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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.

READ  African migration: what the numbers really tell us 

“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  Nigerian governor resettles over 1,000 IDPs after attack on his convoy

“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.

READ  Greek hotels to become shelters for asylum-seekers amid virus fears

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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Netherlands, IOM launch Global Migration Initiative to protect people on the move

COMPASS will provide vulnerable migrants including victims of trafficking and unaccompanied or separated children access to a broad range of protection and assistance services.

 The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands launched the Cooperation on Migration and Partnerships for Sustainable Solutions initiative (COMPASS) at the beginning of 2021. COMPASS is a global initiative, in partnership with 12 countries, designed to protect people on the move, combat human trafficking and smuggling, and support dignified return while promoting sustainable reintegration.

The initiative is centred on a whole-of-society approach which, in addition to assisting individuals, will work across all levels – households, communities, and the wider communities – and encompasses the following partner countries: Afghanistan, Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, and Tunisia.

“We want to mobilize families, peers and communities to encourage informed and safe migration decisions, protect migrants, and help those returning home reintegrate successfully,” said Monica Goracci, Director of the Department of Migration Management at IOM.

READ  New safety measures allow Malian refugees to return to camp in Burkina Faso

“One key component is also undermining the trafficking and smuggling business models through the promotion of safe alternatives and information sharing to reduce the risks of exploitation and abuse by these criminal networks.” Vulnerable migrants, including victims of trafficking and unaccompanied or separated children, will have access to a broad range of protection and assistance services such as mental health and psychosocial support, while migrants in transit who wish to return home will be supported with dignified return and reintegration.

Community level interventions will focus on improving community-led efforts to address trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants, and support sustainable reintegration of returning migrants. COMPASS will work with national and local governments to enable a conducive environment for migrant protection, migration management and international cooperation on these issues.

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is pleased to launch the COMPASS programme in cooperation with IOM, an important and longstanding partner on migration cooperation,” said Marriët Schuurman, Director for Stability and Humanitarian Aid of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands.

READ  Nigeria Immigration boss subdues Coronavirus

“The programme is a part of the Dutch comprehensive approach to migration with activities that contribute to protection and decreasing irregular migration. Research and data gathering are also important components, and we hope that the insights that will be gained under COMPASS will contribute to broader knowledge sharing on migration and better-informed migration policies.”, added Schuurman. The initiative has a strong learning component, designed to increase knowledge and the uptake of lessons learned, both within the programme and beyond its parameters. COMPASS will actively contribute to global knowledge that supports countries in managing migration flows and protecting vulnerable migrants such as victims of trafficking. The implementation of COMPASS is set to start soon.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, as the donor to the COMPASS initiative, pledges its active support to partner countries to improve migration cooperation mechanisms within its long-term vision. 

IOM, the leading inter-governmental organization in the field of migration, contributes its expertise as the technical implementation partner to the initiative. IOM works closely with governmental, intergovernmental and non-governmental partners in its dedication to promoting humane and orderly migration for the benefit of all. 

READ  African migration: what the numbers really tell us 

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A child, 40 others drown in shipwreck off Tunisia

Photo: Mediterranean Sea

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are deeply saddened by reports of a shipwreck off the coast of Sidi Mansour, in southeast Tunisia, yesterday evening. The bodies of 41 people, including at least one child, have so far been retrieved.

According to reports from local UNHCR and IOM teams, three survivors were rescued by the Tunisian National Coast Guard. The search effort was still underway on Friday. Based on initial information, all those who perished were from Sub-Saharan Africa.

This tragic loss of life underscores once again the need to enhance and expand State-led search and rescue operations across the Central Mediterranean, where some 290 people have lost their lives so far this year. Solidarity across the region and support to national authorities in their efforts to prevent loss of life and prosecute smugglers and traffickers should be a priority.

Prior to yesterday’s incident, 39 refugees and migrants had perished off the coast near the Tunisian city of Sfax in early March. So far this year, sea departures from Tunisia to Europe have more than tripled compared to the same period in 2020.

READ  Nigeria Immigration boss subdues Coronavirus

UNHCR and IOM continue to monitor developments closely. They continue to stand ready to work with the national authorities to assist and support the survivors, and the family members of those lost.

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Ethiopian migrants return home from Yemen with IOM support in wake of tragic boat sinking

Yemen: Stranded Ethiopian migrants prepare to board an IOM-facilitated flight from Aden, Yemen, to fly home to Addis Ababa. Photo: IOM/Majed Mohammed 2021

One hundred and sixty Ethiopian migrants have returned home safely from Yemen today with the assistance of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), just one day after a perilous journey across the Gulf of Aden claimed the lives of dozens of people, including at least 16 children.

More than 32,000 migrants, predominantly from Ethiopia, remain stranded across Yemen in dire, often deadly, circumstances.

“The conditions of migrants stranded in Yemen has become so tragic that many feel they have no option but to rely on smugglers to return home,” said Jeffrey Labovitz, IOM’s Director for Operations and Emergencies.

At least 42 people returning from Yemen are believed to have died on Monday when their vessel sank off the coast of Djibouti. Last month, at least 20 people had also drowned on the same route according to survivors. IOM believes that, since May 2020, over 11,000 migrants have returned to the Horn of Africa on dangerous boat journeys, aided by unscrupulous smugglers.

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“Our Voluntary Humanitarian Return (VHR) programme provides a lifeline for those stranded in a country now experiencing its seventh year of conflict and crisis. We call on all governments along the route to come together and support our efforts to allow migrants safe and dignified opportunities to travel home,” added Labovitz.

COVID-19 has had a major impact on global migration. The route from the Horn of Africa to Gulf countries has been particularly affected. Tens of thousands of migrants, hoping to work in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), now find themselves unable to complete their journeys, stranded across Djibouti, Somalia and Yemen.

While the pandemic has also caused the number of migrants arriving to Yemen to decrease from 138,000 in 2019 to just over 37,500 in 2020, the risks they face continue to rise. Many of these migrants are stranded in precarious situations, sleeping rough without shelter or access to services. Many others are in detention or being held by smugglers.

READ  COVID 19: Nigeria puts evacuation of citizens on hold

“We cannot find jobs or food here; Yemen is a problem for us,” said Gamal, a 22-year-old migrant returning on the VHR flight. “I used to sleep in the street on cardboard. I could only eat because of the charity people would give me and sometimes we were given leftovers from restaurants. I never had much to eat.”

Since October 2020, in Aden alone, IOM has registered over 6,000 migrants who need support to safely return home. Today’s flight to Addis Ababa was the second transporting an initial group of 1,100 Ethiopians who have been approved for VHR to Ethiopia. Thousands of other undocumented migrants are waiting for their nationality to be verified and travel documents to be provided.

Prior to departure on the VHR flight, IOM carried out medical and protection screenings to ensure that returnees are fit to travel and are voluntarily consenting to return. Those with special needs are identified and receive specialized counselling and support.

In Ethiopia, IOM supports government-run COVID-19 quarantine facilities to accommodate the returnees on arrival and provides cash assistance, essential items and onward transportation to their homes. The Organization also supports family tracing for unaccompanied migrant children.

READ  UNHCR warns asylum under attack at Europe’s borders, urges end to pushbacks and violence against refugees

Across the Horn of Africa and Yemen, IOM provides life-saving support to migrants through health care, food, water and other vital assistance.

Today’s flight was funded by the US State Department’s Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM). Post-arrival assistance in Addis Ababa is supported by EU Humanitarian Aid and PRM.

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