WASHINGTON - About 3,000 Congolese refugees crossed into Uganda this month after borders were temporarily opened amid the COVID-19 pandemic. And though Uganda has earned a reputation for welcoming people fleeing conflict, the added fear of coronavirus has complicated the country’s open-arms approach.
The Ugandan Health Ministry is conducting tests of refugees and has instituted a mandatory 14-day quarantine before people can be resettled inside the country.
Last month, Uganda recorded 44 positive coronavirus tests of Congolese refugees at the border, and officials warned that they needed additional support to offer services to the new arrivals.
“If the international community will not cooperate with us to get a solution on how to manage these refugees, we might have to be forced to return them back to their countries,” Hilary Onek, Uganda’s minister for Relief, Disaster and Refugees, told VOA.
Refugees fleeing conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are not an isolated case. About 80 million people in the world today have sought refuge or have been internally displaced, according to the United Nations.
Their predicaments have worsened during the coronavirus pandemic, as the virus spreads quickly among people who live in close proximity to one another.
“All of the kinds of precautions that we're reading about as best practice in terms of avoiding contamination — self-isolation, frequent hand washing — these are not necessarily always available and these [refugee] settlements tend to be very densely packed,” said Jeremy Taylor, the regional advocacy advisor at the Norwegian Refugee Council. “For these reasons, we think about this group of people as being particularly vulnerable.”
The outbreak is also preventing humanitarian workers from reaching vulnerable populations. Borders are closed and international travel has slowed to nearly a standstill.
“No country can fight the pandemic or manage migration alone. But together, we can contain the spread of the virus, buffer its impact on the most vulnerable and recover better for the benefit of all,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said in a recent video message.
#COVID19 continues to devastate the lives of the most vulnerable - including refugees & internally displaced people.— António Guterres (@antonioguterres) June 3, 2020
Here are ways we can reduce the impact of the virus among people on the move & recover better for the benefit of all: https://t.co/vCv1ZQTCBF pic.twitter.com/VekBQz1Hmb
But some donor countries are cutting back on aid as they race to support their own economies.
“We really are hamstrung ourselves; we are stuck at home,” Taylor told VOA. “We’re stuck in airports; we have ... things that we’re intending to deliver and this can be food, blankets, the sort of infrastructure associated with getting more water into facilities — pipes and pumps and all these sorts of things are stuck.”
In West Africa, 50 million people are threatened by hunger due to conflict, climate change and rising food prices. The humanitarian group CARE says the coronavirus outbreak is exacerbating this dire situation and making it hard for aid workers to reach the most vulnerable people.
“These people live on humanitarian assistance or support from their host communities. Currently, the frustration is humanitarian actors have limited access to these populations,” Claudine Mensah Awute, CARE Regional Director for West Africa, said. “So there is a challenge for them to be sure of fulfilling their daily needs. So if nothing is done for such a population in the coming months, we will have seen more than 50 million of them in food insecurity and food crisis.”
And when aid workers do have access to the population, those in need face risks if they congregate to receive aid.
“When we talk about humanitarian assistance, it implies many times to gather people for that food distribution or for sexual and reproductive health support, etc. So these activities cannot be undertaken as initially planned. It delays or it takes longer,” Awute told VOA.
As countries restrict travel, those who work closest with refugees are asking leaders to be compassionate and remember that not all people cross borders because they want to.
“We always feel that people should have the right to seek a safer life,” Taylor said. “But against that, there is also the reality that the movement of people in itself is a risk linked to how the virus spreads.”