Refugees in Asia face delays, pushbacks as coronavirus shuts borders

BANGKOK, March 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Hundreds of thousands of refugees living in precarious conditions across Asia are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus outbreak, with border closures raising the risk of their forced repatriation, human rights groups said on Friday.

The outbreak, termed COVID-19, has infected more than 234,000 people worldwide and killed nearly 10,000, according to a Reuters tally.

Refugees and stateless people in camps are among the hardest hit as they are confined to restricted spaces with few amenities and limited access to healthcare, said Themba Lewis, secretary general of the charity Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN).

“If you are a refugee facing the COVID-19 outbreak, you cannot advocate for your own needs. You do not have influence over decisions being made about your access to healthcare, tests, or even basic information,” he said.

“These populations are particularly precariously placed,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Aid agencies are particularly concerned about large, crowded camps including Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, home to about 700,000 Rohingya Muslims who fled Myanmar in 2017.

Along the Thai-Myanmar border, about 31,000 refugees from Myanmar live in nine camps, while nearly 60,000 Sri Lankan Tamils are in camps in southern India. More than 2 million Afghans live in camps in Iran and Pakistan.

To date, there are no confirmed cases of infection among refugees and asylum seekers in South Asia and Southeast Asia, according to UNHCR, the main United Nations refugee agency.

“We are collaborating with partners and national authorities to ensure that these populations are included in all preparedness and response planning,” a spokeswoman at UNHCR’s regional office in Bangkok said.

Fears of contracting the virus in Iran, one of the worst hit countries, has led to a record number of Afghan returnees in recent weeks, a daily average of more than 9,000, according to the International Organization of Migration (IOM).

The mass returns are sparking fears of increased transmission rates in Afghanistan, where inadequate housing adds to their vulnerability.

At Cox’s Bazar, medics are setting up isolation units in hospitals and teaching children about hygiene.

In camps along the Thai-Myanmar border, aid agencies are working with Thai authorities to communicate with refugees and strengthen prevention and control measures, said Darren Hertz, head of the International Rescue Committee charity in Thailand.

“The Thai government’s response to this outbreak has been quick, very thorough and risk-appropriate,” he said.

But as more countries close their borders to limit the outbreak, refugees face extensive delays, and risk being stranded or separated from family members, according to IOM.

IOM and UNHCR said this week they were temporarily suspending resettlement travel. Some countries have also placed a hold on resettlement arrivals.

The border closures and other restrictions threaten the right of refugees to seek protection, said APRRN’s Lewis.

“We have a moral responsibility, and in some cases a legal obligation, to ensure refugees are protected,” he said.

“Yet we will likely see an increase in restrictions on camps - including restriction of movement. Coupled with xenophobia, that could lead to pushbacks as refugees flee further,” he added.