‘There are 100 people sharing 1 bathroom’: What it’s like being a refugee during the COVID-19 pandemic

Many of the approximately 25 million refugees worldwide are facing a double crisis: on top of fleeing war-torn countries, they’re now facing scarce basic necessities, like soap and clean water, to fend off COVID-19. 

More than two million of these refugees live in camps, many of which are overcrowded. Residents are without the luxury of social distancing and without any infrastructure to help them isolate from those who are ill. But organizations like the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) have been trying to keep the novel coronavirus from spreading within these communities.

“We have been … involved in setting up … additional field hospitals, quarantine stations and so on because we know that, ultimately, there is a very high risk that this disease will spread,” said Mark Manly, a representative with the UNHCR.

“Most refugees and asylum seekers in the world right now don’t live in camps and this is a good thing because it’s better that they’re living in the community and have greater social contact with host populations.”

Ayoub Alrawashdeh, a 24-year-old refugee originally from Syria, says the UN pays for his accommodations: an apartment in Ioannina, Greece, which is near Albania. He says he has diabetes and is unable to live in close quarters where he may be susceptible to contracting the virus from other people.

He also says he has everything he needs to combat the novel coronavirus: soap and water as well as a roof over his head. He adds that he’s staying indoors.

The UNHCR says donors like Canada and Japan have given them most of the money it asked for in its appeal, which it launched in March. 

As for how many refugees are currently battling the virus, Manly says there is no way to know for sure.

“It’s a little bit difficult for us sometimes to track the exact number of people who may be infected with this virus among the refugee population,” said Manly. “The information we have now indicates that, so far, there have been only isolated outbreaks affecting refugees.”

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