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UN Refugee Agency steps up COVID-19 preparedness, prevention and response measures

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UN Refugee Agency steps up COVID-19 preparedness, prevention and response measures

10 March 2020
Bangladesh. Coronavirus threats in Dhaka
A young girl wears a protective mask in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Geneva, 10 March 2020 – The world’s response to the COVID-19 crisis must encompass and focus on all, including those forced to flee their homes. The elderly among the world’s forcibly displaced population are particularly vulnerable, warned today UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, launching its initial COVID-19 appeal.

UNHCR is urgently seeking an initial US$33 million to boost the preparedness, prevention and response activities to address the immediate public health needs of refugees prompted by COVID-19.

“To date and based on available evidence, there have been no reports of COVID-19 infections among refugees and asylum seekers. However, the virus can affect anyone and it is our collective responsibility to ensure that the global response includes all people,” said Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. “Allowing full access to health services, including for the most marginalized members of the community, is the best way to protect us all. Everyone on this planet – including refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people– should be able to access health facilities and services.”

More than 70 million people globally have been forced by persecution, conflict, violence and human rights violations to flee their homes. Of those, more than 20 million are refugees, of whom 84 per cent are being hosted by low or middle-income nations which have weaker health and water and sanitation systems.

UNHCR is currently strengthening its overall preparedness, prevention and response measures to COVID-19 around the world. The health and well-being of refugees and humanitarian personnel working for them in more than 130 countries around the world are central to these efforts.

The outbreak is a global challenge that must be addressed through international solidarity and cooperation. Alongside other UN agencies and partner organizations, UNHCR has been following developments closely and working at global and country levels in line with the COVID-19 guidance issued by the World Health Organisation.

UNHCR’s response to COVID-19 builds on its previous experience in SARS, Ebola, and influenza outbreaks. These preparedness measures protect refugees before, during and after global health emergencies.

In that regard, UNHCR advocates for refugees and asylum seekers, and internally displaced persons to be included in the national surveillance, preparedness, response plans and activities. In particular, UNHCR calls on States to ensure that their rights are equally respected should restrictions on entry, travel, and freedom of movement be imposed.

To date over 100 countries are reporting local transmission of COVID-19. Of those, 34 countries have refugee populations exceeding 20,000 people, and who are currently unaffected by the virus. In these contexts, prevention, preparedness and communication are key. Because refugees and internally displaced people often find themselves in places that are overcrowded or where public health and other services are already overstretched or poorly-resourced, all UNHCR operations have been advised to put in place contingency plans and mechanisms in collaboration with governments and partners. These will closely monitor, report, mitigate and respond to protection and public health risks for the forcibly displaced.

Where applicable, and if there is a need to supplement national responses, UNHCR is contributing to epidemiological surveillance, reporting, contact tracing and investigation of alerts in collaboration with ministries of health, WHO and partners, including at points of entry and refugee sites. In addition, UNHCR operations are actively contributing to overall UN efforts and reviewing capacity of public health partners to respond in the event of an outbreak in refugee/IDP camps or settlements.

Operations are also being advised to check their stocks of medical and other hygiene supplies, equipment and personal protective kits.

Knowing the value of timely, accurate and relevant information, UNHCR is strengthening communications with refugee and internally displaced communities, particularly regarding hygiene and sanitation measures. These materials are being adapted to suit local linguistic and cultural needs.

UNHCR is also looking at issues such as adequate access to clean water, waste disposal and soap in health facilities, collective shelters and the wider community and training staff to ensure infection control in health centres.

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