The rapid global spread of the COVID-19 has demonstrated that no matter how successful America is at fighting this pandemic here at home, we will never stop this threat unless we’re also fighting it around the world. In this series of issue briefs, the USGLC takes an in depth look at the global response and COVID-19’s impacts on vulnerable populations, global development and diplomacy, and the future of U.S. global leadership. Read more from our series here.

Last updated September 14, 2020

As the United States and other high-income countries continue to reopen, refugees and displaced communities – along with the broad network of stakeholders that support them – are just beginning to experience the catastrophe they’ve been bracing for over the last few months. Coronavirus cases are now spreading fast in developing countries that house the vast majority of refugees and displaced people worldwide. Nine developing countries, including Uganda, Nicaragua, and Zimbabwe, all saw their number of cases double in less than a week.

Today, an unprecedented 79.5 million people – more than 1 percent of the world’s population – have been forcibly displaced around the world. Nearly 90% of the world’s refugees live in developing countries that often struggle to provide basic services, let alone combat a global pandemic. According to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), 34 conflict-affected and fragile countries could see up to 1 billion COVID-19 infections and 3.2 million deaths.

Refugees face immense and unique challenges that make some communities more vulnerable to infectious diseases – from living in crowded conditions that make social distancing impossible to lack of clean water for hand washing. Kieren Barnes, Mercy Corps’ Syria County Director says: “Social distance is a fantasy in a camp, but if we’re going to prevent a massive outbreak, we need to make it a reality.” There are more than 25 million refugees in camps around the world who face particularly acute obstacles in the fight against COVID-19, according to the United Nations.

  • At one camp in northwestern Syria, an area where more than 1 million people have been displaced, families suffer from cramped living conditions, weak or nonexistent healthcare systems, and lack of access to clean water. New cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in a camp in Jordan, where 40,000 Syrian refugees live in similarly cramped conditions.
  • The sprawling refugee camps outside Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh recorded their first COVID-19 death as the number of cases among refugees continued to rise. Conditions inside these densely populated camps – home to 850,000 Rohingya refugees, including 16,000 currently in quarantine zones – have led experts to warn that the lack of sanitation will create the “perfect storm” for disease transmission.
  • This week, 9,000 refugees began leaving camps and other accommodations to make way for asylum-seekers in the crowded Greek island camps. The United Nations warns that an outbreak there –home to more than 60,000 refugees – would be “impossible to contain.”
  • While the world’s largest refugee camps have yet to report large-scale presence of the virus – likely due to a lack of testing – the virus has now been identified in dozens of refugee camps across the globe. At least 15 Syrian refugees in one Lebanese town have tested positive for COVID-19, prompting fears that it could spread further among the nearly 2 million refugees living in the country. Camps in Bangladesh, Syria, and OCED countries like Germany are also seeing case numbers begin to rise.

The spread of COVID-19 is already hindering the aid community’s ability to address the needs of refugees, and attention and resources in the world’s donor capitals are still largely consumed with the domestic impact of the virus, putting added pressure on NGOs.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has launched a global $255 million appeal for its urgent push to lessen the impact of COVID-19 outbreaks within refugee communities, as part of a wider UN Global Humanitarian Response Plan. Yet the United Nations has suspended all travel for refugee resettlement, leaving thousands with no alternative to overcrowded camps.

Without additional resources, adequate testing capacity, and expert assistance, these communities will be slow to recover. The dearth of resources like personal protective equipment (PPE) currently facing the United States and Europe will be even worse in the developing world and there is likely to be competition for treatment and vaccines when they become available.

  • Jeremy Konyndyk recently warned, “When the first 100 million doses of vaccines come out, it’s going to be a big fight over who gets those, and it’s going to be very important that [they] not just go to those who can afford them.”

The humanitarian community is also struggling to balance these needs with ongoing projects that are critical to the well-being of vulnerable populations around the world relating to education, food access, and conflict prevention.

  • Organizations like IRC are continuing to carry out lifesaving programs in refugee communities, but their strain on resources has prompted them to appeal for an additional $30 million to meet the staggering needs for preparedness and prevention.

Despite the staggering challenges, many refugee and migrant communities are helping combat COVID-19 around the world. Several countries have now relaxed immigration rules for refugees and migrants who are medically trained, allowing doctors, nurses, and other workers to help combat the coronavirus.

  • French health services can now recruit refugee professionals in their own countries, Spain is fast-tracking the status of 200 foreign-born professionals, and Germany is signing up hundreds of foreign professionals who do not yet have licenses to practice.

Written by Sung Lee and Zach Wehrli

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