Coronavirus outbreaks pose heightened threat to refugees, Oxfam warns

More than 300 people share just one tap in a Greek camp described as ticking time bomb

A girl wears a protective face mask at a makeshift camp for refugees and migrants next to the Moria camp, during a nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), on the island of Lesbos, Greece April 02, 2020. REUTERS/Elias Marcou
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Refugees living in overcrowded and unsanitary camps find it impossible to mitigate against the spread of coronavirus and are at heightened risk amid the pandemic, the humanitarian organisation Oxfam has warned.

The Britain-based charity pointed to the Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, originally built to hold 3,000 people but now home to nearly 20,000.

The social-distancing and hygiene measures enforced by law across much of the developed world are made nearly impossible in crowded camps like Moria, where there is only one toilet for every 160 people and more than 500 people per shower, the charity said on Monday.

“For many of the world’s most vulnerable, basic preventive measures like staying at home or washing hands more frequently, are simply impossible,” Oxfam chief executive Danny Sriskandarajah said.

“For those in overcrowded camps living in a space smaller than the average British bathroom, social-distancing is not an option.”

In some parts of Moria, as many as 325 people share one water tap and have no access to soap. Up to twenty people sleep cheek-by-jowl in shipping containers, tents and makeshift shelters.

Greece last week quarantined two migrant camps after residents tested positive for the virus, and aid agencies have warned that it is only a matter of time before the virus makes the jump to the island camps. Moria itself has been called a “time bomb” by Medicins Sans Frontieres.

Romanian European Parliament member Eugen Tomac on Monday submitted an urgent question to the European Commission, asking how it intends to protect the right to health of Moria residents during the pandemic.

Mr Tomac also asked what measures had been taken to prevent an outbreak within the camp, and queried whether there were a sufficient number of medical personnel available at the site.

“As we struggle with the terrible and devastating impact of this global pandemic, we also need to do everything we can to prevent it spreading to those who face heightened risk and are least able to cope,” Mr Sriskandarajah added.

The charity said it was also particularly concerned over the threat of an outbreak in Cox’s Bazar, the sprawling Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh which, according to the United Nations, is home more to than 850,000 people.

Current minimum hygiene requirements for refugee camps, put in place by agencies under crisis conditions, were not designed to cope with a global pandemic, Oxfam said, adding that diseases like dysentery, cholera and typhoid are already a threat to camp residents.

Vulnerable communities in other densely populated parts of the world are also at risk, Oxfam said, identifying Gaza as under particular threat from the virus.

The charity warned that an outbreak in the territory, where there are only 70 intensive care beds for a population of two million, could be devastating. Gaza has already confirmed 10 cases of the virus.

Coronavirus outbreaks could also bring further devastation to conflict zones like Syria, Yemen and South Sudan, the charity said.

It has now joined a chorus of warnings and calls over the potential for catastrophic outbreaks of the disease in some of the world’s most vulnerable communities.

Throwing its weight behind a UN call for a $2 billion (Dh7.3 billion) fund for a coordinated coronavirus response for vulnerable countries, the charity said humanitarian efforts in conflict Syria and Yemen were already underfunded and must now compete for resources amid economic turmoil.