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Poor conditions in refugee camps make them a ticking time bomb for Covid to thrive

There is a real danger of Covid-19 ripping through the world’s refugee camps, writes Rushanara Ali MP. | PA Images

3 min read

This a potential humanitarian disaster that is entirely avoidable if Ministers move swiftly to prevent it with new funding, and practical steps to get medical supplies and PPE to the refugee camps.

Nearly 80 million people around the world have been forced to flee their homes from war and persecution. A large proportion of these individuals currently reside in refugee camps, and right now, there is a real danger of Covid-19 ripping through the world’s refugee camps.

Many refugee camps report a spike in Covid-19 cases in recent weeks. They’ve warned that the cramped conditions and poor nutrition and sanitation create the conditions for Covid-19 to thrive. We are looking at a ticking time bomb scenario, with millions of lives at risk.

There are refugee camps in Europe, across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. The biggest camps are in the poorest countries, placing huge pressures on local economies and fragile healthcare systems in the nations least able to deal with them.

Bangladesh, for example, has accepted nearly a million Rohingya refugees escaping the genocide in neighbouring Myanmar. I have seen for myself the vastness of the camps on the Bangladesh border, and the desperate plight of the displaced people living there. The reality is that in congested places like Cox’s Bazar social distancing and self-isolation are impossible.

A Covid vaccine must be made available on the basis of need, regardless of status or wealth

MPs are calling for the Ministers to outline plans to prevent a public health disaster in refugee camps. We want to see evidence of new funding, and practical steps to get medical supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) to the camps. The camps need handwash, face masks, soap, disinfectant and access to clean water, and the local hospitals need oxygen hoods, ventilators and other vital equipment. 

We must marshal international resources, and ensure that governments from the most affluent countries make the biggest contributions. When Ministers merged DFID with the FCO to create DFCO, we were told it would lead to greater efficiency and streamlined international development funds. Now we will see if those lofty promises are met.

But we also want to see evidence that the UK government has a long-term commitment to tackle the refugee crisis. It should not have been left to The Gambia to bring charges at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) against Myanmar’s genocide against the Rohingya. The UK government must do more to bring the guilty to justice, and make it safe for one million Rohingya to return to their homes, free from fear of violence and repression.

We cannot allow refugee camps, whether in Kenya or Calais, to become permanent settlements. Refugee children need to go to school. Refugee adults need new skills and chances to find work. Wherever possible, people need a safe passage home, with guarantees for their long-term security.

This week we welcome the news that a Covid-19 vaccine might be on the way, but it must be made available on the basis of need, regardless of status or wealth.

It would be a cruel injustice if just at the moment we see light at the end of the tunnel, the virus spreads to some of the world’s most vulnerable people in refugee camps. This a potential humanitarian disaster that is entirely avoidable, if Ministers move swiftly to prevent it.


Rushanara Ali is the Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow.

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