“Social distancing is a privilege,” said Sahar Tawfeeq, a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Iraq. “There is a hashtag trending: #StayHome. However, refugees can’t do that. They don’t have a home to stay in.”

“All the basic things you need to prevent an outbreak are missing,” says Misty Buswell, the Middle East policy director for the International Rescue Committee. Often, it’s not that camps have weak health systems—which experts warn will be overrun by the coronavirus—but that they have no health system at all.

So far there are no confirmed cases of the virus in any of the Middle East’s hundreds of camps and informal settlements, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. All the refugee-hosting countries have rising numbers of infections, but testing in the camps has been scarce

“It could create a false and dangerous sense of comfort,” says Muhammad Hamid Zaman, a professor of biomedical engineering and international health at Boston University who has worked in camps across the Middle East. “Just because we don’t have data doesn’t mean the problem doesn’t exist.”

Refugees worry that they will not be treated in the country’s hospitals if they do catch the virus. There is no indication that is true, but as health systems struggle to treat their own populations, it’s very possible refugees could be deprioritized.

Here are 10 things you should know about coronavirus and displaced people

# 1: More than 70 million people globally have been forced by persecution, conflict, violence and human rights violations to flee their homes. Of those, more than 29 million are refugees (including 5.5 million Palestinian refugees under UNRWA’s mandate), of whom 84 per cent are being hosted by low or middle-income nations which have weaker health, water and sanitation systems.

# 2: The biggest challenge to an effective coronavirus response is when public health systems are weak or broken as a result of conflict and chaos. According to UNHCR, as of 10 March 2020, over 100 countries are reporting local transmission of Covid-19. Of those, 34 countries have refugee populations exceeding 20,000 people, which are currently unaffected by the virus. In these contexts, prevention, preparedness and communication are key. This is because refugees and internally displaced people often find themselves in places that are overcrowded or where public health and other services are already overstretched or poorly resourced.

# 3: It is important that governments allow the equal distribution of healthcare services for refugees and IDPs, especially in countries where many refugees live in dismal conditions and there is strong anti-refugee sentiment among national authorities.

# 4: Many countries affected by war and/or instability have porous borders, with refugees, economic migrants and others often travelling along informal routes. These countries can have a hard time monitoring who is entering and leaving their territory.

# 5: Refugees are especially vulnerable to coronavirus and other diseases, due to high geographical mobility, instability, living in overcrowded conditions, lack of sanitation, and lack of access to decent healthcare or vaccination programmes.

# 6: Another issue of concern is those areas that are hardest to reach. Armed groups, checkpoints, air strikes and other impediments are frequently present and very often result in restrictions on humanitarian movements and operations. Operations in these areas face great difficulties and are sometimes impossible.

# 7: Refugee populations are often left out of disaster and epidemic preparedness planning, even at the best of times. Reaching marginalised refugees and migrants with information can also be a challenge. Operations must work with national authorities, health ministries, WHO and partners to ensure full inclusion of refugees and others of concern in national preparedness and response plans. They must also ensure that such populations have access to accurate and relevant information in applicable language(s) in line with the national level of preparedness.

# 8: Travel restrictions in connection with this outbreak may be put in place by individual governments and may be applied to asylum seekers, refugees and others of concern. Close monitoring is required to ensure that these do not unduly affect people’s right to access territory and seek asylum. We need to be especially vigilant and alert to the protection risks and other consequences of the outbreak for asylum seekers, refugees, internally displaced and stateless people.

# 9: There can be no forced returns based on real or perceived fears of coronavirus transmission. Any restrictions on freedom of movement, or other measures instituted by governments, should be applied to displaced people in a non-discriminatory way.

# 10: Refugees and migrants are often the first to be stigmatised and are often unjustifiably blamed for spreading viruses. We have seen some populist politicians across Europe who rail against migration and are attempting to draw a clear link between migrants and refugees and the outbreak, despite there being no evidence to support this.

UNHCR is committed to preventing and responding to this international health emergency.

COVID-19 does not discriminate. Refugees are at the same risk of contracting and transmitting the virus as local populations. However, over 80% of the global refugee population and nearly all of world’s internally displaced people are hosted in low to middle-income countries, which have weaker health and water and sanitation systems, and often find themselves in overcrowded places.


The video and still images of 'HAROON x REALITY' directed and shot by ILNA COLLECTIVE videographer, Mahmoud Al-Badawi follows the life of a teenage refugee living in a Jordanian refugee camp. The video follows his journey, which aims to showcase his reality, what he's fighting for and what his life-long goals are.



  2. IN JORDAN: If you are based in Jordan and would like to help or/and donate locally, reach out to the 'GIVING JOY' initiative on Instagram. OR, through the UNHCR here.