Catholic Relief Services: Don’t forget migrants, refugees amid pandemic

Catholic Relief Services has called for additional protections for migrants, refugees and homeless populations as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

“The conditions so many men, women and children find themselves in after being displaced from their homes could mean this virus spreading like wildfire through shelters and camps, claiming many more lives and putting many more at risk,” warned Jennifer Poidatz, vice president of humanitarian response for Catholic Relief Services.

The more than 70 million people displaced from their homes globally already constituted a crisis, said Catholic Relief Services in an April 16 statement. More than half of Syria’s population of 22 million have fled their homes since the country’s civil war began nearly a decade ago. Yemen has seen more than 3 million people displaced. Millions more have fled violence, instability, and destruction from natural disasters in Iraq, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Venezuela and other countries around the world.

But the eruption of the coronavirus pandemic in recent months means greater risks for an already vulnerable population, Poidatz said. Refugee camps and immigrant detention centers present additional challenges for fighting the spread of the virus, as social distancing and hygiene practices in these crowded settings can be difficult to achieve.

People in these precarious living situations “are at greater risk for disease in normal time,” she said, and during a pandemic, they need additional protection.

“They often lack even the most basic of necessities, including clean water, food and proper sanitation.”

In recent months, more than 2 million people globally have been infected with the highly contagious novel coronavirus, which is asymptotic or causes mild symptoms in most cases, but can be severe or deadly, particularly in the elderly or those with underlying health conditions.

Growing concerns over homeless and refugee populations have led to calls for increased efforts to ensure housing, food, sanitation and hygiene supplies for these individuals, as well as protective equipment and tests for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

In the U.S., Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) says it “has released nearly 700 individuals after evaluating their immigration history, criminal record, potential threat to public safety, flight risk, and national security concerns.”

The agency also says it is taking additional measures in detention centers to ensure social distancing, decreasing time in communal areas and quarantining those who are sick.

Some 32,000 immigrants are being held in immigrant detention centers across the country. The centers have reported about 90 confirmed COVID-19 cases among detainees, and almost two dozen cases among workers, according to NPR.

Officials at Ellwangen refugee camp in southern Germany reported that nearly half of the 600 residents there have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the EU Observer.

Catholic Relief Services warned that “COVID-19 can cause massive disruptions to the livelihoods, safety and social cohesion of people in extremely tenuous circumstances – threatening their already limited access to shelter, food, education and ability to work.”

The agency is working with its partners in more than 30 countries to fight the spread of COVID-19, including in already vulnerable communities.

“CRS teams are racing against the clock to design triage centers for health facilities and temporary centers for isolation,” Poidatz said. “We are also looking at modifications to shelters to allow spaces for quarantine where possible.”