Around the world, Irish UNHCR staff are delivering supplies and support for refugees and displaced people

UNHCR spoke with six Irish colleagues in Bangladesh, Yemen, Tunisia, Thailand, Lebanon and Trim, Co. Meath on how their operations are adapting to the Covid-19 pandemic


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Louise Donovan

Title: External Relations Officer

Location: Bangladesh

There are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection among the Rohingya refugee population in Bangladesh. Despite this, both host communities and refugees in Cox’s Bazar, with a population density one and a half times higher than New York City, are considered to be among the most at risk globally in this pandemic. The area is also seasonally prone to both landslides and flash flooding.

About 3 weeks ago we had to reduce our activities in the camps to only critical life-saving activities. This is in an effort to reduce the presence of outsiders in the camps, who could potentially increase the risk of transmission to the refugees who are highly vulnerable. If you are not doing critical activities like food distributions, WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) or health related activities, you can no longer access the camps. It’s really challenging.

It’s so important to share information and communicate during a crisis like this, but with internet connectivity blocked in the camps, it is even more difficult to ensure that refugees have access to reliable information. We have launched widespread information campaigns, while the refugees themselves have mobilized in a huge way to protect their own communities and share information.

Refugees in the camps are not allowed to work so are completely dependent on aid and protection from the humanitarian community. If we can’t deliver essential services, they are in a dire situation. There have been no cases so far so we can continue activities, but if and when there is an outbreak, we will have to adapt. In such a dense camp it will be difficult to stop the rapid spread of the virus.

Kutupalong is the biggest and most densely populated refugee camp in the world, with more than 40,000 people living per square kilometre, so measures like social distancing are even more challenging. Now, with the onset of the monsoon and cyclone seasons, we also need to prepare as much as possible to avoid a mix of natural and public health disaster.

We are working round the clock to build medical facilities including isolation and treatment facilities and preparing intensive care units to treat people. But there simply isn’t yet the capacity to respond if there is a major outbreak, while testing so far is limited.

So far there have been 19 confirmed cases in Cox’s Bazar District, so it looks unlikely that it won’t reach the camps. So every measure possible must be taken now.

Damien McSweeney

Title: Head of Field Office

Location: Yemen

On 10 April, the first case of coronavirus was confirmed in Yemen. Given the already precarious situation across the country and the dire living and sanitary conditions, displaced people and the communities hosting them face heightened risks.

Having previously worked in Dadaab Refugee camp on the Somali border, Bor in South Sudan, Damascus and Alleppo in Syria, I can safely say that Yemen is the most complex and difficult operating environment that I have ever worked in. Yemen was a poor country before the present conflict and the years of fighting has further exasperated the situation, with poverty, hunger, disease, lack of services and of course war an everyday reality for the Yemeni people.

The air strikes continue, and the war never stops. The airport is more or less destroyed, with the only flights in the past being UN flights. There hasn’t been a UN flight since 16th March, meaning for UN staff such as myself we are stuck here, which is taking its toll, on both staff and their loved ones who they haven’t seen in months.

According to the United Nations, Yemen, has been the "Worst humanitarian crisis in the world," for the past two years. The figures make for sobering reading with 24 million people in need, 3.65 million people displaced since 2015, 1.28 million IDP returnees and over 250,000 refugees. You can therefore imagine the impact that Covid-19 might have here, working on the assumption that lockdowns would not prevent the pathogen’s spread, given Yemen’s malnourished population and a crumbling healthcare system after years of war, instability and under-investment. Coupled with this is the fact that the immune systems of millions have been compromised by hunger and malnutrition, and diseases such as cholera, diphtheria and dengue fever. Only half of Yemen’s hospitals are operational and the Arab world’s poorest nation has only about 700 intensive-care beds, including 60 for children, and about 500 ventilators.

Damien McSweeney and colleagues managing a distribution of clothing and non-food items in Yemen.   © UNHCR

Then we had heavy flooding recently, which washed away many people’s homes. We were able to distribute 1,200 blankets from our stockpiles, but we now have a serious shortage of funds so when we run out we are in trouble. 

In the past I’d normally spend 4-5 days a week in the field monitoring IDP (Internally displaced persons) sites and doing basic field work with my teams across 6 governates, but now we have been a number of weeks in lockdwn in the UN base so we are now trying to do everything remotely. Much of it depends on the internet connection, which often isn’t very good.

We’re doing our best in a difficult situation, and the phone never stops ringing.

We have partners on the ground in the community centres doing distributing items. Last year  UNHCR responded to displacements by providing emergency shelter for 17,000 households and NFI assistance such as mattresses, sleeping mats, Solar lights, kitchen sets and blankets for over 86, 000 Households. In addition, in 2019, UNHCR directly distributed some USD 43 million in cash assistance to more than 167,800, Yemeni families, including the some of the most vulnerable in the host communities. However, there is a lot more to be done, and with the flooding season and chorela seasons approaching, coupled with the recent UN estimation of a possible 16 million people infected by Covid 19, the outlook is bleak. Despite this we will continue to try to assist some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world. 

 

Edward O’Dwyer

Title: Senior Policy Adviser attached to the Office of the Special Envoy for the Central Mediterranean Situation

Location: Tunisia

The COVID-19 pandemic represents an extraordinary and unprecedented emergency for the region covered the by the office for the Special Envoy.

The movement of refugees and migrants across the Sahara and the central Mediterranean Sea towards Europe continues to have a devastating toll on human rights and human life while conflict across the Sahel and in countries such as Libya intensifies.

Covid-19 is having a huge impact on operations across the region. Anything that affects the socio-economic stability of already fragile states and the amount of food families  can put on the table is going to have consequences.

People who were already in difficulty are becoming more frustrated, which is leading to a tendency for more population movement. Borders are closed, but people are just bypassing them and moving anyway.

Inside Libya due to a combination of intensified conflict and Covid-19, some of the known detention centres are releasing detainees to live in urban areas. Xenophobia and fear are also influencing negative attitudes and treatment of foreigners, or anyone who is suspected of having TB or coughing is at risk of being kicked on to the street. There have also been reports of smugglers and traffickers abandoning their detainees / the people in their charge though this trend seems to have been quickly reversed with new strategies developed by the smuggling and trafficking dens.

It is difficult to get staff into Libya anyway, and those who are there are working in very difficult circumstances.  Essential staff are on the ground and work remotely through national partners, but we can’t do our business as normal when bombs are dropping.

Every operation is mobilised around preparing to combat Covid-19. Until a week ago it was hard to get through to anyone on the phone as all offices were engaged in operational planning to support States in fighting the virus and protecting refugees and PoC and their host communities.

Important to include refugees in national health responses 

They key thing is that refugees and displaced communities are incorporated into national development plans including the current responses to Covid-19. That’s already happening in many countries. In Chad for example, the whole UN system is mobilised around bridging humanitarian / development action with a policy of socio-economic inclusion as a base. In this the President himself is leading on health sector plans and response.

It’s a good opportunity for refugees to participate and support their host communities and States and for UNHCR to show the importance of including refugees in national responses.

We’re now looking at what the movements of refugees and other persons of concern will look like post Covid-19 and initial analysis suggests that irregular movements will increase.

The economic impact of Covid-19 will destabilise many communities, so we need to be prepared to increase communication with refugees and persons of concern and their communities in refugee producing countries, transit countries and destination countries. This will aim at increasing awareness about the dangers of smuggling and trafficking and the regular alternative options that are available or which can be made available through collaboration with States.

Michael Prendergast

Title: Associate Reporting Officer

Location: Thailand

UNHCR relies on the voluntary contributions of government donors, which make up 90 per cent of UNHCR’s overall income. Since the outbreak of the Coronavirus, Irish Aid has donated €10 million in funding to the UN’s Global Humanitarian Response Plan, 3 million of which has gone to UNHCR’s Covid-19 appeal. Reporting officers prepare reports, briefing and background notes, and other documentation as required for donors and others so that they are kept abreast of UNHCR’s work. 

We are very concerned about how Covid could exacerbate the situation of people fleeing conflict in the region. In recent weeks, we have seen the potentially deadly impact of this, with boats carrying Rohingya refugees being refused disembarkation in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, reportedly due to Covid fears. Obviously, you understand countries who are concerned about Covid managing their borders, so proper procedures and quarantine measures would have to be taken to ensure public health. But we need to work together to avoid tragic situations like what happened in 2015 where boats carrying refugees were abandoned at sea by smugglers after they were unable to land.

 

Michael Prendergast (centre) with colleagues in Kutupalong refugee camp, Bangladesh.   © UNHCR

 

The same can be said about inclusion of refugees in national systems, in particular access to health care, education and other services. Countries like Iran and Pakistan in the region have done great work for decades now opening their national systems to refugees and reaping the benefits of a refugee population that is better supported and better placed to meet their own needs. It is a worry that Covid might deter other countries from taking this very successful approach.

Fundamental to countries maintaining favourable policies in respect of the above is the need for the international community to continue to demonstrate solidarity by supporting refugee-receiving countries.

In my current office, we’re used to working remotely as we work with around 20 country operations in the region. However, it is still a challenge in terms of keeping in touch with colleagues and our work with donors.

It’s easier to demonstrate a point in person. For example, I was supposed to go to Bangladesh in March with several donors but it was obviously cancelled.

That kind of exercise is useful in terms of letting donors see what we do on the ground and the realities faced by refugees and displaced people of different nationalities. It is also important to demonstrate how unearmarked (flexible) funding gives UNHCR the ability to prioritise its activities based on the most urgent needs rather than based on what is the most high profile situation at any given time.

I don't know if it's tied up in our immigrant history but Irish people are well able to get around and everywhere I have worked with the UN I have had Irish friends and colleagues. So, whether you're talking about staff representation in the sector or in terms of humanitarian funding per capita, I think it's fair to say that Ireland punches above its weight. Irish Aid is also very highly regarded in the international humanitarian community both for the quality of their work and their efficiency in mobilizing resources.

 

Anne Dorian

Title: Senior Field Security Officer

Location: Trim, Co. Meath (but normally Geneva)

It is important that UNHCR has a cohesive, structured and effective witness protection programme that provides support and assistance to victims of sexual abuse and exploitation, sexual harassment, fraud, corruption and other forms of misconduct.

Establishing effective witness protection supports that protect the most vulnerable is an essential part of UNHCR’s work.

I just moved to Geneva from Bangkok where I was between 2013 and 2019. I was in Ireland when the Covid-19 virus broke out so am now in Trim. I previously worked as a member of An Garda Síochána, and on UN peacekeeping missions such as East-Timor and Bosnia. 

I’m now working with the Legal Affairs Section, where I am leading a project on witness protection. This involves engaging with other organisations and tribunals that have witness protection programmes in place, looking at existing structures and practices within the organisation, and trying to combine everything to develop a programme that meets the particular needs of the organisation, and has the trust of the staff and wider population of the people we serve. This is especially important for the areas of sexual exploitation and abuse, sexual harassment, theft and misappropriation, where UNHCR wants more people to speak up so that it can continue to adopt robust responses in cases of this nature. 

People are reasonably happy to engage in informal conversations. However, when people have to engage in more formal processes that involve giving evidence and testimony, strong support and assistance from the organisation in terms of protection and case management is needed. We already have services such as the Inspector General’s Office, the Legal Affairs Office, the Ombudsman’s Office and the Ethics Office working on these issues, but are now seeking to develop this further to a more cohesive organisational response.

From Bangkok, a city with about 10.5m people, known for temples, vibrant street life, and a network of canals via Geneva, UNHCR HQ, to Trim, a town of about 10,000 people on the River Boyne, it has been quite the journey! Working in Bangkok in a busy regional office covering Asia Pacific Region which is home to 7.7 million people of concern to UNHCR, including 3.5 million refugees the majority of whom originate from Afghanistan and Myanmar is quite the contrast to working from home in Trim , but the focus of supporting the protection of the people of concern to UNHCR remains an essential part of my daily work.

 

Peter Fitzmaurice

Title: Lawyer

Location: Lebanon

With some 910,000 registered Syrian refugees, along with refugees and asylum-seekers from other countries, Lebanon hosts more refugees per capita than any other country.

Even before the pandemic emerged, an ever worsening economic crisis was already putting more pressure on vulnerable Lebanese and refugee communities. Since mid-March, all of the country’s inhabitants – including refugees – have had to strictly limit their movement to limit the risk of infection. The economic impact of COVID-19 is most desperate and immediate for the most vulnerable communities, with little or no capital and depending on daily wage labor or support from others. This includes both vulnerable Lebanese communities and refugees. The situation of refugees has been further aggravated by the COVID-19 related confinement. It is having a severe impact on refugees’ access to livelihoods, morale, and ability to meet their basic survival needs like rent, food, and medicine, as it is for vulnerable Lebanese communities. Refugees are increasingly expressing that they consider the risk of starvation a greater and more immediate/real threat to their life than COVID-19.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, UNHCR immediately started developing preparedness, prevention and response measures to account for the health of refugee and Lebanese communities. Initial measures included distributions of soap and other sanitation materials to refugees, construction of isolation areas in or near informal refugee settlements, and cooperation with partners and the authorities to expand the capacity of Lebanon’s health system for those requiring hospitalization or intensive care. UNHCR is bringing into  life-saving medical equipment and supplies worth millions of dollars into the country and we are in the process of expanding 5 public hospitals and 2 private hospitals with additional beds and ICU space to receive more patients. In total we will cover the costs of 100 additional ICU beds and additional 800 hospital beds.  This capacity will stay behind after the crisis. We have teams on the ground daily raising awareness about virus prevention, particularly in informal settlements and collective shelters and distributing hygiene materials

UNHCR teams have been working around the clock to provide the necessary support for refugees and to contain the spread of the virus. We are working closely with our humanitarian partners to expand financial assistance to the most affected refugee and Lebanese communities during this exceptionally difficult period and are coordinating closely with our donors to secure the urgently needed funds that will enable us to deliver this lifeline. 

Reception centres closed and call centre capacity expanded 

UNHCR reception centres have been temporarily closed and appointments postponed, and counselling by phone expanded to respond to the humanitarian needs and questions of the refugees. Alternative mechanisms have been introduced to maintain humanitarian operations, including strengthening remote assistance mechanisms such as the call centre. The call centre has a critical role now, because regular outreach activities have been limited by the restrictions on movement to fight the virus, but people still have access to phones and social media. The centre receives almost a million enquiries per year from refugees about protection services and assistance, with around 60 per cent of the country’s refugees having used the service

Lebanon was early to close down and the majority of staff who are not involved in outreach work are working from home with a skeleton staff coming to our different offices. Like many people throughout the world we are trying to adjust to this new reality. There is a nationwide curfew from 5am until 9 pm (which is now being gradually lifted). Schools have been closed for six weeks now and adjusting to home learning has been an adventure. I have two young children who are now desperate to return to school which is unexpected.