Response to the Refugee Crisis during the Pandemic

Refugees during the pandemic

5th July 2020

Ingebjørg Kårstad/NRC

Refugees and migrants are among the most vulnerable group of people during this global pandemic. When thinking of the term ‘refugee’, one often pictures a Syrian family fleeing from their war-torn country in order to seek better opportunities in Europe. Among the 26 million refugees worldwide, the Syrians, Afghans, Venezuelans, Sudanese and Rohingyas make up a large percentage of this population.


All refugees and migrants suffer from the lack of basic human necessities. They are stripped of their rights as citizens of this world and to no fault of their own. They are made up of a group of people fleeing from a violence that they did not want in their back garden. It is not their fault that they are in a compromised position so the least that should be done is to implement safety measures to ensure they do not fall victim to this deadly virus.


Many of these refugees and displaced people try to find shelter in countries such as Turkey and Greece. These countries are positioned advantageously to allow a steady flow of refugees to enter the EU from the Middle East. Just to give a sense of the urgency of the situation – Moria, the Greek island of Lesbos, which only has capacity for 3000 people, is currently accommodating a perilous 20,000 refugees from the Middle East and Africa.


However, on the south east side of the globe, the refugees from Rohingya face the rampant and exacerbating effects of COVID-19 in camps that are vulnerable and defenceless against the spread of the virus. Currently the largest refugee settlement in the world, Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, hosts more than 750,000 refugee and displaced individuals. These refugees are mainly seeking asylum from the mass exodus in Myanmar. This mass movement was a result of the military persecution faced by the ethnic minority in Myanmar, namely the Rohingya Muslims. 


When the first two cases of the virus were detected in Cox’s Bazar, the two individuals as well as the 5,000 people who were in contact with them, were isolated and placed in complete lockdown. Since there is no internet access in most camps, and the respective hosting governments aim to keep it that way, there is no suitable manner to spread the importance of specific safety measures that the refugees should take.


NGOs have been going from shelter to shelter with megaphones stressing the importance of hygiene and social distancing. Nevertheless, this is done in vain. Advising people in a camp in a middle to lower economically developed country where sanitation products, food and water are scantily dispersed, is not effective enough. 


Healthcare workers and volunteers in Rohingya are doing as much as they can to spread accurate information and awareness of the Coronavirus. The World Health Organisation (WHO) is also training its workers in the clinical control of the disease in Cox’s bazar. Additionally, the barbed wired outskirts of the camps have proven to be beneficial as a means to keep the local residents of Bangladesh out, as well as the virus. However, the opposing argument in regards to the barbed wires suggests that even if the virus is to enter the camp, there is no way for the refugees to seek medical care outside the camp. Their movements are restricted regardless of the state of their health. They are unable to access the same quality of medical care as a regular citizen due to their statelessness. The barbed wire also acts as an analogy for the separation of the refugees from the human world. The spiked barrier is a literal representation of the forces that are in work to keep the refugees at a distance from their human rights. 


This type of existence brings to mind Hannah Arendt’s frequently quoted phrase “the right to have rights” (Arendt, 1962). Every human is subject to acquire basic human rights, however, what Arendt criticises as well, is the inherent inequality within the sphere of rights. She suggests, rightly so, that one is only eligible for such rights if they are also a citizen. As refugees and migrants lack this status, their rights are often overlooked.


Limited testing equipment and a plethora of hearsay and misinformation about the virus, with some refugees thinking it is a ploy by the Bangladeshi government to kill them, makes for a deadly combination for the growth of a societal fear. If well-equipped European countries are struggling to contain the spread of the virus, the arrival of COVID-19 in the world’s largest refugee camp is a calamity in the making. The UN calls this group “the most persecuted minority in the world”, and this proves to be true as we see the Bangladeshi government attempting to spend millions trying to relocate refugees on an island by the name of Bhasan Char. However, the UN and aid agencies have declared it unfit for habitation as the island is believed to be prone to flooding. The Bangladeshi governments nonchalant attitude towards the thousands of lives residing within their borders is clearly evident in this hasty decision.


The UN, various NGOs, the WHO, private sector businesses and more are reaching out and providing aid towards the suffering migrants and refugees but it is simply not enough. In an era where there is so much uncertainty and a global aura strife with returning anxieties buried in the past the long forgotten plight of the refugees still remains. 


At the end of the day, the world will continue revolving around central issues such as foreign policy, economic imbalances, wavering oil prices and general elections. This article just touched upon one refugee group. More needs to be done for these displaced individuals. There will always be salient and pressing matters occurring at the global front. However, our treatment and reaction towards those who are in a disadvantaged position dictates our level of humanity.

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