UNHCR: Staying and delivering for refugees amid COVID-19 crisis

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, detailed today a series of measures it is taking in its field operations to help respond to the COVID-19 public health emergency and prevent further spread.

“I am deeply concerned at this unprecedented pandemic and its impact on refugees and their host communities. The COVID-19 crisis has already had significant consequences for our operations, forcing us to rapidly adjust the way we work. However, we are sparing no effort to help and protect refugees the best we can under these difficult circumstances,’’ said Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

“Our top priority in the COVID-19 crisis is to ensure that the people we serve are included in response plans and are properly informed, while we supplement Governments’ preparedness and response efforts wherever needed,’’ he added.

On 26 March, UNHCR called for $255 million as part of the wider UN appeal, to focus on priority countries that will require specific action.

Although the number of reported and confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection among refugees remains low, over 80 per cent of the world’s refugee population and nearly all the internally displaced people live in low to middle-income countries, many of which have weaker health, water and sanitation systems and need urgent support.

Many refugees live in densely populated camps or in poorer urban areas with inadequate health infrastructure and WASH – water, sanitation and hygiene – facilities. Prevention in these locations is of paramount importance, noted Grandi.

Measures UNHCR is taking include:

Reinforcing the health and WASH systems and services, including by distributing soap and increasing access to water.
Supporting governments with infection prevention and health-care response, including through the provision of medical equipment and supplies.
Distributing shelter material and core relief items.
Offering guidance and fact-based information on prevention measures.
Expanding cash assistance to help mitigate the negative socio-economic impact of COVID-19.
Enhancing monitoring and interventions to ensure the rights of forcibly displaced people are respected.
In Bangladesh, training has started for staff working in health facilities serving the Rohingya camps, where some 850,000 refugees live in very dense conditions. More than 2,000 refugee volunteers are working with community and religious leaders to communicate important prevention measures. This is complemented by radio spots, video, posters and leaflets in Rohingya, Burmese and Bengali languages. Additional measures, including ensuring soap and water are accessible to all and increasing the number of hand washing facilities, are underway. Support for the creation of new isolation and treatment facilities for refugees and surrounding host community is also ongoing.

In Greece, UNHCR has been stepping up its support to the authorities to increase water and sanitation capacity, deliver hygiene items, and to establish and furnish medical units and spaces for screening, isolation and quarantine. UNHCR is also facilitating access to quality information for asylum seekers via helplines and interpretation, and by mobilizing refugee volunteers. UNHCR has been urging the authorities to scale up transfers from crowded island reception centres where 35,000 asylum seekers are staying in facilities for fewer than 6,000.

In Jordan, temperature screening is conducted at the entrance of the Zaatari and Azraq refugee camps. Awareness campaigns are ongoing. Electricity provision has been enhanced and the supermarkets are running extended hours to facilitate social distancing.

Handwashing and temperature screening facilities have also been put in place at points of entry as well as transit centres, reception centres and health facilities in camps/settlements in Ethiopia and Uganda.

In Sudan, UNHCR has delivered soap to over 260,000 refugees, internally displaced people (IDP) and members of the host communities. UNHCR, other UN agencies and the Ministry of Health are running a massive awareness campaign in several languages. Some 15,000 text messages have been sent to urban refugees living in Khartoum, sharing health awareness and prevention advice.

Prevention measures have also been put in place in refugee camps and IDP sites in the DRC and Burkina Faso. This includes the installation of hand-washing stations, the distribution of soap and cleaning products, mass awareness-raising using posters, leaflets, radio spots and community networks.

In Brazil, UNHCR and partners are establishing an isolation area in Boa Vista to host suspected cases among Venezuelan refugees and migrants as well as the local population, and are distributing 1,000 hygiene kits to the indigenous populations in Belem and Santarem.

UNHCR is also working with UN partners to find solutions to logistical challenges resulting from disrupted manufacturing capacity and border closures. This includes stepping up local and regional procurement and organizing air bridges. Over 100 tonnes of emergency and medical aid were recently airlifted to Chad and Iran.

“We will continue to expand our critical interventions on the ground. But to do this, we need timely and unearmarked financial support now, including to ongoing humanitarian operations. Coordinated international support is in our common interest and absolutely critical,” concluded Grandi.