 40 people per 1,000 metres square.” Under such circumstances, social-distancing can only be a dream.

More recently, officials in the Greek government have revealed that at least 17 refugees in the Moria camps have tested positive for Covid-19, heightening the risk of further cases and putting the rest of the refugees in danger. Kutupalong, the world’s largest refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, also faces very significant risks. According to the World Risk Report published by the Institute for International Law of Peace and Armed Conflict in Germany, “approximately 900,000 people live in Cox’s Bazar, mostly members of the Rohingya minority who have fled Myanmar.”

Such people are already deprived of their basic human rights, and the high population density in the camps must be changed in order to lessen the risks of the virus spreading. Prevention measures are required in order to prepare for a possible second wave of the virus, including additional resources, a proper health system, clean water, sanitation, and hygienic infrastructure. 

But as one Syrian refugee put it in a camp in northern Syria, “the situation here is miserable. There are no services when it comes to clean water, and there is no health awareness. If coronavirus cases were to be found in the camp, the situation would become a huge issue.”


VULNERABILITIES: Changes are essential in order to confront a second wave of the virus and make the refugees less vulnerable to the disease. Measures to control the spread of the virus in refugee camps have also become more urgent as winter approaches, since this could lead to higher risks of infection. 

The stresses caused by the pandemic on all governments on a global level have pushed refugees into an especially vulnerable position, adding to their needs for humanitarian assistance. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), a Swiss-based international organisation, “refugees are 60 per cent more likely to lose jobs or income due to the pandemic” than other people. Social-distancing guidelines and hygiene precautions may not be practical in refugee camps and shelters, as families often share the same sanitation facilities.

Data shared by the international NGO Oxfam show that more than 160 people may share the same toilet and over 500 use the same shower in the Moria camps in Greece, making effective distancing impossible. The global lockdowns designed to halt the spread of the virus have also caused mobility restrictions for migrants and asylum-seekers, putting operational and logistical constraints on immigration services and making it even harder for many to seek asylum and leave conflict areas.

The pandemic has also in some cases been exploited by far-right parties, which have used anti-immigrant rhetoric and advanced anti-migrant policies in many countries. A “hostile environment” has in some cases been deliberately created for refugees as a result. “At a time when we need compassion and cooperation more than ever, some governments have instead doubled down on discrimination and abuse, preventing deliveries of food and water, locking people up, or sending them back to war and persecution,” according to the Refugees and Migrants Rights Team at the international human-rights NGO Amnesty International.

 According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), a US NGO, “in early May, the Malaysian authorities carried out mass raids to detain refugees and migrant workers, suggesting without basis that the migrant community and Rohingya refugees were responsible for the spread of Covid-19.”

Exposure to the Covid-19 health crisis without adequate access to healthcare leaves refugees in a potentially lethal situation. They are more prone to the disease than others due to their poor living conditions, increasing the level of spread of the disease and putting refugees at a higher risk of infection from the virus.

According to the WEF, “many of the world’s 79.5 million forcibly displaced individuals — one per cent of humanity —lack access to clean water or soap, let alone health care. They often live in cramped tents in overcrowded camps. An entire family may share a single mask.”

It is difficult for refugees to buy a mask every time they go out, as this increases their financial burden when the assistance they receive along with their income often barely covers their living expenses. The UNHCR and its partners have criteria for giving refugees assistance including cash assistance, but this tends to last for a limited duration.

“UNHCR and its partners are only able to provide cash assistance to a limited number of refugees. The assistance is given only to those found to be most in need,” it says. As a result, refugees are often left between trying to integrate themselves into the job market, often effectively impossible in some host countries, or depend on the assistance given by international and national organisations. 

In both cases, the money is usually not enough. The refugees remain vulnerable as they live on the margins of society, and it is hard for them to secure jobs. Martha Guerrero Ble, a programme assistant at the NGO Refugees International, said that “it is important now more than ever that refugees are included. Refugee women face a double disadvantage, as they face barriers to economic inclusion as women, and also as refugees.”


CHALLENGES: Considered as both a destination and transit country for refugees, Egypt has a huge number of registered and non-registered refugees and asylum-seekers. According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), “Egypt now holds five million refugees of various nationalities.” 

Despite facing harsh conditions, Esma, a refugee living in Egypt, described her situation in a thankful way. “I have three children, and my husband is still in Sudan. I used to receive assistance from several organisations, but the aid has been halted as my refugee registration card is being renewed. They took it from me in December 2019, and no one has called me since.

“But I thank God that I am able to receive food assistance from the Church each month, and we are better off than many others,” said Esma, a 29-year-old refugee originally from South Sudan.

Prior to Covid-19, the UNHCR said that eight out of 10 refugees in Egypt were already unable to meet their basic needs. With the quarantine and Egypt’s imposed partial lockdown, many refugees lost their jobs in the informal sector, driving them to further vulnerability. 

“Before the coronavirus, my husband, a carpenter, had little work as he was not well known in our neighbourhood. He worked for whoever used to call him. However, starting from March my husband has been nearly jobless. No one has called him, either because of the health crisis as people adhere to social-distancing guidelines, or because of the bad financial situation that everyone is experiencing at the moment,” said one Syrian refugee in Cairo.

The crisis has added to the employment issues that many refugees are facing. “The slowdown of some sectors of the economy has had a direct impact on persons working in the informal sector, including refugees and asylum-seekers, making them particularly vulnerable and driving many further into precarity,” said Reem Abdel-Hamid, UNHCR head of external relations in Egypt.

The closure of shops, cafés, and factories, and their recent re-openings at a capacity of 25 per cent has caused a loss of income for many refugees. One 35-year-old refugee from South Sudan said that “before the coronavirus, I used to work as a cleaner. However, I lost my job during the lockdown, and I only went to work once a week. I did not receive any kind of assistance during the lockdown except from the Church, which aided us with food packages.”

Unlike many of its neighbours, Egypt does not have refugee camps, and instead most refugees live in urban areas, where it can also be difficult to abide by social-distancing guidelines. “I live with my sister and her three children in a rented room in a crowded apartment. My sister was not able to pay the rent during the lockdown, as the woman she worked for used to send her the money for the rent each month,” said the Sudanese refugee, adding that this had stopped when the work had dried up because of the coronavirus.

As many refugees’ already meagre incomes have been impacted by the pandemic, humanitarian aid has become even more vital for many households. But it has also been difficult for international and governmental donors to increase their humanitarian assistance, particularly due to the financial crisis, the closure of borders, and social-distancing guidelines.

 “It is very difficult for me now to contact organisations to update my file and request more aid. I have been trying to reach them for the past three months. I have called them every day, but the lines are always busy, or they don’t respond, and even when they do they say the delays are a result of the pandemic in which everything has been halted due to the pressure of an immense number of calls and requests,” added the Syrian mother.

The pandemic has impacted the performance of such organisations, resulting in a slowdown in the services offered to refugees. Lockdowns and travel bans have delayed aid from reaching them, adding to humanitarian needs. With closed offices and the halting of field missions, many organisations have been forced to use digital tools to deliver services to refugees, even as many have had difficulty adapting to this digital revolution. 

“The coronavirus has led to a further deterioration in our living conditions. We depend on monthly coupons to buy food, along with the financial aid that my uncle sends us. However, the coupons are now issued on Fawry, a payment service, instead of being transferred directly. There are a few days left for the coupon to expire, and I cannot even exchange it as I haven’t received the code I am supposed to use, and no one answers me,” the Syrian refugee said. 

According to Abdel-Hamid, the “UNHCR is doing its best to provide much-needed support, but what has been offered so far barely covers the essentials for the most vulnerable refugees and their families. This is a result of the current funding situation. While the UNHCR has increased its funding appeal for 2020 by $10.2 million, so far only 35 per cent of UNHCR’s total appeal of $118.3 million has been funded, signaling a severe funding gap and a looming crisis affecting the services, assistance and support provided to refugees and asylum-seekers in the country.”

Job losses have increased concerns regarding basic needs and a loss of livelihoods. “The hardships resulting from the pandemic are felt across refugee and Egyptian communities alike. Many Egyptians and refugees are becoming more and more vulnerable and feeling the negative impacts of the pandemic, struggling to make ends meet because of its repercussions. These include being laid off, and therefore not being able to afford the rent or to eat, and having to purchase additional hygiene products, or Internet packages for children to study online,” Abdel-Hamid said.

The Egyptian government has not excluded refugees and migrants from its assistance efforts, unlike what has been done in some countries. To address the serious challenges that vulnerable refugees are facing, a Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan (3RP) between the Egyptian government and its international and national partners aims to respond to the needs of these communities. According to the UNHCR, “the Egypt 3RP focuses on strengthening the capacity of existing national and local systems to prevent and respond to the protection needs of refugees and assisted communities with an emphasis on children, adolescents, and youth groups.”

The 2020-2021 3RP targets the sectors of health, education, basic food needs, and livelihoods.

Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri said “the government has not taken any measures to return the migrants to their countries of origin,” and it is working to ensure the safety of refugees by working with UN bodies and international organisations to ensure the delivery of healthcare and essential services such as education. 

The nationals of Sudan, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen have the same access to public education as Egyptian nationals, for example. In addition, refugees and asylum-seekers have equal access to public and emergency healthcare.

Aside from government measures to assist the refugees, voluntary campaigns have also been started to help refugees of different nationalities in Egypt by offering food, help with rent, and financial assistance. However, further work is still needed to achieve better outcomes.

Because of the difficult situations many refugees find themselves in, there is a danger of negative coping strategies and exploitative working practices. The pandemic has devastated refugee livelihoods, and many have been forced to work in sometimes unsafe conditions. Many have been pushed to work despite lockdowns and safety measures, and many refugees’ economic exclusion and poor conditions have been magnified by the pandemic. More inclusive and non-discriminatory policies on both a national and an international level are undoubtedly needed.

Some countries are now experiencing a second wave of the coronavirus, notably in Europe, and this could soon reach the Middle East and Africa, adding more worries to already vulnerable living conditions. International organisations should therefore focus on working to secure the situation of the region’s refugees, particularly with the upcoming winter season.

The international community should rally behind the objective of leaving no one behind and make adequate preparations for a second wave of the virus.  


The writer is a freelance journalist.



*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Short link: