Geneva – The COVID-19 pandemic has compromised the lives and health of millions and challenged the humanitarian community to form new ways of working to keep the people under their care safe and healthy.

In countries where humanitarian responses were already stretched – places hosting tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people displaced by conflict and disasters - movement restrictions imposed to keep the disease at bay inevitably pose issues for humanitarian access.

Sustaining these operations amid the reality of COVID-19 remains a key priority for the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The Organization joined other humanitarian agencies to call for a greater commitment of funds and support in order to keep staff on the ground, humanitarian corridors open and supply chains expanded.

These measures are not only crucial for mitigating the health and economic impacts of the disease but also ensuring those who currently rely on humanitarian aid can still access food, health care and other services.

Approximately 26 million refugees live in situations of displacement globally. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre recently reported that internal displacement reached an all-time high at the end of 2019 with 50.8 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) recorded globally.

“Indeed, while much of the world’s population is urged to stay at home – millions of IDPs, forcibly displaced from their homes and habitual residences, live in crowded, unsanitary conditions, in camps, informal settlements or in peri-urban areas, with limited or very poor access to health services,” warned a consortium of global leadership last month on the 22nd anniversary of the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.

“Recommendations to mitigate transmission of COVID-19, including social distancing and isolation measures, therefore remain challenging or even impossible for many IDPs, heightening the risk for COVID-19 to take root and spread among already extremely vulnerable communities,” they add.

IOM has been a lead actor in responding to and driving forward long-term solutions for internally displaced communities for decades. Last year, the Organization supported 2.4 million people – including IDPs but also refugees and asylum seekers – in more than 1,100 displacement sites.

Displacement sites across Yemen continue to see an increased number of people of people seeking refuge from violence. Photo: Olivia Headon/IOM

Home to some of the world’s most vulnerable people, these sites are designed to offer urgent humanitarian assistance and protection to as many as possible in the aftermath of crises, for a temporary period of time.  

The resources allocated to keep camp residents nourished, safe and healthy are often insufficient to meet the consistent needs of all. People living there have limited opportunities to earn money or access clean water and health care, even in pre-COVID-19 times.

Health centres in camps are already under strain, responding to high volumes of women, children and men in need of care for conditions like diarrheal diseases, malaria or tuberculosis. They are not, however, equipped to provide specialized respiratory care this new disease demands.

“Now that the virus has started to reach some camps across the world, it will likely spread rapidly, despite our best efforts to contain it. Our teams are training and mobilizing communities to disseminate reliable and verified information about the disease and preventative measures that must be taken,” said Wan Sophonpanich, IOM's Global CCCM Cluster Coordinator.

“Keeping displaced communities at the centre of how we approach the response, we are working with government and humanitarian agencies to adjust how essential life-saving services can continue, while setting out contingency plans for the sites,” she added.

In the face of this new crisis, humanitarians are now adapting their operations.

In March, IOM published operational guidance on how camp managers can better put these responses into practice. For example, by re-organizing space; delivering aid in ways that allow for physical distancing; establishing quarantine and isolation spaces, or additional water and hygiene facilities; informing populations on how to stay safe and how to safely bury their loved ones.

Here is a look at how this is unfolding on the ground.

New handwashing stations set up in Cox’s Bazar are helping to curb the spread of COVID-19 among Rohingya refugees. Photo: IOM
New handwashing stations set up in Cox’s Bazar are helping to curb the spread of COVID-19 among Rohingya refugees. Photo: IOM

In Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, more than 850,000 Rohingya refugees live in the world’s most populous camp for displaced persons.

In the past month, IOM has trained 600 staff there on how to recognize COVID-19 symptoms and prevent disease transmission, while 260 staff from IOM health facilities have been trained on how to manage suspected and confirmed cases, prevent further infections, communicate about the health risks, and engage communities.

Two isolation and treatment centres with 200 beds are being built while another four IOM-managed primary health centres have been identified to serve as separate isolation units for suspected cases where people can access the care and treatment they need.

A newly-establish isolation centre established to provide health care to Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar. Photo: IOM

In partnership with the World Health Organization, IOM has trained 19 ambulance staff, including drivers, medical escorts and hotline operators. Ambulances stand ready to transport people from triage centres to isolation facilities.

To counter the spread of misinformation, IOM is also tracking rumours in the camps, and addressing them by communicating with the communities through multilingual public audio forums, social media channels and radio programmes to communicate hygiene and health-related messages.

More than 700 handwashing stations have also been installed in communal locations to help prevent spread in the event of an outbreak.

SDG 3 - Good Health and Well Being
SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities