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Refugees struggle to adapt to life under COVID-19 [EN/AR]

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Nearly 20 million people constituting approximately 84% of the world’s refugees are hosted by developing countries with limited resources and overwhelmed healthcare facilities.

By Radwa Sharaf | 23 Apr 2020

On a dark night, she breathes deeply while gathering what is left of her personal belongings, scurrying around nervously in order not to see in the eyes of others the look of pity that has accompanied her during the past years. She makes sure her children are still alive by hearing their constant crying, which has become the background track of their daily life.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, she cannot work or provide food for her children. They have been expelled from the room she was renting in the home of an elderly woman who is also trying to maintain a living under these difficult circumstances.

This is not an imaginary story. But the story of many vulnerable refugees in the time of COVID-19. Nearly 20 million people constituting approximately 84% of the world’s refugees are hosted by developing countries with limited resources and overwhelmed healthcare facilities.

Whether in small towns or big cities, they knew that this virus did not discriminate and they were fearful of its consequences. Having fled their homes and sought to rebuild their lives in adopted countries, the pandemic has only added to their woes.

These are the stories of three refugee women in Egypt, whose future is clouded by fear of the unknown. They are unable to fight the COVID-19 disease on their own, have no savings to support themselves and their families in these circumstances or secure the rent of the small house to shelter their children, and no work to provides them with a decent life in light of the interruption of life around them.

Hoda was 28 years old when she fled to Egypt with her three brothers after realizing the impossibility of returning to Eritrea again, as her family was subjected to various threats. She is responsible for three brothers, including one with special needs. “I have been responsible for my three brothers since we came to Egypt in March 2018, but I do not have a job to earn a living, nor a house to live in. We are only able to bear he burdens of living in light of the Corona crisis from the cash assistance we receive from UNHCR,” she says.

Ibtissam fled to Egypt “in search of safety and protection, escaping death only to face a new crisis today threatening their lives.” She is a Syrian refugee who came to Egypt seven years ago with her husband and four children. “My children are in desperate need of help,” she says. Ibtissam’s husband used to work as a driver for a factory in Egypt before the outbreak of COVID-19. Now, he is jobless and trying to cope with the grim reality that is beyond his control.

“I came to Egypt in 2015 seeking international protection because of the wars that were ravaging my country,” says Shukran, a 38-year-old Sudanese woman. Shukran takes care of her four children and her 10-year-old brother-in-law. “My situation is difficult because I am responsible for five children, we do not have any money, and I am now unemployed due to the current circumstances,” she adds. “Through the financial aid I receive from UNHCR, I can barely pay the rent of the house that we live in.”

As of March 2020, Egypt hosted more than 258,000 refugees and asylum seekers registered with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. The Egyptian government grants refugees and asylum seekers of different nationalities the right to access public healthcare services on an equal basis with Egyptians.

Protecting refugee rights and helping those most in need are the core mandate of UNHCR since its establishment in 1950. In light of the crisis that threatens countries across the world, UNHCR continues to keep its mandate at the center of its mission to protect refugees and support their host communities, through adapting its actions to combat the virus and avoid further risk or harm.

“UNHCR in Egypt continues to strive to respond to emergency situation since its inception in 1954. Although our activities have been curtailed due to restrictions on mobility, social distancing and curfews, UNHCR’s aid and financial grants for the most vulnerable families of refugees and asylum-seekers remain ongoing as we continue to deliver basic services to ensure refugee protection and prioritizing emergency cases especially resulting from violence,” said Reem Abdelhamid, Head of External Relations in Egypt.

“We are fully aware of what refugees are facing as a result of the current circumstances. We are closely following the directions of the Egyptian Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization to ensure everyone’s safety and accordingly have adapted our methods of delivering our services to refugees and asylum-seekers while we continue to work with our partners to ensure the continuity of our services,” she added.

Reaffirming the importance of responsibility-sharing in reducing the burden on host countries, UNHCR reiterates the need for urgent support to be able to continue its work in supporting refugees and ensuring both precautionary and coping safety measures are in place to make sure that they and their host communities are protected from the virus.

We are receiving contributions from governments and private donors through this link, which is enabling UNHCR to support families who have lost their jobs, to provide hygiene kits and cleaning products such as medical alcohol and soap, and also to redeem and support the local healthcare system to enhance its ability to provide health care to all those affected.

Names and identifying details have been changed to maintain confidentiality