COVID-19: International community must step up to prevent pandemic from devastating vulnerable on the run

1 April 2020

Given how quickly the COVID-19 pandemic is spreading, an outbreak is “looking imminent” in the world’s refugee camps, crowded reception centres or detention facilities where migrant families are sheltering, the Executive Director of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said on Wednesday.

“An outbreak of a respiratory disease like COVID-19 could spread easily through the overcrowded confines and unsafe conditions typical of many camps or settlements”, Henrietta Fore said in a statement. “Families in these environments would be more likely to get sick and less capable of fighting off the disease because of inadequate services”

She pointed out that there are 31 million children who have been uprooted from their homes, including over 17 million internally displaced, 12.7 million refugees and 1.1 million asylum seekers – all needing some form of assistance. 

“Most of them do not have the luxury of calling a doctor when sick, of washing their hands whenever they need to, or of practicing physical distancing to stop disease transmission”, detailed the UNICEF chief. 

Curtailing the spread

Ms. Fore maintained that any public health response to the pandemic should “reach the most vulnerable, including refugees, migrants and those who are internally displaced”. 

This means equitable access to testing and treatment as well as to prevention information, water and sanitation services.  Moreover, there should be plans in place for safe, family-based protection and support for children who are unable to be with their caregivers.

It also means that containment measures – such as border closures and movement restrictions – should not block rights of children to seek asylum and reunite with family members or hinder aid agencies’ efforts to provide humanitarian assistance. 

“Uprooted children and families should be moved quickly out of harm's way to adequate accommodations where they have access to water, soap, physical distancing and safety”, Ms. Fore spelled out.

Working on the ground

Currently, UNICEF is working with partners to prevent the disease from spreading among refugee, migrant and displaced communities by promoting hygiene practices that help thwart transmission. 

It is also developing accurate, child-friendly information on COVID-19 along with materials to fight stigma and promote positive parenting. Likewise, the UN agency is distributing hygiene supplies and providing access to water.

“But we cannot do this alone”, stressed the UNICEF chief. “Now, more than ever, governments and the international community should come together to protect the most vulnerable in these unprecedented times”.


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