Refugees quarantined at the Malakasa refugee camp in Greece after a man tested positive for COVID-19. Photo: Ayhan Mehmet/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

For millions of refugees and displaced people, access to health care is limited and social distancing is impossible.

Why it matters: Public health experts view a major outbreak in a refugee camp as a worst-case scenario in the global coronavirus crisis.

Zoom in: Researchers at John Hopkins University modeled possible outcomes of a large-scale outbreak at the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, the world’s most densely populated refugee camps. They estimate between 1,647 and 2,109 refugees could die.

  • Refugees in the camps are subject to an internet blackout and ban on mobile phones, leading to concerns they lack critical information about symptoms of the virus and preventing its spread.
  • If the virus does reach the camps, it will increase tensions with nearby Bangladeshi communities, the International Crisis Group warns.

Around the world:

  • In Greece, at least 20 refugees living in a camp near Athens tested positive for the virus — prompting the government to lock down the camp for two weeks, NPR reports. There are about 60,000 refugees living in camps across Greece.
  • In Italy, the government officially closed its ports to ships carrying refugees due to the pandemic, Al Jazeera notes.
  • In Jordan, 120,000 Syrian refugees living in the Za’atari and Azraq camps have been on lockdown since March 21 to prevent the spread of the virus.

Refugees and displaced people don’t exclusively live in camps. Many live in metropolitan areas, but could still struggle to access health care if they lack citizenship or documentation.

  • In Portugal, the government announced all foreigners, including refugees with pending applications, will be treated as residents at least until July 1 so they may access national health services, welfare benefits, bank accounts, and work and rental contracts, per Reuters.

The state of play: Almost 70 million refugees and displaced people around the world are in acute danger, Reuters reports.

  • The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) is seeking $255 million from member states to address the effect of COVID-19 on refugees.
  • The State Department announced in March it would send the UNCHR $64 million in “humanitarian assistance to help address the threats posed by COVID-19 in existing humanitarian crisis situations.”
  • The UN and aid agencies are only providing essential services to refugee camps, such as food and emergency medical care, but programs offering occupational training have been suspended, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Five main factors make refugees and displaced people particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus, according to Refugees International:

  • Population density and shared facilities make social distancing extremely difficult if not impossible.
  • Difficulty accessing basic necessities, let alone the intensive care facilities needed to treat severe cases.
  • Limited access to information, language barriers and distrust of local authorities.
  • A stretched humanitarian supply as governments restrict travel and supplies grow scarce.
  • Strains on the finances of governments and nonprofit organizations that provide for refugees.

The bottom line: “As global resources to fight this pandemic become scarce, displaced persons must not be forgotten," the John Hopkins researchers write.

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Ben Geman, author of Generate
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