If refugees are forgotten during Covid-19 vaccination drive then 'we are back to square one'

The UN's Ann Encontre tells Dubai aid conference that woman and children have been hardest hit by the pandemic

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Attempts to curb the spread of Covid-19 are doomed to failure unless refugees are included in vaccination drives, a leading humanitarian told a Dubai aid event on Monday.

Ann Encontre, who works for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Ethiopia, said the pandemic left displaced people in an even worse predicament than ever.

Speaking at the Dubai International Human Aid and Development conference on Monday, Ms Encontre said everyone would lose if refugees were left behind when it came to inoculations.

A lot of humanitarian aid is used to fix infrastructure issues like bridges when the money would be better used on food and education

"I cannot advocate strongly enough that refugees must not be forgotten," she told The National. "There is so much work that needs to be done to ensure they are registered and vaccinated like anyone else," she said.

"If all civilians are vaccinated but refugees are not then we are back to square one.”

She said Covid-19 was creating new challenges for humanitarians already facing an uphill struggle to help refugees in Ethiopia.

“We had to re-educate a lot of people as many have a culture of eating ... together and doing everything together, in fact,” she said, referring to the challenges of enforcing social distancing in Ethiopia's 26 refugee camps.

“We increased the number of water points to try and get the message across. The hardest task we had was to get the message across about the importance of social distancing.”

The scale of the task is immense and has been worsened by violence in the northern region of Tigray. About a million people are believed to be displaced there, after fighting began there in November. Up to 25 people shelter in a single home in some cases.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, ordered troops to the region last November saying he was responding to alleged attacks on federal army camps by the Tigray People's Liberation Front.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - Reporter: Nick Webster. News. Ann Encontre, Representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Ethiopia speaks on Africa: The Impact of Conflicts and Humanitarian Crises. The Dubai International Humanitarian Aid & Development Conference (DIHAD). Monday, March 15th, 2021. Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Ann Encontre, Representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Ethiopia, said the hardest task was 'to get the message across about the importance of social distancing'. Chris Whiteoak / The National

“When the schools were closed, we had more than 250,000 children affected,” Ms Encontre said.

“We had no access to telecommunications or the internet which meant we could not change classroom methods, like in some other countries, so there was no school for a year.”

Ethiopia has reported more than 176,000 cases of Covid-19 with 2,555 deaths to date.

The International Organisation for Migration said more than 1.8 million people have been internally displaced there out of a population of 112 million.

Ms Encontre said the pandemic hit women and children the hardest.

“Women refugees can often have several children who are very close in age, which creates issues especially when they are not in school any more,” she said.

“Finding something to occupy them when you have no television or internet can prove really difficult, particularly for adolescent males.

"It can be a very trying time for mothers to cook, clean and keep their sons out of mischief at the same time ."

Ms Encontre said part of the problem was not only that the amount of aid being sent was not enough  but that it often was not spent in the right areas.

“The resources are never enough. Since Tigray, more and more people are on the move, which means we need more,” she said.

“Shrinking humanitarian space is a reality of life in Ethiopia.”

More  needed to be done to help refugees become self-reliant, she said.

“There needs to be a smarter use of humanitarian money. At the moment, a lot of humanitarian aid is used to fix infrastructure issues like bridges when the money would be better used on food and education.”

Dihad will continue at Dubai's World Trade Centre until Wednesday and is focusing on humanitarian aid and Covid-19 in Africa.