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Coronavirus could decimate refugees, warns lobby group

Tuesday March 31 2020


Refugees water a vegetable plot at Hagadera Refugee Camp in Dadaab, Garissa County, on September 16, 2018. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Life in most Kenyan refugee camps is characterised by cramped living conditions, little access to clean water and limited access to healthcare.

A refugee advocacy group that has been assessing these facilities’ preparedness and capacity to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic has warned that the social and health infrastructure in the camps cannot deal with an outbreak.

Refugee International says refugees are disproportionately at risk and asked the government to take them into consideration as it takes measures to fight the virus. It warned that a combination of factors could leave the camps exposed and worsen the spread of Covid-19.


In a report titled Covid-19 and the Displaced: Addressing the Threat of the Novel Coronavirus in Humanitarian Emergencies’, the organisation warned that the ease with which the virus spreads makes refugees’ living conditions a potential disaster.

The independent humanitarian organisation advocates for better support for displaced and stateless people.


It has asked the government to recognise the unique circumstances of refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons, and other forced migrants in light of the threat an outbreak presents.

“The government ought to ensure that refugees and the displaced are included in prevention and mitigation efforts, otherwise those in the camps could be left vulnerable to the disease, which could consequently hinder efforts to prevent the spread of the virus,” the report said.

It appealed to the UN Human Rights Council, donors and other UN agencies to supply the items deemed critical in the fight against the spread of the virus. “Our assessment found health workers there lack personal protective equipment such as gloves and masks,” the report said.

Kenya has some of the region’s largest refugee populations, with more than 400,000 in the Dadaab and Kakuma camps, the Kalobeyei Settlement and internally displaced people.

“These are shelters in overcrowded, informal and underserved camps and settlements. Most had difficulty accessing basic services like healthcare even before the current outbreak. The coronavirus has the potential to wreak havoc in these settings,” the report said.


The authors said they fear that humanitarian supply chains could be inhibited by the outbreak, while relief workers might cut contact with displaced communities to help prevent the spread of the virus.

“Existing humanitarian actors may not have the training or resources to respond to such an unprecedented crisis. Yet the government has restricted travel of international personnel and the movement of vital supplies. Steps to close borders, halt transportation, and shut businesses are interrupting supply. The resulting shortages of goods could have devastating consequences in many humanitarian contexts,” they added.

“As governments, NGOs, and international organisations redirect their attention and resources to combat the pandemic, the financing needed to respond to ongoing humanitarian and displacement crises is likely to fall dramatically. Already, many of these crises are acutely underfunded. The lasting economic impact on the global economy will only aggravate the problems faced by refugees.”