Coronavirus and refugees: Early data paints a grim picture

Techfugees’ CEO, Joséphine Goube, analyses early-stage data, collected by 50+ volunteers across the world, on the effect of covid-19 on displaced populations. Is it all doom and gloom?

Last month, you read our very first insights into tracking the impact of coronavirus on refugee populations. Even now, it’s early days in terms of mapping a clear effect and formulating a response, but some trends are already emerging… not all of them positive.

As ever, we’re helped immensely by the goodwill of the global Techfugees community. Their contributions have allowed us to create a central platform where over 50 contributors from around the world can collate their findings.

This data lets us map 130 situations across 38 countries. By ‘situation,’ we mean any instance where displaced communities are living. Remember, only 25% of the global refugee population live in camps.

A situation could be as simple as a shelter housing 200 refugees or fewer. It could be a hostel, where refugees are more concerned with navigating the city and knowing their legal rights than they would be elsewhere.

Using this classification, we can give a very rough sketch of the emerging situation. Yet, we’re not a research institution, and if we do intend to monitor things and provide ongoing commentary as things play out, we will leave it to experts to come up with in depth-analysis through weekly online Techfugees Live session streamed on Facebook.

Lockdown under lock and key

In our last blog on the topic, we voiced concerns that the impact on refugees would come as much from politicians and redirected funds than from the virus itself. At this stage, the facts are supporting our intuition:

  • Many countries keep on refusing disembarking refugees from boats using covid-19 as a justification, leaving them to die at sea.
  • Lockdown is making the work of humanitarian workers even more difficult, with access to camps restricted.
  • Some NGOs are no longer able to operate, leaving local displaced populations on their own.

The highest incidence of coronavirus among refugees has been found in those nations with the highest instance of the virus itself. In the USA, the most-hit refugee communities are those held in detention centres. With limited access to basic healthcare and hygiene, the virus can spread freely, resulting in 522 cases at the time of writing.

In France, the most recent data gives us 45 confirmed cases. Greece is also among the hardest hit refugee populations with 178 cases reported, unsurprising given the overall number they host. However, we’re yet to hear of any reported deaths.

Is this because refugee populations tend to be younger? Perhaps, but the mental toll of lockdown remains undeniable, with global policymakers doing little to help.

Malaysia’s U-turn shame

How are policies on asylum affected by (and affecting) lockdown? After one month, it’s not looking positive. We’ve seen an arbitrary prolongation of asylum suspensions in Greece and France due to covid-19. However, courts are not blind to these moves. French courts have actually ruled this suspension of asylum seeking processes unlawful.

Unfortunately, these are not the worst stories we’ve heard. The Malaysian government announced in March they would give free tests for migrants, no questions asked. This past weekend saw a total U-turn on this policy.

586 undocumented migrants, some Rohingya, were rounded up and put into trucks, their status unknown at this time. Trust between authorities and the migrant community has been shattered, with little cooperation in combating the virus expected going forward.

To learn more on this, join us this Friday 15th online at 10AM CEST with guest speakers from the region (Arash Bordbar – APRRN; Hasnah Hussin – Tenaganita; Mohd Hafiz Nor Shams – KitaJagaKita) who will give insights on the situation as well as provide solutions that constitutes a bit of hope in the current dark waters we live in.

Europe must act

So, is there any positive news? We’re seeing nowhere step up quite as admirably as Portugal last month, but the situation isn’t without a glimmer of hope.

The Alan Kurdi, a 69-year-old ship which has been handling rescues in the Mediterranean, has finally found a way around the stone wall of closed ports. An Italian vessel has taken those on the Kurdi aboard, acting as a quarantine ship.

Meanwhile, Luxembourg has taken in 12 child refugees, and Germany 48, from the camps in Greece. Obviously, 60 people is a tiny number, and the anxieties these young people will face separated from their loved ones can’t be ignored. But it’s a start.

This is in line with the work of Europe Must Act, a campaign which has our fullest support. In just one month, they’ve collected over 30 pledges to take in young refugees from cities across Europe.

While it’s a shame that, once again, young people must serve as the vanguard of social change, we have the utmost faith that this campaign will set the right example.

A sliver of hope 

Finally, another sliver of positive news from the world of NGOs and IGOs. Reliant for so long on volunteers and international workers, lockdown has forced them to get creative with how they keep their operations afloat.

Things are undergoing digital transformation at a rapid pace and scale, making resources and support available more widely. Better still, a simple need for a workforce has prompted a renewed approach to relocalisation.

Operations and key decisions have been delegated to locals on the ground, often refugees themselves. Previously, this wasn’t as common as it really should have been for larger NGOs, but their hands have been forced if they want to stay locally relevant.

There are no ‘good’ stories to come out of this global tragedy. But we can, on some level, reasonably expect change. Where this change is driven by active participation on the ground of locals and refugees as well as human-centered design, the spark of hope, however tiny, still flickers.

Want to get involved in collecting data on how the covid-19 is impacting displaced communities? Learn more on our data hub platform.

This post was written by the team at Sookio.

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