Refugees are suffering from a “catastrophic” worldwide aid shortage

Refugees line up to receive hand sanitizers at a refugee shelter in Kranidi, Greece.
Refugees line up to receive hand sanitizers at a refugee shelter in Kranidi, Greece.
Image: Reuters/Costas Baltas
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It took a month, countless emails, tweets and a desperate Facebook post for Clare Moseley to get hold of and then deliver hand sanitizer for some of Europe’s most vulnerable people—more than 1,000 refugees living in tented camps with no running water in Calais, France. 

It “felt like a really big victory,” Moseley said, when three companies finally said they would donate batches of the goods to her nonprofit, Care4Calais, which provides aid to refugees waiting to enter the UK from the French port city. 

The problems go far beyond sanitizing, however. Other aid organizations have dramatically cut back their presence since the novel coronavirus took hold in Europe, meaning Care4Calais has had to stop giving out clothes, sleeping bags, and toiletries. It now mostly just provides much-needed food.

The group had long relied on food donations driven over from the UK, but authorities are now stopping volunteers—citing lockdown conditions—before they can board ferries, despite having correct paperwork, she said. Instead, a handful of workers are buying food locally at great expense. “We will do that until we run out of money,” Moseley said.

Moseley isn’t alone. Even giant aid organizations like the International Rescue Committee (IRC) are having a hard time procuring goods needed to keep refugees safe as the coronavirus pandemic disrupts supply lines around the globe. 

“This is an unprecedented moment for us—we have never had to deal with an emergency response that has hit every single one of our country programs at the same time and has also impacted our global headquarters,” said Elinor Raikes, head of program delivery at the IRC, which was founded in 1933 to help Jewish refugees escaping Nazi Germany. “This is really stretching us, it’s really testing the limits of our organization’s capacity to be able to prepare to respond across the entire world at once. That’s never happened in our organization’s history before.”

Unless quick solutions are found to the supply disruptions, the virus threatens to cause “potentially catastrophic” numbers of deaths among the most vulnerable, Raikes said. “We’ve been referring to it as a double emergency for crisis-affected countries. This is a crisis that is going to trigger more crisis.”

Most at risk, lowest priority

Refugee and migrant camps are intensely vulnerable to coronavirus. Their inhabitants often live in closely-packed tents or other temporary structures where it’s difficult to social distance. Refugees’ intense physical and mental stress and poor living conditions already put them at greater risk of contracting respiratory illnesses, while many are malnourished and ill-equipped to fight Covid-19 when or if it does strike.

“The conditions people are living in are unimaginable. There’s appalling hygiene, not enough water supplies, not enough toilets, and huge overcrowding,” said Hannah Green, the Greece field manager for Help Refugees, a nonprofit headquartered in the UK. 

Procuring goods for refugees has never been easy, particularly in areas riven by conflict. But now it’s near impossible. “We’re already working from a baseline where it’s really hard—in Syria, Afghanistan, and Myanmar it can take months to get supplies,” Raikes said. “That’s just become even more challenging in light of the global pandemic.” 

With every person on the planet facing the same medical crisis and desperately trying to get hold of supplies, refugees don’t factor into most decision makers’ priorities. “Procurement is much more difficult when the entire world, developed and developing, are facing the same problems. In those cases, people in the margins are more likely to be lower on the supply chain,” said Andrea Leiner, director of strategic plans at a camp in Matamoros, Mexico for the medical nonprofit Global Response Management (GRM). 

As of late-April, nearly two-thirds of the IRC’s 34 global programs didn’t have enough personal protective equipment (PPE), as procurement teams struggled under a 500% to 1,000% price hike. Even camps that are well prepared are facing trouble. The IRC’s northwest Syria team was well-stocked, with about three months’ of PPE, but it will take at least three months to get more supplies, Raikes said. “So, even where we’ve got supplies in stock that may not be enough,” she said.

Supply chain problems aren’t limited to much-sought-after medical equipment. The World Food Programme has warned that hundreds of millions could face famine in a “hunger pandemic” fueled by Covid-19. Border closures that disrupt food imports could lead to “dire conditions” in countries like Nigeria, Sudan, and Yemen in just months or even days, said Will Carter, who is leading the Norwegian Refugee Council’s (NRC) response to the pandemic. 

Limited mobility

Lockdowns are having drastic consequences for those relying on mobility to reach safety or receive aid. 

Many aid organizations have had to cut back or stop their work entirely due to movement restrictions and health concerns, leaving enormous gaps in services, aid workers said. Those services range from essential food provision, to childcare and adult education courses. 

At least 44 countries (pdf) have issued exceptions to travel bans for humanitarian aid workers, but many are still struggling to reach their posts. About two-thirds of the IRC’s emergency response team hadn’t been able to deploy as of late-April. The NRC reported similar issues in West Africa.

For people trying to escape violence or disaster, border closures can be life-threatening. “We are very concerned about these border closures, for normal economic activity, but also really tracking people’s ability to seek safety,” Carter said.

Even inside the camps, lockdowns pose a risk both to refugees’ mental health and increase the chance of them contracting the virus. In Greece, people have to line up together for hours just to leave their camp, and need a specific reason, such as going for essential supplies or to see a doctor. “The physical and mental stress in the mobility restrictions is immense,” Green said.  

In this context, the harassment faced by refugees around the world can have even more catastrophic consequences. In Calais, French authorities have continued their controversial policy of, sometimes violently, evicting people from the camps several times a week—despite the lockdown meaning they can’t legally go anywhere. “Why are we wasting effort and resources on targeting some of the most vulnerable people with something that hurts people and literally can’t achieve anything?” Moseley asked. 

The policy seems to be driving people to take the dangerous step of trying to reach Britain by boat. During its work in the field, Help Refugees has seen a definite climb in numbers of people trying to cross since the lockdown started, said Josh Hallam, the organization’s UK community and networks manager. “People are taking on increasing risks to get the hell away from the violence,” he said. “The situations of crisis are being massively exacerbated” by French authorities.


As always, refugees and aid workers are doing their best to adapt. 

Organizations like the IRC and NRC are benefitting from a long focus on using local supply chains wherever possible. NRC is working to help local producers scale up and take some of the slack left by international companies, Carter said. It’s also shifting its funding model. Instead of just donating goods, they are coordinating cash-based assistance, which allow refugees to buy supplies themselves. 

And in some cases, refugee camps themselves are working to mend the supply chains. On the Greek island of Lesbos, refugees from Afghanistan are making thousands of masks a day with materials provided by Danish nonprofit Team Humanity. “If they can actually fulfill that and carry on, they’ll be able to supply every refugee in the whole of Europe,” Green said.