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By Kristy Siegfried | 17 April, 2020


Rohingya refugees rescued off Bangladesh after two months at sea. Close to 400 Rohingya refugees who had been at sea for nearly two months were brought to shore by the Bangladesh coastguard late on Wednesday. Those on board, including a large number of women and children, said at least 30 people had died after the boat ran out of food, water and fuel and drifted in the Bay of Bengal. UNHCR said on Thursday that it was working with partners in Bangladesh to provide shelter and assistance to the survivors who were in a “weak physical condition” and receiving medical attention at facilities in Nayapara and Ukhiya. They will be monitored and quarantined for the next two weeks. UNHCR said there was no evidence to substantiate media reports that the refugees were infected with COVID-19. Rights groups and Rohingya community leaders have voiced fears that other boats carrying Rohingya may still be at sea. The Royal Malaysian Air Force reported that it had prevented a boat with about 200 Rohingya passengers from coming ashore on Thursday.

Conflict and coronavirus threaten millions in West and Central Africa. The combined effects of conflict and the coronavirus pandemic could lead to a “humanitarian catastrophe” in regions of West and Central Africa already dealing with massive displacement, UNHCR warned today. So far, the 21 countries in the region have reported a total of over 5,000 COVID-19 cases and more than 100 deaths. As yet, no cases have been reported among the displaced, but the Washington Post reports that hundreds of thousands of people who have fled violence in Burkina Faso are squeezed together in cramped quarters where social distancing is impossible and there’s not enough water for drinking, let alone hand washing. UNHCR described the situation in Burkina Faso as “particularly dramatic” with Malian refugees who fled attacks on their camp in Goudoubo taking refuge in already overcrowded internal displacement sites. Six people whose lives have been turned upside down by the violence in Burkina Faso talked to UNHCR for this photo essay.

Displaced people in Yemen at risk of COVID-19 as fighting continues. Al Jazeera reports from an informal camp where people displaced by fighting in Yemen’s port city of Al-Hudaydah are living. Safe drinking water is in short supply, as are food and medicines. Now people are facing the threat of the coronavirus too, after Yemen reported its first case on 10 April. Despite the Saudi-led military’s declaration of a two-week ceasefire last week to head off the pandemic, fighting on the ground continues. UNHCR’s representative in Yemen, Jean-Nicolas Beuze, has warned that conditions in overcrowded camps for displaced families “render concepts such as social distancing meaningless”, while the ongoing fighting has made it difficult to reach vulnerable people with hygiene kits and awareness-raising. Funding is another major challenge, with 31 of the UN’s 41 programmes in Yemen expected to start closing in the next few weeks without additional funds, according the UN’s relief chief, Mark Lowcock.


Sumbul Rizvi, UNHCR’s Principal Advisor on Internal Displacement

What difficulties are internally displaced people, or IDPs, facing now because of the threat of coronavirus, and what can be done to help?

“The vast majority of IDPs are in developing countries with extremely fragile health systems that could be rapidly overwhelmed if the virus gains a foothold. In addition, many IDPs live in camps or informal sites where overcrowding, poor nutrition, and inadequate provision of water, sanitation and hygiene present enormous challenges for prevention. In urban areas, many are becoming destitute as casual labour and other income opportunities vanish overnight.

“It’s vital that international support to national governments is urgently stepped up to meet the massive needs. UNHCR is working with governments, sister UN agencies and NGOs to implement various actions, including communicating with IDPs in camps and informal sites about hygiene and physical distancing. We’re also adapting our programmes so they can be delivered safely; providing emergency cash to the most vulnerable; and supporting the upgrading of health facilities.”


Greece to move vulnerable asylum-seekers out of congested island facilities. Greece will this month begin moving hundreds of elderly and ailing asylum-seekers out of crowded facilities on the Aegean islands to apartments, hotels and camps on the mainland, the migration ministry said on Thursday. Authorities said the transfers – with which UNHCR is assisting – are aimed at those asylum-seekers most vulnerable to the coronavirus and would begin on 19 April. Those to be moved include 200 asylum-seekers over the age of 60 and their families, and another group of 1,730 people with pre-existing health conditions. Separately, an EU initiative to relocate 1,600 unaccompanied children from island centres to other Member States began this week with the relocation of 12 children to Luxembourg. Another group of children are expected to arrive in Germany from Greece this weekend.

Latest violence in eastern DR Congo threatens to derail coronavirus containment. More than two dozen people were killed this week in two separate attacks by armed groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s eastern Ituri province. UNHCR said today that recent attacks in Ituri and North Kivu province had displaced more than 35,000 people. The refugee agency said the attacks were hindering assistance to displaced people and disrupting vital COVID-19 prevention efforts. Many areas and sites where displaced people are staying are already overcrowded. The DRC has confirmed 287 COVID-19 cases and 23 deaths, mainly in the capital, Kinshasa. So far, no cases have been reported among refugees and internally displaced people.

Calls for more EU States to bring refugee health workers into COVID-19 response. The Council of Europe and UNHCR this week encouraged EU countries to allow refugee health professionals to join national responses to the coronavirus pandemic. The European Qualifications Passport for Refugees, launched by the Council of Europe in 2017 to help States assess refugees’ qualifications, could be used to help establish a qualified pool of refugee health professionals, suggested the Council’s Secretary General Marija Pejčinović Burić. Germany’s health authorities appealed to medically qualified migrants and refugees to help them tackle the pandemic earlier this week, while the UK’s National Health Service is signing up hundreds of foreign-born doctors, including refugees, to become medical support workers.


Refugee chefs at a catering company in the US city of Baltimore have been preparing thousands of meals for health-care workers fighting the coronavirus and community members in need. Donations are helping them to keep the meals free and keep their staff employed.


West and Central Africa has one of Africa’s largest displaced populations, with some 5.6 million internally displaced people and 1.3 million refugees.