How is coronavirus affecting refugees?

As Covid-19 makes its way around the world and presents its bill, technology lets us track the impact in real time, country by country. But how is it affecting those for whom statehood is a fond memory… or a distant dream?

The impact of the virus on refugees and displaced people is tough to track. That makes it hard to know what’s important right now, and harder still to learn what we can do to help from the confines of our homes.

We’ve spent the past week piecing together data for where in the world the virus is hitting refugees the hardest. At the time of writing, no reports indicate significant levels of infection in refugee camps, despite hard-hit host communities living next door.

Does that make sense to you?

Rohingya camp 2018. Credit Mark Zuckerman

In reality, we don’t know who has been infected without proper testing. There’s no way to tell whether the virus is simply being lost in the shuffle of other conditions claiming lives every day in the camps.

A mixed response

What we can talk about with certainty is the way different measures to fight Covid-19 are impacting refugees and displaced people in different ways around the world.

In some places, these measures are doing more harm than the virus. The likes of France and Mexico have suspended their asylum process, leaving people in limbo.

Other nations are stepping up to the plate. The UK has announced a three-month amnesty on the length of time people are allowed to stay in asylum accommodation. Their offices are going digital, helping people access assistance remotely.

Portugal has confirmed that asylum seekers have the same rights as native citizens, allowing them to access welfare, healthcare, open bank accounts and rent a flat. These measures are only official until 1 July, but even a temporary reprieve carries enormous positive impact.

And of course, it’s all rooted in common sense. Suspend the process, leave people in limbo, and they have nowhere to turn but the black market. Sick people will fear reporting their illness in case they get deported, leading to a wider spread of disease.

The facts speak for themselves; the message is clear. Compassion is a strength, one that brings tangible material benefits to native and migrant populations alike.

An uncertain future 

From what’s happening right now, we can make predictions as we look to the future. The USA and even Canada have said anyone caught at the border will be sent back to where they came from.

Is this a temporary measure for the duration of the crisis? Or is this something which can be normalised by anti-refugee politicians once the pandemic dies down? That’s a conversation we need to be having today.

Children walk over a bridge in Moria camp | Photo: Getty Images

With EU resettlement paused (for 1,600 children!) due to closed borders, this already lengthy process could be extended for… how long, exactly? Closing off travel has big ramifications in places like the Central African Republic or the Democratic Republic of Congo. Even the most dedicated NGOs and IGOs will become unable to enter camps and administer aid.

Another trend we can predict is the moving of donor funds towards initiatives dealing solely with the virus. Causes where those funds are desperately needed, from locusts swarm causing famine across the Horn of Africa to polio outbreaks in the Philippines, will need to find new streams of revenue.

Red Cross Clinic in Kalobeyei. List of diseases and cases. Credit: Techfugees

Tech to the rescue 

But it’s not all bad news. Anyone can help refugees in need, using practical technologies which Techfugees have helped support over the past five years from their homes. Here are a few of our favorites; you can find more on our Covid-19 collective doc.

Services like NaTakallam let you take language classes from refugees, supporting them and learning a new language in the process. In times of lockdown and economic hardship, this is a particularly vital financial lifeline for many.

If you know healthcare workers or immigrant families who need translation or interpretation to fight Covid-19, share Tarjimly with them to get free immediate help. This app is a translation service helping  refugees overcome language barriers, providing them with on-demand interpretation and translation for health matters right now.

If you’re a doctor yourself faced with coronavirus related patient issues, MedShr is an app which lets medical professionals exchange information and enables peer-to-peer learning around the world. In areas with limited hospital infrastructure, like camps, this app can literally make the difference between life and death. You can also participate in their initiative to collect data on Covid-19.

Audiopedia has started building a library of coronavirus health information delivered as audio whatsapp messages in a number of languages spoken by refugees, and they’re looking to get more. You can get involved and help them expand.

Finally, Habibi.Works supports local communities and medical actors by providing 3D-printed materials for humanitarians and health workers. Where resources are scarce, being able to print vital parts out of thin air is another life-saving idea.

You can find even more great Tech4refugees projects on Basefugees.

In a world that’s getting scarier by the day, the response from a handful of well-organised tech-for-good activists should serve as a message of hope. The tools are there, all we need is the will to use them before one crisis falls prey to another.

This post was written by the team at Sookio.

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