COVID-19, or Coronavirus, has become an international health crisis that has seen schools and universities cease in-person classes, travel restrictions, and a rise of hypochondriacal behavior. However, these responses are coming from people and governments (both local and federal) that have the monetary and physical means to respond to this pandemic. What will this virus mean for those who don’t have these resources? What will COVID-19 mean for those living in refugee camps should the virus infect these densely populated areas?
Of the 25.9 million refugees 40% of them, or 10.36 million, live in refugee camps. This is a concern for many of the camps stretching from Bangladesh to Europe. While the UNHCR is trying to get ahead of this potential disaster, none of its measures will matter so long as the systemic issues that make refugee camps a potential disease hotbed are addressed. Furthermore, racist sentiments and actions towards refugees from individuals and governing bodies will only increase the likelihood of the disease spreading, putting themselves and the people they claim to be protecting at greater risk.
Refugee camps neither have adequate access to medical facilities, nor the ability to provide enough food or blankets to keep refugees’ immune systems strong enough to combat infection. Making matters worse, the average refugee camp is inhabited predominantly by children, who do not have fully developed immune systems. Additionally, these camps are typically overcrowded. Together, this creates the perfect breeding ground for illness to spread.
While the World Health Organization (WHO) states that the mortality rate for COVID-19 is somewhere between 3% and 4%, it admits that mortality rates are largely determined by access to and quality of healthcare. With access to and quality of healthcare lacking in refugee camps and refugees’ (especially children’s) already compromised immune systems, these people who risked their lives to flee their home countries are now the most vulnerable to this novel Coronavirus.
The UNHCR and other organizations are aware of this increased vulnerability and have begun taking necessary steps. For example, the refugee camps in Bangladesh have begun training 280 of their medical staff in disease prevention with special attention given to COVID-19. Doctors Without Borders has requested COVID-19 testing kits for their facilities that span 70 countries, but the testing kits remain limited in wealthy countries.
Unfortunately, while these measures are absolutely the right steps forward, they will not be enough. These measures do not address the core reasons as to why these refugees are more vulnerable in the first place; lack of access to clean drinking water, improper nourishment, improper shelter, and overcrowding. Medical training will not change these systemic problems that plague these camps.
For refugees not residing in camps, the knowledge that they are more susceptible to COVID-19 has added a new dimension to the refugee hysteria seen in Europe and the United States. Turkey, for instance, has opened its northern border for refugees to cross into Europe. Greece has responded with the use of tear gas, beatings, and forcing refugees to strip to their underwear in freezing conditions.
Greek officials fear that these refugees will bring the Coronavirus into Greek territory. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said on March 5th that “Greece will tighten border controls to prevent the spread of coronavirus, focusing on island routes used by migrants to enter the country.” However, Greece has a previous history of mistreating refugees coming into the country, and has created stellar breeding grounds for the virus to spread in camps like that on the island of Samos, which is built for a max occupancy of just 648 but houses 7400 refugees. Greece is merely using this new threat to continue its ongoing mistreatment of refugees.
During this time of crisis, it is in all our best interest at the individual and state level to stop this virus from spreading. Part of how we do that as a global community is by protecting the most vulnerable. Turning refugees away and stopping them from being able to acquire medical care is not a viable way forward. Not fixing the very real and systemic problems within refugee camps is not a viable way forward. Using racism, be that anti-Asian or anti-refugee, is not a viable way forward. Coronavirus has presented a human security risk that has the potential to worsen existing human security risks. Now is not the time for global isolationism, it is time for global cooperation in protecting all the people within each country’s respective borders, be them nationals or not.
Gerry Moss is a CSPS fellow and graduate student in the Middle East and Islamic Studies program at George Mason University. He holds a B.A. in International Affairs and Sociology from the University of Nevada, Reno. His research interests are the overlap of political economy and international security, Middle East minorities, and displaced peoples.
Photo can be found here.