Coronavirus: Jordan closes off Syrian refugee camps to contain virus

Jordan imposed compulsory quarantining for all arrivals on Tuesday as cases reached 16

Syrian refugee students take part in a washing hands activity during an awareness campaign about coronavirus initiated by OXFAM and UNICEF at Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, March 11, 2020. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed
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Syrian refugee camps in Jordan will be placed under lockdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus in high-risk environments. Zaatari and Azraq house 76,645 and 35,709 people respectively and aid agencies are concerned that crowded conditions will spur rapid transmission of the virus if it reaches either of the camps.

On Monday, the Ministry of Interior made arrangements to prevent movement in and out of Zaatari and Azraq. The new measures will affect refugees in the camp holding work and leave permits, as well as external visitors who will no longer be allowed into the camps.

"As things [are] developing rapidly, we cannot take the risk to expose highly concentrated camps to the contamination of the virus," Lilly Carlisle, a UNHCR Jordan Spokesperson, told The National.

The UN Refugee Agency will be operating a reduced team in refugee camps, she said, but all urgent protection needs will continue to be addressed. “Essential services like hospitals, clinics and supermarkets remain open.”

No cases of coronavirus have been reported in the camps, or among the refugee population in Jordan, but with 12 new cases emerging in the Hashemite kingdom on Sunday, concerns are mounting.

The country tightened a nation-wide lockdown on Tuesday as the total number of infections rose to 16, closing all borders and banning incoming and outgoing flights as well as closing schools and halting daily prayers in mosques. Jordanian officials said the unprecedented measures were taken as the virus spreads rapidly through neighbouring Egypt, Syria and Iraq, Reuters reported.

Jordan has a strong health system but aid agencies are worried about the impact on the most vulnerable, many of whom lack access to adequate medical services.

“In terms of other measures which are in place, we are of course advocating for refugees to be included within national health preparedness plans. The Ministry of Health has been very receptive and supportive. if a refugee, for example, was to show symptoms of COVID-19 then they would be referred to the Government hospitals,” Ms Carlisle said.

Organisations are bracing for outbreaks across the region but preparing for the pandemic among displaced communities comes with additional challenges.

“Contingency planning for all countries must include vulnerable communities inside their borders. There must be flexibility from donors so that humanitarian organisations can scale up water, sanitation and hygiene facilities, improve the health response and take other necessary actions to help avoid a catastrophe,” Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council said in a statement.

“Millions of conflict-affected people are living in cramped refugee and displacement sites with desperately poor hygiene and sanitation facilities. When the virus hits overcrowded settlements in places like Iran, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Greece, the consequences will be devastating. We must act now.”