World Refugee Day 2020: How refugees are coping during the COVID-19 pandemic

CARE is providing coronavirus prevention and essential supplies to refugees and displaced people in 33 countries

As we mark World Refugee Day 2020, the overwhelming impact of existing crises and the spread of COVID-19 mean refugees and other crisis-affected communities are in critical need of urgent and sustained support.

While everyone around the world struggles to cope with the devastating impacts of COVID-19, the risks are heightened for the world’s 79.5 million people who have had to flee from their homes because of war, persecution, natural disasters, hunger, or instability.

As COVID-19 continues to disproportionately impact the most vulnerable here at home and around the world, we know that refugees and displaced people are at particular risk.

According to UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, 134 refugee-hosting countries are reporting local transmission of COVID-19. Refugee camps and settlements are typically overcrowded, and refugees commonly lack access to water and hygiene supplies and facilities, which may cause the virus to spread.

Portrait of Jamanida in Cox's Bazar refugee camp

Jamanida’s story

Jamanida, a mother and Rohingya refugee, fled violence to seek refuge in the world’s biggest refugee camp, in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Now, living in an overcrowded and under-resourced camp, she’s doing her best to take precautions against contracting COVID-19.

Jamanida, her husband and their four children fled from their home in Myanmar as their house was burning down and their village was being attacked. She says:

They were chasing us, killing people in front of us. We were in terror, thinking they might catch us. We had to swim to get here. It was raining. There was mud all over. We had our children with us. Their father was [carrying] them on his shoulder.

Many other Rohingya share Jamanida’s experience.

View of refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh
A view of the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps

As hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar flooded into Bangladesh in late 2017 and early 2018, Zia Choudhury, the CARE Bangladesh Country Director, said:

Almost all [women we spoke with in the camps] appear traumatised. Many trekked barefoot for days, through fields, jungles and rivers to get here.

As with many other refugee camps, conditions at the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps are harsh, and resources are limited. Deepmala Mahla, CARE’s Regional Director for Asia, says:

The entire family lives in one room and they share all water and hygiene facilities, like taps to collect their drinking water, handwashing points, latrines, which means not only are people using a single facility, they are overcrowded.

While these conditions are always a health risk, they are particularly concerning during the coronavirus pandemic and could trigger an outbreak. In addition, health services are limited and there are no intensive care beds in the camp. Deepmala says:

When I think about a COVID-19 outbreak in Cox’s Bazar, I shudder to think what it could be in terms of the magnitude and the implications.

CARE, which has worked in Bangladesh since 1949, is supporting refugees with food, disaster risk reduction, women’s empowerment programmes and emergency aid.

COVID awareness session at Cox's Bazar refugee camp
Mosfika Akter, a volunteer from the host community in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, running a COVID-19 awareness session in the refugee camp

CARE is also educating residents on hand washing and other preventative measures. Jamanida says:

They told us to wash our hands after chopping vegetables, also to wash our hands before cooking. They advised us to keep our kids clean [and] to dispose of garbage so our kids don’t get sick.

Given that women and girls are typically responsible for finding water, washing and cooking, and taking care of unwell family members, they are especially at risk.

Around 52 per cent of refugees in Cox’s Bazar are women and girls, and the majority of the refugees – 459,000 — are children. Deepmala says it’s an “absolute no-brainer” to focus on interventions that support women and children:

The household burden is shared more by women and girls, so when people are not able to go out, the burden on the family to earn a livelihood is bigger. Who sacrifices the meal first? Women and girls.

Girls drawing at women's safe space in Cox's Bazar refugee camp
Girls drawing at a CARE-run women’s safe space in the refugee camps at Cox’s Bazar

Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, CARE has been arguing that women must be at the forefront of the response. This World Refugee Day, we also want to pay tribute to the resourcefulness, self-reliance and proactive response by refugees to support their own communities and find solutions in the face of COVID-19. As Nirvana Shawky, CARE’s Regional Director for MENA (Middle East and North Africa) says:

Despite being amongst the most at risk of exploitation, violence, and poverty, we see women refugees making extraordinary contributions to the societies in which they live. On the front line of the COVID-19 response, experienced doctors and nurses are providing their services as volunteers, and community workers are raising awareness about the pandemic through phone services. Whether they are Syrian, Sudanese, Palestinian, Iraqi or Yemeni, we are inspired every day by refugees across the region showing resilience, overcoming challenges in their daily lives, and giving back to their hosting communities.

Please help CARE support refugees and other vulnerable communities to respond to COVID-19:

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News and stories are provided by CARE staff working to support our emergency responses and long-term development programmes.