You turn to us for voices you won't hear anywhere else.

Sign up for Democracy Now!'s Daily Digest to get our latest headlines and stories delivered to your inbox every day.

From Syria to U.S.-Mexico Border, Refugees Worldwide Face Hunger & Deprivation as COVID-19 Spreads

Media Options

We look at the coronavirus threat to millions of refugees across the globe, where social distancing is often impossible and healthcare is extremely limited. We’re joined by Dr. Miriam Orcutt, executive director of Lancet Migration.

Related Story

StoryMay 21, 2020Crowded & Desperate: Rohingya in World’s Largest Refugee Camp Face Dual Crises of Cyclone & COVID-19
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we look now to the spread of the coronavirus across the globe and how it’s threatening the health and safety of tens of millions of refugees, from Bangladesh to Syria to Greece to the U.S.-Mexico border.

After weeks of warnings, COVID-19 cases are emerging in refugee camps, where social distancing is often impossible and healthcare extremely limited. Last month in Lebanon, a woman at a Palestinian refugee camp tested positive for the virus. In Greece, hundreds of asylum seekers, many from Africa, have contracted COVID-19.

For the estimated 5.6 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, the threat of coronavirus also has led to a crisis of hunger, with the U.N. estimating 70% of refugees cannot afford food. This is a Syrian refugee, Abu Abdallah, speaking along with his wife, Umm Abdallah, from a camp in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley.

ABU ABDALLAH: [translated] In the last few months, coronavirus has been worse than the war.

UMM ABDALLAH: [translated] At the beginning, during the war, it was not like this.

ABU ABDALLAH: [translated] It is worse than war, because during war you know who your enemy is, but now you don’t know where the disease is going to come from — from the air or from a person. War is easier. You know it is the person over there.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re going to Oxford, England, where we’re joined by Dr. Miriam Orcutt, senior research fellow in global public health and forced migration at the Institute for Global Health, University College London, and executive director of Lancet Migration.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! Can you start off by just giving us the scope and scale of the refugee crisis in the world? A tall order.

DR. MIRIAM ORCUTT: Thank you. Yes. Well, we know that currently the levels of forcibly displaced populations — that includes refugees, internally displaced and others — is at the highest levels ever recorded by the U.N. So, 70.8 million people around the world have been forcibly displaced. And actually, the highest number of those are internally displaced people, those who might have been forced to flee their homes from conflict, from violence or from persecution, who may be displaced multiple times within their own country even before they flee across international borders.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Dr. Orcutt, as we mentioned in the introduction to the segment, 70% of Syrians — of course, Syrians constitute the largest number of refugees in the world — 70% of Syrian refugees in Lebanon report that they can’t afford food. If you could talk about that and also the fact that a large number of Syrian refugees are not only in Lebanon, but also in Turkey, which has seen a large outbreak, a significant outbreak, of COVID-19, even though now cases are reportedly declining?

DR. MIRIAM ORCUTT: Yes. For the Syrian displaced population in all the countries surrounding Syria, the context of COVID-19 has been a huge challenge and burden. Not only do many of them still live in informal settlements — so, a lot of them, even after seven or eight years, are living in tents. They don’t have access often to livelihood opportunities, so they can’t provide income for their families. And so they’re often dependent already, even pre-COVID, on humanitarian aid and food provision, and even running water provision, from outside. They’re not able to be self-sufficient.

So you can imagine, in both Lebanon and in Turkey, that people who are living in tents beside each other in very crowded and cramped conditions, who often share one toilet or one running water tap between many families, will have a real challenge to prevent the spread of COVID, but also just to maintain their basic standard of living during this public health crisis. And one of the things that we’ve seen, which is across the world but definitely within the countries surrounding Syria, is individuals who were already facing poverty now not being able to afford food, as you mentioned in your previous report, and not being able to provide for their children.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to a report from Reza Adib, an Afghan journalist and refugee locked down in the Malakasa camp outside Athens, Greece. He investigated conditions in the camp for the BBC.

SAID REZA ADIB: The camp is in quarantine for 14 days. No one is allowed to go out, and no one is allowed to come in.

Mr. Karimi has just tested positive. Together with his family and friends, he’s told to quarantine in this disused schoolroom. With no taps or shower inside, they say they have to share with their neighbors. They are not happy. It risks spreading the virus.

REFUGEE: [translated] Look, the people with coronavirus. You see how close they are? For all of us, including those with coronavirus, there is only one tap.

AMY GOODMAN: That report from the BBC. In one building in the camp, 23 families live together, and seven people in the group tested positive for COVID-19. Adib spoke to Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi about the findings.

NOTIS MITARACHI: This has not been reported to us by the International Organization of Migration, that manages the Malakasa camp. They haven’t told us that there is such a problem. I’m very happy you’re raising it. We will check.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Orcutt, if you can talk about what’s happening there in the refugee camps of Greece, and where people are coming from, and what Greece is doing?

DR. MIRIAM ORCUTT: Well, the interesting thing with the response to COVID-19 in Greece has been that they have had quite a early lockdown for the whole of the country. However, although they have low cases among the general population, for the refugees and asylum seekers, who are both in camps on the mainland as well as on the Greek islands, the conditions within which they are quarantined, and have been quarantined actually for a longer period of time than the local community — the conditions are very substandard.

So, on the islands, for example, in Moria camp on Lesbos island, in just this one camp, there are individuals — over a thousand unaccompanied minors. There are vulnerable people, such as the elderly and those with underlying comorbidities, who aren’t able to shelter or self-isolate themselves in order to prevent COVID-19. And they’re also — if they did become unwell, the real concern is that they wouldn’t be able to access healthcare facilities. Their access to health services is very much restricted, and there are limited capacity anyways for hospital beds and for intensive care beds.

Many of these individuals who have fled to Greece might have fled conflict situations from Afghanistan. There are also individuals who have fled from African countries. And what we are concerned about is that, ultimately, if there are even a few cases within the camps, which are already very overcrowded, that there could really be quite a rapid and devastating spread, which could potentially go unnoticed and unknown at first, because there really isn’t a big enough testing strategy going on underway in the camps in Greece. And what we need to see at this stage would be a massive scale-up in testing for all of the populations within the camps, even when there are just one or two cases, because we know that COVID spreads even among those who are asymptomatic.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Dr. Orcutt, along those lines, I would like to ask about one of the most critical factors that determine the extent and speed of the spread of coronavirus, and that is, of course, population density. We know very well; we are broadcasting from New York City, which was and has been the epicenter of the outbreak. But in these refugee camps — and New York City has a population density of about 10,000 people per square kilometer. But by comparison, according to the International Rescue Committee, Cox’s Bazar, in TakaBangladesh, which we were speaking about in our earlier segment — in Cox’s Bazar, the density is between 40,000 and 70,000 people per square kilometer. And in the Greek islands, which you were talking about earlier, in some camps in the Greek islands, population density is even higher, up to 200,000 people per square kilometer. So, could you talk about that specifically, and what camps present the most risk for the spread of the virus?

DR. MIRIAM ORCUTT: Of course, as you mention, population density is a real concern. And in Greece, one of the camps which is of most concern is Moria camp, which is the biggest refugee camp in Europe, where there are 20,000 people in a space which would only have a maximum capacity for 2,700. And why that is a concern, particularly for the camps where people might be living in tents, is that if multiple families are living within one tent and they’re sharing the same toilets between hundreds of people, then they’re not able — even if there is one person who becomes infected with COVID, they’re not able to self-isolate effectively. They’re not able to protect themselves, but also they’re not able to protect others, including their family and the broader community. And similarly with the very high densities and the informal tents that individuals are living in, in Bangladesh, in Cox’s Bazar, really the concern is that a lot of these protective measures which we take in countries where we have the privilege to be able to isolate and protect ourselves, they just will not be able to take.

And beyond that, there are also more vulnerable populations within those camps — for example, the elderly, those who might have underlying conditions, or children — who really would need to, at this stage, be protected even more and have a way of being shielded so that they don’t experience the more severe complications, which we know do occur in those populations.

So, the real concern is that already the conditions are predisposing to a greater impact and a more rapid spread of COVID. But also, I do think that there are, in the region — for example, in Bangladesh, there are many poor populations who also face challenges, and there is a argument for improving the healthcare system and the numbers of hospital beds and the intensive care capacity for all of the population during COVID, which will ultimately improve and help the overall public health response for all of the populations, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, as we begin to wrap up, Dr. Miriam Orcutt, if you can also talk about deportations from the United States to places like Haiti and to Guatemala? You have refugees who are being deported who are COVID-19-positive. Some are calling the United States “the Wuhan of the Americas.” If you can talk about what this means for the Americas and also jailed migrants? What about the conditions of jailed migrants? Now we have migrants around the country who are on hunger strike. We have the former ICE director, as well as so many human rights groups, calling for ICE to release the detainees.

DR. MIRIAM ORCUTT: Yes. I mean, there are calls at the United Nations level, and have been for a number of months, around immediate release from detention due to — on public health grounds, due to the fact that a lot of the conditions within detention or reception facilities, likewise within jails, are very overcrowded and often unhygienic.

And there really is a great risk that individuals who are deported during a public health crisis and the current pandemic are being deported to countries which have much weaker health systems and may not have an effective response in place. So, again, the call from public health organizations is to suspend deportations. There shouldn’t be deportations to other countries.

And also, the detention facilities, if they are being used, they should be either — at least the basic overall conditions should be improved, but we are very much calling for release on public health grounds. And there are other community mechanisms that have been proposed by the U.N. that governments can use.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you so much, Dr. Miriam Orcutt, senior research fellow in global public health, forced migration at the Institute for Global Health, University College London, UCL, and executive director of Lancet Migration.

When we come back, a new report’s out, finding 1 million children under 5 could die in the next six months from the secondary impacts of the pandemic — also, mothers imperiled. We’ll speak with the scientist who led the report and an infectious disease pediatrician. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Country Road” by Paula Fuga and Jack Johnson, as part of the Kokua Festival 2020 in Hawaii, live from home.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Next story from this daily show

Study Warns 1.1 Million Children Could Die as Pandemic Interrupts Access to Food & Medical Care

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.
Make a donation