While some may have initially underestimated the potentially disastrous effects of the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, presuming that vulnerable people such as refugees would have more serious issues to deal with than a bad flu, the new coronavirus turns out to be an uncomfortable litmus test for the current state of aid in crisis-hit areas. There is no doubt that it is, however, premature to assess how the pandemic will affect the ways in which crises have been managed over the years to rehabilitate life and livelihoods in the Middle East and North Africa’s conflict-stricken settings, now home to internally displaced people (e.g. Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen) and refugees (e.g. Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan).
Although (un)forced migrants are often believed to be carriers of infectious diseases, today’s pandemic has actually been caused by the arrival of professional travelers or tourists in spaces inhabited by refugees. Echoing past concerns about the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and the 2012 Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), the imminent outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in refugee camps worldwide is daunting because large numbers of refugees – who normally do not own equitable access to healthcare and reside in host countries where health infrastructures have been literally eroded by long-standing conflicts – may be particularly prone to respiratory infections. Refugee camps have become a matter of particular concern, as they tend to be crowded spaces across the Middle East region, where (mostly war-produced) refugees have been residing over decades and, at times, since birth.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, among other self-started measures in camps, Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees have begun fabricating masks to protect personal and collective health before the enactment of formal responses. In the framework of UNHCR’s Coronavirus Emergency Appeal, some international humanitarian agencies enforced prevention and protection measures (e.g. temperature screening at camp entrances). The formal COVID-19 response has primarily been coordinated with governments, even when refugees’ lives are endangered by the former. In Jordan’s Za‘tari and Azraq, mostly hosting thousands of refugees who fled conflict in neighboring Syria and are now in lockdown as per national policies, humanitarian workers have been providing guidelines in Arabic through SMS and street posters about how to preserve personal hygiene and health. However, protective material such as latex gloves, surgical masks and disinfectants – whose prices soared dramatically over the last few weeks due to their scarcity – has been distributed in only a small number of cases.
Also non-camp refugees, who actually make up the vast majority across the Middle East region and who are indiscriminately labeled as “urban refugees”, have become the object of great humanitarian concern. Although they are likely to be more exposed to an urban health system and to have easier access to information, many of them still lack potable water, remain unlikely to access healthcare facilities, and cannot afford quarantine arrangements and social distancing restrictions.
After INGOs implemented anti-COVID-19 measures, some refugees voiced the need to be informed more broadly rather than simply being taught basic hygiene rules: “Aid providers promised Dettol and masks, but did not mention how we can learn what happens outside of here. No family in this camp owns a TV […] What are the most affected countries, and what are they doing to face all of this?”, as a Syrian refugee living in Bireh (northern Lebanon) put it in one of our recent conversations (March 31, 2020). Humanitarian agencies should therefore scale up simple aid and advice to include deeply informative sessions held in the languages of the camps. Mere guidelines like “washing hands with soap” limits aid to an instrument of biological survival and “human dignity’”. Thus far, humanitarian programs have seemingly approached the pandemic as an exclusively health matter that they can only provide technical advice for. Refugees have instead proven to be a key soft-power tool for global and regional power-holders who, in turn, adopt catastrophe as a back-route to convenient politics. For example, some municipalities in Lebanon have enforced extra curfews on Syrian refugees to reassert territorial sovereignty, parading such measures as needed to limit the spread of COVID-19 in a bid to take advantage of the political leverage that states of exception typically provide. Meanwhile, Syrian refugee families in the Greater Beirut area recently (April 2, 2020) told me that local municipalities highlighted the need for refugees to exclusively address their aid requests to UNHCR and UNRWA (respectively addressing non-Palestinian refugees and Palestinians in Lebanon) in order to deal with the current pandemic.
As today’s emergency crises are mostly of prolonged nature, the COVID-19 pandemic certainly amounts to a series of ageing crises, made up of high unemployment rates among older-date refugees, a chronic lack of available cash – mainly needed to cover the costs of home rent and medications – and, sometimes, even food scarcity. During the pandemic, refugee camps and high-density slums are faced with the challenge of rethinking coping mechanisms and rely on weak infrastructure, while global humanitarian actors historically tend to prioritise later emergencies and under-resource the earlier.
In a world of unequal political geographies, Western countries will possibly be prioritized in the future provision of a vaccine. Instead, the virus is likely to affect refugee camps and spaces for a long time. By then, host states may end up using social distancing as a way of further isolating and warehousing refugees while sugarcoating it as public health protection.