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‘There are 100 people sharing 1 bathroom’: What it’s like being a refugee during the COVID-19 pandemic

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Many of the approximately 25 million refugees worldwide are facing a double crisis: on top of fleeing war-torn countries, they’re now facing scarce basic necessities, like clean water and soap, to fend off COVID-19.

Many of the approximately 25 million refugees worldwide are facing a double crisis: on top of fleeing war-torn countries, they’re now facing scarce basic necessities, like soap and clean water, to fend off COVID-19. 

More than two million of these refugees live in camps, many of which are overcrowded. Residents are without the luxury of social distancing and without any infrastructure to help them isolate from those who are ill. But organizations like the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) have been trying to keep the novel coronavirus from spreading within these communities.

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“We have been … involved in setting up … additional field hospitals, quarantine stations and so on because we know that, ultimately, there is a very high risk that this disease will spread,” said Mark Manly, a representative with the UNHCR.

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In the case of Mexico, for example, where I work currently, [we are] trying to get as many people as possible out of shelters, which are run mainly by civil society organizations and the Catholic Church, and into their own accommodation. And we’re doing that by delivering cash-based assistance to them so they can rent their own accommodation and they can then socially distance.”

“Most refugees and asylum seekers in the world right now don’t live in camps and this is a good thing because it’s better that they’re living in the community and have greater social contact with host populations.”

Ayoub Alrawashdeh, a 24-year-old refugee originally from Syria, says the UN pays for his accommodations: an apartment in Ioannina, Greece, which is near Albania. He says he has diabetes and is unable to live in close quarters where he may be susceptible to contracting the virus from other people.

Syrian refugee Ayoub Alrawashdeh, 24, speaks with Global News from his apartment in Ioannina, Greece.
Syrian refugee Ayoub Alrawashdeh, 24, speaks with Global News from his apartment in Ioannina, Greece. Jasmine Pazzano/Global News

He also says he has everything he needs to combat the novel coronavirus: soap and water as well as a roof over his head. He adds that he’s staying indoors.

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But he has been in this apartment for only two weeks; he first landed in Greece eight months ago, when he started living in the Greek islands. As of April 20, more than 34,000 refugees and asylum seekers lived in the camps on the Greek Aegean islands of Chios, Kos, Leros, Lesbos and Samos, meaning these camps are at more than six times their capacities.

Alrawashdeh says he had visited the Vial refugee camp in Chios, where his initial apartment was, and had witnessed the conditions there.

“If you look there, you will see that there are a hundred people sharing one bathroom,” he said.

The UNHCR has appealed for US$255 million to try to implement life-saving interventions in more than 30 countries they work in around the world, Manly says.

“This includes really basic things like making sure that people have information on the risks posed by this virus, how you can lower those risks.”

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Coronavirus outbreak: U.S. death toll now highest in world, reaches 50,000 deaths

The UNHCR says donors like Canada and Japan have given them most of the money it asked for in its appeal, which it launched in March. 

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As for how many refugees are currently battling the virus, Manly says there is no way to know for sure.

“It’s a little bit difficult for us sometimes to track the exact number of people who may be infected with this virus among the refugee population,” said Manly. “The information we have now indicates that, so far, there have been only isolated outbreaks affecting refugees.”