Refugees respect health rules to transit safely through crisis

Despite worries over Covid-19, refugees and staff at Romania’s Emergency Transit Centre are determined to keep calm and carry on .

Social distancing is the order of the day so refugees at the ETC Timisoara take their community meetings, awareness sessions and outdoor activities outside, in the ETC courtyard. Timisoara, March 2020 Credit: UNHCR

Watef Ishaq has made one difficult journey after another. As a girl, she fled Sudan for Libya, only to find danger there. She was airlifted to Romania, en route for Norway, but then the coronavirus struck. Now all the lively 18-year-old can do is keep calm and follow the hygiene rules as she waits in transit for her future to begin.

“It is important to remember that refugees and displaced people are exposed to exactly to the same risks as all of us. The virus makes no distinction”

“I think it’s important to be serious with these hygiene rules,” Watef says. “Wash your hands; don’t touch your face, and all that.”

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UNHCR and AIDRom staff prepare food stocks for the refugees at the ETC Timisoara, on the onset of COVID-19 outbreak. There are no cases of COVID-19 among refugees but measures are taken to maintain assistance in case of lockdown. Timisoara, March 2020. Credit: UNHCR

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UNHCR staff delivers hygiene items to a refugee hosted at the ETC. Awareness information, cleaning products and face masks provided by UNHCR help refugees stay safe and protected during the COVID-19 outbreak. Timisoara, March 2020 Credit: UNHCR

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A refugee reads the COVID-19 awareness materials displayed at the ETC. The WHO leaflets and posters were translated in several languages and printed by UNHCR to help refugees stay informed and safe. Bucharest, March 2020 Credit: UNHCR

UNHCR and their partners AIDROM, along with the Romanian government, are doing their best to maintain business as usual at the Emergency Transit Centre (ETC) in Timisoara.

he ETC helps refugees rescued from particularly dangerous zones to prepare for new lives in countries that accept them for resettlement. The threat of Covid-19 has only made the job harder for staff supporting refugees in the delicate period of transition.

“Everyone is at risk, everyone is afraid; we feel that every day, refugees and staff alike,” says Camelia Nitu-Fratila, senior UNHCR field associate at the ETC. “We are trying to overcome these difficult times together. The refugees are very much engaged to help us help them.”

Both staff and refugees have been supplied with face masks and latex gloves and the refugees have received leaflets spelling out the importance of basic hygiene to ward off Covid-19. Alcohol-based hand sanitisers, soap, tissues and cleaning products have also been distributed around the centre.

Even in the midst of the pandemic, the ETC is probably safer than any of the war-torn places the refugees have known before

In case of an outbreak, everyone is prepared for the possibility of a total lockdown, when refugees would have to take care of themselves, distributing food and other supplies that UNHCR has stockpiled inside the centre.

Meanwhile, social distancing is the order of the day and many activities have been moved to the yard outside. Enjoying the spring sunshine, refugees have been creative in turning volleyball, which normally involves contact, into a contact-free sport. They are staying safe from the virus by using a sheet to avoid touching the ball.

Sporting distractions aside, what always concerns refugees waiting in the ETC is when they will be able to move to their new countries and finally settle down. They have to have interviews with officials from these countries to confirm they have been accepted for permanent resettlement.

Fortunately, the government of Norway, which periodically takes refugees from the ETC, has found a way to continue the procedures. Instead of officers coming from Oslo in person, the interviews are being conducted online.

A number of other countries also take refugees from the ETC. The COVID-19 outbreak worldwide has temporarily suspended all resettlement travels but in the meantime, other resettlement related activities continue.

While fighting the Covid-19 crisis, Romania is also doing what it can to help refugees by continuing to admit and consider the cases of people fleeing from war and persecution.

“We thank the Romanian government for its decision to keep the borders open for people fleeing war and persecution” says Nisreen Rubaian, UNHCR’s Representative in Romania.

“It is important to remember that refugees and displaced people are exposed to exactly to the same risks as all of us. The virus makes no distinction”, she added.

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Social distancing is the order of the day so refugees at the ETC Timisoara take their community meetings, awareness sessions and outdoor activities outside, in the ETC courtyard. Timisoara, March 2020 Credit: UNHCR

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UNHCR and AIDRom staff prepare hygiene items for distribution to the refugees hosted in the ETC Timisoara, at the onset of COVID-19 outbreak. Awareness sessions, information materials translated in different languages, cleaning, hygiene materials and face masks were made available to refugees, helping them stay safe during the pandemic. Timisoara, March 2020. Credit: UNHCR

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Social distancing is the order of the day so refugees at the ETC Timisoara take their community meetings, awareness sessions and outdoor activities outside, in the ETC courtyard. Timisoara, March 2020 Credit: UNHCR

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UNHCR staff prepare COVID-19 awareness materials in different languages for dispatch to refugee centers in Romania. The WHO leaflets and posters were translated and printed by UNHCR to help refugees stay informed and safe. Bucharest, March 2020 Credit: UNHCR

Therefore, from the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, UNHCR supported the authorities and complemented their measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

As the virus crisis continues, the refugees at the ETC try to hold their nerve and stay optimistic. For Watef, it is a matter of discipline, patience and hope.

“I think it will be OK; just a few months and everything will be back to normal,” she says, feeling confident about the future.

Even in the midst of the pandemic, the ETC is probably safer than any of the war-torn places the refugees have known before.

“I feel much safer here than in Libya. They help us anytime, at all hours. They are here for us.”