A Syrian boy poses for a picture during an awareness workshop on coronavirus (COVID-19) at a camp for displaced people in Atme town in Syria's northwestern Idlib province, near the border with Turkey. Photo: AAREF WATAD / AFP / NTB Scanpix
A Syrian boy poses for a picture during an awareness workshop on coronavirus (Covid-19) at a camp for displaced people in Atme town in Syria's northwestern Idlib province, near the border with Turkey. Photo: AAREF WATAD / AFP / NTB Scanpix

10 things you should know about coronavirus and refugees

Roald Høvring/NRC|Published 16. Mar 2020
The world’s response to the Covid-19 crisis must encompass everyone, including those forced to flee their homes.

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) is particularly concerned about the potential impact the global spread of coronavirus could have on vulnerable refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs). The international community must pay greater attention to how the outbreak could hit displaced populations and work collectively to find common sense solutions to contain the outbreak.

Here are 10 things you should know about coronavirus and displaced people:

# 1: More than 70 million people globally have been forced by persecution, conflict, violence and human rights violations to flee their homes. Of those, more than 29 million are refugees (including 5.5 million Palestinian refugees under UNRWA’s mandate), of whom 84 per cent are being hosted by low or middle-income nations which have weaker health, water and sanitation systems.

# 2: The biggest challenge to an effective coronavirus response is when public health systems are weak or broken as a result of conflict and chaos. According to UNHCR, as of 10 March 2020, over 100 countries are reporting local transmission of Covid-19. Of those, 34 countries have refugee populations exceeding 20,000 people, which are currently unaffected by the virus. In these contexts, prevention, preparedness and communication are key. This is because refugees and internally displaced people often find themselves in places that are overcrowded or where public health and other services are already overstretched or poorly resourced.

# 3: It is important that governments allow the equal distribution of healthcare services for refugees and IDPs, especially in countries where many refugees live in dismal conditions and there is strong anti-refugee sentiment among national authorities.

# 4: Many countries affected by war and/or instability have porous borders, with refugees, economic migrants and others often travelling along informal routes. These countries can have a hard time monitoring who is entering and leaving their territory.

# 5: Refugees are especially vulnerable to coronavirus and other diseases, due to high geographical mobility, instability, living in overcrowded conditions, lack of sanitation, and lack of access to decent healthcare or vaccination programmes.

# 6: Another issue of concern is those areas that are hardest to reach. Armed groups, checkpoints, air strikes and other impediments are frequently present and very often result in restrictions on humanitarian movements and operations. Operations in these areas face great difficulties and are sometimes impossible.

# 7: Refugee populations are often left out of disaster and epidemic preparedness planning, even at the best of times. Reaching marginalised refugees and migrants with information can also be a challenge. Operations must work with national authorities, health ministries, WHO and partners to ensure full inclusion of refugees and others of concern in national preparedness and response plans. They must also ensure that such populations have access to accurate and relevant information in applicable language(s) in line with the national level of preparedness.

# 8: Travel restrictions in connection with this outbreak may be put in place by individual governments and may be applied to asylum seekers, refugees and others of concern. Close monitoring is required to ensure that these do not unduly affect people’s right to access territory and seek asylum. We need to be especially vigilant and alert to the protection risks and other consequences of the outbreak for asylum seekers, refugees, internally displaced and stateless people. 

# 9: There can be no forced returns based on real or perceived fears of coronavirus transmission. Any restrictions on freedom of movement, or other measures instituted by governments, should be applied to displaced people in a non-discriminatory way.

# 10: Refugees and migrants are often the first to be stigmatised and are often unjustifiably blamed for spreading viruses. We have seen some populist politicians across Europe who rail against migration and are attempting to draw a clear link between migrants and refugees and the outbreak, despite there being no evidence to support this. 

Italy’s far-right politician Matteo Salvini traced his country’s outbreak of coronavirus, without justification, to the docking of a rescue ship containing African migrants in Sicily. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán declared a “certain link” between the spread of the virus and unauthorised migrants. When we stigmatise migrants or certain people, it risks them hiding symptoms or failing to present for treatment, putting their and everyone else’s health at risk.