10 ways coronavirus threatens the most vulnerable

“We have no soap. All I have is water to wash both myself and my doll,” says Shazia, 10.

It is no easy task to follow the infection prevention guidelines when you live in a densely populated area and lack the soap and water needed for good hand hygiene.

Shazia is one of many thousands of Afghans who have sought refuge in the capital city, Kabul. The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) is now going door-to-door to provide information on how people can protect themselves and prevent the spread of coronavirus.

“We are deeply concerned about what will happen to the most vulnerable people, as the pandemic affects more and more countries that house refugees and internally displaced people,” says Jan Egeland, Secretary General of NRC.

Why displaced people are among the most vulnerable:

Photo: Leen Qashu/NRC

# 1: Lack of health care and clean water 

Jana, 6, pictured above, was born in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan and lives there with close to 77,000 other Syrian refugees. In war-torn Syria, there are more than 6 million internally displaced people, while more than 5.5 million have sought protection in poor neighbouring countries.

Over 70 million people have been displaced by war and persecution. Eight out of ten are in countries struggling to provide their populations with health services, clean water, and good hygiene and sanitation systems.

Over 100 countries that have confirmed cases of coronavirus are home to more than 20,000 refugees, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

Photo: Enayatullah Azad/NRC

# 2: Overcrowded refugee camps with a high risk of infection

Shazia, 10, pictured above is one of more than 1.2 million internally displaced people across Afghanistan who live in tents and so-called informal settlements. More than half of them are children under the age of 18.

Millions of refugees and internally displaced people live in overpopulated settlements where they lack access to water and health services. In these settlements it is difficult to maintain good hand hygiene and impossible to implement social distancing.

Photo: Mukhtar Nuur/NRC

# 3: No income

“If I stay home, my family will die of hunger, and if I go out to work, I’ll die of the virus,” says Ardoon Bille Korane Hirad. He lives with his family in a camp for internally displaced people in Puntland, Somalia.

When the fear of the spread of infection causes companies and markets to close down and freedom of movement is restricted, it disproportionately affects displaced people. Many countries have introduced restrictions where refugees and internally displaced people are no longer permitted to leave camps and other areas to find work.

Photo: Samuel Jegede/NRC

# 4: Lack of information

In many places, such as north-east Nigeria, it can be difficult to reach refugees and internally displaced people with information on how to protect themselves and prevent infection. Little or no access to television, radio or newspapers, as well as language barriers and a distrust of state and local authorities, are all contributing factors.

Photo: Nasser Abdulkareem/NRC

# 5: Vital help does not reach those in need

“We are afraid of coronavirus, but we are also afraid of losing our food aid if the virus spreads in Yemen,” says Ehsan, pictured above. Covid-19 is causing fear among Yemenis who rely on humanitarian aid to survive.

Travel restrictions and the shutdown of important social functions mean that vital help doesn’t reach those most in need. One of the unfortunate consequences is that NRC is currently unable to provide aid to about 300,000 refugees and internally displaced people in the Middle East.

Photo: EFE/Mauricio Duenas Castaneda/NTB Scanpix

# 6: Forced to return

Thousands of Venezuelan refugees and migrants have returned to their homeland since Colombia introduced strict measures to combat the coronavirus.

Many refugees are being forced to return to precarious conditions in their home country due to reduced humanitarian aid, a lack of freedom of movement, and closures of workplaces and markets in the host countries.

Congolese refugees in Uganda queue up to receive emergency aid. Photo: Dwyer/NRC

# 7: Closing borders and stopping asylum applications

At the beginning of April, 123 countries had completely or partially closed their borders to prevent the spread of the virus. About 30 countries, including Uganda, which houses around 1.4 million refugees, have temporarily closed their borders to refugees and asylum seekers. Closed borders can cause refugees and asylum seekers to choose new and more dangerous travel routes.

Unaccompanied minor refugees wearing protective masks, who were living at the overcrowded migrant camps on the Greek islands, gesture as they walk towards the boarding gates at the International Airport of Athens, to travel on a special flight to Luxembourg, on April 15, 2020. Photo: Orestis Panagiotou / AFP / NTB Scanpix.

# 8: Postponing the reception of refugees

At the same time, travel restrictions, the fear of spread of infection and the current health crises in different countries have reduced the ability of individual countries to accept resettlement refugees. As a result, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNHCR have also temporarily suspended all resettlement of refugees in third countries.

More than 300 Syrian refugees live in this informal settlement in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. Photo: Racha El Daoi/NRC

# 9: Risk of discrimination

In Lebanon, NRC is concerned that coronavirus could cause the already vulnerable Syrian refugees to be subject to discrimination and harassment.

Refugees and internally displaced people are at risk of discrimination, exclusion, stigma, xenophobia and suspicion. Stigmatising certain groups can cause people to hide symptoms and refrain from seeking health care. This can increase the spread of the virus and put more lives at risk.

Kankonde, 18, dreams of becoming a bricklayer. Photo: Ephrem Chiruza/NRC

# 10: Children and young people are particularly affected

As the pandemic causes schools to close, children and young people are hit particularly hard. Kankonde, 18, dreams of becoming a bricklayer. He attends NRC’s vocational school in Kananga, Democratic Republic of Congo. The fear of the spread of infection has led to the school being closed, and Kankonde and the other 200 students risk having to put their education on hold.

For displaced children, school is a place that provides protection, a place where they can process trauma and experience a touch of normality. Their homelife is often characterised by stress, close living quarters and parents who lack the ability to meet children’s needs.

School also helps to prevent child labour and the recruitment of children by various armed groups.