Tens of thousands of displaced Burkinabe, Malians, and Nigeriens living in cramped refugee camps across the Sahel worry about the devastating consequences should one of them contract COVID-19. As of April 9, Mali has announced 59 cases and 7 deaths, Burkina Faso 414 cases and 23 deaths, and Niger 342 cases and 11 deaths. No confirmed case has been detected in the refugee camps yet.
Driven out by terrorist violence and insecurity, these refugees now reside in densely populated tents that make social distancing guidelines almost impossible to follow. Water is a rare commodity and medical supplies are limited, and only a smattering of handwashing kits are available but no masks or gloves. Some efforts are being made by local officials like Boukari Ouedraogo, mayor of the Burkinabe city of Kaya, to limit exposure for the 50,000 refugees who reside there. Still, Mayor Ouedraogo and Moussa Bougma, head of communications for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, call on the international community to continue lending support as close to a million refugees “depend exclusively on foreign aid to survive”.
Why It Matters
Refugees and displaced peoples rarely have their needs fully met in times of peace. With the COVID-19 pandemic, funding and resources are going to be stretched even thinner. This means that refugees are at high risk of catching the virus and spreading it. This, in turn, adds public-health concerns to the existing political roadblocks to asylum, which will make it even less likely for countries to accept refugees. A sense of abandonment could compel refugees to try to leave encampments, which could put them at odds with local security forces. Refugee camps, especially in parts of Africa, are fertile recruitment grounds for rebel groups and jihadists, who exploit the desperation of refugees to swell their ranks.