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Venezuelan migrants rest as they walk towards Bogota, passing through Tunja, Colombia, Oct. 6, 2020.
Ivan Valencia/AP
Health

6 Ways the UN Is Helping Refugees Cope With the COVID-19 Pandemic


Why Global Citizens Should Care
Refugees and displaced people overall struggle to access food, water and sanitation, shelter, and other basic human rights — problems that have been worsened by the COVID-19 crisis. The United Nations calls on countries to support displaced communities and help them transition to stable lives. You can join us in taking action here

Physical distancing, clean water and soap, and strong health care services: These are the key ingredients to preventing and containing the spread of COVID-19, according to health officials.

Yet most refugees and internally displaced people have no way of accessing them on a regular and reliable basis. 

Displaced people often live in crowded urban shelters, settlements, or camps where they’re unable to physically distance and receive adequate health care. They often have to wait in long lines to get water and use a latrine.

A new data visualization from UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, sheds light on the scarcity, pressures, and hardships that make displaced people highly vulnerable to COVID-19 outbreaks. 

"While COVID-19 has affected us all, refugees who were already living with uncertainty have been disproportionately impacted,” said Raouf Mazou, UNHCR's assistant high commissioner for operations, in a statement. “During this challenging time, it is crucial that we step up support of the programmes and initiatives assisting millions of forcibly displaced families trying to rebuild their lives as they strive to access health care, education, employment, and adequate housing."

The report notes that in most refugee camps worldwide, density levels far exceed the highest recommended limit. In fact, if São Paulo had the same density as the Nayapara Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, its population would jump from 12 million to 100 million. 

For months, humanitarian organizations have warned that this extreme overcrowding, combined with the general lack of water and sanitation infrastructure, would make COVID-19 tear through these communities like wildfire

The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t just threatened displaced people from a health perspective. It’s also deprived them of sources of income, made it difficult for children to go to school, and made women and children more vulnerable to sexual exploitation and forced labor, UNHCR notes. 

UNHCR is working around the clock to help displaced people both survive the pandemic and achieve stability in the aftermath. 

Here are six ways, based on the agency's new data visualization, that UNHCR is helping to protect and empower displaced people. 


1. Improving shelter 

UNHCR has donated refugee housing units to various health facilities in Colombia that are assisting refugees from Venezuela. The agency is also directly providing shelter to refugees and helping them find and pay for housing. There are currently 3.6 million Venezuelans displaced abroad. 

In Niger, UNHCR has worked with authorities to ensure proper distancing between housing units in refugee camps and settlements around the country. Niger currently accommodates 140,000 internally displaced people and 60,000 refugees. 

Related Stories July 22, 2020 How Refugees in Uganda's Nakivale Settlement Are Fighting COVID-19

2. Providing access to water and soap 

Easy access to clean water is essential to avoiding and overcoming the coronavirus because it allows people to stay clean and hydrated. 

In South Sudan, UNHCR has installed water supply stations throughout refugee communities, while also improving water supplies within health facilities. The agency has also handed out 2.2 million bars of soap to communities in the country. 

3. Disbursing cash assistance 

As COVID-19 disrupts economies around the world, displaced people are often the hardest hit because they have little social safety net — such as unemployment insurance and welfare programs — supporting them. As a result, UNHCR has increased its cash assistance programs in countries around the world. 

In Costa Rica, for example, cash grants are being given to people most at risk of suffering from COVID-19 — elderly people and those with underlying conditions. In Ukraine, cash assistance has been able to help people stranded behind “checkpoint lines” get housing.

Around the world, UN cash grants during the pandemic have been largely spent on food, rent, utilities and bills, hygiene items, health care, and water. 

4. Training community health workers

Community health care workers help to identify people with COVID-19, oversee contact tracing, share best practices around health care, and provide essential resources like food and hygiene materials. 

In Zambia's Mantapala refugee settlement, the UN has helped to train more than 300 community health workers who are helping to keep COVID-19 at bay. In Lebanon, meanwhile, 1,200 community groups have been mobilized to provide health oversight for 1.5 million Syrian refugees. 

Related Stories June 23, 2020 Access to Health Care Around the World Is Not Equal. COVID-19 Proved That.

5. Expanding health facilities 

If COVID-19 begins to spread in a crowded refugee settlement, the likelihood of an outbreak is high. And if an outbreak happens, then understaffed and under-resourced health facilities will be quickly overwhelmed. 

UNHCR is helping to expand health care facilities in refugee hotspots around the world. 

In Niger, the agency has set up isolation centers for COVID-19 patients, while new treatment centers have been opened up in Cox’s Bazar, home to nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees. 

6. Releasing public messaging 

Displaced people often live in areas with little access to the internet. As a result, global news doesn’t always reach everyone, which makes public messaging campaigns crucial to ensure everyone is on the same page and myths don’t proliferate. 

The UN has enlisted community members in refugee settlements and camps to provide up-to-date information on the COVID-19 pandemic. This messaging campaign is part of the UN’s broader effort to get local, state, and national levels of government to coordinate on COVID-19 responses and ensure best practices are used worldwide. 


Launched in April by seven global partners, the ACT-Accelerator is a unique coalition aimed at accelerating global efforts against the COVID-19 pandemic. Its members are working together to develop tests, treatments, and vaccines as quickly as possible, while also strengthening the world’s most fragile health systems. 

But the organization desperately needs financial support from governments around the world. You can join us in calling on world leaders to fund the ACT-Accelerator by taking action here.