Coronavirus cases surge among refugees and displaced in Middle East


The UN and various humanitarian agencies have warned, the number of coronavirus cases among refugees and the displaced is surging across the Middle East as the first infections were reported among Syrians living in camps in Jordan.

UN data shows that well over a thousand have been confirmed to have COVID-19 in Jordan, Syria, Iraq, the Palestinian Territories and Lebanon.

But the true rate of infection among the 18 million people displaced in the region is unknown because of a chronic lack of testing.

This week the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR confirmed the coronavirus has reached Zaatari, Jordan’s largest camp for Syrian refugees, and the smaller Azraq camp.

Together they are home to around 120,000 people, igniting fears of an uncontrolled outbreak with social distancing measures impossible to enforce.

In Lebanon, grappling with one of the largest outbreaks, there are fears of a new surge.

The health care service is overwhelmed amid a deepening financial crisis and the fallout from last month’s devastating Beirut explosion that destroyed several coronavirus testing and treatment facilities.

At least 13 Palestinian and Syrian refugees are known to have died from COVID-19 according to UNHCR and UNRWA, while over 1,000 have been infected.

UN officials fear the virus spreading unchecked in overcrowded camps, where families cannot social distance.

Virulent health crisis aside, Rula Amin, a UNHCR spokesperson, warns of a “pandemic of poverty” adding that “worrying” new infections recently discovered in Jordan underscored the need for more support for refugee communities and countries hosting them.

At least 55% of Syrian refugees across the region were already in extreme poverty before the advent of COVID-19, according to the UN. After the arrival of the pandemic, that has risen to 75%.

She said that while the UN was providing free and immediate health care for those with coronavirus, years of work building up education opportunities and financial aid could be wiped away.

“The devastating economic impact means that more refugees are being pushed deeper into poverty, compounding their challenges. The pandemic is threatening to reverse major achievements on that front that took years to accomplish,” she added.

“The pandemic has proved that there are no borders, we cannot isolate ourselves. It is not just an ethical obligation to help the countries hosting refugees, or the humanitarian communities – it is in the interest of everyone. We are all in the same boat,” she said.

Refugees in Lebanon told The Independent that they were living food handout to food handout, as they struggled amid a catastrophic combination of strict lockdowns on their communities due to a surge in cases and the country’s economic collapse.

The economic fallout from the coronavirus has also seen more displaced and refugee families facing the threat of evictions and unable to pay rent, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC)’s Samah Hadid, which, on Monday, will release a report into the devastating economic impact of COVID-19 on refugees globally.

Hadid said the virus has radically reduced income forcing many to skip meals, go hungry, and cut spending on sanitation or medical care, making them even more vulnerable.

There are also concerns among the invisible refugee populations, like those being held in detention centres.

Eritrean refugees in a horrific migrant detention centre in west Libya told The Independent via smuggled phones, they had not had contact with aid agencies in six months and had no protection against the potential spread of the disease.

Around two dozen inmates in that particular prison in Zintan have died of suspected tuberculosis since 2018. But amid the cramped, squalid conditions in their cells, they fear those most recently ill may actually have coronavirus since the symptoms are very similar.

Meanwhile in Lebanon’s Roumieh prison, where there are believed to be more than 200 coronavirus cases, a Syrian refugee, said the true number of cases was much higher and they weren’t getting proper treatment.

The UN said that it was working to provide cash assistance and supplies for refugee communities, but it needs more support from the international community.

“We need more funds, not just for the health side but all the consequences, the secondary and tertiary effects, as well as support for the host communities,” UNHCR’s Amin said. “It’s better to tackle the problem before it is too late.” (Source: Independent UK)