Covid-19 reaches refugee camps: why we must act now

Countries with solid healthcare systems were stopped in their tracks by Covid-19. Unless urgent action is taken, it will take an even bigger toll on countries affected by conflict


Last updated 4 August 2023

As lockdown measures lift at home in the UK, the country has breathed a sigh of relief at being able to return to some sense of normality. Shops and restaurants have opened, and some of us have returned to work.

But for those living in some of the world’s most fragile areas, ‘home’ is a distant memory. Millions of people around the world live in crowded refugee and displacement camps with scarce access to soap, clean water, or healthcare.

The social distancing measures we have been adopting for most of 2020 are difficult, if not impossible, in these camps.

In places like Yemen, Syria, and Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, thousands of people forced to flee their homes due to conflict now face the looming threat of this deadly virus.

The virus does not discriminate, but the most vulnerable are most at risk. Those living in makeshift shelters in spaces designed for far fewer people than they currently house certainly count among them.

The British Red Cross is working in Yemen, Syria, and Cox’s Bazar to help those stranded in these camps to protect themselves against the virus.


Yemen: the largest humanitarian crisis in the world

Yemen’s healthcare system has been badly affected by years of conflict, with only half of facilities now functioning. As a result, to date one in four people who have tested positive for Covid-19 have died. There is an urgent need for food and hygiene supplies, as well as personal protective equipment in the country.


The British Red Cross has worked with the Yemen Red Crescent for many years and is supporting them to provide emergency health services in the north of the country, while supporting the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

In March, as the pandemic started to take hold across the world, the ICRC and Red Crescent provided around 70,000 people with food, basins and hygiene kits. But there are many more in increasing need as Covid-19 continues to spread. 


Syria: facing coronavirus after a decade of conflict

Meanwhile, millions of people have been forced to leave their homes in Syria, which is in its tenth year of conflict. At the end of 2019, around 6.5 million people were living in displacement camps. In north-east Syria alone, an estimated 100,000 live in one of these overcrowded camps, trying to keep themselves safe against a virus for which the best forms of defence are good hygiene and social distancing.

With support from the British Red Cross, thousands of staff and volunteers from our partners the Syrian Arab Red Crescent have been trained in Covid-19 response. This helps them safely reach thousands of people with food, water, and access to healthcare. With donations to our global coronavirus appeal, we can continue to reach as many people as possible.


Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh: the largest refugee camp in the world

After the increase in of violence in Rakhine State, Myanmar, in August 2017, more than 800,000 people crossed the border into Bangladesh. It has long been a camp for displaced people to seek refuge, but the sheer number of people forced to flee their homes into the camp since then has been unprecedented. As a result, Cox’s Bazar is now home to the largest refugee camp in the world.

Asia faces some of the worst natural disasters in the world, and the current monsoon season only increases the threat. The British Red Cross is working with the Bangladesh Red Crescent to support the most vulnerable, and has helped fund two isolation field hospitals in Cox’s Bazar. The first cases of Covid-19 were recorded in the camps in June: rapid spread of the virus here would be disastrous.

The nature of this emergency is truly global. While life begins to adapt to the reality of Covid-19, the situation in refugee camps around the world must not become the new normal. 

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