Alwaght- As the coronavirus spreads fast worldwide, a big risk is threatening the lives of the refugee and displaced communities around the world. Over the past years, war, terrorism, ethno-sectarian conflicts, famine, and volatile economic conditions in parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America caused influxes of refugees as the people were displaced from their homes. A hefty chunk of this population lives in the refugee camps where, according to the international organizations’ reports, have no suitable hygiene conditions that can cause a tragedy if the coronavirus spreads in the camps.
On March 17, the Secretary-General of the Norwegian Refugee Council Jan Egeland stated that millions are at risk because of the COVID-19 spread. “This risk threatens the refugees in Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Greece. The people in specific parts of Syria, Yemen, and Venezuela are at immediate risk. The health systems in these countries are practically collapsed due to the war and political crises.” He continued that the international community should act to prevent the disaster through “channeled aids”. In many of the refugee camps, the hygiene conditions should be improved immediately and to fight the coronavirus spread further medical staff is needed, according to him.
Syria refugees: From abandonment to return blocking
Since the start of the conflict in Syria in 2012, about half the country’s 22-million population was displaced. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the number of Syrian refugees outside the country’s borders is now over 5 million and about 6.5 million are displaced inside the country.
Some of the Syrians whose towns and villages have been destroyed as a result of the 9-year war sought refuge in suburbs of the cities and are living with huge problems. Some other Syrians, however, crossed the borders into neighboring countries to settle in refugee camps. The major place of concentration of the displaced Syrians is the north, where hundreds of thousands are living on the Syrian-Turkish border. In addition to the daily economic plight, these refugees are grappling with the fear of war that can take place any moment between various opposite parties of the conflict as the north remains a hotspot in the devastating war. In such a condition the fear of Coronavirus pandemic adds to their suffering as it poses serious risks to their lives.
Meanwhile, the refugees settled on the borders of the countries in an unorganized way are the most exposed community. It is estimated that over 40,000 displaced people who are living on Turkish-Greek borders are living in difficult conditions. The lack of even temporary camps and living equipment is pushing these refugees to a disaster, especially that Europe will not in the near future open its borders to them.
Western countries may have a hand in this crisis. The European governments, which oppose the return of the Syrian refugees to their country amid further stabilization of the security conditions and pressure the international organizations to withdraw their help to Damascus to facilitate the return of the people to their homes, now close their borders and disregard the refugees in an apparent dereliction of responsibility.
The Syrian-Russian coordination council for return of refugees on Saturday said that the regions of Syria occupied by the American forces see no supervisory measures to control the pandemic. It continued that they are deprived of medical personnel and medications and the health centers are inactive in them.
The council added that Damascus and Moscow several times invited the people of the camps to return to their homes in the areas liberated from the terrorist group’s hold. It said that all conditions are ready to receive them as measures to prevent the coronavirus spread are underway by the two countries.
The statement further said that despite the Syrian government’s UN and WHO-praised measures to contain the pandemic, the US “very coarsely” seeks to exploit the pandemic crisis to destroy the image of the Syrian government and President Bashar al-Assad. “Washington intends to wrongfully hold Damascus responsible for the grave conditions across Syria including in the two refugee camps of Al-Rukban and Al-Hawl in Syria’s north,” the statement read.
The International Organization for Migration has recently said that despite the fact that the movement of the refugees from one country to the other can accelerate the spread process, the stay of the refugees in camps lacking health care services and living basics can be equally risky.
This criticism mainly is directed at the Western countries that in the current conditions refuse to take in the refugees. For example, Germany had plans to accept about 5,500 refugees, about 3,000 of them Syrians, this year. But after the coronavirus outbreak, it canceled the plan.
Syrian refugees in Lebanon
Lebanon is one of the countries that accept Syrian refugees. About 1.5 million Syrian refugees are now living in the neighboring county. This number with regard to the 6-million population of Lebanon is considerable. So far, 529 Lebanese people have tested positive for the virus and 17 lost their lives because of it. According to the AFP, so far 3 Syrians tested positive for COVID-19 in Syrian camps in Lebanon, calling for scrambling of the health capacities to prevent further infections as the places are poorly watched for health conditions. Having in mind that any increase in the number of those infected in the refugee camps can put heavy pressure on the already-suffering Lebanese health care system, the country continues to strengthen the hospitals in the face of the pandemic.
This comes while in October Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned from his post amid protests and so far a new government was not formed.
The economic troubles in Lebanon make the Palestinian and Syrian refugees who majorly live in densely-populated camps struggle with more problems. In these camps, the basic services, like fresh water provision, are poor. Due to the poor hygiene or hardship with getting fresh water, the refugees and migrants are more vulnerable to the disease.
Lebanon says that since the start of war 9 years ago, it accepted over 1.5 million Syrians. The United Nations Refugee Agency says that it registered about 1 million of these refugees. Many of them live in poverty and rely on organizational and charity aids to continue their life. The UN has promised it will pay the costs of coronavirus tests and treatment of the Syrian and Palestinian refugees if the need arises.
The Arabic-language Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, quoting Lebanese officials, reported that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees a couple of days ago installed coronavirus detection equipment at the entrance of the camps accommodating Syrian refugees. The residents are barred from exiting from the camps as the authorities put limits on the number of people with the right of movement to meet the residents’ necessities.
Syrian refugees in Greece and Jordan
Since Turkey revoked its agreements with the European Union and opened its borders to refugees seeking to cross the Turkish borders to Europe, thousands of refugees headed to the Turkish borders with Greece. Over the past weeks, the Turkish-Greek borderlines have witnessed clashes between the Greek police forces and border guards with the refugees who were struggling to cross into the European borders in any way. Most of the refugees and migrants are from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Apostolos Veizis, the director of Medical Operations Support Unit at the Doctors Without Borders, criticized the refugee policy of Athens saying that imposing movement restrictions on the refugee camps while excluding the Greeks is unacceptable and discriminatory.
The government is incarcerating the children, men, and women in camps where there are no enough equipment to preserve personal hygiene and the health conditions are terrible and are exploding of population. They do not have enough water and soap to regularly wash their hands and cannot keep social distancing and self-separation, according to Veizis. Children account for one-third of the migrants and refugees’ population and about half of them are parentless.
Jordan is another country hosting a considerable number of Syrian refugees. It earlier said it hosts about 350,000 Syrian refugees, 90,000 of them are settled in the Zaatari camp in a desert north of the country and close to the Syrian border.
According to reports, the situation of the Syrian refugees is more stable in Jordan than other countries and so far no case of COVID-19 was reported. Mohammad Hawari, the spokesman to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said that there is no risk in the camps because the preventive and controlling measures adopted there are the same as those adopted in other parts of the country.
Jordan’s Health Minister Saad Jaber told Jordanian Al-Mamlakah TV that random COVID-19 tests are taken from the residents of the camps, with all of them being negative so far. According to the Jordanian official, the accuracy rate of the tests is between 70 and 80 percent and the results appear in 8 minutes. He also gave assurances about the makeshift hospitals and health centers of the Zaatari refugee camp.