The Effect of coronavirus on refugee camps
As COVID-19 continues to spread throughout the world, migrant and refugee communities find themselves among the most vulnerable to the virus. Their circumstances often do not allow them to follow public health guidelines. Refugee camps are frequently overcrowded, therefore making social distancing nearly impossible. Aid organizations face shortages of food, medicine, and sanitation products due to disruptions in global supply chains. Access to healthcare is limited and governments have redirected attention and resources to combating the pandemic among their citizens. These conditions make refugee camps highly susceptible to the virus.
The Cox’s Bazar refugee camp in Bangladesh currently houses over 900,000 Rohingya refugees who faced violent persecution in Myanmar. The effects of the pandemic are evident in the evolving dynamics between the aid workers and refugees. Aid workers are often unable to enter Cox’s Bazar because of a lack of personal protective equipment. Not only has this exacerbated existing food and water shortages, but it has also forced aid organizations to halt other programs such as vaccine administration. Additionally, the Bangladeshi government has imposed an internet and cell service blackout on the camp, citing state security and public safety concerns. The restrictions have hindered aid workers’ efforts to coordinate services and share information, as they often communicate with refugees through apps like Whatsapp. This has led to the spread of misinformation. For example, there was a rumor that medical workers would either forcibly remove or kill anyone who had the virus. This fosters distrust between refugees and aid workers, which further worsens health conditions within the camp.
The Matamoros migrant camp in Mexico formed in 2018 when the Trump administration enacted policies that forced asylum seekers to wait in Mexico as their applications moved through U.S. immigration courts. As in Cox’s Bazar, there is little potential for social distancing in Matamoros. Asylum seekers live in makeshift tents that are just inches apart and house up to six people. Furthermore, asylum seekers have no access to electricity or running water, and the few portable bathrooms have at times overflowed with waste. Many of the U.S. aid organizations that once provided food, clothing, and legal counseling have left because of coronavirus restrictions. However, Mexican officials have stated that they plan to relocate half of the camp’s residents to a stadium that would provide more space and medical facilities.
Despite bleak conditions, refugees and migrants have found ways to promote safety and health within the camps. At Cox’s Bazar, a group of young Rohingya volunteered to distribute supplies throughout the camp and spread information about social distancing and hand-washing. In Matamoros, asylum seekers have sewed face masks for other residents of the camp using sewing machines and cloth brought by volunteers. The Sidewalk School, which has provided education for the young asylum seekers, turned to online classes after receiving a donation of over 100 tablets. As governments scramble to provide adequate testing, supplies, and treatment, communities have turned inwards for safety and support.