- Burundi: Aid access blocked at ‘unsanitary’ quarantine spots
- Niger: Border closures leave migrants stranded
- Nigeria: Safer crowd control slows food distributions
- Pakistan: Government eases NGO restrictions
- Afghanistan: Citizens stranded, border closures threaten supply lines
- Portugal: Government grants temporary residency rights for migrants
- Iraq: NGO survey reveals access impact
As the coronavirus pandemic reaches new corners of the globe, its impacts are cascading on already stretched aid operations in crisis zones.
The New Humanitarian is collecting updates about how the coronavirus is hitting emergency responses in vulnerable communities – from refugee camps and disaster displacement sites, to border crossings and conflict zones.
Here’s a snapshot of what we’re watching. Look for a new instalment each week.
Burundi: Aid access blocked at 'unsanitary' quarantine spots
NEW: Human Rights Watch released a report criticising conditions at quarantine sites in the country and said several humanitarian organisations have been blocked from providing assistance. More than 100 people were released after falling ill at one site where they had been held “without food or water in appalling sanitary conditions for several days”, the report said. The East African country confirmed its first two COVID-19 cases on 31 March.
Niger: Border closures leave migrants stranded
NEW: Migrants who signed up for voluntary repatriation are among those stranded in Niger due to the country’s COVID-19 lockdowns. The UN’s migration agency, IOM, says it is helping about 2,300 people stuck due to being quarantined on arrival, or after being abandoned by people smugglers. Most are staying in communal transit centres, including sites set up for migrants stranded by border closures. The centres are at full capacity, and the IOM says it is concerned about the possibility of an outbreak within the facilities.
Nigeria: Safer crowd control slows food distributions
NEW: There have been no reported cases of coronavirus in Nigeria’s northeast, the heart of a jihadist insurgency, but COVID-19 has had a “very significant impact” on Plan International’s programmes, said executive director Hussaini Abdu. Food distributions now take far longer as crowd sizes are more tightly managed. “What would have taken one or two days now takes a week,” Abdu said. Distribution timetables have been upended, and “you have to spend time explaining [why]. That undermines predictability,” which feeds into long-established conspiracy theories over alleged corruption and the political agendas of aid agencies, Abdu noted.
Borno State, the centre of the Boko Haram conflict, has imposed inter-state travel restrictions to contain the coronavirus – affecting road-transported humanitarian supplies. “You can go out, but coming in is challenging,” Abdu said.
Comfort Lamptey, country representative for UN Women, said she was reviewing all her agency’s programmes in the northeast to see “what’s feasible to COVID-proof”.
Burkina Faso: Transport bans and access challenges
UPDATED: Aid groups in Burkina Faso were already struggling to provide assistance to almost 800,000 internally displaced people living in hard-to-reach areas. This is getting harder still as coronavirus cases rise. As of 2 April, the country had recorded more than 220 cases.
In mid-March, the government closed its air and land borders to all but military personnel and cargo, and banned public transport nationwide, including buses. Restrictions on travel to and from towns and cities with confirmed cases have also been introduced, leaving aid groups based in the capital, Ouagadougou, unsure how they are going to access people in need.
Manenji Mangundu, country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Burkina Faso and Niger, said the government should make exceptions for life-saving aid.
“Protection and emergency assistance need to continue,” said Mangundu.
Jackie MacLeod, Burkina Faso country director for the International Rescue Committee, told TNH that international staff members have returned home in recent weeks and have not been replaced, while flexible working hours have been introduced to limit the number of people working at the NGO’s office. For more, watch TNH’s recent webinar.
Central African Republic: Stigmatisation and ceasefire calls
UPDATED: The Norwegian Refugee Council said the suspension of both commercial and cargo flights to and from the country is likely to impact humanitarian operations. With 70 percent of health services provided by aid groups, it is “crucial to maintain the necessary infrastructure to allow supplies and personnel into the country”, the organisation said.
The UN peacekeeping mission, MINUSCA, announced it would suspend the rotation of blue helmets. It also appealed for residents to stop the “stigmatisation” of foreigners – something that could prove a problem for non-local aid workers, particularly in the capital, Bangui. Armed groups that signed a peace deal last year have been asked to better implement a ceasefire to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Democratic Republic of Congo: Evacuations and staffing limits
UPDATED: A state of emergency was declared on 24 March as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases rose. Borders have been shut, and internal passenger flights have been grounded. This is creating problems for aid workers who regularly fly from the capital, Kinshasa, to conflict-affected areas in eastern DRC using humanitarian air services.
NGOs had stopped non-essential staff from coming in and out of Congo even before the restrictions. This has made it difficult to bring in additional staff and affected day-to-day operations. “We were supposed to have people coming to support the country office on specific work,” said Benoit Munsch, country director for CARE International. “It could be audit, training, consultancy, and all these kinds of movements have been stopped.”
Some non-essential aid workers have been evacuated from Congo on the assumption that the coronavirus will hit the humanitarian hub of Goma, the largest city in the east of the country, and health structures will collapse. High staff turnover in Goma is triggering concerns that people who leave won’t be replaced.
The governor of North Kivu called aid agencies together in mid-March and expressed concerns about them importing cases, emphasising the risk to refugee populations and the internally displaced. Going forward, there is concern about border closures as NGOs frequently use roads through Burundi and Rwanda as supply routes.
On the plus side, there have been discussions about using resources from Congo’s Ebola response to tackle COVID-19. Responders had been looking at ways to shut down Ebola treatment and transit centres, for example, but the process has been suspended while they investigate whether the centres could be used for COVID-19. Some NGOs are also seeking to integrate COVID-19 messaging into their current Ebola prevention programmes.
Horn of Africa: Locusts and ethics
Travel restrictions, staff downsizing, and worries over duty of care (there are no medevac guarantees), make responding to “a sudden-onset emergency a real concern”, a senior aid official told TNH.
The locust swarms in the Horn are one example. Locusts consume huge amounts of vegetation, exacerbating food insecurity across the region. Some farmers in Somalia and Ethiopia suffered total crop losses when swarms rampaged across parts of eastern Africa earlier this year; now, experts fear new swarms expected to hatch by April could be 20 times larger.
“COVID-19 cases will be at their peak when the new swarms start flying and impacting crops,” the aid official said.
Coronavirus restrictions are already delaying the delivery of pesticides and equipment to control the locusts. With flights cancelled, shipping costs have reportedly increased by 300 percent.
At the same time, coronavirus lockdowns emerging in various countries could lead to potentially dangerous tensions driven by economic hardships. “What would [aid delivery] look like in an environment of extreme competition? In this sort of crisis, the military might be the last resort,” the aid official said.
Kenya: Flexible donors and refugee volunteers
The director of one international NGO, who preferred to remain anonymous, told TNH that COVID-19 had severely disrupted his operations in Kenya. Programmes were either at a standstill or “operating at 50 percent”. But donors have so far been flexible, agreeing to no-cost extensions. “Everything seems negotiable,” he said. In Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps, home to 493,000 people, national staff are now far more reliant on refugee volunteers who they monitor and guide by phone. “We’ve invested in masks, gloves, and sanitation for the refugee volunteers,” the director said. Movement into the camps has been sharply reduced.
Southern Africa: Keeping food aid flowing
A regional food crisis is affecting tens of millions. South Africa, the port and logistical centre for much of the region’s humanitarian response, has closed 35 of 49 border posts. Ensuring food keeps flowing in and around countries is a top priority, aid groups say. For now, the South African government has assured the World Food Programme (WFP) that its food supply chain – which supports some 20 million people in the region – won’t be affected by lockdowns and border closures. “At the moment [food movements have] continued as normal through South Africa [and on to Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia and eSwatini],” said Lola Castro, regional director for WFP southern Africa. “What we are hoping is that the transporters will continue to be engaged and not be afraid to move around the region.” There will “probably be [security forces] checks on the road to see where our trucks are going”, but at this stage there is “no need for humanitarian corridors”.
Castro said WFP has asked for three months’ advance funding from the donors. “It will allow us to buy rapidly across the world and move the food before any problem happens with shipping lines,” she said. “As the airlines are closing down, we hope the shipping lines will not be affected.” She stressed that WFP was asking donors for “advanced funds, not more funds. We need to put stocks in-country to allow distribution on time.” WFP is increasing the number of distribution sites to limit overcrowding. Prepositioning food, and providing two to three months’ rations in advance, will also help reduce crowd sizes. Among the priorities for WFP are children who had qualified for school-feeding programmes but are no longer in class, and people living with HIV/AIDS, said Castro.
South Sudan: Tighter lockdown
The government announced the closure of all airports and land crossings on 23 March. Excluded from the ban are cargo and relief flights, as well as food trucks and fuel tankers. But all drivers are required to undergo medical tests at the border. Upcoming rotations of UN peacekeepers are on hold, and in-country flights have been restricted, according to the UN peacekeeping mission.
For aid staff still in the country, all R&R leave has been suspended until 15 April, when the situation will be reviewed. “Part of my team is either out of the country or locked up in their apartments,” one aid worker said. “It’s a mindset shift to the new reality,” but after years of war, “this is not the first time working under extreme conditions”. A senior humanitarian official, currently in quarantine, predicted a jump in staff turnover, and said “it will be 10 times harder to find replacements”.
Uganda: Refugee arrivals barred
On 25 March, Uganda announced measures to temporarily bar the arrival of new refugees and asylum seekers. Transit and reception centres will also be closed, while flights in and out of the country have been grounded and borders sealed following a first case of COVID-19. Uganda currently hosts some 1.4 million refugees – mainly from neighbouring South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Pakistan: Government eases NGO restrictions
NEW: Long distrustful of NGOs but facing a growing outbreak, Pakistan’s government in late-March eased restrictions on aid groups working on coronavirus responses. The government will temporarily waive obligations for international NGOs to obtain so-called “no-objection certificates” for coronavirus-related projects as long as the organisation has already been approved by the government. Pakistan has pushed some INGOs out of the country in recent years, and layered onerous requirements onto those that remain – forcing some to scale back programmes.
The closure of Pakistan’s official border crossings with Afghanistan has shrunk the number of undocumented Afghans returning home (there were no recorded returns at the two official crossings from 22-28 March, the IOM says, and only six the week before). The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, has also suspended its separate voluntary returns programme for registered refugees. In the past, rights groups have claimed the UN effectively incentivised involuntary repatriation by offering cash support to returnees and not criticising Pakistan’s mass forced returns, which peaked in 2016.
Afghanistan: Citizens stranded, border closures threaten supply lines
NEW: The UN says a few thousand Afghan citizens are currently stuck on the Pakistan side of the two country’s shared borders. As of 30 March, negotiations were underway to allow their return, but this will require a humanitarian scale-up in Afghanistan to deal with the influx.
UPDATED: The border regions are the main flashpoint for concern – both for containing the virus, as well as the broader impacts on humanitarian operations in a country facing conflict, disasters, and overarching food instability. A record 150,000 Afghans crossed the border from Iran in March, as Afghanistan’s western neighbour deals with one of world’s largest coronavirus outbreaks. Return numbers slowed by late March, according to the IOM.
Pakistan’s closed joint border crossings are the main supply routes for food imports and Afghan aid. Pakistan had agreed to allow some levels of commercial and humanitarian transport, but the situation is in flux. A limited number of commercial trucks were crossing via southern Kandahar’s Spin Boldak – one of two main border points. “It’s obviously something we’re concerned about and will continue to monitor closely,” said Nicholas Bishop, who works on border response in Afghanistan with the IOM.
Staffing levels are a concern as some foreign workers leave, and travel restrictions and quarantines prevent others from getting in. About 9.4 million Afghans rely on humanitarian assistance, and the COVID-19 pandemic could begin to affect other programmes, some aid workers told TNH. Staff from four NGOs in Afghanistan told TNH that their organisations were evacuating some or all international workers due to liability issues and concern about the local health system. Some groups said they were staying: “We are trying to keep as many of our regular activities running, but some will have to halt,” said Zia Hannan, Oxfam’s country director. Vicki Aken, country director for the International Rescue Committee, noted that most aid workers in Afghanistan, like elsewhere, are local. “Now, more than ever, they need to see that the international community will continue to support their efforts,” she said.
There are early signs of knock-on effects. The UN said some aid groups have suspended livelihood programmes that would have helped 70,000 people. The impact is seen as minimal for now, but it could cause problems if the stoppage lasts longer than a month.
Bangladesh: Internet ban stifles communications, virus poses aid dilemma
UPDATED: A months-long internet ban in the Rohingya refugee camps is a growing concern. Refugees say it has made it impossible to share basic messages about how to prepare across the sprawling camps. Local and international aid groups warn that open communications are “essential to preparedness and to saving lives”. Camp residents reported that the internet briefly came on for about an hour on 1 April before going dark again. There were no confirmed cases in the camps as of 2 April, but Bangladesh has reported a first case in the nearby town of Cox's Bazar, a hub for aid groups.
On 25 March, Bangladeshi authorities ordered the suspension of all relief work, apart from essential services like health, nutrition, and food distribution. Makeshift schools have been shut and authorities have urged Rohingya refugees to stay home. “Everything is closed,” one camp resident told TNH. The NGO Save the Children said its child-friendly spaces are closed and may be “repurposed for medical use”. The new restrictions are seen as necessary, but they do have a cost: education NGOs were set to begin a long-awaited formal schooling programme using the Myanmar curriculum.
“Humanitarian workers could themselves be vectors of the virus. How can we stand and deliver the life-saving aid that so many people depend on, without putting them at further risk?”
The Rohingya refugee camps are one of the top concerns for the humanitarian sector. The packed settlements are home to roughly 900,000 people, and containment efforts like “social distancing” will be difficult. Extremely limited hospital isolation and treatment beds will also complicate response efforts if an outbreak emerges.
One of the biggest concerns is the possibility of aid workers importing the virus. “We are now facing a very real dilemma, particularly in camps and camp-like settings,” said Pierre Peron, spokesperson for the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, in Asia. “Humanitarian workers could themselves be vectors of the virus. How can we stand and deliver the life-saving aid that so many people depend on, without putting them at further risk?”
The government has asked aid groups not to bring in new staff, and to limit travel between the camps and the nearby town of Cox’s Bazar, several aid workers told TNH. Jeremy Wellard, Asia representative for the International Council of Voluntary Agencies, an umbrella group of NGOs, said the risks to refugees – and global travel restrictions – are forcing aid groups to re-assess when travel is actually essential. “It’s been a moment of reckoning for the sector,” he said. “We can still do much of our work remotely without actually putting bodies on the ground.” But as the coronavirus pandemic continues, this will also mean looking at how funding and support – which moves slowly at the best of times – can be shifted to help local responders already doing much of the work.
The Philippines: Polio vaccinations suspended, but a tentative ceasefire emerges
Access has emerged as an early constraint as COVID-19 cases rise. Local governments have imposed strict community quarantines to contain the spread of the virus, but these are also delaying a swathe of response programmes – most notably a polio vaccination campaign. “This is a major spanner in the works,” said Mark Bidder, head of office for OCHA in the Philippines. The coronavirus has put yet another emergency on the country’s radar. Over the last year, the Philippines has been hit with multiple earthquakes, a volcano eruption, dengue and measles outbreaks, and the return of polio after a two-decade absence. The polio outbreak had already delayed measles response operations, and now COVID-19 is disrupting programmes across the board. The Philippine Red Cross, for example, has postponed a cash grants programme for survivors of a November typhoon until April or May.
There’s concern particularly in the southern region of Mindanao, where more than 300,000 people are displaced due to conflict or disasters. Local aid groups are trying to continue cash aid programmes, but staff are under strict quarantine or isolation measures as COVID-19 cases rise. Like aid operations around the world, local groups are moving into uncharted territory. “We hope to be of help as much as we can, but we accept our limitations as we have no experience in responding to this kind of crisis,” said Regina Salvador-Antequisa, who heads the NGO Ecoweb.
The coronavirus has sparked at least one positive – albeit tentative – outcome: a communist rebel group in the Philippines announced a ceasefire on 24 March. Days earlier, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had declared his own unilateral ceasefire (though the Communist Party of the Philippines said its decision was in response to an earlier ceasefire plea from UN Secretary-General António Guterres). Conflict involving the New People’s Army – the CPP’s armed wing – has killed an estimated 43,000 people over decades in parts of the Philippines.
North Korea: Cash roadblocks and an aid blind spot
North Korea was one of the first countries to close its borders as the coronavirus erupted in China in January. Donor fears of breaking sanctions and government rules have always made direct aid implementation difficult, but new restrictions and mandatory quarantines for foreigners – reportedly lasting weeks – have made it even harder to monitor. “I don’t think anybody has good visibility over the status of things,” one humanitarian based outside North Korea told TNH. Coronavirus travel restrictions have also complicated efforts to get money into the country: the Red Cross said the restrictions have stopped the “physical transfer of funds”, causing “cash constraints” that will delay supply restocks for an ongoing response to September’s Typhoon Lingling until at least May. Most banks have long been reluctant to transfer money into the country.
Portugal: Government grants temporary residency rights for migrants
NEW: This week, the government of EU member state Portugal took the highly unusual step of granting full citizenship rights to migrants and asylum seekers until at least 1 July, due to the coronavirus outbreak. In addition to access to the national health service, all those who can provide evidence of an ongoing residency request will receive welfare benefits, bank accounts, and work and rental contracts.
Mediterranean: Limited migrant rescues to restart
UPDATED: German NGO Sea Eye says its migrant rescue boat, the Alan Kurdi, has finished repairs in Spain and will begin operating again off the coast of Libya during 4-5 April. For the time-being, it will be the only such vessel on patrol in the Central Mediterranean – the most frequented migration route from Libya to Italy, where at least 10,000 people have drowned since 2015. Two other NGO ships, Sea-Watch 3 and Ocean Viking, had their operations suspended last month due to logistical difficulties caused by the coronavirus. The EU, meanwhile, launched a new year-long naval mission in the Central Mediterranean on 1 April to police an arms embargo on Libya. The extension of the previous mission had been blocked by Italian claims that its presence attracted migrants to attempt more crossings to Europe from North Africa. The coronavirus has made it even harder for boats that rescue migrants to find ports where they can dock.
Italy: Asylum ‘stay’ extensions granted
UPDATED: The coronavirus outbreak in Italy – the deadliest in the world – is testing a stretched healthcare system and also affecting tens of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers. The Italian government has extended the validity of stay permits and citizen requests expiring between 31 January and 15 April until 15 June, due to the emergency. But applications and renewals of residency permits for foreigners have been suspended, as police staff normally employed at immigration desks have been re-assigned for emergency coronavirus duties. Courts are also closed, so the government has suspended interviews for refugee status determination and appeals hearings for asylum request denials. Services for asylum seekers are also affected, including employment help and language classes seen as key to integration. Legal aid operations, run by both the state and by NGOs, have been heavily reduced. Groups trying to help asylum seekers have also been limited by government guidelines on social distancing. “We now let only one [migrant or asylum seeker] into our offices at a time, which consistently reduces the number of people we can assist per day,” Simone Alterisio, migration services coordinator for Waldensian Diaconia, a faith-based NGO, told TNH.
Greece: First coronavirus cases in refugee camp
UPDATED: A woman who gave birth in a hospital on the mainland became the first refugee in the country to test positive for COVID-19. On 2 April, the camp where she was a resident, Ritsona, north of Athens, was placed under full lockdown for 14 days after 20 refugees at the camp also tested positive.
The arrival of COVID-19 in Greece came just as the country faced migration challenges on two fronts: on the Turkish border, where thousands amassed after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan claimed he was opening the doors to the EU; and on the Aegean Islands, where pressure to act on overcrowded detention centres had been reaching a breaking point. Greek security forces have been accused of using violence to push back migrants and asylum seekers trying to cross the border. While clashes continued despite the coronavirus threat, Greece has so far resisted plans to relocate asylum seekers from centres like Moria on the islands of Lesvos, arguing that the risk from COVID-19 is greater on the mainland. Rights groups and humanitarian organisations have called on the Greek government to prepare an evacuation plan for when the first case of coronavirus is discovered in the unsanitary camps, where refugees are reportedly sewing masks to protect themselves from COVID-19. The transfer of 1,600 unaccompanied children from Greece to at least seven countries in the EU has already been put on hold because of the coronavirus.
Iraq: NGO survey reveals access impact
UPDATED: NGOs say restrictions on movement are hampering their ability to deliver aid for the COVID-19 response and other programmes. Lockdowns and curfews differ across the country, along with the rules about how and if aid workers are exempt from these instructions. The NGO Coordination Committee for Iraq said on 24 March that “the lack of clarity on governorate-level NGO exemptions for movement is preventing NGOs from delivering urgent, vital assistance”. According to a survey it conducted with 57 local and international NGOs responding, an overwhelming majority (93 percent) said their operations were affected by COVID-related restrictions on movement. About one third of NGOs said they had suspended activities, more than two thirds said they were unable to reach people who do not live in camps, and 63 percent said their work had been impacted.
“There needs to be immediate clarity on NGO exemptions to movement restrictions at the governorate level,” the committee said. “NGOs are cognisant of the risk of spreading the virus and are committed to implementing proper prevention and hygiene measures to protect the health of aid workers and the communities we serve.”
Some 1.4 million people are still displaced in Iraq because of the so-called Islamic State. Even before COVID-19 restrictions, the continuing fight against the group – along with new government rules – meant that aid organisations have for months had trouble reaching the displaced and others who need help across the country. OCHA said in late February that the governor of Salah al-Din, north of Baghdad, had banned foreign nationals, including aid workers, from entering the province, due to COVID-19 restrictions. It also reported that increasing movement restrictions – both inside the semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region and between the region and Iraq – were impacting “humanitarians’ ability to deliver assistance”.
NEW: While some NGOs said that bank closures had led to problems paying staff and completing cash transfers to people in IDP camps, according to a 1 April update from OCHA, some banks in Iraq and the Kurdish-run semi-autonomous north had re-opened with reduced hours, a change that “is expected to help ease” the problems.
Syria: Border crossings in flux
UPDATED: Several sources told TNH that Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq had recently closed the border with northeast Syria, which had previously been open for NGOs one day a week and for emergencies – restrictions UN relief chief Mark Lowcock alluded to in a 30 March briefing to the Security Council. This caused concern that international staff would have to withdraw from the region and possibly relocate to the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraq, although one source said that the Kurdish Regional Government had since agreed to allow limited border crossings for humanitarians.
After nine years of war, 11 million people are estimated to need aid inside Syria, including nearly a million people who recently fled the recent government campaign in the rebel-held northwest and many more who were already displaced. The impact of COVID-19 response and preparedness restrictions differs depending on location, as parts of the country are controlled by rebels, others by the government of President Bashar al-Assad, and others still by Kurdish authorities. In general, schools are closed, including those in camps. Most protection initiatives and programmes that provide psychosocial support are also on hold. Most NGOs say they are shifting the way they deliver aid – like delivering food to individual tents rather than encouraging people to gather. A recent update from the World Health Organisation and OCHA reported that some aid deliveries have been put on hold while the new methods are sorted out: “mobile medical clinics or other services have been suspended or reduced as teams work to implement precautionary work”.
Occupied Palestinian Territories: Virus forces changes in food distribution
NEW: COVID-19 has led the UN’s agency for Palestine refugees, UNRWA, to adjust the way it distributes food aid in Gaza. Starting on 31 March, the agency began delivering parcels to individual homes rather than asking people to pick them up at distribution centres. A reported 70,000 deliveries are expected to be made over the next three weeks; recipients and delivery drivers – mainly on motorbike – have been told to stay two metres from each other.
Both the West Bank and Gaza have now registered cases of COVID-19, raising concerns about the potential for quick spread – particularly in the latter territory, where much of the 1.9 million population lives in densely populated refugee camps and urban areas.
There are quarantines and curfews in both areas, many workplaces are shut, and schools are closed. The UN says these measures, coupled with overcrowding and uncertainty, “are expected to increase mental and psychosocial distress, particularly among children, as well as gender-based violence”. It says these concerns are magnified in Gaza, where Israel has imposed a blockade since Hamas took control of the strip in 2007. There are regular violent flare-ups, and 33 civilians were killed by Israeli soldiers in 2019 during weekly protests at the border. At the same time, relief and social services offices operated by UNRWA are currently closed in Gaza due to the outbreak.
An UNRWA spokesperson said that while schools are closed, the agency has “vast experience in providing distance learning” due to past conflicts in Gaza and Syria, so they are “putting together now an alternative approach to physically being present inside classrooms”.
Libya: Refugee resettlement on hold
UPDATED: UNHCR has temporarily halted registering asylum seekers in Libya, but on 25 March the agency and its partners restarted work, on an “appointment-only basis”, at a Tripoli day centre that provides healthcare, cash assistance, and other services to migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees. COVID-19 concerns had forced a temporary stoppage to the programme. The agency also said it has instituted “remote registration and document verification” for babies born to refugees and asylum seekers.
Authorities in the internationally recognised government, one party in Libya’s ongoing violence, announced the country’s first confirmed coronavirus case on 24 March. A “humanitarian pause” to combat the threat of COVID-19 – declared mid-March and ostensibly welcomed by the internationally recognised government and Khalifa Haftar’s eastern forces, which have been fighting a battle for control of the capital, Tripoli, since April – failed to take hold.
The UN announced on 17 March that it would pause refugee resettlement travel around the world due to concerns and restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. This appears to include the evacuation flights that had enabled some vulnerable asylum seekers and refugees to leave Libya – a country with an estimated 645,000 migrants and 356,000 internally displaced people that is struggling under the weight of 11 months of fighting in and around Tripoli.
Yemen: Flight bans hamper aid
UPDATED: There are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Yemen, a country where five years of war has left 24 million people in need of aid. But a ban on flights in and out of Yemen has already meant the UN has scaled back to essential staff only and stopped medical evacuations for an already limited number of chronically ill civilians. In addition, a key reform that has been demanded by the World Food Programme and donors – the use of biometrics to register aid recipients – may also be further delayed, as Houthi rebels said they have banned the use of fingerprint technology for health reasons.
NEW: Lockdown and curfew rules vary across the country, and while one Yemeni NGO source told TNH they had not faced official restrictions in moving between provinces when inside the Houthi-controlled north or government-controlled south, they said road travel had slowed down and they were concerned access may become more difficult in the coming days. The source said there are restrictions on most road travel between the north and the south.
NGOs and aid agencies are also shifting how they deliver aid. ACTED, for example, said it had upped the number of days it gives out food vouchers in the northern province of Sa’adah to avoid creating crowds, and asked people to stick to a schedule it had set for distribution.
Lebanon: Lockdown spurs refugee healthcare worries
NGOs working in Lebanon said the country’s lockdown, combined with a months-long economic crisis, is impacting their ability to deliver aid to the estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees in the country and others who need help. Schools are shut, along with school meals, and almost all “non-essential” programming has been put on hold, including “non-formal education” and many “protection” programmes, such as those related to children and sexual and gender-based violence. Some local NGOs have stopped working altogether for the time-being.
NGO sources told TNH that the country’s economic crash had made it difficult to buy medical supplies, including personal protective equipment (PPE), even before the coronavirus pandemic. This issue has become even more acute as banks have closed and cut off access to US dollars.
With the police and army helping to enforce a lockdown, there is concern that refugees are not seeking help when they need it, including regular healthcare services beyond the coronavirus. Though there were still no known COVID-19 cases among refugees in Lebanon’s informal camps as of 1 April, aid groups fear refugees won’t look for treatment if they develop symptoms. This may be more of a concern for refugees who live in cities rather than informal camps, where mobile medical units are still operating. A document published by the group that coordinates Lebanon’s aid response says “refugees are isolating themselves due to fear of becoming ill [and] being exposed to harassment and violence in the community”.
Colombia/Venezuela: Pressures on both sides of the border
UPDATED: The closure of the border with Colombia has spurred concerns over how Venezuelans who had relied on buying medical supplies and medicines in the neighbouring country will fare, as well as fears that those who need to cross will rely on unofficial and dangerous routes. Within Colombia, health officials have warned of the vulnerability to the coronavirus of the 1.8 Venezuelan migrants who now reside there. They are not covered by the financial aid packages being rolled out to Colombian citizens and have lost income as well as services they rely on, such as soup kitchens and shelters. UN agencies warned that the coronavirus was compounding the already dire situation for Venezuelan refugees. But the greater concern may arguably be for those still in Venezuela, where an economic collapse has seen an exodus of medical staff, the decimation of the healthcare system, and led to huge shortages of key supplies, including fresh water. A serious coronavirus epidemic could also lead to further social and political unrest, and to an authoritarian response.
Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro is under increasing pressure due to the collapse in global oil prices, as the country’s crippled economy relies heavily on oil revenues. On 26 March, US President Donald Trump’s administration, which recognises opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s rightful leader, charged Maduro and other senior officials with “narco-terrorism”, before offering to lift sanctions if he agreed to step aside and let a transitional council govern until fresh elections. One ray of light: Colombia’s left-wing National Liberation Army (ELN) rebel group, which has bases in the two country’s borderlands, declared a unilateral ceasefire for one month from 1 April, heeding the call from Guterres for a global truce while COVID-19 is tackled.
UPDATED: The first cases of COVID-19 have been a major cause for concern in Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere where months of protests over corruption and food and fuel prices had rocked the government even before the coronavirus. A lockdown has gone into effect but will be hard to enforce in the teeming capital of Port-au-Prince, where many people live in slums and informal settlements. The Caribbean country of more than 11 million people, which has fewer than 30 intensive care beds, suffered a cataclysmic earthquake in 2010 that flattened the capital and nearby Léogâne, claiming between 160,000 and 300,000 lives. As the number of Haitians known to be infected rose to 16 by 2 April – hundreds more people are in quarantine and awaiting test results – there were reports of doctors and nurses refusing to show up for work at hospitals because of a lack of equipment and infection fears.
US-Mexico: Migrant shelters brace for coronavirus
Under Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, more than 60,000 asylum seekers have been forced to stay on the Mexican side of the border as they wait for their requests to be heard. The US government delayed court hearings for those due to be heard before 22 April, a move affecting some 25,000 cases. Mexico has temporarily stopped processing asylum requests until at least 20 April as COVID-19 shutters public offices. And, under a new US coronavirus-related policy, any migrants caught illegally crossing the border will be processed in the field and sent back to Mexico rather than being detained and questioned on US soil. As the number of COVID-19 cases rises in Mexico, experts have voiced concerns about the spread of the virus in the crowded migrant encampments that dot cities across northern Mexico, where healthcare is patchy and life-saving ventilators are few and far between.