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In World's Overcrowded Refugee Camps, Proper Hygiene, Isolation Are Impossible


The coronavirus pandemic is expected to have a devastating effect on refugees around the world. The United Nations estimates that there are 70 million people displaced by war, environmental disasters or other hardships. And NPR's Alice Fordham tells us what they face.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: On the Greek island of Lesbos is one of the world's most densely populated camps. Designed for 3,000 people, it now holds about 20,000.

LORRAINE LEETE: It's in a remote, rural location set in the midst of olive fields.

FORDHAM: Lorraine Leete is the coordinator at the Legal Centre Lesvos, which helps people stuck there claim asylum. Her colleague in the camp sent recordings of children running round, lines for bathrooms, closely packed shops.

LEETE: There's no sufficient sewage treatment or sewage system. So this is kind of the smell that hits you when you are first approaching the camp.

FORDHAM: A few cases of the coronavirus have been diagnosed among the rest of the island's population. And she's worried about it getting into the camp. Good hygiene and isolation are impossible.

One Syrian man there tells NPR about his fear of contagion.

AYMAN: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: "We have children," he says. "Of course, we're scared of the sickness. When we go to sleep at night, we're only hoping to God it doesn't come here."

He gives only his first name, Ayman, because he doesn't want to jeopardize his asylum application.

AYMAN: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: When he hears about the cases in Italy, in Athens...

AYMAN: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: ...Among people who have houses and who can quarantine inside, it's terrifying.

AYMAN: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: "I'm saying, if one person gets sick, then everyone will get sick. Everyone eats together."

He sends a video of a food distribution line, people pressed against each other, jostling.


FORDHAM: If the virus gets into the camp and spreads rapidly, the number of cases among islanders, many of whom are elderly, could increase, too. And this is a public health concern worldwide. The largest camp in the world, where more than 850,000 Rohingya Muslims live, near Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh has one hospital.

DEEPMALA MAHLA: So what can happen if the coronavirus outbreak happens in Cox's Bazaar? I shudder to think.

FORDHAM: Deepmala Mahla is the Asia director for the charity CARE. She worries about people in the camp and beyond.

MAHLA: Let us remember that people are mobile. And once the outbreak happens in the Cox's Bazar camps, likely, it could spread to the Cox's Bazar town. And then people travel around. Remember, Bangladesh, like many other South Asian countries, is a very crowded country in terms of population density.

FORDHAM: Plus, she says, getting medicine and food into the camp has only gotten harder as movement is restricted. Other aid workers think as the global economy reels, funding for refugees could fall. And as well as threatening their present, the pandemic could jeopardize the future of these people.

BETSY FISHER: Refugee resettlement departures have been suspended as of two weeks ago on March 17. The U.N. Refugee Agency made that announcement.

FORDHAM: Betsy Fisher is director of strategy at the International Refugee Assistance Project, which is based in New York. She says most countries have also suspended interviews for visas.

FISHER: We're looking at tens of thousands of people who will be facing extra time waiting either in danger or separated from loved ones.

FORDHAM: As travel restrictions tighten, many are essentially trapped at high risk of illness and with even less help than usual. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.