Pandemic Exacerbates Situation of Unregistered Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons

Amidst the global pandemic, the situation facing refugees is both dire and not well known. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) reports that, as of May 9, 134 countries that host refugees are reporting local transmission of COVID-19. Notably, refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the main have fled conflict arising from imperialist war and aggression in their regions, such as the 2011 NATO war on Libya, and the foreign intervention in Syria to foment a civil war, which together culminated in the refugee crisis that came to the fore in 2015. In various places, the call of the UN Secretary-General for ceasefires in all military conflicts during the pandemic is yet to be heeded, with civilian infrastructure, including health care facilities, continuing to be damaged and more and more refugees and IDPs being created.

In an April 29 article, the website Counterfire noted, "Only a few days ago, Lebanon reported its first positive case in one of the Palestinian camps in Beqaa, where refugees have been forced to live in squalid and unsanitary conditions for generations. Meanwhile, deaths have been confirmed in parts of besieged northeastern Syria where 3 million IDPs have been squeezed into a region of 500,000 inhabitants. Elsewhere in the region, Turkey is pressing for repatriations, whilst Afghan refugees are fleeing from Iran back to Afghanistan in their thousands, adding an extra strain to the sending countries where health care systems are already fragile. Meanwhile, camps in eastern Africa and south Asia, that can be labelled 'cities of their own,' are bracing for the worst."

In Europe, the article notes that refugee camps in Calais, France and Lesbos, Greece are "far beyond capacity and resources and access to health care scarce since the onset of the lockdown measures."

In the United States, "the detention facilities of Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) are becoming death traps for those incarcerated. Isolation and hygiene measures have become mission impossible in these conditions."

However, there are also many refugees out live outside official refugee camps. The article explains that "urban destitution where unregistered refugees are forced into poverty is a much larger problem and much more dangerous since access to health care is hard to navigate and most funds and NGO programs are directed towards those living in camps. Urban impoverishment is ever more present since 2015 with most of the refugees leaving the camps and ending up squatting in unsanitary facilities in the big cities, living under threat from, rather than the protection of, public authorities."

Economically and politically, refugees are made especially vulnerable because many countries that host large numbers of refugees may be impoverished and not equipped to meet their needs, or have policies to exclude refugees from access to state resources, including social programs. Counterfire gives the example of Lebanon and Jordan as two such countries, although the same is true in Canada and many other so-called developed countries. They are also made vulnerable by being scapegoated as a drain on resources by unscrupulous and backward political forces.

Imperialist aggression in the form of sanctions is another source of pressure on some refugee-hosting countries during the pandemic. The Counterfire article points out that "Iran is the hardest hit country in the Middle East and repatriation of Afghan refugees is ensuing on a massive scale, accompanied with all the dangers caused by forced cross-border movement, plus those posed by the pandemic. UNHCR has moved to provide some aid to refugees in Iran, yet, with the organization facing major funding challenges, Iran is left with one more issue to tackle."

The Counterfire article notes that various countries are changing their policies on immigrants and refugees due to the pandemic. It states that Jordan has "started following UNHCR guidelines and treating refugee camps as an indispensable part of its public health policies. Also, Portugal moved to give all migrants citizenship rights and Germany is trying to tap into the vast labour pool it has accumulated from the refugee crisis. Yet, after the advent of the disease, we should do everything possible so that these rights are not rolled back, in the hope of redefining the debate about refugees and migration."

Situation in Central America

On May 15, the UNHCR gave a press briefing on the situation of refugees and IDPs in Central America. The agency noted that "Violence has forced some 720,000 people in the region to flee their homes, as of the end of last year. Almost half of them are now displaced within their own country, including some 247,000 people in Honduras and some 71,500 in El Salvador, while others have fled across borders.

"Today, despite COVID-related lockdowns in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, IDPs and community leaders report that criminal groups are using the confinement to strengthen their control over communities. This includes the stepping up of extortion, drug trafficking and sexual and gender-based violence, and using forced disappearances, murders, and death threats against those that do not comply.

"Restrictions on movement make it harder for those that need help and protection to obtain it, and those that need to flee to save their lives are facing increased hurdles to find safety.

"In addition, strict lockdowns have resulted in many displaced and vulnerable people losing their livelihoods.

"As businesses are ordered to close and informal jobs vanish, people living in these vulnerable communities are losing their only sources of income.

"Many now have limited access to basic services like health care and running water. Faced with these dire circumstances, people are increasingly resorting to negative coping mechanisms -- including sex work -- that put them at further risk both in terms of health and by exposing themselves to violence and exploitation by the gangs.

"The intra-urban nature of internal displacement in the north of Central America, and the fact that it often involves one person or family at a time, can make new forced movements difficult to detect."

In this situation, the UNHCR reports that it "is working across the north of Central America, concentrating on the most critical humanitarian interventions to the extent that movement restrictions allow."

Mass Displacement in Libya Due to Military Conflict

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) stated in an April 7 press release that according to its research, more than 200,000 people have been displaced within Libya due to the escalating military conflict there. The IOM states that Tripoli accounts for approximately 150,000 of recorded new displacements, but people were also forced to leave their homes in other conflict-affected areas in the country, including Murzuq, Sirt and Abu Gurayn.

"A year into the conflict, the humanitarian situation in Libya has never been worse," said IOM Libya Chief of Mission Federico Soda. "The needs have never been greater and the conditions have never been more challenging. Despite calls for a humanitarian ceasefire, the fighting continues amid serious fears of a COVID-19 outbreak."

The IOM informs, "Since April 2019, the conflict has caused widespread damage to health facilities and other infrastructure in the capital, leaving tens of thousands of internally displaced Libyan families and migrants, some of whom are detained, in very difficult living conditions. Most of these vulnerable people are living in overcrowded accommodation with limited access to health services, at constant risk of shelling.

"The security situation is increasing humanitarian needs and making it more difficult for aid workers to reach vulnerable populations. Security challenges are now coupled with grave health concerns posed by the potential spread of the COVID-19 virus, especially in detention centres. Libya recorded its first confirmed case of COVID-19 on March 24. [...]

"While at least 1,500 people are in detention in Libya, thousands of others remain in the hands of smugglers and traffickers in even worse conditions where humanitarian aid cannot be provided.

"IOM reiterates that civilian lives must be protected and safe passage provided to those fleeing conflict, and to allow humanitarian workers access, especially amid the fast-spreading global pandemic.

"All vulnerable populations must be included in the health response and measures taken to curb the spread of COVID-19, including prevention, testing and treatment.

"IOM has been conducting regular disinfection and fumigation campaigns in detention centres and disembarkation points and providing hygiene items to detained migrants. These efforts are coupled with awareness raising and health education sessions conducted for migrants and displaced people. Through its mobile clinic, IOM medical teams continue to provide emergency and primary health assistance, including screenings for COVID-19 symptoms."

This article was published in

Volume 50 Number 17 - May 16, 2020

Article Link:
Pandemic Exacerbates Situation of Unregistered Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons


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