COVID-19 Pandemic Poses Grave Risk to Communities in Displacement Camps

Posted: 
04/03/20
Themes: 
COVID-19, Internally Displaced Persons

Geneva – For millions of people seeking refuge from violence or disasters in camps around the world, the potential impact of COVID-19 could be catastrophic. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has been rapidly adapting its global operations in anticipation of an outbreak of the virus in the camps where it works. 

“Based on decades of experience in camp management and migration health, we see the arrival of COVID-19 in camps as an inevitability, not a possibility, and have been preparing with this in mind,” said IOM’s Director General António Vitorino. 

“The fact that cases have been identified in a Mainland Greece camp administered by IOM yesterday emphatically drives home the gravity of the situation.” 

                                                       IOM Responds to COVID-19 in Camp

There are a total of 41.3 million people internally displaced as a result of conflict and 25.9 million refugees living in situations of displacement globally, the most vulnerable of whom often end up in camps.  

As co-lead of the global Camp Coordination and Camp Management (CCCM) Cluster, IOM works alongside governments to care for and uphold the rights of people in camps or camp-like settings. In 2019, IOM carried out CCCM activities in 1,117 displacement sites in 23 countries, reaching 2.4 million people. The Organization also provided health services to 2.8 million people globally. 

As cases begin to emerge in countries dealing with severe displacement crises such as Burkina Faso, Bangladesh, Greece and Syria, IOM is increasingly concerned about the impact COVID-19 will have on the health of people living and working in the camps and in nearby communities.  

IOM is also concerned that COVID-19-related restrictions will inhibit our ability to deliver humanitarian assistance to those who rely on aid their survival. Mobility restrictions within camps could also hamper the ability for camp populations to work and provide for themselves and their families. 

The Organization’s Health and CCCM teams are working with authorities around the world to implement measures that prevent the spread of COVID-19 in camps and ensure its operations remain safe and effective. 

Physical distancing and isolation are extremely difficult in densely populated, overcrowded camps where land is already limited. Additionally, most people do not have adequate access to the clean water and sanitizing agents necessary to stop widespread transmission, nor access to national health facilities. 

Furthermore, these settings are challenging places for the elderly and people with pre-existing conditions to live. The threat this virus has on their health is particularly worrying. 

Health centres inside camps are ill-equipped to respond to the high numbers of patients who could be infected. This is particularly worrying in places like Northwest Syria or Yemen where conflict has already destroyed the majority of the health infrastructure. 

In addition to producing Operational Guidance specifically related to COVID-19 for camp managers, IOM has been working pre-emptively with authorities and health cluster partners on several priorities: 

  • Increase, improve and advocate for more hygiene facilities, such as hand-washing stations at camp entrances, communal facilities and gathering points; 
  • Train staff and community leaders to screen for symptoms; 
  • Secure additional land to expand living spaces, distribution sites and construct new temporary health facilities; 
  • Implement measures that allow for physical distancing such as scheduled timeshares of communal facilities or reduced movement within camps; 
  • Re-purpose existing structures for isolation facilities and, in some locations, equip and support mobile clinics and medical teams; and 
  • Stock up on personal protection equipment (PPE) for health staff who may come into contact with people who become ill. 

“In health crises throughout the world, the leaders of the affected communities are the most effective first responders,” said DG Vitorino. “At the same time, migrants, regardless of their circumstances, must be systematically included into national health systems if we are to beat COVID-19.”

The Organization is also disseminating factual, up-to-date information about COVID-19 to help dispel myths and decrease stigmatization. All measures are being implemented in consultation with camp communities, adapted to local contexts and their evolving challenges. 

“We require solidarity and sustained support from the international community to curb the threat the virus poses in humanitarian settings, particularly through the interagency Humanitarian Response Plan and IOM’s COVID-19 Global Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan (SRP),” added DG Vitorino. 

IOM is addressing the mobility aspects of the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic with a funding requirement of USD 116.1 million. 

Learn more about IOM's COVID-19 Response and Global Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan (SRP).

For more information, please contact: Angela Wells, IOM Public Information Officer for the Department of Operations and Emergencies, Email: awells@iom.int, Phone: +41 79 403 5365

Paul Dillon, IOM Managing Editor, Email: pdillon@iom.int, Phone: +41 79 636 9874

  • IOM manages the camps in Cox’s Bazar which is home to over 850,000 Rohingya refugees where the Organization is also one of the main health, protection and WASH actors.  Photo: IOM/Olivia Headon

  • IOM is training staff on how to deliver humanitarian aid while ensuring physical distancing and isolation in densely populated, overcrowded camps. Photo: IOM Somalia

  • IOM staff prepare to distribute food baskets and core relief items to all refugees and migrants in Ritsona camp in Greece. Photo: IOM