Fears for spread of coronavirus in refugee camps as up to 250 people share one tap

Hitham Ahmed / Oxfam

Refugees living in camps are sharing one tap between up to 250 people and many have less than 3.5 square metres of living space per person – smaller than the average UK bathroom – which will make it extremely difficult to contain a coronavirus outbreak, Oxfam said today.

The virus could also be catastrophic for people in places hit by conflicts, like Yemen, Syria and South Sudan, who are already struggling with malnutrition, diseases like cholera and a lack of clean water and health facilities.

The standards for refugee camps, agreed by agencies responding to humanitarian crises, were not designed to cope with a global pandemic. They state that there should be one tap for no more than 250 people and 3.5 square metres of living space per person.

In some cases, even these minimum requirements are not met. The sprawling Rohingya refugee camp at Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh is severely overcrowded with 40,000 people per square kilometre, the equivalent of the population of Inverness crammed into Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park.

Malnutrition and diseases like dysentery, cholera and typhoid are already a high risk in Cox’s Bazar, undermining the health of the communities. There is also very limited access to basic health services, let alone more specialized care.

In Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, which was built for 3,000 people but now hosts nearly 20,000 people, there are up to 160 people using the same toilet and over 500 people per one shower. In some parts of the camp, 325 people share one tap and there is no soap. Fifteen to 20 people can be living in a single shipping container, or in tents or makeshift shelters.

The World Health Organisation advice is that people should stay a metre away from anyone coughing or sneezing, wash their hands frequently and seek medical help as soon as symptoms become apparent to avoid spreading coronavirus.

Jamie Livingstone, Head of Oxfam Scotland, said:

“Across Scotland and the rest of the UK, our lives and livelihoods have been severely affected by coronavirus as we all restrict our behaviour to help stop its spread.

“Whether here in Scotland or around the world, coronavirus is an unprecedented threat to those living in poverty, and those who risk being dragged into it because of its impact on people’s incomes.

“It’s hard to look beyond our own walls when for many people it may feel like they’re closing in around us. But it’s clear that the virus doesn’t respect town, city, region or national borders.

“For many of the world’s most vulnerable, basic preventive measures like staying at home or washing hands more frequently, are simply impossible. We also know that women are hit hardest by emergencies, and women carry the bulk of caring responsibilities, making them even more vulnerable to exposure to this virus.

“As we together come to terms with the terrible and devastating impact, we must also turn our attention to the action needed to protect the people facing heightened risk and those who are least able to cope in this global pandemic.”

Oxfam’s expertise is in water, sanitation and hygiene – vital for attempts to manage the rate of infections – and it is working closely with local partner organisations in vulnerable communities to increase the number of communal taps and availability of clean running water, and to raise awareness about improved hygiene practices. More funds are needed to rapidly scale up this lifesaving work.

Women are usually hardest hit during emergencies and as they carry out most of the care work are especially vulnerable to exposure to the virus. Oxfam is also concerned about risk of gender-based violence as families are forced to remain in their homes and support centres and networks are closed.

Communities, local NGOs, women and refugee-led organisations are already mobilising, and Oxfam is working alongside them to meet the needs of the most vulnerable. Oxfam is also scaling up its work to help people in the poorest countries make a living and feed their families should coronavirus hit.

Beyond refugee camps, many other communities with whom Oxfam works are particularly vulnerable to the disease. In Gaza, where there are already 10 confirmed cases, there are 5,000 people per square kilometre and fewer than 70 intensive care beds for a population of two million. In Yemen, only half of health centres are functioning, and those that are open face severe shortages of medicines, equipment and staff. Around 17 million people – more than half the population – have no clean water.

Efforts to respond to humanitarian crises in several locations, like Yemen and Syria, were already underfunded. Now they must compete for the resources to fight the coronavirus while the world reels from the economic effects of widespread shut-downs. The UN has called for $2 billion to fund a global coordinated response to coronavirus in vulnerable countries.

Livingstone said:

“Our political leaders are rightly focused on preventing the spread of the virus and helping people here in Scotland and across the UK. But this is a truly global threat and we cannot stand by and watch this virus devastate the lives of the world’s most vulnerable.

“Leadership needs to extend beyond our borders – not least because a truly global response is needed to bring the virus under control. This can be shown in helping to ensure the UN appeal is fully funded, and in actively supporting the call for a global ceasefire to help countries in conflict deal with the threat of coronavirus.

“When it comes to coronavirus, nobody is safe until everybody is safe.”

Oxfam is helping vulnerable communities affected by coronavirus, including:

  • Working closely with local partners to help 118,000 Rohingya people in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, and Rakhine state in Myanmar with clean water, soap and hygiene kits, as well as public health awareness information. We are also helping 5,000 vulnerable households in communities around Cox’s Bazar with water and sanitation
  • Prompting hygiene awareness and hand washing to 78,000 Syrian refugees in Zaatari camp, Jordan and distributing soap amongst communities hosting Syrian refugees in Lebanon
  • Rehabilitating a hospital and its isolation unit serving a community of 50,000 in Iraq
  • Planning to build or repair 107 water points for people in Burkina Faso who have fled fighting
  • Carrying out hygiene awareness training for refugees in the north of Uganda
  • Training volunteers in Yemen to raise awareness and promote hygiene amongst conflict-affect communities.


Photo credit: Hitham Ahmed / Oxfam