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A report from United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has confirmed five positive cases of COVID-19 among refugees living in Za’atari and Azraq refugee camps in Jordan as of Sept. 12.

"Ever since the onset of the coronavirus in Jordan, the spread of cases in refugee camps was an eventuality we had been preparing for — an eventuality we hoped would not happen, but nonetheless, one we are ready for," UNHCR Representative Dominik Bartsch said in the report.

Jordan first reported cases of the coronavirus in early March and went into a strict lockdown to minimize the spread. However, cases have recently been rising again in the country. Health Minister Saad Jaber reported 214 new COVID-19 cases and two fatalities in the country on Monday.

The five refugees who tested positive for the virus have been taken to an isolation area near the Dead Sea in the West of the country. UNHCR has built quarantine and self-isolation centers in both of the camps, and individuals who were exposed to the infected refugees are being housed there.

The Jordanian Ministry of Health is conducting thousands of tests and has trained medical teams specifically to respond to coronavirus needs in the camps. Movement within the camps has also been restricted. 

At the Azraq camp, refugees must wear masks and protective gloves when they enter the World Food Program’s market. 

However, refugees in Jordan often live in densely populated areas which makes preventive measures much harder to implement. 

Za’atari is home to 77,258 refugees, making it the fourth-largest concentration of people in Jordan, and 35,709 refugees live in the Azraq camp. Many live in overcrowded shelters with multiple families and have limited access to sanitation.

"Crowded spaces and cramped living conditions make social distancing difficult," the UNHCR report stated. 

If cases in the camps rise, Bartsch confirmed that NGO partners such as the International Medical Corps and Médecins Sans Frontières are prepared to set up additional clinics. 

UNHCR is encouraging refugees at Za’atari and Azraq with symptoms to call hotlines for advice or to go to one of the health centers.

Refugee camps also often lack developed health care infrastructures that can respond to the needs of COVID-19 patients. In Za’atari, there is only one hospital with 55 beds and 10 health care centers. Intensive health care, such as access to ventilators, is virtually non-existent in camp settings. 

Refugees International has raised concerns about the lack of information within camps as language barriers and the absence of communication networks make it more likely for refugees to spread the virus and violate new preventive measures.

A lack of trust in officials and fears of getting in trouble also makes it less likely for refugees to come forward with symptoms. 

Further, most refugees also work in the informal economy, which the International Labour Organization (ILO) deemed as "highly impacted" by the pandemic. COVID-19 has led to widespread loss of livelihoods and increased poverty in refugees. 

Filippo Grandi, UN high commissioner for refugees, traveled to Jordan on Sep. 14 to meet with senior officials, refugees, and local Jordanians. 

"I urge donors to maintain solidarity with Jordan as it deals with the twin threats to health and livelihoods faced by refugees and vulnerable Jordanians alike," Grandi said in a press release. 

Even before the pandemic, Refugees International reported that aid for refugees was already accurately underfunded. 

"Fighting this pandemic requires vigilance from us all," said Bartsch. "No effort must be spared to avoid more cases among one of the most vulnerable populations in Jordan."


Defeat Poverty

First COVID-19 Cases Confirmed in Jordan's Sprawling Refugee Camps

By Sophie Partridge-Hicks