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By Kristy Siegfried | 20 March, 2020


Syria’s Idlib unprepared for a coronavirus outbreak, warn doctors. In opposition-held north-west Syria, where attacks on hospitals and medical facilities have crippled the health-care system, aid and health workers are warning that a coronavirus outbreak would be devastating for nearly a million displaced people sheltering in muddy camps and abandoned buildings. There is little or no running water in the camps and up to a dozen people often live in a single tent. Although no cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Syria, doctors in Idlib told the New York Times that they were already treating cases that bore the hallmarks of the virus and that some people had died. For now, they lack testing kits to confirm such cases as well as enough protective equipment such as masks and gloves. The World Health Organization expects test kits to arrive in Idlib next week and said that screening checkpoints would be set up at the Turkish border soon and that more protective equipment would be delivered. The Idlib Health Directorate, the de-facto health-care authority in the region, said preparations were underway to convert schools and other facilities into isolation centres and to designate 60 beds in three hospitals for coronavirus patients needing advanced care. It also issued recommendations such as keeping living spaces clean and washing hands that are impossible to follow in the tent camps. A local relief group, Violet, this week held training sessions for its frontline staff, while White Helmets rescue workers began disinfecting surfaces in schools, hospitals and other public places.

Don’t block asylum-seekers over pandemic, says UN refugee chief. The UN’s refugee chief voiced alarm on Thursday about the impact that border closures implemented to halt the spread of COVID-19 could have on access to asylum for people fleeing war and persecution. Countries around the world have been imposing travel restrictions and in some cases sealing their borders completely. Filippo Grandi said that while he understood why many countries were adopting such exceptional measures, “wars and persecution have not stopped”. He said he was increasingly worried that measures adopted by some countries “could block altogether the right to seek asylum”. Grandi suggested that authorities could put in place screening, testing and quarantine arrangements to safely manage arrivals of asylum-seekers and refugees while respecting international refugee protection standards designed to save lives.


Rohingya and UN in Malaysia step up efforts to screen refugees for virus. UNHCR and Rohingya community leaders in Malaysia are urging refugees who attended a large gathering at a mosque in Kuala Lumpur last month to come forward for coronavirus screening. More than 670 infections in the region have been linked to the four-day event, which was attended by 16,000 people of many nationalities. Authorities said they were trying to track down an estimated 2,000 Rohingya who attended, but the Rohingya Society in Malaysia put the figure at between 400 and 600. Activists said they may fear coming forward for testing because Malaysia does not recognize them as refugees. UNHCR said it had requested the government not to arrest any refugee or asylum-seeker lacking valid documents. The agency also said it was informing refugees with symptoms of the disease that they could access the same free testing and treatment as Malaysians.

Emergency aid for Sudanese refugees arrives in Chad. UNHCR airlifted over 93 tonnes of emergency aid for Sudanese refugees in Chad from its global stockpile in Dubai on Thursday. Clashes in El Geneina, in Sudan’s West Darfur State, have forced more than 16,000 people to cross into neighbouring Chad since late December. The majority are women and children who arrived exhausted, traumatized and, in many cases, with signs of malnutrition, according to UNHCR. Most are staying in the open or under makeshift shelters and are in urgent need of food, water, shelter and basic health care. Their arrival brings the total number of Sudanese refugees in Chad to 360,000.

Locust crisis threatens millions in East Africa. The swarms of locusts that have now reached 10 countries could endanger millions more people in a region where many people already face food insecurity from droughts, floods and conflict. In recent months, locust swarms have decimated crops and pastures in Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and South Sudan. The FAO’s latest update said the situation was “extremely alarming” in the Horn of Africa, where the locusts are now breeding and new swarms are starting to form, posing “an unprecedented threat to food security and livelihoods” that could lead to further suffering and displacement. The current swarms are thought to have originated in Yemen, where the war has devastated programmes to control locust populations.

Websites and hotlines help refugees cope with Italy’s lockdown. UNHCR and the Italian Recreation and Cultural Association (ARCI) today launched a multilingual website on the COVID-19 emergency aimed at refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants in Italy. It includes information about how to protect oneself from the virus and government measures to limit its spread. A toll-free hotline is also available. Reuters reports on efforts by NGOs to keep approximately 238,000 refugees and asylum-seekers informed and supported during Italy’s coronavirus lockdown. Charities forced to suspend many of their normal activities such as training and face-to-face support sessions are now using online lessons and WhatsApp groups to share essential information but said that many refugees do not have access to computers or reliable internet.


The World Health Organization’s #SafeHandsChallenge has been trending on social media as way of reminding people about the importance of washing hands thoroughly to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. After posting his own hand-washing video earlier this week, the UN’s refugee chief, Filippo Grandi, challenged actor and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Ben Stiller to share his own video.


Since December 2019, more than 84 hospitals and medical facilities in Syria’s northwest have been damaged, destroyed or forced to close, according to the World Health Organization.