UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is today appealing to countries worldwide to do far more to find homes for millions of refugees and others displaced by conflict, persecution or events seriously disturbing public order. This is as a report released today showed that forced displacement is now affecting more than one per cent of humanity – 1 in every 97 people – and with fewer and fewer of those who flee being able to return home.
UNHCR’s annual Global Trends report, which comes two days ahead of 20 June World Refugee Day, shows that an unprecedented 79.5 million were displaced as of the end of 2019. UNHCR has not seen a higher total.
The report also notes diminishing prospects for refugees when it comes to hopes of any quick end to their plight. In the 1990s, on average 1.5 million refugees were able to return home each year. Over the past decade that number has fallen to around 385,000, meaning that growth in displacement is today far outstripping solutions.
“We are witnessing a changed reality in that forced displacement nowadays is not only vastly more widespread but is simply no longer a short-term and temporary phenomenon,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi. “People cannot be expected to live in a state of upheaval for years on end, without a chance of going home, nor a hope of building a future where they are. We need a fundamentally new and more accepting attitude towards all who flee, coupled with a much more determined drive to unlock conflicts that go on for years and that are at the root of such immense suffering.”
UNHCR’s Global Trends report shows that of the 79.5 million who were displaced at the end of last year, 45.7 million were people who had fled to other areas of their own countries. The rest were people displaced elsewhere, 4.2 million of them being people awaiting the outcome of asylum requests, while 29.6 million were refugees and others forcibly displaced outside their country.
The annual increase, from a figure of 70.8 million at the end of 2018, is a result of two main factors. First is worrying new displacement in 2019, particularly in Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Sahel, Yemen and Syria – the latter now in its tenth year of conflict and accounting on its own for 13.2 million refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced people, fully a sixth of the world’s total.
Second is a better presentation of the situation of Venezuelans outside their country, many of whom are not legally registered as refugees or asylum-seekers, but for whom protection-sensitive arrangements are required.
And within all of these numbers is a multitude of individual and very personal crises. As many children (estimated at 30-34 million, tens of thousands of them unaccompanied) are among the displaced than, for example, the entire populations of Australia, Denmark and Mongolia combined. Meanwhile, the proportion of displaced aged 60 and above (4 per cent) is far below that of the world population (12 per cent) – a statistic that speaks to immeasurable heartbreak, desperation, sacrifice and being torn apart from loved ones.
8 things you need to know about forced displacement today
100 million people at least were forced to flee their homes in the past decade, seeking refugee either in or outside their countries. That’s more people fleeing than the entire population of Egypt, the world’s 14th most populous country.
Forced displacement has almost doubled since 2010 (41 million then vs 79.5 million now).
80 per cent of the world’s displaced people are in countries or territories affected by acute food insecurity and malnutrition – many of them countries facing climate and other disaster risk.
More than three-quarters of the world’s refugees (77 per cent) are caught up in situations of long-term displacement – for example the situation in Afghanistan, now in its fifth decade.
More than eight of every 10 refugees (85 per cent) are in developing countries, generally a country neighbouring the one they fled.
Five countries account for two-thirds of people displaced across borders: Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar.
Global Trends Report counts all major displaced and refugee populations, including the 5.6 million Palestine refugees who fall under the care of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine.
The 2030 Sustainable Development commitment of “leaving no one behind” now explicitly includes refugees, thanks to a new indicator on refugees approved by the UN Statistical Commission in March this year.
UNHCR’s Global Trends report is released in parallel with its annual Global Report, which reports on actions UNHCR is taking to address the needs of all who are forced to flee, as well as the world’s known stateless populations.
For additional information:
UNHCR’s Global Trends report and an accompanying package of multimedia assets are available on our media page. The report is subject to a worldwide embargo of no use before 0500 GMT on 18 June 2020.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, welcomes the contribution of USD 450,000 made by the Government of Japan to support the prevention of the further spread of COVID-19 in Thailand.
COVID-19 impacts everyone and displaced persons in Thailand are at the same risk of contracting and transmitting the virus as local populations. However, these groups can be particularly vulnerable as a result of challenges they may face meeting basic needs, accessing information about COVID-19 and obtaining hygiene items or medical support.
“This generous contribution of the Government of Japan will allow UNHCR to share information on hygiene measures with displaced persons in urban areas to ensure that they are well informed about recommended public health practices,” said Mr. Giuseppe De Vincentiis, UNHCR’s Representative in Thailand.
“It will also go towards providing support to the most vulnerable individual cases of displaced persons allowing them to meet some of their basic needs and contribute to overall social stability in urban areas in Thailand, complementing the efforts of the Royal Thai Government.”
In response to the COVID-19 global humanitarian appeal, the Government of Japan has generously donated a total of USD 23.9 million to support the prevention of further spread of COVID-19 in several countries in the Asia-Pacific, as well as in the Middle East and North Africa.
The Ambassador of Japan to Thailand, His Excellency Mr. NASHIDA Kazuya stated: “In order to contain the spread of COVID-19 across the region and the world, it is crucial for the international community to make concerted efforts, and I hope that Japan’s assistance through UNHCR would help prevent further spread of COVID-19 among vulnerable individuals in Thailand.”
He added: “Japan and Thailand can strengthen a close cooperation to take necessary measures to defeat COVID-19 in Thailand and the region.”
While the wellbeing of displaced persons and other persons of concern remains at the center of its prevention and response efforts, UNHCR also stands in solidarity with the Thai people and continues to coordinate with and support the ongoing efforts of the Royal Thai Government to put appropriate measures in place to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and partner organizations have further intensified their COVID-19 response in the Rohingya refugee camps in the Cox’s Bazar area of Bangladesh, following the first confirmed case of coronavirus among the refugee population yesterday. Since March, UNHCR and partners have been supporting the Government of Bangladesh primarily in COVID-19 preparation and prevention efforts. With this first confirmed case, response mechanisms have now been activated and will require additional international support.
According to the Government of Bangladesh, one Rohingya refugee has tested positive for COVID-19 in the Kutupalong refugee settlement in Bangladesh. In addition, one member of the local Bangladeshi host community has also tested positive. Both had approached health facilities run by humanitarian partners, where samples were taken. These were subsequently tested in the IEDCR Field Laboratory in Cox’s Bazar.
Following the laboratory confirmation, Rapid Investigation Teams have been activated to investigate both cases, initiate isolation and treatment of patients as well as tracing contacts, quarantine and testing of contacts as per WHO guidelines.
Testing began in the Cox’s Bazar District in early April. As of yesterday (14 May), 108 refugees have been tested.
There are serious concerns about the potentially severe impact of the virus in the densely populated refugee settlements sheltering some 860,000 Rohingya refugees. Another 400,000 Bangladeshis live in the surrounding host communities. These populations are considered to be among the most at risk globally in this pandemic. No effort must be spared if higher fatality rates are to be avoided in overcrowded sites with limited health and water and sanitation infrastructure.
In support of the government-led public health efforts to curb the spread and impact of the pandemic, since March UNHCR and partners have carried out a range of preparedness and prevention measures. Established procedures have been put in place to respond to suspected and confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the host as well as refugee population of Cox’s Bazar. Health staff in all clinics within the camps have been oriented on Infection Prevention and Control (IPC), including the appropriate use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
250 clinical focal points have been trained on Early Warning Alert and Response System (EWARS). Over 3,000 refugee volunteers have received training on COVID-19 and work in the camps to ensure key messages are shared with refugees, including community health workers and Protection community outreach workers, as well as Imams community leaders and civil society groups.
Communications are being shared in camps and host communities through radio spots, videos, posters, and messages in Rohingya, Burmese and Bengali languages explaining how the virus spreads, how people can protect themselves and their families, how to recognize symptoms and how to seek care.
Hygiene promotion has been stepped up in the settlements, and all partners are ensuring that water and soap is readily available to all. Additional measures, including increasing the number of hand washing facilities in distribution centres, health points, nutrition, and other places where we deliver services are underway. Humanitarian partners continue to advocate for re-establishment of internet connectivity within the camps, to ensure that all refugees have adequate access to information, and to enable communication between partners.
All water and sanitation, and health partners carry out regular hygiene promotion activities within the camps. Efforts are underway to clean and disinfect communal areas and neighbourhoods throughout the camps, while social distancing measures have been put in place at all distribution points, as well as mandatory handwashing. Establishment of Isolation and Treatment Centers (ITCs) – dedicated to the management of severe cases in existing health facilities and in new sites continues – is underway and continues to be an urgent priority.
Despite the efforts that have been carried out to lay the ground to respond to the presence of COVID-19 in the refugee settlements, this response phase now requires concerted action and cooperation to ensure prompt treatment for patients, inform and communicate effectively with communities, and limit further spread.
Timely and flexible support from governments, private sector and individuals for ongoing refugee operations and host communities programmes as well as for Covid-19 response in Bangladesh and elsewhere remains critical. The Joint Response Plan for the Rohingya Humanitarian Crisis is currently just 26 per cent funded.
Logistics are the backbone of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. Vicente Escribano, head of the Supply Management Service, opens up to Matthew Mpoke Bigg about the vast challenges his team faces in delivering shelter, food, medicines and other essential items to some of the world’s hardest-to-reach areas – and how UNHCR is rising to the challenge of delivering aid during the COVID-19 pandemic.
What is UNHCR’S Supply Management Service and how does it deliver aid?
Logistics is central to UNHCR. Unless shelter, food, medicines and other essential relief items are delivered there is no protection. The Supply Management Service (SMS) uses cars, trucks and planes and its goal is to respond to needs fast and effectively. When an emergency is declared anywhere, we aim to deliver core relief items for up to 600,000 people within 72 hours.
We use a network of eight global stockpiles situated near ports and airports from which big cargo planes can airlift goods to places of concern. The aid includes tents, blankets, kitchen sets, sleeping mats, solar lamps, jerry cans, plastic sheets, mosquito nets and buckets.
In 2019, SMS delivered core relief items to assist 23 million people from global stockpiles or our suppliers to new emergencies and on-going operations. We shipped 1,700 containers worldwide, an average of around five trucks a day. The value of the core assistance was US$126 million. In addition, we responded to emergencies with eight airlifts.
The SMS team of 110 people works from Budapest. In addition, 12 staff work in our global warehouses or in the field, doing vehicles and asset disposal. SMS staff also work on procurement. Last year, UNHCR procured goods and services for a value of US$ 1.3 billion. They also manage logistics, oversee inventories and over 180 warehouses worldwide and they manage a fleet of over 6,500 light vehicles in a centralized rental scheme. The global supply community is composed of some 600 people in over 70 countries.
What challenges does the team face under normal circumstances?
Our main challenge is the uncertainty of an emergency and delivering aid in rough and isolated places.
To deal with uncertainty we plan and anticipate the unknown by prepositioning stock and assessing the likelihood of an emergency. We also plan responses with programme colleagues in every operation and we stand ready to deploy staff to emergencies.
We need to establish a warehouse network that supports difficult operations and create a local supply base of key items. This helps the local economy because suppliers may be asked to maintain certain stock to respond to unexpected surges in demand.
It helps to be flexible. When refugees settle along a river, we may need to hire boats to serve them. To overcome a country’s rainy season, we store items during the dry season, or deliver by small plane to a flooded area. Landlocked countries may require stocks to be pre-positioned near a port. Then we establish a corridor.
Other times, the challenge involves politics. Governments can forbid the movement of trucks. Clearing customs can be a problem. Violence can make delivery difficult and dangerous. Our team needs to be flexible to get the job done while staying safe.
How hard is to deliver aid given the fast-evolving COVID-19 crisis?
It’s extremely challenging. The global supply chain collapsed and suppliers of personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical items were overwhelmed. Prices have skyrocketed. Available stocks are offered now, but not tomorrow. Advanced payment is required in many cases and lead-times are not guaranteed.
Moreover, the transportation system has grown chaotic. Most air freight forward planes are down, increasing demand for the limited available supply. Sea freight forwarders are struggling to maintain schedules due to port closures, restrictions and quarantines. Some governments have locked down imports and exports, inhibiting suppliers. In addition, the UN is competing with governments for limited supplies.
To manage this uncertainty we have expanded the number of global suppliers, from four to 13 and developed more than 70 local suppliers.
We have also simplified and streamlined procurement measures. Contracts are handled on a fast track basis and we work with other UN agencies for procurement and transportation.
We have issued purchase orders for PPE’s and medical items for 33 countries. So far we have airlifted relevant supplies to Iran, Bangladesh, Uganda and Chad and secured bookings for shipments to Kenya, Ethiopia, and also Iran. In addition, orders for a value of US$6 million – for masks, gowns, oxygen concentrator tests and gloves – have been placed. And we are managing in-kind donations from China and the African Development Bank, and from Unilever, 725,000 bars of soap for Cameroon.
What’s been the greatest success since the crisis began?
It is too early to talk about overall success. We are working hard to get the engine moving.
How can UNHCR mobilize to ship aid to anywhere in the world within 72 hours?
To 600,000 people in 72 hours after an emergency is declared is the equivalent to loading and shipping eight big aircraft stocked with core relief items daily for three days. We use a network of eight global stockpiles in Dubai, Amman, Copenhagen, Accra, Douala, Nairobi, Kampala and Panama. Each has access to an international airport ready to manage the air lift. We maintain inventories. Our supply staff stand ready to receive the goods, manage customs and set up last mile delivery.
But this maximum capability is not the norm. In an emergency, we mobilize a three pronged approach. We airlift relief items and material to assist in the first days. We also use road and sea deliveries and procure goods and services locally to equip a settlement and support the population. And we have set up a way to replenish items from suppliers to be ready again for the next emergency.
How do you procure hygiene supplies and protective gear during the COVID crisis?
The pandemic has stressed the chain of production and transportation in unprecedented ways. Our biggest concern in UNHCR is to procure PPE’s to protect our population of concern and also our employees and partners.
COVID-19 has disrupted air travel. How hard is it to get staff to an emergency?
It is not easy. The absence of flights and the restriction of movements and closed borders make it harder to provide assistance. SMS works with other agencies, namely WFP, within the Logistics Global Cluster, to find alternative transportation for passengers and cargo. This effort includes medevac. WFP has the expertise and is setting up global staging areas to offset the scarce cargo space and planes availability. It is a work in progress.
In addition, we are working with the deployment unit in Geneva to explore the option of sending expert supply staff from standby partners even under teleworking arrangements.
Spain, your home country, has been hit hard by COVID-19. What message do you have for that country?
I was on mission in the Americas when the Spanish government imposed a lock down. I managed, despite flight cancellations, to return to Spain on 18 March and decided to telework from Barcelona given restrictions on traveling to Budapest. Spain is fighting the virus in a very disciplined way. My impression is that the country is experiencing fear, uncertainty, anger, vulnerability, but also resilience, solidarity, and hope. My message to my compatriots is that the disease will end. A vaccine will be found. But society should look at itself in the mirror and reflect on how vulnerable we are and how we use our resources.
What makes you passionate about the work that you do at UNHCR?
I joined UNHCR in 2010 as Head of SMS at a time when deep transformation was needed. I had spent 35 years in the private sector with multinationals, but I always wanted to work in the humanitarian sector. Since then, we have achieved great progress and saved money.
Our work has an impact on people’s lives. Ordinary and often vulnerable refugees can feel protected by what we do. It’s a matter of life and death. So when we do our work well it feels very special.
More than 70 million people fleeing wars and violence are among those around the world observing the holy month of Ramadan, under the exceptional circumstances of the COVID-19 crisis. Refugees and internally displaced people are frequently among the most marginalized and vulnerable members of society and are particularly at risk during this pandemic. Together with the local communities that host them, they often have limited access to water, sanitation and health systems, and have only scarce socio-economic resources with which to survive. Many of those observing Ramadan will be doing so without the certainty of food on the table at the end of the day to break their fast.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, continues its partnership with the Sheikhul Islam Office and the Council for Humanitarian Networking of Sheikhul Islam Office on the third consecutive year during Ramadan to raise awareness in the Muslim community and raise funds for the most vulnerable refugees and internally displaced people who are not able to observe the holy month of Ramadan in their own countries. Contributions are urgently required to prevent more people from slipping deeper into poverty in light of the COVID-19 crisis.
“While the world fights this pandemic, the virus has shown that it does not discriminate. More than 80% of refugees, internally displaced and stateless persons often live in areas that are overcrowded or have weaker sanitation and hygiene systems. As these groups may be especially vulnerable, it is essential that they are included in each country’s COVID-19 national surveillance, response and planning activities.” said Mr. Giuseppe De Vincentiis, UNHCR’s Representative in Thailand.
“Ramadan used to be the happiest time for families. Now, many Muslim displaced persons are facing a difficult reality and many challenges, and long-standing Ramadan traditions will have to adapt to measures designed to protect public health. However, Ramadan remains a month of giving. We are all in this together and we will all go through it together. Compassion and hope, the true values of Ramadan, will get us through these difficult times in solidarity.”
UNHCR continues collecting Zakat funds, a religious obligation of purification set forth in the Quran to support the eight beneficiaries of Zakat through the Ramadan campaign this year. UNHCR’s Zakat initiative is fully Shariah compliant; backed by fatwas from the world’s respected scholars and institutions to support the overwhelming number of Muslims who are exposed to deprivation amid the COVID-19 crisis.
“This year’s holy month coincides with such uncertain times. We are now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record. More than 70 million people have been forced to flee their homes and among them are many Muslims. Many are children and women who will observe the holy month far away from what is called home and country. They are more vulnerable than ever in this pandemic,” Aziz Phitakkumpon, the Sheikhul lslam of Thailand said.
“We extend our partnership with UNHCR again this year to raise Zakat contributions during the month of giving for Muslims who are fighting with poverty and the spread of the virus. Ramadan encourages acts of kindness towards others and you will be blessed by Allah in the holy month through this generosity.”
The global Ramadan campaign was initiated in 2018 through the support gathered from all sectors. UNHCR was able to secure survival funds for more than 1 million people to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table for an entire year. For this third year, the campaign aims to generate funds to maintain vital life-saving assistance such as shelter, food, clean water and cash assistance for the most vulnerable refugees and internally displaced people including orphans, female-headed households, the elderly in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Malian refugees in Mauritania and Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to ensure they can survive these challenging times all year long.
Sheikhul Islam Office and the Council for Humanitarian Networking of Sheikhul Islam Office encourages donations to UNHCR, allowing it to continue its regular programming as well as providing much needed support to meet new mounting needs caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Contributions will go directly to vulnerable refugees and displaced people most in need while the Zakat is immediately assigned to eligible refugee families ensuring transparency throughout the process.
When an outbreak of Ebola stalked West Africa five years ago, Miata Tubee Johnson, a former refugee from Liberia and now a public health officer with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, played a key role in reducing deaths in the community from the deadly virus that claimed more than 10,000 lives.
Now facing the spread of COVID-19, she is taking her knowledge of virus wars to protect thousands of highly vulnerable refugees living in camps in Tanzania.
“The last thing we want is for there to be an outbreak in the camp,” says Miata, who spends her days between her office and three different refugee camps in Tanzania’s Kigoma region.
More than three quarters of the world’s 25.9 million refugees live in developing countries.
To prevent avoidable deaths and suffering, UNHCR, is prioritizing steps to curb potential COVID-19 outbreaks that would put extraordinary strain on already fragile local health-care services.
“The last thing we want is for there to be an outbreak in the camp.”
With 245,000 refugees in Tanzania, Miata is working all hours to implement steps to prevent an outbreak in the camps and host communities that surround them.
First on her agenda is chairing a COVID-19 preparedness meeting with 20 staff from a number of organizations and the government, sitting at least one meter apart under a tree – social distancing in effect.
Next, she will hand over a much-needed digital X-ray machine recently procured with donor funding, to a nearby district hospital serving the host community. The machines are useful diagnostic tools for COVID-19, as they can detect lung damage.
“We are always working to build capacity in the local health facilities when we identify gaps. It is important for coexistence between refugees and host communities,” adds Miata.
So far, there are no reported cases in Tanzania of the new coronavirus among refugees, most of whom are from Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Part of Miata’s focus is to ensure refugees are included in the national surveillance, preparedness and response activities.
“If there are any cases of COVID-19 in the camp, they will be referred to government designated health facilities,” she explains.
Having fled the civil war in Liberia as a child in 1991, Miata returned home with her family eight years later, went through school and graduated with a nursing degree. Two years later, she enrolled for a Master’s in Public Health. She then applied for a job as a Public Health Associate with the UNHCR office in Liberia.
In 2014, one year into her new job, Liberia declared a state of emergency following the Ebola outbreak in the region. The small West African country was the hardest hit, recording 4,809 deaths before the outbreak was declared over in 2016.
Miata’s job involved making sure refugees were well informed about how to prevent transmission of Ebola. She also worked with a team to convince governments to include refugees in the national Ebola prevention plan.
“My experience in Liberia actually prepared me for where I am today. I feel a sense of déjà vu,” she says.
While COVID-19 has a different transmission and etiology to Ebola, Miata draws broadly on that experience to provide lifesaving public health messaging and call for the integration of refugees into the national coronavirus response.
“My experience in Liberia actually prepared me for where I am today.”
The Tanzania refugee response is one of the least funded in the region, receiving only 25 per cent of the requested funding for 2019-2020. Basic services are severely over-stretched and unable to meet the needs of refugees.
While she works in Tanzania, her family remains at home in Liberia. Her work is demanding but keeping in touch with her eight-year-old daughter keeps her going.
“Living away from home is the nature of our work as humanitarians but sometimes your child just needs your full attention as a mother,” she says.
Miata, like many other humanitarian workers around the world is working through the global crisis to make sure refugees receive lifesaving assistance.
“I remember when we were in the refugee camp, I used to be happy when my parents would come from the food distribution point with food in their hands. I am playing that role now. Whether there will be a lock down or not, refugees should get what they need.”
Additional reporting by Linda Muriuki in Nairobi, Kenya
On a sunny afternoon, the usually bustling main shopping thoroughfare of Jordan’s Za’atari camp – the largest refugee camp in the Middle East – is eerily quiet. A handful of people walk briskly past carrying supplies, while most of the hundreds of shops lining what residents ironically refer to as the Champs-Élysées remain shuttered.
Like the rest of the Kingdom’s 10 million population, the nearly 120,000 Syrians living in Za’atari and Jordan’s other main camp in Azraq have been on lockdown since 21 March in response to the threat of COVID-19. But with so many living in such close quarters with access to only basic health and sanitation facilities, many fear what will happen if the virus reaches the camps.
“It is completely quiet. I do not hear voices in my neighbourhood anymore. Only silence. The market is different, everything is different,” Ahmad Harb, a 35-year-old refugee from Syria’s southern Dera’a province, said by telephone from Za’atari. “People are terrified because it is a new thing that they don’t know much about, and it is a disease that can spread very fast.”
The current situation is a far cry from just a few weeks ago, Harb said, when news first reached the camp of the global spread of a novel human coronavirus. At first, people seemed unconcerned and reluctant to change their normal routines, but awareness sessions and regular SMS updates from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, have helped to drive the message home.
“They are staying home all day and night.”
“People here weren’t taking things seriously, but after some time they realized that this is not a joke,” Harb explained. “The messages they received from UNHCR made them more aware of how serious the situation is.”
“Most people have stopped going out unless it is absolutely necessary,” he continued. “They are staying at home all day and night. Some have even put signs outside their doors that read ‘visits not allowed.’”
More than three quarters of the world’s 25.9 million refugees live in developing countries with some of the weakest health systems. Worldwide, UNHCR is prioritizing steps to prevent potential outbreaks that would put extraordinary strain on fragile local health-care services and likely result in avoidable suffering and death.
Jordan currently hosts 656,000 registered refugees from the nine-year conflict in neighbouring Syria. The two main camps of Za’atari and Azraq host nearly 80,000 and 40,000 refugees respectively, while the majority of Syrians live in Jordanian host communities around the country, also currently under a nationwide curfew to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
So far there have been no cases of the virus among Syrian refugees either inside or outside the camps. In Za’atari and Azraq, the two main hospitals and networks of health clinics are fully staffed and have introduced additional infection-control measures. Plans are in place to isolate any suspected cases and evacuate them by ambulance to the nearby Mafraq and Zarqa hospitals.
Despite these preparations, UNHCR staff present in the camps still worry about how to protect the vulnerable populations from the disease.
“Sanitation and hygiene levels are not ideal. We’re talking about a refugee camp, and facilities are challenging,” said Mohammad Tahir, a UNHCR external relations officer. “A large portion of the population are children, and it’s hard to make them understand the need for isolation and extra handwashing. My real concern is that this is a very crowded environment, so if we do have cases it will be very hard to contain.”
When the nationwide lockdown was announced, the Jordanian authorities that manage the camp closed Za’atari’s 32 schools, with lessons for the more than 18,000 enrolled students now being broadcast on a television channel used by pupils across the country.
To cater for the extra demand caused by home-schooling and families confined to their shelters all day, UNHCR and the camp authorities have increased the supply of electricity to households from eight to more than 12 hours each day.
The camp is also well supplied with food, with six centres distributing three kilograms of bread per family each day, while supermarkets and small fruit and vegetable stores remain open. Residents have even come up with their own method for maintaining social distancing in food queues, painting red circles on the ground 1.5 metres apart.
But the level of preparedness for families during lockdown depends on their financial situation, explained 33-year-old resident Omar Rajab. Those with income from work inside or outside the camp in addition to the assistance all refugees receive were better able to stock up before the lockdown, he said.
“The good thing is that everything is available in the camp. Some people have managed to buy everything they need because their financial situation is better than others,” Rajab said. “The poor are struggling to buy and stock enough of their basic needs. Some are selling less important products they already have at home, like canned food, to buy more of the more urgent food like flour and milk.”
But despite the additional hardship for a population that has already fled conflict and endured years of displacement, the current crisis is also bringing families closer together and spurring acts of generosity among the population.
A group of refugee entrepreneurs in the camp that makes hand-crafted products for sale online and in markets has recently increased production of natural soap, and begun distributing it for free among their neighbours to help encourage hand washing.
For others, the extended period of home confinement has revealed some bright spots.
“To cope with the situation, I created a programme for my children and wife where we spend our day playing games, which includes playing with a ball and asking general knowledge questions in the form of a competition,” Harb said. “I even shared the programme with my friends and neighbours so they can do it with their families too.”
“I am doing new things now like cooking with my children and playing with them more. It is a nice new atmosphere,” his wife Nisreen agreed.
“I have also learned how to bake myself, and now my kids tell me they like the sweets that I do more than the ones we used to get from the shops,” she added.
“We miss our life, even with the struggles and hardships.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise for Harb was the newfound appreciation the lockdown has given him for their previous lives in the camp, despite the many challenges.
“I hope this virus goes away,” he said. “We miss our life, even with the struggles and hardships. We accept them now. We appreciate our lives and the things we used to take for granted, like going to work and the busy market, seeing our neighbours and friends, and simply going out. We just miss it.”
Each weekday morning after her mother has left for work, Naamat changes her youngest brother Ibrahim’s diaper and feeds him a bottle of formula milk. She then prepares a simple breakfast of bread, oil and thyme-packed za’atar to share with her two other younger brothers before cleaning up, packing their bags and walking with them to catch the school bus, having dropped Ibrahim off with a neighbour.
“Naamat is only 11, but she’s living the life of a 30-year-old woman,” her mother Fatima says. “It’s because of our situation,” Naamat responds. “I have to support my parents and my brothers. They don’t have anyone else but me.”
This week marks nine years since the start of the conflict in Syria, a stretch of time that weighs heavily on the lives of millions of ordinary Syrians who have seen their loved ones lost, homes destroyed, families uprooted and their lives put on hold. For 11-year-old Naamat, a refugee from Homs living in Jordan, the war has compelled her take on responsibilities well beyond her years.
While Fatima earns 5 Jordanian dinars (US$7) for half-days spent cleaning houses, her husband Mahmoud is unable to work or look after their children due to the lingering physical and psychological effects of his experiences in Syria, leaving Naamat to take on many of the household chores.
Mahmoud was arrested in 2011 after leaving Friday prayers, with Fatima knowing nothing of her husband’s fate. In 2013, she was forced to flee the fighting in Homs with Naamat and her younger brother Fahed, moving first to the southern Syrian province of Deraa before crossing the border into Jordan.
“It was the worst night of my whole life.”
“We walked from sunset until sunrise,” Fatima recalled. “It was the worst night of my whole life. It was dark and we could hear the sound of bullets in the distance. It was very cold and there was snow, and no way of keeping warm.”
Then aged just four, Naamat still remembers the disorientation she felt arriving in Za’atari refugee camp in the north of Jordan with dozens of other Syrian refugees. “I was surprised because I used to live in a house, and we came to live in tents. I was really shocked. We used to feel warm, and suddenly I found myself in a tent and cold.”
Fatima moved with her children to Jordan’s capital Amman. A year or so later and quite out of the blue, she was reunited with her husband. “There was a knock on the door and I found him [standing there]. I had thought he was dead.”
Today, seven years after their arrival in Jordan, they are still barely able to keep their heads above water. The run-down apartment near central Amman that they rent for 100 dinars (US$140) a month is almost entirely devoid of furniture, with mattresses on the floors for seating and sleeping, and rarely more than a day’s worth of food in the kitchen.
The little Fatima earns is nowhere near enough to provide even the basics for her family. But thanks to the 140 dinars (US$197) in monthly cash assistance she receives from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, together with food vouchers from the World Food Programme, she is at least able to cover the rent, keep them fed and pay for the children’s school transport.
It is a similar picture for the majority of the more than 5.5 million registered Syrian refugees living in the region’s major host countries – Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.
The share of refugees living below the poverty line exceeds 60 percent in many of these countries, while more than a third of refugee children are out of school. The protracted crisis has also placed a huge strain on the resources of the local communities generously hosting them.
“I will not despair.”
The precarious situation facing millions of refugees after nine years of conflict is what continues to drive cases of early marriage and child labour, and see children like Naamat required take on domestic duties at such a young age.
Yet despite the responsibility placed on her by their situation, and the awareness that it is not a normal state of affairs for an 11-year-old, Naamat’s quiet determination has helped her to excel at school and rise to the top of the class in many subjects.
“I love education a lot, because I feel that it will give me a beautiful future,” she says. “I lost part of my childhood, but I find what remains in education, and in building a future for myself. I did not lose that yet, and I will not despair.”
It is this hope, kept alive by the fact that Jordan has opened its schools and communities to Syrian refugees, that keeps Naamat and her family going. After nine years, host communities continue to show remarkable solidarity.
“You never feel that she is broken.”
For Fatima, seeing the resilience and optimism that Naamat possesses allows her to hope that they will eventually overcome their current situation.
“Life was very tough on me and my family. We faced many challenges: the pain of war and the pain of leaving our loved ones behind, the financial situation, becoming refugees – so many things,” Fatima says. “But she has a very strong personality. You never feel that she is broken or vulnerable.”
That afternoon, after Fatima returns from work to take over the running of the household from her daughter, Naamat goes outside to play with two friends from the neighbourhood.
As they take turns jumping rope, competing to outdo each other, the serious expression that Naamat has worn for most of the day disappears, briefly replaced by a smile of pure joy.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, detailed today a series of measures it is taking in its field operations to help respond to the COVID-19 public health emergency and prevent further spread.
“I am deeply concerned at this unprecedented pandemic and its impact on refugees and their host communities. The COVID-19 crisis has already had significant consequences for our operations, forcing us to rapidly adjust the way we work. However, we are sparing no effort to help and protect refugees the best we can under these difficult circumstances,’’ said Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
“Our top priority in the COVID-19 crisis is to ensure that the people we serve are included in response plans and are properly informed, while we supplement Governments’ preparedness and response efforts wherever needed,’’ he added.
Although the number of reported and confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection among refugees remains low, over 80 per cent of the world’s refugee population and nearly all the internally displaced people live in low to middle-income countries, many of which have weaker health, water and sanitation systems and need urgent support.
Many refugees live in densely populated camps or in poorer urban areas with inadequate health infrastructure and WASH – water, sanitation and hygiene – facilities. Prevention in these locations is of paramount importance, noted Grandi.
Measures UNHCR is taking include:
Reinforcing the health and WASH systems and services, including by distributing soap and increasing access to water.
Supporting governments with infection prevention and health-care response, including through the provision of medical equipment and supplies.
Distributing shelter material and core relief items.
Offering guidance and fact-based information on prevention measures.
Expanding cash assistance to help mitigate the negative socio-economic impact of COVID-19.
Enhancing monitoring and interventions to ensure the rights of forcibly displaced people are respected.
In Bangladesh, training has started for staff working in health facilities serving the Rohingya camps, where some 850,000 refugees live in very dense conditions. More than 2,000 refugee volunteers are working with community and religious leaders to communicate important prevention measures. This is complemented by radio spots, video, posters and leaflets in Rohingya, Burmese and Bengali languages. Additional measures, including ensuring soap and water are accessible to all and increasing the number of hand washing facilities, are underway. Support for the creation of new isolation and treatment facilities for refugees and surrounding host community is also ongoing.
In Greece, UNHCR has been stepping up its support to the authorities to increase water and sanitation capacity, deliver hygiene items, and to establish and furnish medical units and spaces for screening, isolation and quarantine. UNHCR is also facilitating access to quality information for asylum seekers via helplines and interpretation, and by mobilizing refugee volunteers. UNHCR has been urging the authorities to scale up transfers from crowded island reception centres where 35,000 asylum seekers are staying in facilities for fewer than 6,000.
In Jordan, temperature screening is conducted at the entrance of the Zaatari and Azraq refugee camps. Awareness campaigns are ongoing. Electricity provision has been enhanced and the supermarkets are running extended hours to facilitate social distancing.
Handwashing and temperature screening facilities have also been put in place at points of entry as well as transit centres, reception centres and health facilities in camps/settlements in Ethiopia and Uganda.
In Sudan, UNHCR has delivered soap to over 260,000 refugees, internally displaced people (IDP) and members of the host communities. UNHCR, other UN agencies and the Ministry of Health are running a massive awareness campaign in several languages. Some 15,000 text messages have been sent to urban refugees living in Khartoum, sharing health awareness and prevention advice.
Prevention measures have also been put in place in refugee camps and IDP sites in the DRC and Burkina Faso. This includes the installation of hand-washing stations, the distribution of soap and cleaning products, mass awareness-raising using posters, leaflets, radio spots and community networks.
In Brazil, UNHCR and partners established an isolation area in Boa Vista to host possible suspected cases among Venezuelan refugees and migrants and are distributing 1,000 hygiene kits to the indigenous populations in Belem and Santarem.
UNHCR is also working with UN partners to find solutions to logistical challenges resulting from disrupted manufacturing capacity and border closures. This includes stepping up local and regional procurement and organizing air bridges. Over 100 tonnes of emergency and medical aid were recently airlifted to Chad and Iran.
“We will continue to expand our critical interventions on the ground. But to do this, we need timely and unearmarked financial support now, including to ongoing humanitarian operations. Coordinated international support is in our common interest and absolutely critical,” concluded Grandi.
Together with its partners, UNHCR in Thailand continues to explore ways to boost its preparedness, prevention and response activities to address the immediate public health needs of persons of concern communities prompted by COVID-19, including through ongoing proactive outreach with these groups.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, airlifted today (23 March) some 4.4 tonnes of much-needed medical aid items, including supplies to support the COVID-19 response in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
delivering masks, gloves and essential medicines to help address critical shortages in Iran’s health care system. Further flights are scheduled in the coming weeks to transport additional aid-items, medicine and personal protective equipment (PPE) for health workers.
There are close to one million refugees in Iran who have access to the same health services as the host community and are covered under the national health response. However, hospitals and health centres are struggling to cope with the sharply increasing number of individuals needing urgent help.
The virus has now spread to all 31 provinces of Iran. Refugees, most of whom live side by side with host communities in villages, towns and cities, are at the same risk of catching the COVID-19 as Iranians.
Already during the early stages of the epidemic, UNHCR, in coordination with the Government of Iran, distributed basic hygiene items such as soap and disposable paper towels to some 7,500 refugee families living in refugee settlements across the country. Aid items have also been made available to Government and NGO partners who are also engaged in the provision of assistance to refugees.
Globally, UNHCR is urgently seeking an initial US$33 million to boost preparedness, prevention and response activities to address the immediate public health needs of refugees and host communities prompted by the spread of COVID-19 around the world.
UNHCR's work is humanitarian, social and non-political. Its Statute and subsequent UN resolutions mandate the agency to provide international protection and seek durable solutions for refugees and other people of concern.