This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch – to whom quoted text may be attributed – at today’s press briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, has stepped up efforts across West and Central Africa to protect millions of vulnerable people who are facing a renewed risk from the combined effects of conflict and the coronavirus pandemic.
COVID-19 has exacerbated challenges in a region already dealing with one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises, involving over nine million forcibly displaced people. The pandemic has led to border closures and added an increased strain on fragile health systems and weak economies.
UNHCR has stepped up support to governments to help address the deteriorating humanitarian crisis. Our focus is on ensuring access to safety and trying to mitigate the effects of the pandemic.
West and Central Africa has one of Africa’s largest displaced population with some 5.6 million internally displaced, 1.3 million refugees, 1.4 million returnees who still need assistance, and 1.6 million Stateless.
So far, all the 21 countries of the region have reported a total of over 5,000 COVID-19 cases and more than 100 deaths since the first detection on February 28, 2020. So far, only host populations appear to have been affected with no coronavirus cases so far reported among the displaced.
However, a lack of concerted and coordinated efforts to prevent an outbreak could lead to a humanitarian catastrophe with a sharp increase in the number of those affected.
In West Africa’s Sahel region, armed conflict and attacks on civilians have displaced nearly 3 million people, nearly one million of whom since January 2019, and more than 5 million people are now facing food shortages.
Countries have officially imposed various levels of restriction on international movements from complete to partial border closures and mandatory self-quarantine on travellers arriving in-country.
Although, COVID-19 related restrictions are not targeted at refugees and asylum-seekers specifically, UNHCR has expressed concern that measures in the region could see people in need of international protection attempting even more risky and dangerous border crossings.
The restriction on movement, a slowdown or even halt in economic activity will likely have a greater impact on refugees and the internally displaced people since the majority are involved in the informal sector which historically is one of the most affected during public health outbreaks.
We are also worried over the possibility of people seeking safety being sent back to danger as potential movements of Malians, Nigerians, Nigeriens, Cameroonians and Sudanese seeking international protection may be hindered by these restrictions.
In addition to the precarious security (especially in the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin), the restrictions by COVID-19 are also hindering humanitarian efforts to support and assist people in need.
In Burkina Faso, Malian refugees fled attacks by armed groups on their camp in Goudoubo. Some took refuge in the overcrowded internal displacement sites inside Burkina Faso. The whereabouts of others are unknown. UNHCR activities, including the delivery of identity cards and other administrative procedures, are currently on hold as well.
In the Central African Republic, UNHCR staff report armed groups forcing displaced people to return to their places of origins in some localities, blaming them for the potential spread of COVID-19.
In Mali, Sexual and Gender-based Violence (SGBV), human rights and social cohesion campaigns, implemented by UNHCR and its partners are temporarily suspended in order to limit public gatherings.
In Niger, humanitarian access, already limited in the northern Tahoua, Tillabery and Diffa regions due to increasing violence is now further restrained due to the pandemic. Resettlement of vulnerable refugees evacuated from Libya and currently in transit is temporarily suspended due to severe travel restriction across the world.
Despite challenges in the whole region, work continues for UNHCR and many of its frontline staff. Under the banner of “Stay and Deliver” operations are adapting to reach desperate people. Field teams are introducing remote assistance and integrating cash assistance to support displaced populations – including people affected by SGBV and women at risk. Measures include online phone consultations in line with recommended social distancing measures to reduce contamination risks.
We are adjusting education activities in response to widespread school closures, which have impacted over 140 million children across the region. These figures include displaced children who are integrated into national education systems.
In Burkina Faso, the situation is particularly dramatic due to the unprecedently high displacement levels there. UNHCR is now exploring the possibility of relocating of some of those living in Dori to the Goudoubo refugee camp, which is currently empty but has water, sanitation and health facilities.
In Cameroon, registration teams in the East and Adamawa have developed tools that enable them to resume registration of the displaced after a week of suspension.
Since urban refugees are currently among the most affected by movement restrictions, UNHCR has set up a free phone line to organize the reception of refugees and asylum seekers by appointment for the registration of new-borns and documentation.
In Chad, a home visit registration approach is being considered for the new Kouchaguine camp in Farchana town/city at the request of the government. Information and awareness-raising materials are regularly shared with community leaders. UNHCR is also establishing a service to ensure the continuity of child protection activities.
In the Central African Republic (CAR), some 30 protection focal points are helping to ensure continued monitoring despite the COVID-19 pandemic. A hotline has also been set-up alongside a community alert mechanism to keep an eye on the main areas where displaced people have returned.
UNHCR is planning to distribute additional plastic sheeting and relief kits to decongest displaced sites and increase opportunities for social and physical distancing within those locations.
In Mali, activities continue in Timbuktu and other locations to raise awareness on children rights and prevention against COVID-19 targeting girls and boys.
In Niger, UNHCR is working with the authorities to purchase and distribute equipment – pencils and notebooks, as well as radios. A partnership has been set up with a local radio station to continue education programs through over community radios in the whole country. Self-learning programs and booklets are being produced for students in their final years and for Nigerian refugees attending the Distance Education Centers in the Diffa region.
Also in Niger, UNHCR is identifying overcrowded sites and has initiated site planning to respect the necessary distance between shelters. In Sayam Forage camp, the only official refugee camp in the country, an additional transit area is being built.
In Northeast Nigeria, refugee returnees and asylum-seekers from neighbouring countries are still arriving, even if borders are closed. UHNCR is following up with the government to guarantee medical screening in addition to access to the territory.
Internally displaced camps in Borno state are overcrowded, making social distancing impossible. UNHCR is working with the UN Development Programme to help with the expansion of camps and fences in Banki, Ngala and Bama.
Urgent support is needed to fill major gaps in the region, needing more trained health personnel in emergency response and adequate treatment units, particularly in remote areas hosting refugees and displaced people.
As part of the broader UN Global Humanitarian Response Plan, UNHCR has issued an Emergency Appeal requesting US$255 million for life-saving interventions and preparations in response to COVID-19.
UNHCR’s Bureau for West & Central Africa covers 21 countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, the Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, São Tomé and Príncipe, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo.
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Originally published by UNHCR on 17 April 2020