Coronavirus cases surge among refugees in Middle East as pandemic pushes most vulnerable deeper into poverty

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he number of coronavirus cases among refugees and the displaced is surging across the Middle East, humanitarian agencies and the UN have warned, as the first infections were reported among Syrians living in camps in Jordan.   

The true rate of infection among the 18 million people displaced in the region is unknown because of a chronic lack of testing. But UN data shows there well over a thousand confirmed to have Covid-19 in Jordan, Syria, Iraq, the Palestinian Territories and Lebanon.    

New and worrying clusters are surfacing. This week the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR confirmed the coronavirus has reached Zaatari, Jordan’s largest camp for Syrian refugees, and the smaller Azraq camp. Together they are home to around 120,000 people, igniting fears of an uncontrolled outbreak with social distancing measures impossible to enforce.    

In Lebanon, grappling with one of the largest outbreaks, there are fears of a new surge. The health care service is overwhelmed amid a deepening financial crisis and the fallout from last month’s devastating Beirut explosion that destroyed several coronavirus testing and treatment facilities. At least 13 Palestinian and Syrian refugees are known to have died from Covid-19 according to UNHCR and UNRWA, while over 1,000 have been infected.   

UN officials told The Independent that they not only fear the virus spreading unchecked in overcrowded camps, where families cannot social distance, but devastating secondary impacts of the pandemic such as joblessness and economic hardship. At least 55 per cent of Syrian refugees across the region was already in extreme poverty before the advent of Covid-19, according to the UN. After the arrival of the pandemic, that has risen to 75 per cent. While there is no hard data on other refugee nationalities, humanitarian organisations like the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), have registered similar trends.   

Virulent health crisis aside, Rula Amin, a UNHCR spokesperson, warns of a “pandemic of poverty” adding that  “worrying” new infections recently discovered in Jordan underscored the need for more support for refugee communities and countries hosting them. She said that while the UN was providing free and immediate health care for those with coronavirus, years of work building up education opportunities and financial aid could be wiped away.    

“The devastating economic impact means that more refugees are being pushed deeper into poverty, compounding their challenges. The pandemic is threatening to reverse major achievements on that front that took years to accomplish,” she added.   

Most people have had no work over the last six months, which not only causes problems financially but psychologically, we have noted an increase in cases of violence within the family

Mohammed Hassoun, refugee in Ein al-Hilweh camp

“The pandemic has proved that there are no borders, we cannot isolate ourselves. It is not just an ethical obligation to help the countries hosting refugees, or the humanitarian communities – it is in the interest of everyone. We are all in the same boat,” she said.   

Refugees in Lebanon told The Independent that they were living food handout to food handout, as they struggled amid a catastrophic combination of strict lockdowns on their communities due to a surge in cases and the country’s economic collapse.  “Most people have had no work over the last six months, which not only causes problems financially but psychologically, we have noted an increase in cases of violence within the family,“ says Mohammed Hassoun, a Palestinian refugee in Ein al-Hilweh camp where he says there have been more than 50 cases. 

Syrian refugees ride their bikes in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan(Reuters)

Hassoun himself is jobless because of the lockdown and now is reduced to borrowing from friends to make ends meet, while trying to secure food parcels or meals from charities for people in home isolation. “Here in Lebanon the crises only multiply and multiply. And for refugees, we have no safety nets in place to guarantee we can be okay.”   

The economic fallout from the coronavirus has also seen more displaced and refugee families facing the threat of evictions and unable to pay rent, according to the NRC’s Samah Hadid, which, on Monday, will release a report into the devastating economic impact of Covid-19 on refugees globally. Hadid said the virus has radically reduced income forcing many to skip meals, go hungry, and cut spending on sanitation or medical care, making them even more vulnerable.   

The devastating economic impact means that more refugees are being pushed deeper into poverty, compounding their challenges. The pandemic is threatening to reverse major achievements on that front that took years to accomplish

Rula Amin, UNHCR

“Stress levels amongst refugee and displaced children in the Middle East have drastically increased because of Covid-19. Children that have once been forced to flee hunger and war are now living in fear because of the pandemic. This sustained toxic and chronic stress can have serious and long-term implications on children’s health,” she added.   

There are also concerns among the invisible refugee populations, like those being held in detention centres. Eritrean refugees in a horrific migrant detention centre in west Libya told The Independent via smuggled phones, they had not had contact with aid agencies in six months and had no protection against the potential spread of the disease. Around two dozen inmates in that particular prison in Zintan have died of suspected tuberculosis since 2018. But amid the cramped, squalid conditions in their cells, they fear those most recently ill may actually have coronavirus since the symptoms are very similar.   

Meanwhile in Lebanon’s Roumieh prison, where there are believed to be more than 200 coronavirus cases, a Syrian refugee, said the true number of cases was much higher and they weren’t getting proper treatment. “In my block, 90 per cent of the prisoners have symptoms of the coronavirus. In my cell we are all sick with fever and a cough,” he said, asking for his name to be omitted for security reasons. 

Videos taken of the cells and shared with The Independent showed men crammed as many as 10 to a room built for three. “We cannot check the spread of this disease, we have no space to even lie down at the same time,” he added. “We need a response plan to cover health needs of the prisoners. We need hospitals to open their doors to us. Our families outside are not allowed to send us medicine or vitamins.”  

The UN said that it was working to provide cash assistance and supplies for refugee communities, but it needs more support from the international community. “We need more funds, not just for the health side but all the consequences, the secondary and tertiary effects, as well as support for the host communities,” UNHCR’s Amin said. “It’s better to tackle the problem before it is too late.”