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Displaced people, refugees especially vulnerable to COVID-19: report

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WATCH: UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres launched a $2-billion global appeal Wednesday, calling for a co-ordinated response to help the world's war-torn, displaced and otherwise most destitute people who are facing new misery because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread, a new report is warning that refugees and asylum seekers around the world will be disproportionately impacted by the virus, and that government responses need to consider these populations in order to avoid complete disaster.

“The world’s 70 million displaced people — including refugees, asylum seekers, IDPs and other forced migrants — are among the most vulnerable. Already, their displacement leaves them disadvantaged in many ways,” states the report released Monday by Refugees International, a non-profit advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.

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“The impact of the epidemic both exacerbates and is exacerbated by the conditions in which they live. A series of factors make them extremely vulnerable to the spread of the virus.”

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This includes lack of space in places like refugee camps, inadequate health care and a lack of proper information about the outbreak and any new governmental policies being implemented. The report also notes that relief and humanitarian workers may begin cutting off contact with displaced communities as a way to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Organizations are also restricting the movement of staff.

“If this reaches displaced populations, it’ll be virtually impossible to stop within certain communities,” Alexandra Lamarche, a senior advocate at Refugees International who focuses on West and Central Africa, told Global News.

“I’m extremely concerned because the majority of humanitarian responses are already extremely underfunded, and you’re now adding a different level of threat.” 

READ MORE: Canada may face legal trouble for turning away asylum seekers coming from U.S.

The group’s report provides snapshots from around the world of how the pandemic is affecting refugees and asylum seekers.

The situation in war-ravaged Idlib in northwest Syria is of particular concern, the report notes, as “even the most basic guidance on social distancing and personal hygiene will be difficult to follow where refugees and [internally displaced persons] often live in overcrowded and unhygienic camps and informal settlements.”
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Nearly one million displaced people have been living in this region, which has few operational hospitals and little access to healthcare. 

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While there have so far been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Idlib, the report states this is likely due to a lack of testing. On Sunday, Syria reported its first death linked to the novel coronavirus, and there are nine COVID-19 infections so far. 

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In Greece, the number of COVID-19 cases has risen to more than 1,000, and at least 32 people have died. The country has imposed a national curfew and lockdown that includes the suspension of all administrative services by the Ministry of Migration and Asylum until at least April 13.

“Arguably, no population in Greece is more vulnerable to the coronavirus than the more than 40,000 asylum seekers trapped on the Aegean Islands,” the report states, adding that there have been no significant measures undertaken by the government to prepare for a potential coronavirus outbreak within the refugee camps. The reception and identification centres (RICs) there are notoriously overcrowded, with no running water. 

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The Greek government has also barred NGOs from entering the camps for two weeks, according to the report. And last week, the European Parliament’s civil liberties, justice and home affairs committee called for the evacuation of the tens of thousands of asylum seekers on the Greek islands to avoid “many deaths” from COVID-19, the Guardian reported. 

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Before the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, which now has the highest number of confirmed cases in the world, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, under the Remain in Mexico program, returned more than 60,000 asylum seekers back to northern Mexico to wait for their immigration court proceedings. 

These asylum seekers, mostly from Central America, Cuba and Venezuela, were returned to “unsafe conditions in Mexico and left to await their hearings in ill-equipped shelters and informal open-air encampments where disease could spread rapidly,” the report says.

Further, the U.S. government ordered the restrictions of travel across borders and ports as part of its responses to COVID-19, and no exceptions are being made for asylum seekers or unaccompanied minors.

The report says these measures have “impeded the ability of humanitarian workers to bring critical supplies to Mexico,” and some shelters housing asylum seekers on the Mexican side of the border have been forced to close because of the virus. Many of the NGOs that typically monitor the human rights situation there have reduced or stopped operations to slow the spread of the virus.

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The authors of the report urge the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency to parole asylum seekers into the United States — ”where the vast majority have ties to families, friends or faith-based communities” — instead of detaining them in immigration detention facilities, where a number of detainees and personnel have tested positive for COVID-19.

The report calls on U.S. border officials to allow people to still request asylum there while “providing for screening and referral to health facilities if necessary.”

Asylum seekers should then be released to homes and NGO-run shelters, through parole or other community-based alternatives to detention.

While the report does not mention Canada specifically, the Canadian government has recently come under fire after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced earlier this month that anyone crossing at irregular points of entry along the Canada-U.S. border to claim asylum will be turned away in a temporary measure to combat COVID-19.

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U.S. border officials told Reuters that any asylum seekers who cannot be returned to Canada or Mexico will be returned to their country of origin. This is something that refugee law experts say would violate Canada’s international commitments to the principle of “non-refoulement,” which is the obligation not to return asylum seekers back to their countries of origin, where they may face persecution or torture.

“In the time of a pandemic, I understand that the extenuating circumstances need to be acted on. And there will be policies that might not please everyone because you do have to contain the spread,” Lamarche of Refugees International said.

“But when it comes to the U.S., people are being sent back or being put into detention… this is not a safe country when they’re being deported back to violence or being detained in places where now there are cases of coronavirus in detention centres.”

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Last week, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) launched an appeal for US$255 million to help respond to the COVID-19 pandemic as part of a wider appeal by the United Nations for $2 billion in funding.

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Canadian International Development Minister Karina Gould announced that Canada has earmarked C$50 million in international aid to help combat COVID-19 in poor nations, $8 million of which will go to groups such as the World Health Organization, the UNHCR and the International Red Cross.

The long-term shelf life of this virus is still to be seen. And we have to prepare for the worst,” Lamarche said. It’s a very, very grim picture. I don’t know what’s going to happen. This is the opportunity for the world to step up. I don’t know that we will. I hope that we do.” 

— With files from Reuters and the Canadian Press