Refugees need our compassion now more than ever

Refugees stand to suffer disproportionately from the spread of COVID-19. We must recognise that now more than ever is the time for a compassionate and urgent response to the crisis, as once again, it is the world’s most marginalised that stand to suffer the most.

A commentary for the Global People Movements programme by Baroness Philippa Stroud

Published 9 Apr 2020

Every day, 37,000 people are forced to leave their homes because of conflict and persecution. This equates to 25 people being displaced every minute.

Their lives are almost unimaginably awful. By the time they arrive in refugee camps they will have experienced trauma on a scale that most of us in the UK can barely comprehend. For some, the journey means crossing rivers and seas despite being unable to swim. For many, it is a long, hard slog across parched lands with almost no food or water. They will arrive exhausted, hungry, lonely, and scared. Having experienced years of grinding poverty, most will have weakened immune systems and be suffering from multiple underlying health issues.

In the camps the situation is little better – overcrowded and unhygienic conditions, with little to no access to healthcare provision. And now the lives of these extremely vulnerable people, who have already suffered so much, will be made even worse by the global coronavirus pandemic.

Last week we heard that Syria, still ravaged by civil war, recorded its first death from the coronavirus.  Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, the largest refugee settlement on Earth, also confirmed its first case of the virus. On the Greek island of Lesbos, home to thousands of refugees, news of a case sparked fears among local residents, resulting in acts of violence against refugees and those working to help them, with Médecins San Frontières suspending their services in the Moria camp for two days.

The latest data from the UNHCR shows that in 2019 there were 20.4 million refugees worldwide, up from 17.2 million in 2016. Our research shows that the precariousness of these people’s situations means that they already face intolerable risk from both human exploitation and destitution. But they now also stand to suffer disproportionately from the spread of the coronavirus. Even the most basic of preventative measures will prove near impossible to implement in refugee camps.

Even before the pandemic started it was clear there was a need to formulate an effective, collaborative and international response that addresses the long-term, systemic drivers of necessity-driven migration, as well as prioritising the welfare of migrants themselves. However, at this point, more immediate relief will prove to be essential in handling the outbreak of coronavirus: improved sanitation and access to shelter, nutrition, and healthcare facilities must be a priority to contain the virus and support those affected.

Charities such as Médecins San Frontières have emphasised the need to prevent and delay the spread of the virus – if the world’s most advanced healthcare systems are under strain, then those that exist in refugee camps stand little chance of coping. The results could prove disastrous.

As we look at the challenge ahead, we must remember a simple truth: behind every statistic is an individual. The journeys each and every one of these people make are motivated by a simple desire we can all identify with: to build a life where they can fulfil their potential, free from the threat of conflict, oppression, poverty, and hunger.

No person risks their life on a dangerous journey if they could thrive at home. As Covid-19 steadily spreads across the world, we must recognise that now more than ever is the time for a compassionate and urgent response to the refugee crisis. Once again, it is the world’s most marginalised that stand to suffer the most.

As more and more countries go into lockdown, and with the UK facing unprecedented peace-time measures, it would be easy to become individualistic. But times of adversity have often proved to be catalytic in driving change, and in the face of a pandemic that is touching all of our lives we must recognise our shared humanity, and act.