How WHO is supporting refugees and migrants during the COVID-19 pandemic

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A new agreement between WHO and the UN Refugee Agency will strengthen and advance public health services for the millions of forcibly displaced people around the world.

It adds to the agreement signed in 2019 with The International Organization for Migration and is the latest in a series of efforts to prevent public health emergencies and address health needs in refugee and migrant populations.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency have signed a new agreement to strengthen and advance public health services for the millions of forcibly displaced people around the world.

A key aim this year is to support ongoing efforts to protect some 70 million displaced people from COVID-19. Around 26 million are refugees, 80% of whom are sheltered in low and middle-income countries with weak health systems.

"The principle of solidarity and the goal of serving vulnerable people underpin the work of both our organizations," said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. "We stand side by side in our commitment to protect the health of all people who have been forced to leave their homes and to ensure that they can obtain health services when and where they need them. The ongoing pandemic only highlights the vital importance of working together so we can achieve more."

The statement comes alongside the news that refugees and no migrants or refugees have tested positive for COVID-19 in Serbia. Extensive collaborative efforts from WHO and the Government of Serbia have seen refugees and migrants provided COVID-19 protection equal to that of the host population in the spirit of universal health coverage.

"WHO is working with governments around the world to ensure supply chains remain open and lifesaving health services are reaching all communities," said Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Health education materials in 7 languages were distributed to all migrant centres and NGOs that work with migrants in Serbia. Personal protective equipment (PPE), personal hygiene products and disinfectant were delivered to asylum and migrant reception centres throughout the country.

WHO has primary responsibility for promoting the health of refugees and migrants, with a current focus on prevention and responses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Refugees and migrants face the same health risks as the host population, but due to various barriers -- geography, facilities, discrimination and costs -- they may lack access to the health services required to control and treat illness. A recently published Lancet article warned of the increasing risks facing refugees and migrants, particularly those in camp settings where simple preventative measures like social distancing and self-isolation are harder to implement.

In countries that host a large number of refugees and migrants, WHO country offices have been working with ministries of health and other partners in their efforts to prevent and control COVID-19. and collaborated with other UN agencies to provide interim technical guidance on scaling up outbreak readiness in humanitarian situations, including refugee camp and non-camp settings. Similar guidance has been released specifically relating to countries in the European and Eastern Mediterranean regions where refugee populations are high.

The WHO Eastern Mediterranean Regional Office (EMRO) has developed a reporting system to monitor the occurrence and trend of COVID-19 among displaced populations in camps and non-camps settings. The country Offices, including Djibouti, Sudan, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, report any rumour immediately and aggregate data every week. Also, to enhance interagency coordination for country supports, WHO EMRO in collaboration with IOM, ESCWA and ILO have established a "Regional Taskforce on COVID-19 and Migration/Mobility".

In Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar, WHO is working with governments to secure the health of nearly one million Rohingya refugees and their host community against multiple threats of COVID19, cyclone and diseases associated with the upcoming monsoon season.

"It is essential that organizations working with refugees and migrants have access to the technical guidance and resources required to prevent and control COVID-19 among displaced populations," said Dr Zsuzsanna JAKAB Deputy Director-General of WHO.

WHO has been working closely with ministries of health across the world in Cambodia, Greece, Lebanon, Mexico, Singapore, Thailand, and Turkey among others. On the ground in Thailand, Universal health coverage is provided to all migrants regardless of migration status. WHO country offices have mobilized resources locally from the Government of Japan to help strengthen surveillance and outbreak response in refugee camps, along with facilitating supplies of PPE and commodities. A migrant hotline for COVID-19 in the Khmer, Lao and Burmese languages is launched.

In Mexico, education materials on the prevention, early detection and management of COVID-19 in shelters for migrants and asylum seekers have been developed. Migrant reception centres have been identified as areas of potentially greater health risk and WHO is promoting the implementation of health protocols for the prevention and early detection of COVID-19 at these points.

The Government of Singapore, with support of WHO, health partners and NGOs, have enhanced risk communication and community engagement with foreign workers in dormitories, A major challenge communicating with this vulnerable group are language barriers, but authorities have found innovative ways to communicate and engage with them in their native languages.

Another innovative approach to enhance communication and engagement with vulnerable populations was through the use of NGOs, including the Migrant Workers Centre. The Migrant Workers Centre continues to tap into its network of more than 5000 dormitory ambassadors to help communicate and disseminate the messages. These ambassadors are foreign workers themselves and have volunteered to help fellow workers.

The Government has also boosted Wi-Fi receptivity in the dormitories and provided SIM cards to workers to enable them to stay connected. They have also opened up many news and entertainment cable channels to enable viewing on mobile devices.

The recent and rapid increase in population movements across borders has brought into focus the need for extensive data collection on refugee and migrant health in regard to public health planning. WHO is promoting research efforts, evidence gathering and increased availability of refugee and migrant health data at the country level. WHO has suggested policy considerations to strengthen health monitoring in these underserved communities.

Technical guidance has also been released on prevention and control of COVID'19 for refugees and migrants in non' camp settings:

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, WHO will maintain connections with governments and ministries of health around the world to provide support in preparing, preventing and responding to the virus.