a crisis on top of a crisis
Brett Moore, LF ’16, is chief of the Shelter and Settlement Section of the Office of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, where he synchronizes preparedness actions and disaster response among humanitarian shelter actors. Prior to joining UNHCR, he was Humanitarian Shelter, Infrastructure, and Reconstruction advisor with World Vision International, coordinating humanitarian response for significant global emergencies and guiding rebuilding efforts for disaster and conflict affected communities. He spoke about his work at a Loeb community gathering in April.
My job with UNHCR has two elements to it. One is responsibility for coordination among humanitarian agencies that provide shelter responses in conflict or disaster emergencies. The second part of my job is the oversight of UNHCR’s global shelter and settlement program, supporting people in need who have been displaced by conflict. We have shelter and settlement operations in about 46 countries, and although around 75 million people are forcibly displaced, our work only reaches those who are the most needy and vulnerable. They are in urban areas, rural areas, transit centers, and reception centers on borders, but the majority of the people we support – nearly 4 million – are those in refugee camps. By any other measure we’re one of the largest urban planners or designers in the world. UNHCR was established nearly 70 years ago with most of the program being humanitarian response, but we do permanent infrastructure projects as well, like housing, health, education, and international protection.
In many countries these highly vulnerable populations can’t access government services–they’re not allowed to send their children to school or to access public health care or to buy and sell land and property. Some of the camps are inaccessible while others are open, and some have been there for 30 or 40 years and are indistinguishable from villages. It’s a challenging and resource constrained environment, and then on top of that, COVID-19 arrived and forced us to change direction.
To give one admittedly extreme example, in Northwest Syria there has been a heavy assault since December, which displaced a further 700 thousand people from the province of Idlib toward the Turkish border. It was bitterly cold, and many people died over the winter. What does life threatening mean for them – living in a displacement camp in danger in the middle of a conflict, or the potential of what COVID might bring to their already grim situation? It really is a crisis on top of a crisis in many countries, and there’s a different reality for the poor and the disempowered, including those in slums. Even if they have access to government services, adequate water, housing, or healthcare, the capacity of the host government may be limited, and who would assert the rights of the poor or refugees over the wealthy and privileged? In the US or in Australia, where I’m from, we’re worrying whether we have 22,000 ICU beds. In Sudan, there are 4 ICU beds, in Kenya 17, so only a tiny fraction of the population has access to the resources that we normally enjoy. Apart from these critical early intervention issues, the other big conversations we’re having are anticipating the second and third wave aspects, certainly the economic and social impacts, but also peace and security challenges. All of these occur at various scales and often simultaneously, and they quickly evolve, due to communication and politics, so we’re looking at the local, national, and regional levels.
When people rely on daily income to meet their daily needs, a few days without work is a very serious situation. A few weeks ago, when the Indian government ordered the shutdown within a day or two days, millions of people left Indian cities and walked, sometimes hundreds of kilometers, back to their villages of origin. In this way, COVID-19 is clearly causing serious global population movement. On the one hand it’s keeping people indoors, but on the other hand it’s causing another wave of global displacement. When I think about the countries where we work–like Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Venezuela–which have suffered decades of conflict and religious and ethnic division, it really doesn’t take long to undermine what is very tenuous, fragile peace.
To understand how we prioritize this crisis on so many fronts, it’s important to understand that many of the concepts from developed countries don’t hold in the developing country context or the humanitarian context. “Stay home, wash your hands” doesn’t make sense. Most times people can’t stay at home, and they can’t wash their hands because there isn’t inadequate water, and often you have hundreds of people sharing one water source. Most of the places where the refugees are living don’t have power, so they can’t refrigerate food; they need to go out everyday to the local market and shop. Social distancing as a prime way of preventing transmission doesn’t really work where we are.
There is one significant benefit of often being in a really isolated context: the closure of borders and the separation of many of the camps means the transmission rate has been quite low. Different countries have unique transmission patterns that have to do with settlement density, population, trade, and human movement. But in general, the virus has been transferred along pathways of affluence, even if it is disproportionately affecting the poor and the most vulnerable.