While everyone around the world struggles to cope with the devastating impacts of COVID-19, the risks are heightened for the world’s approximately 71 million people who are forcibly displaced.
According to the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, 134 refugee-hosting countries are reporting local transmission of COVID-19. Refugee camps and settlements are typically overcrowded, and refugees commonly lack access to water and hygiene supplies and facilities, which may cause the virus to spread.
A CARE analysis shows that women in countries experiencing war, poverty and instability are at an even greater risk during the COVID-19 pandemic. Gender-based violence increases, and women are forced to eat less or last, among other issues. Despite these factors, less than 1% of global humanitarian funding is spent on sexual and gender-based violence prevention and response activities.
CARE, which centers women and girls in its humanitarian response, is continuing to provide services and emergency support to displaced populations around the world.
“There is no shortcut here” says Sofia Sprechmann Sineiro, Secretary General, CARE International. “If we don’t act fast, millions of highly vulnerable men, women and children in high-risk countries will be left to battle this pandemic alone.”
Due to political turmoil in Venezuela and the subsequent economic crisis, approximately 5 million refugees and migrants have fled Venezuela since 2016. In Ecuador, one of the countries worst hit by COVID-19 in the region, the situation is so dire that many migrants who initially fled to the country for safety and opportunity, are now leaving. Many are no longer able to work informally and face serious challenges without proper access to healthcare or other services due to their migratory status. Venezuela is experiencing one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, with crumbling public services and widespread malnutrition due to food shortages.
In Ecuador, CARE is distributing cash, food, medicine and other supplies to marginalized groups including Venezuelan refugees and migrants, sex workers, and people living with HIV/AIDS.
A group of Venezuelan migrants gather in a shelter in Quito, Ecuador, while a child plays nearby with blocks. They have been in isolation together for more than three weeks and are waiting for Venezuela to lift its suspension of evacuation flights so that they can return home.
Children in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh, home to the world’s largest refugee camp, participate in a CARE workshop on coughing and sneeze etiquette.
Nearly one million Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh since 2017 after violence escalated in Myanmar, with most fleeing to Cox’s Bazaar.
The camps, which house approximately 855,000 refugees, and are nearly four times as dense as New York City and eight times that of Wuhan, China, making social distancing practically impossible.
Girls participate in a drawing session at the Women and Girls’ safe space in Cox’s Bazar refugee camp, Bangladesh, while maintaining social distance. The majority of refugees in Cox’s Bazar — approximately 459,000 — is children. About 51% are women and girls.
Deepmala Mahla, CARE’s Regional Director for Asia, explains the importance of interventions that support women and children: “The household burden is shared more by women and girls, so when people are not able to go out, the burden on the family to earn a livelihood is bigger. Who sacrifices the meal first? Women and girls.”
A health worker wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) provides treatment to a patient in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Health services are limited and there are no intensive care beds in the camp.
Conditions of the camp, including its density and a lack of access to water, soap, and other hygiene supplies, are particularly concerning during the coronavirus pandemic. Cox’s Bazar has been under a lockdown since March, but the virus was detected in the camps in May. As of June 15, there were 38 positive COVID-19 cases and two deaths in the camp.
As of June 11, Yemen counted 595 cases of COVID-19 and 137 deaths. After more than five years of brutal war, self-isolation, disease, displacement, movement restrictions, and loss of economic opportunity are all too familiar to Yemenis. An estimated 24 million people are currently in need of humanitarian assistance inside Yemen, and as COVID-19 threatens this especially vulnerable population, the country is simultaneously battling a cholera epidemic that counted more than 87,000 suspected cases in the first three months of 2020.
Women line up to have their temperature checked while maintaining social distance in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee complex. The camps in Dadaab are home to over 230,000 refugees.
During COVID-19, CARE has expanded its work in the camps to include teaching safe hygiene and sanitation practices, distributing soap, repairing broken water pipes and pumps, and constructing new bathrooms and handwashing stations.
The camps recorded their first positive coronavirus cases in May. Isolation facilities have been set up in the camps, but the UN refugee agency says they are not sufficient to provide adequate care in the event of an outbreak.
Refugees, carrying their few remaining possessions, wait in the transportation area of the Imvepi Refugee Settlement in Uganda in 2019.
Uganda, which is widely praised for its progressive policies on refugees, hosts refugees in settlements, rather than refugee camps, and provides refugees with plots of land for agricultural use in order to support self-reliance.
Currently Uganda has closed its borders, meaning refugees can no longer arrive in the country.
“We only hope that the borders will open for refugees as soon as possible, and we can screen and isolate them as a precaution. We also hope in the meantime that their human rights will be respected, and they will be treated with dignity. This is uncharted territory for us all,” says CARE Uganda’s country director Apollo Gabazira.
COVID-19 poses an unprecedented threat to the world’s most vulnerable people, including displaced women and girls.
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