COVID-19 Is a Problem in Refugee Centers

Human rights organizations and American media are talking about ICE and European camps, but Venezuelans have another place to worry about when it comes to COVID-19: their borders.

Photo: Crisis Group International, retrieved.

There are currently 71 million refugees in 96 countries around the world and almost 6 million of them are Venezuelans. The vast majority of receiving countries are low or middle-income economies, where health systems are already strained by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Social distancing, the sole intervention to face the COVID-19 pandemic, is also one of the hardest things to guarantee in a refugee center. This means that refugee camps can also become an important source of infection for receiving countries, since an outbreak can quickly spread out of the facility, jeopardizing the monumental efforts most countries are making to keep the disease under control.

Staying home and washing your hands regularly is an easy thing to do, but when you live in a tent shared with dozens of people, risks skyrocket. Still, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is trying to tackle the situation; in Maicao, in the Colombian Guajira, at least 350 refugees are currently staying at the UNHCR camp, the first of its kind in Colombia. This UN agency has increased access to clean water, to guarantee proper hygiene and regular handwashing, and they built an isolation ward to keep suspicious patients apart from the rest. Similar efforts are being carried out by the UNHCR throughout its different installations in the Americas.

But the impact these measures might have is limited. In Brazil, where many Venezuelan indigenous groups are escaping from the crisis, a Venezuelan-born baby of the Warao tribe tested positive for COVID-19, becoming the first confirmed case in a Venezuelan indigenous person. Although the baby’s parents (who live in a shelter) were isolated, their “neighbors” continued gathering as normal.

A somewhat similar situation is happening in the United States. Although not locked in UNHCR camps, many Venezuelan asylum-seekers are being held by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE). Trapped in a bureaucratic maze, these detainees are particularly exposed to the disease.

Staying home and washing your hands regularly is an easy thing to do, but when you live in a tent shared with dozens of people, risks skyrocket.

In a recent paper published in Lancet, a group of American doctors highlight that in the case of an outbreak, transport from one facility to another, as well as visits from family members or staff, might leak the virus out of the detention centers, creating a public health emergency of potentially dramatic consequences. 

Serious flaws in sanitation standards at ICE detention centers have been noticed by inmates. On March 18th, a group of detainees at an ICE facility in Bristol County, Massachusetts, published a letter decrying how social distancing measures couldn’t be maintained at the facility. They also complained about some of the installation’s personnel showing up to work with symptoms similar to COVID-19’s.

The doctors also argue that ICE facilities lack the infrastructure or the staff to perform routine screening of inmates and other measures to prevent outbreaks. For this reason, they argue that inmates at risk of severe disease, or those who don’t represent a public threat, should be released.

Many Venezuelans held at these facilities also face the threat of deportation as soon as direct U.S.-Venezuela flights are restored, or ICE secures their safe passage through a third country. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has argued how the COVID-19 pandemic makes it even more dangerous for these migrants to be returned home, making the approval of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Venezuelans a priority for the American government.

In any case, it seems evident that, to manage this public health emergency, further extraordinary measures will need to be taken. Thinking such a vulnerable population like refugees can be left out of the equation is sillyand potentially dangerous.

Juan Carlos Gabaldón

Medical doctor from Merida, currently studying Medical Parasitology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine