By Kristy Siegfried | 15 May, 2020
THIS WEEK’S TOP STORIES
First coronavirus case detected in Rohingya refugee camps. Bangladeshi officials and the UN confirmed on Thursday the first coronavirus case among the refugee population in Cox’s Bazar district. A Rohingya refugee and a member of the local community both tested positive for the virus at a health facility in the Kutupalong settlement. The UN refugee agency said both patients were in isolation and contact tracing was underway. In a briefing today, UNHCR expressed serious concerns about the potentially severe impact of the virus in the densely populated camps which are home to some 860,000 Rohingya refugees. “These populations are considered to be among the most at risk globally in this pandemic,” said spokesperson, Andrej Mahecic. Health facility staff and over 3,000 refugee volunteers have received training on COVID-19 and hygiene promotion has been stepped up but, commenting on Thursday’s news, humanitarian groups expressed concern about the limited healthcare capacity in the camps and the lack of space for refugees to maintain a safe distance from one another. Internet and mobile phone restrictions have also made it difficult to communicate reliable information about the virus. UNHCR said the response would require additional international support.
Conflict and COVID-19 create more hardships for refugees and migrants in Libya. Amidst ongoing fighting and movement restrictions due to COVID-19, refugees in Libya are increasingly desperate for help. A snapshot survey by the Mixed Migration Centre found some 75 per cent of refugees and migrants in Libya lost their jobs in March and April as a result of lockdown measures. With food prices spiking in most Libyan cities and some refugees facing eviction by landlords, UNHCR said today that it was providing emergency assistance to thousands of refugees and internally displaced Libyans. Meanwhile, departures of refugees and migrants from the Libyan coast have nearly quadrupled compared with the same period a year ago, despite the lack of NGO rescue boats in the Mediterranean. International organizations and NGOs told AFP that tragedies in the Central Mediterranean are becoming an overlooked “tragedy” with all NGO search-and-rescue operations having ceased as of last week. “If there is no help at sea and countries drag their feet to rescue and allow people to disembark, we’re going to end up with a fairly serious humanitarian situation,” Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR’s Special Envoy for the Central Mediterranean told AFP. Two NGO rescue boats that were still in operation last month have since been grounded by the Italian coastguard for “technical” reasons.
UN urges prioritization of mental health support in coronavirus response. The coronavirus pandemic is taking a huge toll on the mental health of refugees, displaced and stateless people, UNHCR warned on Thursday. “Fear of infection, confinement and isolation measures, stigma, discrimination, loss of livelihoods and uncertainty about the future are all contributing factors,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, adding that the agency was receiving increasing reports of mental health issues among the displaced, including incidents of self-harm. Measures to curb the spread of the virus have impacted the availability of mental health support and care, which was already difficult for many refugees to access. UNHCR reported that some services are now being offered remotely through hotlines and online counselling sessions and echoed a UN-wide call for mental health services to form an essential part of government responses to the pandemic.
ONE QUESTION FOR…
Pieter Ventevogel, Senior Mental Health Officer at UNHCR
What are some of the mental health consequences of the coronavirus for refugees and displaced people?
“The impact in refugee settings is particularly severe because refugees often live in precarious circumstances and are dependent on external assistance. We’re seeing a major increase in stress-related issues. Many people are afraid of getting sick or worried about their loved ones. Measures to prevent the spread of the disease are causing additional stress due to movement restrictions, crowded living conditions and deteriorating financial situations.
“Refugees, who already have higher levels of mental health conditions, have additional risks of developing depression or an anxiety disorder, especially as support mechanisms are not functioning. Meanwhile, refugees with severe mental health conditions such as psychosis will often see a worsening of their symptoms and find it even harder than people in the host population to get access to essential mental health care.”
STORIES TO WATCH
Yemen makes progress on ceasefire but suspected COVID-19 deaths rise. The UN envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, reported “significant progress” in negotiations towards a nationwide ceasefire on Thursday, but warned of stark challenges as the coronavirus spreads at an unknown rate across the country. The BBC reports a dramatic rise in the number of people dying with coronavirus-like symptoms in the southern Yemeni city of Aden. Citing official figures, Save the Children said there had been at least 380 deaths in the past week. It is feared the real number of COVID-19 cases is far higher than the few dozen that have been confirmed. AFP reports that anxiety about the virus is growing among those living in camps for internally displaced people. The country’s five-year conflict has displaced more 3.6 million people.
Hungary’s detention of asylum-seekers ruled unlawful by EU court. The European Court of Justice ruled on Thursday that Hungary’s detention of asylum-seekers at two transit zones near its border with Serbia was unlawful. The case was brought by two asylum-seeking families from Iran and Afghanistan who arrived in Hungary via Serbia and applied for asylum in the Röszke transit zone. Their applications were immediately rejected under a Hungarian law which considers Serbia a “safe transit country”, but Serbia refused to readmit them and the families remained in the transit zone for over a year. The BBC reports that the ECJ ruling paves the way for some 300 asylum-seekers held in the transit zones to be released and means Hungary must devise new asylum rules, but the Hungarian government has maintained its position that its asylum system is in line with international law.
Nigeria violence sees 23,000 refugees flee into Niger in past month. Killings, looting and kidnappings by armed groups in Nigeria’s north-western states have forced thousands of people to cross into neighbouring Niger, including 23,000 in April alone, according to UNHCR. The total number of Nigerian refugees in Niger’s Maradi region is now over 60,000. The violence has spilled across the border, displacing an additional 19,000 people in Niger. Several villages in Nigeria’s Katsina, Sokoto and Zamfara states were attacked in April, with one attack in Katsina leaving 47 people dead. Despite border closures due to COVID-19, Niger has allowed the refugees to seek protection. UNHCR said it was working with authorities to relocate at least 7,000 of them to safer areas away from the border.
CNN’s Christiane Amanpour spoke with Syrian refugee and filmmaker Hassan Akkad about his decision to volunteer as a cleaner at his local hospital in London to help in the fight against COVID-19. “I wanted to look after my community,” he told her. “This is where my ill neighbours are.”
DID YOU KNOW?
In the first four months of this year, the Libyan Coast Guard picked up 3,078 refugees and migrants at sea, compared with 1,126 in the same period last year.