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UNHCR stepping up coronavirus prevention measures for refugees across East, Horn and Great Lakes region of Africa

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South Sudanese refugees practice social distancing as they wait to access a food distribution at Kakuma camp in Kenya. © UNHCR/Samuel Otieno

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch – to whom quoted text may be attributed – at today's press briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is ramping up efforts to increase capacity to prevent, treat and limit the potential spread of COVID-19 among refugee communities across the East, Horn and Great Lakes region of Africa, which hosts some of the largest refugee populations in the world. Living in crowded conditions, without adequate access to water and sanitation facilities, and with precarious livelihoods and food security, refugees in the region are particularly vulnerable to the virus, both in refugee camps and in urban areas.

Following confirmation of the first cases of COVID-19 in South Sudan and Eritrea last week, all countries in the region are now responding to the outbreak. While to date there have been no confirmed cases amongst refugees, asylum-seekers or internally displaced people in the region, the need to be prepared is urgent.

UNHCR is actively engaged with Ministries of Health and other government authorities, and the World Health Organization, on the inclusion of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people (IDPs) in national response plans. A number of countries in the region already have exemplary policies in place that allow refugees to access public health-care services. However, many refugees live in remote areas many miles from the nearest government health facilities. Others live in small, overcrowded dwellings in densely populated urban areas where they face significant challenges in adhering to guidelines around physical and social distancing.

Many of our operations in the region have provided refugees increased quantities of food and basic relief items including soap to reduce the frequency of distributions and the risks posed by queues and large crowds.

The outbreak comes on the top of existing emergency conditions in the region, where 60 per cent of refugees are experiencing food ration cuts due to underfunding. This may be further exacerbated by breaks in the regular supply chain due to a variety of COVID-19 measures, including border restrictions and controls.

The pandemic is also having a severe impact on refugees’ abilities to work and generate income. Many refugees have seen the business they run or work for, often as day workers, forced to close. Those who rely on cross-border trade have been particularly impacted.

UNHCR is advocating to governments to ensure refugees are included in any emergency social protection schemes, while also exploring possibilities to provide the most vulnerable with one-off cash assistance to help meet basic needs. Schools across the region have been closed and it is estimated that some one million refugee students are currently out of school. UNHCR is working with government and non-government partners on distance-learning and digital-learning programs, building on existing partnerships with the private sector to provide online learning in Kenya, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.

Across the region, UNHCR is engaged in COVID-19 awareness, prevention and treatment information campaigns, including through community groups and religious leaders, telephone hotlines, flyers, posters, bulk SMS and WhatsApp messaging, radio announcements, focus group discussions, posters, leaflets, billboards and mural drawings. While bolstering primary-care capacity, including isolation facilities at camp level, we are concerned that health systems across the region are in need of support, particularly to referral hospitals and intensive care units, in case the virus rapidly spreads.

We continue to support the efforts of countries across the region, together with UN agencies and NGO partners, maintaining existing programmes where possible, and implementing a number of new measures to address humanitarian needs related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including:

In Djibouti, more than 4,500 refugees and asylum-seekers were provided with new shelters to reduce overcrowding and facilitate physical distancing in Ali Addeh and Holl-Holl villages.

In Ethiopia, supplies of water and soap in the camps are being increased and handwashing stations are being installed, including 127 communal stations and over 14,700 household stations in Gambella refugee camp alone.

In Kenya, isolation wards have been identified with additional beds added in the country’s two refugee camps. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is being given to health workers in clinics, while an assessment is underway to identify possible new locations for field clinics to provide health care in refugee camps. The distributions of food, soap and other items have been altered to adhere to social distancing standards. Refugees who have mobile phones are sent messages communicating COVID-19 information and prevention measures.

In Somalia, shelters are being improved and provisions of relief items increased to help with social and physical distancing for the large IDP populations. High-risk IDP sites are being targeted for decongestion and upgrading of shelter and provision of relief items, with plans for UNHCR to support 27,600 IDPs living in high-density IDP sites.

In Sudan, more than 320,000 refugees, IDPs and members of host communities across the country have received soap and other hygiene relief items. A 1,000-litre water tank was installed in Beliel registration centre, South Darfur. New refugee arrivals in eastern Sudan are having their temperature taken upon arrival and monitored for two weeks for symptoms.

In Tanzania, monthly provisions of soap have been doubled and larger jerry cans have been distributed to aid with handwashing in all three refugee camps. Additional handwashing stations have been installed, including new fittings at reception centres, distribution points, markets and schools.

In Uganda, a number of measures were already in place as a result of the response to the threat of Ebola, including health and temperature screening and increased handwashing facilities in, transit and reception centres as well as in refugee settlements. In addition, distributions of soap have been increased and health workers are being provided with additional training specifically on COVID-19.

All countries in the region have introduced strict movement measures, ranging from border closures to lockdowns and curfews. UNHCR urges these countries, some of which have generously hosted refugees for decades, to continue to provide protection and access to asylum to people fleeing war and persecution during this challenging time.

A part of the broader UN Global Humanitarian Response Plan, UNHCR issued an Emergency Appeal requesting US$255 million for life-saving interventions and preparations in response to COVID-19, of which an initial $15 million has been requested specifically for countries in East and Horn of Africa. UNHCR urges the international community to provide the requested financial support needed to ensure the health and safety of refugees, IDPs and host communities during this crisis.

UNHCR’s Bureau for the East and Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes region covers 11 countries: Burundi, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda.

Relevant broadcast-quality footage is available for download on UNHCR's content platform Refugees Media.

For more information on this topic, please contact:
In Nairobi, Dana Hughes, hughes@unhcr.org, +254 733 440 536
In Geneva, Charlie Yaxley, yaxley@unhcr.org, +41 795 808 702
In Geneva, Babar Baloch, baloch@unhcr.org, +41 79 513 9549