Time is running out to protect refugees from a coronavirus crisis

COVID-19 could prove devastating for internally displaced children. The international community must step up to help.

Greek Island Of Lesbos On The Frontline Of The Migrant Crisis
Migrants mainly from Mongolia and Pakistan camp next to a registration camp, outside the village of Moria, on March 12, 2016 in Moria, Greece [Alexander Koerner/Getty Images]

In just a few short months, the COVID-19 pandemic has reached devastating proportions, touching nearly every country and territory around the world.

The situation is bad, but it could get decidedly worse, especially if the disease infiltrates more of the world’s most vulnerable populations and communities, infecting those with the most limited access to prevention and care.

We have not heard yet of an outbreak of COVID-19 in refugee camps, but that is a catastrophe waiting to happen. Coronavirus has been reported among the local population of the Greek island of Lesbos, where thousands of refugees and migrants are waiting in camps.

A case has also been confirmed in the local population of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, although not yet among the Rohingya refugees.

It is only a matter of time before COVID-19 gains a foothold in a refugee camp, crowded reception centre or detention facility holding migrant families. Or maybe it has already.

Given how quickly the virus is spreading, such a scenario is probably unfolding even now, and this is deeply concerning.

Even without a pandemic, uprooted people – those living as refugees, migrants or internally displaced due to conflict, natural disaster or extreme poverty – face immense barriers to accessing healthcare and preventive services like proper handwashing and sanitation facilities.

Clean water and soap are often in very short supply in shelters or informal urban settlements, where many refugees and migrants live. So, when an infectious disease hits, their risk is compounded.

An outbreak of an opportunistic respiratory disease like COVID-19 could spread easily through the overcrowded confines and unsafe conditions typical of many camps or settlements. People in these environments would be more likely to get sick and be less capable of fighting off the disease because of inadequate services.

There are a large number of children among these most vulnerable populations. Today, there are 31 million children who have been uprooted from their homes, including over 17 million internally displaced within their home countries, 12.7 million refugees and 1.1 million asylum seekers. All of them need some form of assistance.

Each day, wars, disasters, climate change and extreme poverty drive people from their homes. COVID-19 only adds to their vulnerability.

Spread out across a “buffer zone” along Turkey’s land border with Greece are 11,000 refugees and migrants, 40 percent of whom are women and children.

Most are sleeping outside in freezing temperatures without proper clothing, shelter or services.

There are 40,000 refugees and migrants on the Greek Islands, including more than 11,000 children. They are living in overcrowded camps – environments that are highly susceptible to the spread of infectious diseases like COVID-19.

In northwest Syria, the escalation in armed conflict has displaced more than 960,000 people, including more than 575,000 children, since December last year. Meanwhile, in the country’s northeast, at least 28,000 children from more than 60 countries remain languishing in displacement camps. Syria has just confirmed its first cases of the disease.

There are also nearly half a million Rohingya refugee children living inside congested camps in Bangladesh, and some 3.7 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants have sought shelter in the wider Latin America region.

These children and families do not have the luxury of calling a doctor if they feel sick. Many cannot wash their hands whenever they need to or practice social distancing in order to stop disease transmission. None can afford exposure to the coronavirus disease.

Any public health response to the pandemic should reach the most vulnerable, including refugees, migrants and those who are internally displaced.

This means ensuring equitable access to healthcare, prevention information, water and sanitation services for uprooted children and their families.

It also means that containment measures, like border closures and movement restrictions, should not block the right to seek asylum or reunite with family members.

There should also be plans in place for safe, family-based care and support for children separated from their caregivers or whose caregivers die.

As a charity which works around the world to promote access to services to protect children, we at UNICEF are working with partners to prevent the spread of the disease among refugee, migrant and displaced populations.

This includes promoting hygiene practices that help prevent transmission in shelters, camps and other accommodation sites, and developing accurate, child-friendly information on COVID-19, including materials that address stigma and positive parenting tips and distributing hygiene supplies.

Around the world, we are supporting preventative actions with risk communication, providing hygiene and medical kits to health clinics and monitoring the impact of the outbreak to support continuity of care, education and social services.

We want to protect children and women from other impacts of the pandemic, including stigmatisation, abuse and gender-based violence.

But we cannot do this alone. Now, more than ever, governments and the international community must come together to protect the most vulnerable by reaching them with preventative services and care regardless of immigration or economic status.

Governments should ensure access to testing and treatment for all who need it and provide information on how to prevent transmission of the disease that is available in languages and formats accessible to everyone.

Uprooted children and families should be moved quickly out of harm’s way to adequate accommodations where they have access to water, soap, physical distancing and safety.

Finally, it is imperative that any restrictions on movement or border closures not compromise the right to seek protection and asylum.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.