Mitigation of Adverse Consequences of COVID-19 on Refugees in Post-Conflict Zones & The Role of International Organizations

This blog is inscribed by Arunav Bhattacharjya.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been an aggravating factor for the suffering of some of the world’s most vulnerable groups of people, mostly the women and children refugees mostly in post-conflict zones. Many refugees around the world were already living below the poverty line and struggling to make ends meet. With the current crisis, they have lost the little income they earn, which is forcing them to cut down on basic resources including food, medicine, health and hygiene. The current COVID-19 pandemic has brought around the world an unprecedented, unseen public health crisis and has become a major socio-economic issue for the governments around the world. The global media every day keeps us on the check as to how the pandemic has impacted all sections of the society irrespective of age and border separation. As there are growing concerns about the inability to control the spread and community transmission of the virus globally, rapid preparation and planning have been proved to be crucial, and measures giving out long-run benefits are needed particularly where this virus may have the hardest impact. 

An estimated figure of more than 7.2 million people around the world at present lives in refugee camps and settlements, characterized by a high density of population, limited clean drinking water and sanitation facilities, and scarce healthcare resources which has created a very ideal condition for the spread of this pandemic. What lies ahead for the governments of various nations and international organizations is how to contain this pandemic and win the war against the virus in a sustained and well-articulated manner. However, in the midst of the crisis, the various international organizations, civil society, NGO’s and most importantly the respective government has failed to keep check the impact of the pandemic on the children and women in a post-conflict zone where there is a dearth of proper health and hygiene facility, lack of medical infrastructure and lack of adequate information on the pandemic among the target section of the society. Despite the fact that many international organizations advocates for the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of mental and physical health for all, the present reality represents a rather gloomy picture of this though. Assess to public health has proven to be a key to addressing COVID-19 prevention and control but the scenario in the post-conflict zones depict the weakest link int his approach. Therefore, protecting the health of refugees, especially the women and children who are the most vulnerable groups in a post-conflict zone through informed policies and interventions by the political system and other organizations is critically important to the protection of the health of this vulnerable population.

With a rapid increase in the number of cases, the spread of the viral disease is posing to be a big hindrance to the stakeholders to address the various needs of the refugees and countering inner zone conflicts in the respective countries. In a refugee camp in the Northwestern area in Syria, where more than 1 million people have been displaced due to the civil war, families suffer and live in cramped conditions, where either there is weak or a complete nonexistent healthcare system and lack of access to safe and clean drinking water. The straggly refugee camps outside the Cox’s Bazar region in Bangladesh recorded the first death due to COVID-19 and the number of cases among refugees rising rapidly due to unavailability of proper medicare facility. The present living situation inside these densely populated camps, shelter to nearly 850,000 Rohingya refugees who fled from persecution from Myanmar, including 16,000 in quarantine zones have been termed as “perfect storm” for transmission of the disease by many health experts which is due to the lack of proper health, hygiene and sanitation facilities in these camps. In many camps, proper detection tests are yet to take place and therefore there is not enough attention paid with regard to early detection and tracing of the cases. In another instance, 15 Syrian woman refugees in a Lebanese town have tested positive, leading to the mass hysteria that an outbreak will affect nearly 2 million refugees already residing in this region in Lebanon. 

Countries that once liberally hosted refugees have now largely reversed this commitment by adopting many adversarial, ‘nationalistic’ and restrictive measures; while some countries have threatened to close refugees’ camps citing security reasons; and some governments have stirred up xenophobic and racial sentiments against refugees marking a clear violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951 Convention), Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (1967 Protocol) and thwarts the efforts put up by international organizations like the United Nation Human Rights Committee (UNHRC), United Nations Higher Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Persistent abuses of the asylum systems, as well as irregular movements, have led to the refusal of entry to refugees and facilitation of expulsion from asylum countries. The UNHCR was created to provide international protection to the refugees and to find long-lasting solutions to refugee problems. Some specific functions of the UNHCR include securing legal and pragmatic protection to refugees with and through the respective governments, to oversee the mobilization process and the coordination of resources for the well-being and survival of the refugees and encouraging conditions in conflict zones that will allow refugees to eventually return voluntarily to their countries of origin. But the current pandemic has exposed the vacuum that exist between these functions and its full proof implementation, the failure of which is due to a wide range of factors which includes lack of incentives by the national governments, lack of coordination among the stakeholders of the situation and counter-insurgency operations carried out within the state. Reconstruction after the end of a war can only succeed if it is initiated by the native population. It will surely be a time-consuming affair for a country to show the first signs of recovery, the recovery rates globally has been a promising sign. 

Efficient coordination between the donor countries and international aid organizations is very vital for post-conflict rehabilitation of women and children refugees considering their vulnerable status to being most exploited both physically and mentally. Reconstruction initiatives should not just target only the conflict zone but also the regions where there is the movement of refugees. Unprecedented travel and mobility restrictions which are usually intended to prevent the spread of the virus have had multifaceted impacts so far. Refugees who are previously less at risk of trafficking may become victims of such crime, while vulnerabilities of persons already at risk of trafficking may be further aggravated, for example, women and girls who disproportionately have fallen victims to this crime and resulting in physical abuse and exploitation.

Poverty is a very resulting factor in post-conflict zones and its reduction prevent further conflicts. However, there are other contributory factors that breed conflict from poverty, like social inequality or weak governance. Poor countries end up in a downward spiral of violent conflicts further leading to poorly functioning economy and political instability. With a lack of financial resources and incentives, they are caught in a vicious circle of poverty and weak security which is known as the ‘poverty-security trap’. The spread of the pandemic in high–population density refugee settlements may have profound consequences, which requires reinforcement in healthcare capacity and medical infrastructure that exceed what is feasible in this current setting. One of the many consequences that isolation and other reconciling measures may cause, is an increase in intimate gender violence, physical, mental and sexual abuse among the unaccompanied minors and other vulnerable groups, and unattended mental health issues, should be taken into account, and articulated plans should be laid out in a concrete manner. There is a need for an increase in funding for basic supplies which includes PPE as well as large-scale testing methods if these plans are to succeed to contain the spread of the virus. In these extraordinary times, it is justified for the governments to take extraordinary measures in order to protect their citizens as this is what is expected of from a government. Therefore, many countries have and will restrict access to their hospitals to nationals only, particularly when there are large numbers of refugees in the same geographical area. 

The pandemic has also brought out the fact that refugees face racial discrimination and are often falsely accused of spreading disease coupled with xenophobic hatred. This is due to the widespread rise of populist governments combined with an anti-migrant and anti-refugee nationalist sentiment that we are observing globally has given ground for a hostile environment that could be well aggravated by the pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic, even though is completely unconnected to being a refugee, could well be used as an excuse to take retaliation against refugees, and other vulnerable groups such as Internally Displaced Peoples and undocumented migrants. There is a need for a gendered perspective to mitigate the effects of the pandemic on the female refugees as they fall in the vulnerable category. The rapid testing procedure and services should be provided to everyone within the geographic region, regardless of the fact that whether the individual is a national or a refugee. It should be proportionate and equitable to all leaving out any scope of discrimination. Even though the higher-income countries are hit by COVID-19, they need to fund in response to that of the low- and middle-income countries as these countries don’t have the means to deal with this apart from the help of the other stakeholders. International bodies, National Governments and other organizations must also ensure that the pandemic is not used as an excuse to increase xenophobic hate and stigmatization or to implement policies such as stopping asylum claim as it would pose a humanitarian risk in the long run. These refugee populations already suffer from a host of other diseases and lack of access to proper health care facilities and further transmission of COVID-19 will lead to high co-morbidity deaths. Keeping these points, issues and hardship scenarios in mind, it is time that the international bodies should rise above diplomatic hurdles among the big nations and move towards their action plan to mitigate the issue at hand. The realities of the pandemic must be dealt with pragmatic solutions eliminating the hindrances which stand in the way. Any delay in doing will only lead to further worsening of the situation, something which already a ‘ticking bomb’, must be well diffused before the sparks lit up.

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