MENA refugees uniquely vulnerable to effects of COVID-19

“Refugees and displaced people around the world face a triple emergency: conflict and displacement, COVID-19 and the global economic crisis it has generated,” said International Rescue Committee President David Miliband.
Sunday 28/06/2020
Children sit in front of moldy bread in their shelter, in Aslam, Hajjah, Yemen. (AFP)
Children sit in front of moldy bread in their shelter, in Aslam, Hajjah, Yemen. (AFP)

BEIRUT--As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa region, refugees and asylum seekers already struggling to cope in dire conditions are now uniquely at risk of economic loss and health threats, rights workers warn.

In Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Jordan, Lebanon and other countries in the region, millions of refugees are struggling to protect themselves from the novel virus and weather the worsening economic crisis.

“Refugees and displaced people around the world face a triple emergency: conflict and displacement, COVID-19 and the global economic crisis it has generated, and now the clear failure of global leadership to act to prevent and treat the disease,” said International Rescue Committee President David Miliband.

“The world is experiencing the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, and the contractions in economic activity in response to COVID-19 are having a disproportionate impact on hunger in conflict-affected states,” he said.

In Yemen, where clashes between rival forces have displaced nearly 100,000 since January, concerns are especially high. With poor health infrastructure, limited testing capabilities and often overcrowded living conditions, experts warn the country could be a breeding ground for the virus. While the government has so far confirmed less than 600 cases, medical officials say the number is likely far higher and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels have been accused of covering up outbreaks in areas under their control.

Meanwhile, a lack of international funding is increasing Yemenis’ risk of starvation and other infectious diseases like cholera.

A Syrian man shovels dirt next to his tent near the refugee and migrant camp at the Greek island of Samos island. The head of the U.N. food agency warned of starvation and another wave of mass migration from Syria to Europe unless donors countries step up financial assistance to the war-ravaged country. (AP)
A Syrian man shovels dirt next to his tent near the refugee and migrant camp at the Greek island of Samos island. The head of the U.N. food agency warned of starvation and another wave of mass migration from Syria to Europe unless donors countries step up financial assistance to the war-ravaged country. (AP)

“We have never before seen in Yemen a situation where such a severe acute domestic economic crisis overlaps with a sharp drop in remittances and major cuts to donor support for humanitarian aid – and this of course is all happening in the middle of a devastating pandemic,” said UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock.

Refugees in Lebanon and Jordan, whose governments are rocked by deepening economic crises, have also seen their situations worsen.

With a currency in freefall and a mountain of debt, Lebanon has seen its citizens’ savings dwindle and has few prospects for a quick recovery. Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabi Berri recently called the country a “bottomless basket” that no one wants to help.

Lost in the chaos are the country’s millions of refugees, who are often the last on the government’s list of priorities.

Desperate for work opportunities, over a dozen Sudanese refugees in the country have been caught trying to cross the Israeli border since May.

“The living conditions and the feeling of despair have pushed them to take such great risks,”said Abdallah Malek of the Association of Young Sudanese in Lebanon.

In war-wracked Syria, where over 6.5 million are internally displaced over 9 million do not have enough food, the UN has warned that the crisis could spark an exodus of mass migration if aid is not urgently delivered.

“We need to address this now. Otherwise we are going to be in a situation similar to 2015 when we had mass migration,” said World Food Program Executive Director David Beasley.

The IRC’s Miliband added that it was critical to open the Iraq-Syria border to provide a lifeline to Syrians in need of humanitarian assistance. “It is clear that time is running out – and the UNSC must act now. This way, millions of Syrians are not denied access to timely, life-saving humanitarian assistance.”

“Few decisions are so grave as this one, particularly in the midst of this pandemic. Without this cross-border mechanism to Syria, simply put, lives will be lost. Only 31% of the healthcare facilities in Northeast Syria that were previously supported have been supplied, and NGOs are unable to fill these gaps,” he added.

Marking World Refugee Day one week ago, the UNHCR said that amid record levels of displacement, it is important to keep in mind that “every action counts.”

“On World Refugee Day, I think the message we have this year, notably that together we can make a difference and that every action counts,” Clementine Nkweta-Salami, the UNHCR director for East Africa, Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes said. “I think is one that should resonate in the hearts of most people globally, I would say more than it would have done in a year in which we were not all confronting the same situation.”