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By Kristy Siegfried | 30 March, 2020


Worries grow over COVID-19 spreading in world’s refugee camps. As the coronavirus forces the world’s wealthiest countries into lockdown, the virus threatens tens of millions of people crowded into refugee camps and makeshift settlements for displaced people from Bangladesh to Syria and across Africa. Reuters reports that settlements housing Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh are more densely populated than the most crowded cities. Refugee volunteers and aid workers are struggling to educate people there about the coronavirus because of a ban on mobile internet imposed last year. As UNHCR and other aid agencies advocate for the ban to be lifted, public health messages are being broadcast from radios and loudspeakers, but rumours and misinformation persist. Similar fears are spreading in camps for displaced people in Syria’s Idlib province. Families have been moved from large communal tents to individual tents, but social distancing is almost impossible. Al Jazeera reports that many African countries sheltering large numbers of refugees and internally displaced people already have fragile health systems not easily accessible to large segments of the population. At two major camps in Kenya, UNHCR has reduced contact between residents and humanitarian workers and is sharing information via mobile phone apps. Isolation facilities are being set up inside camps and nearby host communities. As well as appealing to member states for US$255 million to respond to the pandemic, UNHCR is urging governments to include refugees and asylum-seekers in national plans to combat COVID-19.

More coronavirus cases in Libya as fighting rages. Artillery blasts shook the Libyan capital on Sunday as the National Centre for Disease Control confirmed five more cases of the coronavirus, bringing the total to eight. The UN has urged warring parties to stop fighting so the overstretched health system can prepare for an outbreak, but the conflict escalated last week, and loud blasts could be heard in central Tripoli on Sunday from fighting in the south of the city. Both the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord and the rival eastern-based government have taken preventive measures against the virus, including closing schools, some businesses and markets, and imposing curfews, but Human Rights Watch on Saturday called on authorities to take more steps to “limit the spread of the virus in overcrowded detention facilities and shelters for displaced people”. Health experts have warned that Libya’s health-care system would be unable to cope with large numbers of COVID-19 patients.


Portugal grants migrants and asylum-seekers temporary residency rights. Portugal’s government said on Saturday that people in the country with pending asylum or residency applications would be treated as permanent residents until 1 July to ensure they can access public services during the coronavirus outbreak. Under the measures, they will have access to Portugal’s national health service, welfare benefits, bank accounts, work and rental contracts. “People should not be deprived of their rights to health and public service just because their application has not yet been processed,” Claudia Veloso, spokesperson for the Ministry of Internal Affairs, told Reuters.

Five uprooted Venezuelans talk about what they left behind. The New York Times interviews five Venezuelans who had successful careers and comfortable lives until Venezuela’s collapsing economy forced them to leave everything they had worked for behind to eke out a living in a new country. One went from being a model and TV journalist to selling street food in Peru. Another left behind the luxury cars and home that his private security business had bought him and began work as a neighbourhood watchman in Peru. And another abandoned a promising career as a violinist to work in an Italian restaurant in Buenos Aires. All have had to come to terms with losing not only their jobs and homes, but also their identities.

Refugees and migrants in northern France reluctant to be moved to new centres. The Guardian reports that starting on Tuesday, French authorities will transfer up to 2,100 refugees and migrants in Calais and Dunkirk from informal camps to accommodation centres where they will be expected to follow the same coronavirus lockdown rules as the rest of France. The transfers are said to be voluntary, but some of the refugees told the Guardian that they are fearful of being forced into the centres and plan to continue trying to cross the Channel to reach the UK. Meanwhile, conditions in the camps are worsening, with shortages of food, water and showers as NGOs have been forced to pull out because of the pandemic.

Officials and refugees in Lebanon fear coronavirus outbreak in crowded settlements. More than 300 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in Lebanon and the country’s residents are under orders to stay at home. So far, no cases have been detected in the informal settlements that house hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. Joseph Zapater, head of UNHCR’s operations in the Bekaa Valley, where many of the settlements are concentrated, spoke to Al Arabiya English about the steps that are being taken to distribute soap, set up isolation units and support Lebanon’s health system to set up more intensive care units. The agency also plans to cover the full cost of testing and treatment for any refugees who contract the virus. One refugee community leader said that poverty and hunger were on the increase as refugees were unable to work and some store owners had stopped extending them credit.


A group of Syrian refugee women at Za’atari camp in Jordan learned how to make soap as a way to support their families. Now they’re distributing their hand-made soaps to other refugees so they can protect themselves from COVID-19.


Refugee settlements in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, are more densely populated than most cities, with over 60,000 people sharing each square kilometre.