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How the coronavirus outbreak could hit refugees and migrants

‘The healthiest and wealthiest are the ones that tend to migrate. The ones left behind are poorer and sicker.’

Paramilitary soldiers wear face masks as they stand in front of a closed gate at Pakistan's border post in Taftan.
Paramilitary soldiers wear face masks as they stand in front of a closed gate at Pakistan’s border post in Taftan. Pakistan sealed its border with Iran as a preventive measure following the coronavirus outbreak. (Naseer Ahmed/Reuters)

A surge in coronavirus cases outside China has raised concerns the outbreak could be particularly devastating for vulnerable refugee and migrant populations in countries hobbled by conflict.

Over the last week, cases of the illness known as Covid-19 have escalated dramatically in Iran, and new infections linked to the cluster have emerged in more than half a dozen other countries in the region including Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon.

At least 12 million refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) live between Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey – countries linked to Iran by either frequent travel, irregular migration routes, shared borders, or all three. Iran itself hosts nearly one million refugees, mostly from neighbouring Afghanistan, and an estimated 1.5 to two million undocumented people.

The effects of armed conflict “fragment the public health system and the infrastructure that enables governments to actively perform surveillance of diseases”, said Dr. Mohammed Jawad, a researcher at Imperial College London who studies the impact of conflict on public health.

Dr. Adam Coutts, a public health specialist at Cambridge University who focuses on the Middle East, said refugees are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus or other diseases, due to ”high geographical mobility, instability, living in overcrowded conditions, lack of sanitation and WASH (waters, sanitation and hygiene) facilities, and lack of access to decent healthcare or vaccination programmes in host communities”.

But refugee populations are often left out of disaster and epidemic preparedness planning at the best of times. And simply reaching marginalised refugees and migrants with information is also a challenge.

Politicians in Italy and Greece have already started using the spectre of asylum seekers and migrants carrying the virus across international borders to drum up support for hardline migration policies. But public health experts believe the real risk is to refugee and migrant communities themselves, who face instability, sporadic access to healthcare, and now the growing threat of stigmatisation.

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“The healthiest and wealthiest are the ones that tend to migrate,” Jawad said. “The ones left behind are poorer and sicker.”

Impact of conflict and displacement

Borders throughout the Middle East already tend to be porous, with refugees, economic migrants, and others often travelling along informal routes. Countries affected by war can have a hard time monitoring who is entering and leaving their territory, according to Jawad. But the biggest challenge to an effective coronavirus response is the region’s weak or broken public health systems.

“The best way to control coronavirus is through what we call contact tracing,” Jawad said. “That is finding out who you’ve been meeting, who you’ve been interacting with, and providing advice – sometimes advice to self-isolate, but certainly hygiene advice – to really drum that home with the relevant people.”

That may be difficult to do in parts of the Middle East. Refugees and IDPs often don’t have fixed places to live, and authorities might not know how to contact them or have the capacity to coordinate a response. Governments may not prioritise healthcare services for refugees and IDPs, especially in countries like Lebanon where many refugees live in dismal conditions and there is strong anti-refugee sentiment among national authorities.

The situation also differs between countries. Turkey, for example, has a robust healthcare system, Coutts said, but “Iraq and Lebanon have severely weak public health systems due to conflict and political neglect, and are not able to adequately monitor what is going on and provide a robust public health response”.

In Syria, nearly a million people have fled towards the Turkish border as government forces – backed by Russian airstrikes – have advanced on the last opposition-held enclave in the country. Even without the added factor of coronavirus, the humanitarian suffering caused by the advance has overwhelmed aid efforts.

The Syrian government and Russian airstrikes have systematically targeted hospitals in Idlib, and displaced people are sleeping without shelter in the streets, in olive groves, or in overcrowded camps that often lack clean water, according to Leyla Hasso, communication and advocacy supervisor for the Hurras Network, a Syrian aid group.

READ  Forced back home by the pandemic, Venezuelan grandmother sees no choice but to flee once again

“It will be a disaster if we have coronavirus in northwest [Syria],” Hasso told The New Humanitarian.

Refugees missing from coronavirus focus

If the coronavirus spreads to refugee populations in the Middle East, international indifference may also play a role in how severe the outbreak becomes.

“The health situation among refugees and IDPs from the Syria crisis has [gotten] worse over recent years due to declines in humanitarian funding and dwindling political attention from Europe, UK and US,” Coutts said.

But there has been little public discussion about how the coronavirus might impact refugees and migrants during the current outbreak, he said: “A cruise liner of tourists has got far more press, political, and policy attention than three million people being continuously bombed in Idlib.”

 basic advice for protecting against the coronavirus comes down to staying away from people who may be infected, vigilant personal hygiene, and seeking medical attention if symptoms occur.

This prevention advice will be difficult to follow in Idlib and other parts of the Middle East, where refugees and IDPs often live in overcrowded and unhygienic camps, informal settlements, and substandard urban housing. But, according to Jawad, there are still steps that can be taken.

Aid groups, civil society organisations, and governments can target hygiene and prevention advice to these displaced communities, he said.

“If possible, carrying small hand sanitisers around with you at all times, or just simply not touching your face if your hands are unwashed,” he said. “It’s difficult… but there are small things that can be done to help mitigate the problem.”

“A cruise liner of tourists has got far more press, political, and policy attention.”

Organisations like national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies have prioritised migrant communities as part of coronavirus preparedness programmes. This week, the UN’s migration agency, IOM, launched a response plan that has a heavy focus on migration elements, including fighting stigma and risk communication.

“Messaging must be issued in languages that are adapted to the context, and treatment must take into account specific cultures and customs,” said Jacqueline Weekers, director of migration health at the IOM.

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It’s also crucial to ensure people can report their symptoms and get healthcare without fear of arrest or deportation, she added.

“It’s not just the right thing to do; it’s also the smart thing to do from a public health perspective,” Weekers said.

READ MORE: Politicising the coronavirus in Italy and beyond

As the coronavirus continues to spread, public health analysts say the international community must pay greater attention to how the outbreak could hit displaced populations.

Health crises have been an integral part of the Middle East’s conflicts and the displacement crises they have caused, Jawad said. He pointed to the outbreak of polio in Syria and Iraq in 2014, and the surge in cases of the so-called Aleppo Boil – a parasitic illness spread by sand flies – and its spread to neighbouring countries after the beginning of the civil war in Syria in 2011.

“It’s one of the things we’ve seen over and over again,” Jawad said, referring to the spread of diseases and viruses among refugees and displaced communities. “I wouldn’t be too surprised if something like coronavirus also starts spreading throughout the population because it’s part and parcel of the humanitarian disaster we have to deal with, unfortunately.”

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Dominican Republic, IOM clear hurdles for 100,000 Venezuelan migrants

The Migration Normalization Plan will allow Venezuelans living irregularly in the Dominican Republic to work, move without risk of deportation, open bank accounts and join the country’s social security system.  Photo: IOM / Francesco Spotorno

 

 

Santo Domingo – The first group of almost 100,000 Venezuelan migrants without legal status in the Dominican Republic have received visas allowing them to work, open bank accounts and join the social security system under the country’s Migration Normalization Plan.

Created by the Dominican government and launched with the support of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the plan aims to regularize the Venezuelan population in three stages: application for extension of stay, visa, and residency. Since April, when the first phase began, 43,000  Venezuelans have registered to extend their stay and, on 1 July, the first group of 21 Venezuelans received their work visa.

“Now that I have my visa, I feel that for others like me a lot of opportunities are opening. We will be able to establish more safely and formally to offer a better future to our children,” says Gabriela Rivero, who arrived in the country with her husband and daughter in 2018.  “Once we settled, we did not imagine how difficult it would be to get a job because the lack of documentation closed all doors.”

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Since 2019 Gabriela has led a support organization for Venezuelan migrants in Santiago de los Caballeros called FEV (Fundación Emigrantes de Venezuela), which offers free orientation and helps hundreds of migrants daily to complete their normalization plan applications.

With IOM support, eight Venezuelan migrant organizations have created orientation hubs to assist the Venezuelan population who are applying to the plan. Of the 43,000  registered through the General Directorate of Migration (DGM) web page, around 9,000 have visited the hubs for help on the procedure. The promoters and coordinators of each hub – mostly Venezuelan migrants – have learned the process with the support and guidance of the DGM team and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MIREX). Besides being trained for orientation, they became the pilot group of the plan to receive their extensions and visas.

“The idea of this process is that we are the ones at the front of the hubs, a migrant helping a migrant, a Venezuelan helping a Venezuelan,” says Iván Carrera, a lawyer from Caracas and legal adviser of FUNCOVERD (Fundación Colonia de Venezolanos en RD). Carrera works as a promoter at the orientation hub in El Sambil Santo Domingo, one of the locations with the most people requesting support for their application.

READ  IOM assists border control on route linking Ethiopia, Kenya

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IOM launches open South America portal

International Organisation of Migration (

Buenos Aires – IOM, the International Organization for Migration, this week launched the Open South America Portal, a web platform providing migrants and stakeholders in the region with access to reliable and timely information on human mobility restrictions and health and safety measures adopted by governments in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Open South America, available in SpanishEnglish and Portuguese, shares official information by country on the latest measures, including border restrictions, quarantine requirements and COVID-19 tests for migrants and travellers.

The portal also provides updated information on authorized entry points and key places for travellers and migrants, such as consulates, migrant care and health centres, airports, border crossings points and ports. This information can be explored through an interactive map.

The platform, funded by the IOM Development Fund, is also accessible to vulnerable migrants who may be stranded or are at risk of receiving misinformation on migration.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, South America has been one of the most impacted regions worldwide. According to the World Health Organization figures, as of 8 July 2021 there were 33,475,765 COVID-19 cumulative cases in the region, which represents 89 per cent of the total cases in Latin America, and 18 per cent of all infections recorded globally.

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Countries such as Brazil, Peru, Colombia and Ecuador all experienced severe outbreaks. For example, Brazil currently reports the third highest number of cumulative cases (18,855,015) and second highest death toll (526,892) globally.

“Open South America will facilitate orderly, regular and responsible migration in South America amid the uncertain times of COVID-19 and after the pandemic,” said Minister Ana Laura Cachaza, General Director of Consular Affairs of the Government of Argentina.

“Migrants’ access to up-to-date information through innovative online tools is essential considering the changing migration dynamic in the region due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Marcelo Pisani, IOM Regional Director for South America.

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29,000 Nigerians, Ghanaians, Somalians, other Africans migrated through the Mediterranean Sea to Europe in 2021 —IOM

The International Organisation for Migration has said that 29,000 individuals including Nigerians, Ghanaians, Somalians and other Africans have emigrated to Europe through the Mediterranean Sea this year.

About 13,000 were arrested by the coast guards and returned home while 761 migrants were said to have perished in the sea.

Disclosing this to journalists in Abuja on Friday, the Chief of Mission, IOM Nigeria, Mr Franz Celestin, said less than five per cent of migrants usually made it to Europe, adding that the vast majority stay in Africa.

He further said that a lot of migrants were trafficked within the Economic Community of West African States, adding that Mali was the number one destination point for trafficked Nigerian women.

Responding to questions on the number of people who have undertaken the perilous trip to Europe through the Mediterranean, the IOM Chief said, “A combination of unemployment and underemployment is pushing people to migrate.

READ  Refugees evicted from Cape Town church just want to leave South Africa

“In this year, 29,000 migrants from Sub-Sahara Africa have migrated to Europe through the Mediterranean. About 13,000 were intercepted by the coastguard while 761 died.”

International Organisation of Migration (

Celestin stressed the importance of tackling human trafficking which he said grossed about $150 billion annually.

“Traffickers make a lot of money and they would continue to do it until a coordinated response is evolved to stop them. We are collaborating with Interpol in this respect; we are connected to the Interpol i/247 database. We connected the MIDAS to the Interpol database where we pass the information on traffickers to the Interpol,” he stated.

Celestin explained that the IOM has been involved in the biometric registration of children in the North-East, noting that the agency has registered no fewer than 17,053 children in 18 different internally displaced person camps between 2019 and May 2021 in Borno State.

The agency chief also disclosed that IOM was involved in the G7 Famine Prevention and Humanitarian Compact for North-East.

READ  Bakassi refugees leave ramshackle habitation, move into ultra modern estate

 

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