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World’s 70 million displaced people face a coronavirus disaster, report says

Members of the group Team Humanity share handmade protective face masks with migrants and refugees in the camp of Moria in the island of Lesbos on March 28.
Members of the group Team Humanity share handmade protective face masks with migrants and refugees in the camp of Moria in the island of Lesbos on March 28. (Manolis Lagoutaris/AFP/Getty Images)
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The world’s 70 million displaced people — refugees, asylum seekers and those internally uprooted by war and other crises — are among the most vulnerable to the spread of the novel coronavirus, and the least able to combat it.

Several factors have helped create a virus time bomb: crowded conditions and, for many, a lack of basic shelter; aid that has slowed and in some cases stopped altogether during the crisis; along with the absence of medical care and basic sanitation, according to Refugees International.

In a report released Monday, the independent organization said that while a failure to protect refugee communities will threaten societies at large, “many nations are turning inward as they seek to protect their own citizens.”

The report questioned the effectiveness of border closures in preventing the spread of the disease, which is now present in most countries, and noted that such closures threaten the humanitarian supply chain that keeps refugee populations alive.

The group’s warning coincided with similar appeals issued by the World Health Organization and other international humanitarian bodies.

“The scale and speed of the pandemic underscore how deeply interconnected the world’s populations are,” the report said. It underlined four factors that make refugees particularly vulnerable to the spread of the virus, including the population density in formal camps and informal settlements, where “multiple families are often forced to share the same bathroom, the same cooking and bathing facilities — if they have access at all.”

Basic health services are nonexistent for many, it said, along with access to information. While numbers of reported infections remain low in many parts of the developing world, including refugee camps, few have been tested.

Among the most dire situations, more than 3 million Afghans live in Iran, which is one of the main hot spots for the disease, with nearly 30,000 cases, and 2,234 deaths, reported by the end of last week. As tens of thousand of Afghans return home, nearly all of the confirmed coronavirus cases in Afghanistan have been among those coming from Iran. Last week, Afghanistan’s health ministry warned that “half of the country’s almost 39 million people might be infected,” the report noted.

Delivery of assistance to Africa, where there are more than 17.7 million displaced people and over 6.3 million refugees, has been slowed in some countries by measures that have stopped incoming flights. The United Nations has also requested that countries contributing to peacekeeping efforts on the continent delay the regular rotation of troops in conflict and humanitarian crisis zones.

In Ethiopia, “popular sentiment has violently turned against foreigners, who are being blamed for spreading the disease,” Refugees International reported. In Somalia, vast swaths of territory are controlled by the Islamist militant group al-Shabab, which apparently has not implemented any disease-control measures.

In the Sahel region of central and western Africa, it said, “Basic measures recommended by the [U.S.] Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization — such as stringent hand washing with soap and water … are largely impractical” because of shortages or nonexistence of both soap and sufficient water.

In the Americas, the report is critical of both Mexico, where there is an “absence of the most basic safeguards to mitigate” the spread, and insufficient measures taken by Brazil. It called on the United States, with mandated port and border closures in response to the coronavirus, to lift restrictions on asylum seekers to allow them to be screened and paroled into the country rather than left in unsafe camps and detention centers.

El Salvador has suspended an agreement with the United States to accept deported asylum seekers. Guatemala, which initially suspended a similar agreement, has reversed the decision and is again accepting transfers of Hondurans and Salvadorans from the United States.

Latin American countries that were accepting refugees from Venezuela, where health care is among the many institutions in a state of collapse, have closed their borders to them.

In Europe, with millions of refugees and asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa, an increasing number of countries have suspended asylum services. In Greece, 40,000 asylum seekers are “trapped on the Aegean Islands” in “appalling conditions” with “minimal medical care at best” and “no running water, making frequent hand-washing impractical,” the report said.

Nongovernmental organizations have suspended search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea for those attempting to cross from war-torn Libya, it said.

“Meanwhile, nationalist leaders and politicians throughout the region — including in Italy and Spain,” the two major disease hot spots in Europe, “have seized upon the outbreak as a false basis for xenophobic, anti-refugee rhetoric and policies,” the report said.

In the Middle East, there are at least 12 million refugees and internally displaced people living in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey. In a report issued last week, the WHO warned that in Syria, where millions are displaced and are in crowded refugee camps, a “catastrophic” impact was only a matter of time.