Shining a Light on Covid’s Impact on Refugees Worldwide
On today, June 20th, World Refugee Day, Darfur Women Action Group would like to both celebrate refugees on the frontlines in the midst of unprecedented social change and emphasize how the current pandemic has underscored systematic inequalities for migrants.
Over 3 million have been displaced, about 2.7 million living in camps inside Darfur and nearly 1 million people from Darfur have fled the now 17-year-old conflict to take shelter in neighboring countries, including Chad, Egypt, Kenya, and Libya. Refugees from Darfur are vulnerable to the virus’s spread across all national borders. DWAG aims to draw attention to two vulnerable refugee populations in particular: those in camps and those in urban migrant communities abroad.
COVID and Darfuri Refugee Camps
For the internally displaced living inside Sudan. Currently, there are no reports of COVID-19 in African refugee and IDP camps, although UNHCR has implemented plans to monitor, report, and respond to the possibility of an outbreak. Systematic impediments to containing the virus in these environments are rampant. After years of sanctions and war, the Sudanese healthcare system is in disarray, resulting in shortages of personal protective equipment and medical staff.
The situation in Darfur is much more dire. The forcibly displaced, including refugees, IDPs, and asylum seekers in encampments are housed in cramped quarters and are restricted in their movement, rendering social distancing nearly impossible. Those in camps are already undernourished, have immune systems weakened by infectious diseases like malaria, and are forced to share bathrooms with dozens of other people. Currently, Darfur has only about 600 health facilities, one per 15,000 people, and quarantine centers with no more than a few dozen beds.
Further, distrust in the Sudanese government, compounded with the lack of inclusion of displaced persons in public information campaigns, has led camp residents to think the novel coronavirus is a conspiracy to keep people in their homes so that the old regime can kill them. The persistence of trauma even after Bashir’s fall, along with the Sudanese government keeping Darfuris in the dark, have resulted in camp residents not taking the pandemic seriously.
COVID and Migrant Communities Abroad
As with refugee camps in Darfur, informal migrant communities and neighborhoods abroad espouse refugees living in large urban cities clustered and crammed together, posing similar risks of transmission.
Further, the systemic inequalities imposed on refugees abroad are only exacerbated by the current pandemic. For instance, because refugees in Cairo are not legally allowed to work, they are forced to work in the informal sector, as street vendors, factory workers, day laborers, domestic workers, and housecleaners. As such, the majority of Sudanese refugees in Cairo claim their informal sector income as their primary source of livelihood, leaving them underpaid. Likewise, Egypt’s refugee community is ineligible for government cash assistance, leaving asylees helpless as they confront layoffs and rising unemployment. In the face of closures of cafés, restaurants, and coffee shops, refugees in the informal sector have lost their jobs. The pandemic has worsened existing discrimination in housing and employment markets for Sudanese refugees in Cairo and elsewhere, due in part to worldwide lockdowns, border closures, detention, deportations, and xenophobic rhetoric associating foreigners with disease. Refugees are thus increasingly being accused of transmitting the disease and being denied housing and employment.
In addition to economic inequities discussed above, Sudanese refugee access to healthcare during the crisis has been grossly inadequate. Sudanese and Somali refugees in Egypt lament being turned away at public hospitals due to their nationalities. They also contend that refugees seeking treatment are turned away due to the lack of beds, overcrowding, and lack of resources.
The Disproportionate Effect of COVID on Displaced Women, Girls, and Children
States worldwide have implemented unprecedented restrictions on movement and curbed opportunities for asylum. Lockdown measures have had a disproportionate impact on the forcibly displaced, stateless people, refugees, and asylum seekers, particularly women, girls, and children including in the United States . Lockdown measures and border closures have blocked humanitarian assistance and isolated entire migrant communities in quarantine, leaving women susceptible to gender-based violence. Further, healthcare and social services for victims of gender-based violence in refugee communities have effectively been disrupted.
The pandemic has highlighted the inequalities imposed on migrant women and children in displacement settings, whether in refugee camps or refugee communities abroad. For instance, in camp settings, frequent hand-washing and meticulous attention to personal hygiene is made more difficult and unsafe for women, due to lack of water sources and fear of visiting bathrooms and latrines due to the risk of gender-based violence.
Further, the pandemic has halted education for refugee girls, who are less likely to return to school when their education is interrupted. In Cairo, Sudanese refugees lament the closings of public schools because children do not have access to laptops or Internet necessary to attend virtual classes.
Refugee women, including single mothers working as domestic workers and housecleaners employed in the informal economy have lost their jobs, and have effectively been evicted. Many have been forced to move in with other members of their migrant communities, often in crowded apartments that pose the risk of viral transmission and make social distancing untenable.
DWAG Honors the Refugees on the Frontlines of the Pandemic
In accordance with the values intrinsic to World Refugee Day, DWAG commemorates the resilience and strength of refugees and call on the international community to support the refugee and immigrants community regardless of their status in this time of crisis. We acknowledge that migrants and refugees in the age of COVID-19 are too-often the unsung heroes fighting for our protection.
In recent months, states in the US, including New Jersey, New York, and Nevada have temporarily authorized foreign-certified healthcare professionals, including refugees, to serve on the frontlines. Likewise, several European countries such as Italy, Germany, Ireland, and France have followed suit in enlisting the expertise of foreign-born healthcare professionals in their COVID-19 responses.
In commemoration of the contributions of first responders, we have included below the statement of DWAG Global Ambassador Francois Adam, who is currently working as an Emergency Medical Responder in the United Arab Emirates.
Emergency Medical (EMS)
“Just hearing the word “Corona” is enough to upset the human mood, and the situation becomes worse and may even amount to intense fear and anxiety, and in the event of contact with a person suspected of being diagnosed with COVID-19 or touching him, as it may mean high risk. So what about [those] who deal with patients directly?
In the face of this global epidemic, we are not only putting our souls at risk, but the lives of our family and loved ones, and this is putting us under very great pressure.
But I must also mention all the unlimited support that we receive on a daily basis on social media or through the huge donations that hospitals and care centers receive as moral support for health personnel and most of all telegrams and support messages that people everywhere send to the healthcare Professional.
We work more than 12 hours a day, and the nature of our work in emergencies is changing according to the current situation. At the beginning of the emergence of [Corona], the cases that come to emergencies were suspicious cases, and most of them are simple, and the cases coming from abroad were considered to be highly dangerous, but now, all cases, Even ordinary flu cases are treated as [COVID-19] until proven otherwise.
I emphasized that this opportunity made me gain invaluable experiences in the epidemiological field.
Despite the seriousness of the epidemic COVID-19, I’m very happy to help patients who were most in need of health care and this is our duty to be in the frontline to fight this virus (COVID-19).”
DWAG asserts that the current crisis has cemented our conviction that migrant health workers are indispensable to global healthcare systems today, though their contributions have gone unheeded. We applaud the refugee community for its various contributions, from sewing personal protective equipment, staffing information centers, volunteering to test civilians and assert that the difference migrants have made must not go unrecognized.
We call on DWAG supporters to demand protection and give voice to Darfuri refugee women whose plights are acutely worsened by the current pandemic.
We condemn the decision of states to turn a blind eye to the situation of Darfuri women, among other refugees, by curtailing opportunities for asylum.
In light of the outsized impact of COVID-19 on refugee women, DWAG calls on the United Nations, member states and the greater international community to
We urge DWAG supporters to speak up and demand protection for Darfuri migrants and refugee communities elsewhere who have unjustly suffered in the wake of their homeland’s turmoil and who are uniquely susceptible to the dangers of the current pandemic.
We must speak up to compel our leaders to effectively respond to this unprecedented challenge facing refugees communities.
President and Founder, Darfur Women Action Group