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[Summary] RightOn #7: How to prevent COVID-19 becoming a humanitarian disaster

22 May 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating the problems of persons living in situations of armed conflicts, and in particular those trying to escape from persecution, misery, and/or armed conflict, whether within or across national borders. Refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) are particularly vulnerable to the rapid spread of the Coronavirus because they can hardly comply with measures of confinement and social distancing, and have limited access to healthcare facilities.

On 20 May 2020, the Right On initiative held a web chat titled ‘How to prevent COVID-19 becoming a humanitarian disaster in the context of conflict situations, refugee and IDP populations?’. The panellists for the occasion were Dr Mohammed Al-Hadid, (President, Jordan Red Crescent), Ms Marriët Schuurman (Director, Stability and Humanitarian Aid, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Netherlands), Ms Cecilia Jimenez-Damary (UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of IDPs), Dr Cédric Cotter (Law and Policy Researcher, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)), and Dr Geoff Gilbert (Professor of International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, School of Law and Human Rights Centre, University of Essex).

The role of host countries

Speaking on the role of host countries in providing assistance to refugees and IDPs, the discussants noted that the COVID-19 outbreak placed significant strain on many fragile health systems. Strict preventative measures, such as mandatory quarantine for new refugee arrivals, strict border controls, and the shutdown of schools, were imposed in order to manage the crisis.

The example of Jordan, which houses approximately 1.3 million Syrian refugees and 2.2 million Palestinian refugees, was cited as a successful example of keeping the crisis under control, given that the country has, to date, had a total of 649 cases and 9 deaths.

It was additionally highlighted that an outbreak in a refugee camp would have catastrophic consequences since in most cases large families live in a single household and have limited access to medical supplies. The issue of digital connectivity was also brought up, given that only 65% of refugees have access to the Internet, thus emphasising the lack of accessibility to online schooling materials.

Mental health and social support for refugees and IDPs

The panellists also touched up on the questions of mental health and social support for refugees and IDPs. It was stressed that an individual’s state of mind is the single most important factor which determines peoples’ survival and resilience. As such, it is a decisive factor in any crisis and needs to be integrated from the very beginning as part of the response package. The underlying reasons behind this is the fact that IDPs and refugees already struggle from a psychological perspective with being uprooted from their homes and countries, and that the COVID-19 crisis has only further exacerbated their mental well-being through disruptions of previously established social networks and structures.

Existing materials, such as children’s books about COVID-19 and guidelines provided by the ICRC’s psychosocial department, could help to improve the mindset of vulnerable groups. However, more can be done along the lines of investing in local capacity development and breaking of stigma around the disruptive psychosocial effects of a crisis.

Rights of IDPs during COVID-19

Touching upon the question of IDPs in conflict affected areas, the speakers agreed that the access to humanitarian assistance, such as medical and life-saving resources, has been rendered more difficult due to restrictions.

It was highlighted that the COVID-19 is not only a health crisis, but a human rights crisis that has further aggravated the situation of IDPs and other displaced populations, which in turn threatens the possibility of any durable solution such as the return to places of origin, local integration, or settlement elsewhere.

In a broader context, specific attention has been paid to principles of non-discrimination, participation, empowerment, and accountability that apply to all individuals including those with disabilities and persons in other precarious situations.

The historical perspective on pandemics

The speakers also referred to COVID-19 from a historical perspective. In human history, two of the biggest pandemic calamities were the Bubonic plague and the Spanish flu which took place after WWI. From these previous pandemics, we have drawn important lessons including expertise on public health policies and preventative measures, including quarantine. These lessons have helped significantly for understanding the dynamics of the current pandemic. That said, history has also shown us that refugees, IDPs, and other marginalised groups have faced the risk of being stigmatised as vectors of the pandemic.

Applicability of non-legal binding instruments

The COVID-19 crisis has brought law specialists into all aspects of life. Nevertheless, topics that have been pushed to the background during the Coronavirus crisis, but should be at the forefront, are the sustainable development goals (SDGs).

While the SDGs are not strictly law, they play a large part in ensuring that no one is left behind, and they protect human rights implicitly. Similarly, the global compact on refugees that is not legally binding, but nonetheless sets two key objectives, are the enhanced protection of refugees and fairer responsibility and burden-sharing. In addition to the rights that apply to refugees and IDPs, these two frameworks can add an additional layer to the responsibilities of states of protecting individuals from vulnerable groups.

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