Refugee Rights Must be at the Centre of COVID 19 Response

Refugee Rights Must be at the Centre of COVID 19 Response

Exactly a month ago, the Kenyan government announced the first case of COVID-19 at the sprawling Dadaab refugee complex located in northeastern Kenya, sparking panic among Non-Governmental Organisations offering humanitarian services in the camps.

While making the announcement, Health Chief Administrative Secretary, Rashid Aman said that the two cases which tested positive were from Ifo and Dagahaley camps.

The world marks World Refugee Day today as many governments across the globe struggle to provide for their population, amid stretched and uncapacitated health systems.

The pandemic has exacerbated matters for the vulnerable population, who for decades have been battling enormous challenges such as lack of income, overpopulation, poor sanitation among others.

However, as African governments enact stringent measures to contain the spread of COVID 29, we must ensure that refugee rights under international laws are not violated. The 1951 Convention which Kenya is a party to offers an array of fundamental freedoms and privileges such as access to healthcare, despite their social-economic status.

According to the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, Kenya is home to nearly half a million refugees residing in the refugee camps of Dadaab, Kakuma, and urban areas across the country.

Access to basic human rights such as food, water work, and education, and most importantly access to quality healthcare poses major challenges for refugees not only in Kenya but across Africa. Any gains to fight these challenges over the decades are slowly been eroded daily as the pandemic takes its toll.

The African Union has voiced concerns that that vulnerable populations such as refugees and IDP rights may be forgotten with the engulfing crisis.

The disruption of aid efforts globally will inadvertently further widen-social-economic equalities, further undermining their access to basic human rights.

NGOs and other human rights organisations, although doing a commendable job are facing a daunting task as they seek interventions to keep the virus at bay. The possible spread of the virus especially in the camps, as well as in the surrounding host communities, would be apocalyptic.

Health experts have warned that mass infections would result in a large number of deaths, particularly in people with advanced age and/or underlying illnesses.

Both Dadaab and Kakuma Refugee Camps lack any health infrastructure and are already grappling with overpopulation, congestion, and poor sanitation, a breeding ground for the rapid spread of the deadly virus that has caused global devastation. Practicing social distance for the refugees is almost impossible. Washing hands of hands while facing acute water shortages is another dilemma.

While the government’s decision to close official entry points across the country’s border points is laudable, UNHCR has warned that movements continue through unofficial border crossing points where screening and provision of information are not in place. Already, the government has ordered the cessation of movement into and out of both refugee camps as part of pre-emptive measures to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, the porous borders continue to pose the biggest threat in the fight against the pandemic in the refugee camps, which over the years have been prone to infiltration by undocumented persons.

Just like other neighbouring countries hosting a sizeable number of refugees such as Uganda and Ethiopia, the availability of medical equipment to detect coronavirus and isolation facilities remains a big challenge.

On the other hand, migrants and undocumented refugees living in Nairobi are facing a similar stark reality. Over the years, this highly mobile and ‘invisible’ population has been facing health vulnerabilities due to various challenges of integrating with the host communities. This has been blamed on obvious reasons such as language barrier, lack of valid documents, fear of exposure among other factors.

Recently, the government lifted a 15-day lockdown imposed in Eastleigh, which since the 1990s has earned the moniker, the “little Mogadishu” dominated by the Somali’s.

The densely populated estate has been facing its equal share of water shortages, similar to other estates. Social distancing, just like in the camps is a daunting task putting the lives of children and the older population at risk.

Authorities need to ensure refugees living in the camps and urban areas have access to testing kits, quarantine facilities as well as protective gear such as masks. There is the need to set up and strengthen overwhelmed existing health-care systems, conduct mass testings as well as carry out sensitisation campaigns on the COVID 19.

This World Refugee Day gives the civil society in Kenya an opportunity to form solidarity and strong international mandates not only to highlight their challenges, but assist the most vulnerable such as refugees, IDPs, and migrants who are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19.

Authored by: Njambi Wagacha, Programme Manager, Innovation for Change-Africa Hub.

NOTE: Opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of the West Africa Civil Society Institute

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