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UNHCR Accelerates COVID-19 Support For Displaced Persons In Africa, Asia

GENEVA, Switzerland

East, Horn And Great Lakes Region Of Africa

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has confirmed its new measures to increase capacity to prevent, treat and limit the potential spread of COVID-19 in refugee settlements in the East, Horn and Great Lakes region of Africa. 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.

The UNHCR spokesperson, Babar Baloch, reported that the agency is actively engaged with respective government authorities and the World Health Organization to ensure that refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people (IDPs) are included in national response plans.

The outbreak of COVID-19 comes in the midst of existing emergencies where approximately 60 percent of refugees are underfed due to cuts in agency funding. Current operations have included distribution of increased quantities of food and basic relief items such as soap.

The pandemic has also impacted on the ability to work and to generate income. UNHCR is advocating that governments ensure refugees are included in any emergency social protection schemes, including one-off cash assistance to help meet basic needs.

Across the region, UNHCR is engaged in COVID-19 awareness, prevention and treatment information campaigns. The Agency is “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.” (press release, 7 April)

“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.”

UNHCR has urged countries in the region to continue to provide protection and access to asylum to people fleeing war and persecution and has issued an Emergency Appeal requesting $255 Million USD for life-saving interventions and preparations in response to COVID-19, of which an initial $15 Million USD has been requested specifically for countries in East and Horn of Africa.

Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran

On 14 April UNHCR urged greater support to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, warning that leaving Afghans and their host communities behind will have a far-reaching and negative impact on global efforts to fight the virus.

Despite persistent risks and insecurity, Afghans continue to return from both Iran and Pakistan. Tens of thousands of Afghan citizens have crossed over from Pakistan to Afghanistan since the temporary re-opening of the border last week. From Iran, while the number of Afghans nationals returning peaked at some 60,000 in March, around 1,500 individuals are currently returning every day.

Afghanistan faces the prospect of overwhelmed medical and social services, with a dramatic increase in Afghans returning home, hundreds of thousands of people living in displacement sites and rising poverty levels.

Pakistan and Iran, which host some 90 per cent of the world’s 2.7 million Afghan refugees are experiencing immense strain on their health systems and economies. Lockdown measures and a sharp downturn in economic activity have left many Afghan refugees confronted with an inability to meet even their most basic needs.

Over the last month, Iran’s State Welfare Organization has reported a very sharp increase in the number of requests for psychosocial support related to COVID-19 in domestic contexts – a critical trend that is being noticed in other COVID-19 affected countries around the world.

The Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran, facing the epicentre of the outbreak in South-West Asia, has facilitated exemplary inclusion of Afghans on its territory. UNHCR welcomes Iran’s recent confirmation that COVID-19 related tests and treatment are free of charge for all individuals, including for refugees. Additionally, the country’s Universal Public Health Insurance has been automatically extended for refugees as well as Iranian nationals – ensuring uninterrupted access to healthcare for all refugees. (press release, 14 April)

"We are in the process of procuring more hygiene kits to be distributed among returnees and displaced communities as well as for the frontline staff of government institutions and our partners; scaling up the construction of water and sanitation facilities and further enhancing support for border surveillance and returnee monitoring in Afghanistan".

"In Iran, UNHCR has airlifted essential medicines, medical equipment and personal protective equipment to support and strengthen national health services. To address the critical and urgent lack of hygiene materials in Iran, UNHCR has also distributed soap and disposable paper towels to some 7,500 refugee households living in refugee settlements across the country, whose living situations in close-quarters make then more vulnerable to COVID-19. More airlifts are expected in the coming weeks".

"In Pakistan, renewed emphasis has been placed on water and sanitation projects. UNHCR has provided 10 fully equipped ambulances and 28 large housing unit facilities to the provincial health departments and disaster management authorities in Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab. Medical equipment and sanitation products are also being distributed to rural health facilities in support of refugees and their host communities".

UNHCR’s funding appeal of some $315 Million USD required for the Afghan situation is currently only 17 percent funded.