Refugee children in camp
By Qais Alemi (Associate Professor of Social Work & Social Ecology) - June 29, 2020

In listening to the stories of refugeesharrowing experiences of escape, family separation, poverty, exposure to war-related atrocities, and immeasurable cultural bereavement seem to be common occurrences. And today refugees face a threat like never beforeone that could prove to be more devastating than the political violence forcing them to flee their homelands. That threat is COVID-19.

Refugees have been dubbed the most vulnerable people in the world to coronavirus1 given the precarity and uncertainty of the situations they endure. For millions who live in densely-populated refugee camps that lack basic sanitation, physical distancing and hand hygiene are nearly impossible. Recent news reports have illuminated the potential damage of a COVID-19 outbreak in places like Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, which houses over 600 thousand Rohingya2, and camps in the Greek islands housing tens of thousands of Syrians and other nationals3.

Preventive efforts are also hampered by the lack of awareness of and misconceptions about the virus's spread, not just in refugee camps but also within overcrowded urban settlements. Language barriers, along with poor access to quality health care for receiving valid health information, add to these communication difficulties. And since most of the world's refugees leave their own impoverished countries only to resettle in similar nations with poorly developed health systems, these problems are not alleviated by relocationespecially when it comes to diagnostic testing, let alone treatment for COVID-19.

However, it’s not just the health systems of poor countries that are struggling to serve their populations. The coronavirus pandemic has been described as one that “has brought some of the best health systems in the world to their knees”3, in addition to straining the finances of governments, nonprofit organizations, and humanitarian agencies that serve refugees.The economic devastation caused by this pandemic will affect refugees directly, and one can only hope that refugee families are not pushed deeper into poverty, given that they rely on labor sectors decimated by the pandemic. It really boils down to having basic needs metand many studies, including my own, reveal the robust influence that socio-economic difficulties have on the health, mental health, and adjustment of refugees in their host environments.

The need to scale up basic preventive measures and improve access to care for diagnostic testing is apparent.5 With anticipation of a coronavirus resurgence on the horizon, there is no better time for governments, public health professionals, and organizations serving refugees to act than now.


  1. Beech, H., & Hubbard, B. (2020). Unprepared for the worst: world’s most vulnerable brace for virus. The New York Times. (accessed 12 June 2020).
  2. Subbaraman, N. (2020). 'Distancing is impossible': refugee camps race to avert coronavirus catastrophe. Nature.
  3. Greece: Island camps not prepared for COVID-19. (2020). Human Rights Watch. (accessed 12 June 2020).
  4. Ayesh, R. (2020). Global coronavirus crisis leaves refugees vulnerable. Axios. (accessed 12 June 2020).
  5. Brandenberger, J. R., Baauw, A., Kruse, A., & Ritz, N. (2020). The global COVID-19 response must include refugees and migrants. Swiss Medical Weekly, 150(1718).