What refugee camps and COVID-19 can teach us about long-term solutions


The novel coronavirus has taken over our lives worldwide and for some people, more than others. Some of use are directly affected because we have a relative who is or has been sick, some of us now have children at home we have to entertain, some of us have had to close our shops for an indefinite time, and the lucky ones, myself included, stare at the food in our pantries, wondering how we are going to stay sane while working from home for the foreseeable future.

Each and everyone one of us will be affected by this pandemic. We all have new behaviours and norms we have to adapt to. Social distancing, no physical contact, and thorough handwashing, just to name a few.

Even these seemingly simple changes are hard to adapt to, most of us are having a hard time staying indoors. Now imagine being in a refugee camp where you don’t even have an “indoors” of your own. Life in refugee camps is already unimaginable to most of us. People live in unheated tents, with large families sharing small spaces. Others sleep outside with barely any shelter. Often, there is no running water, let alone basic resources for adequate hygiene. Healthcare facilities are primitive and there are usually just a handful of medics for thousands of residents.

You can’t tell people to improve their hygiene when there are no proper facilities. You can’t ask them to quarantine and stay inside when there is no inside to stay in. And you can’t ask people to socially distance themselves because there are too many people living in just one place already.

Refugee camps already struggle with providing basic health services and residents already suffer from respiratory issues due to their living conditions. What happens if you add the novel coronavirus, or any pandemic, for that matter? We don’t know the outcomes yet, but we know it’s not going to be good. 

The novel coronavirus has already reached some refugee camps and nearby communities in Greece. The situation is rapidly changing and NGOs are so overwhelmed they have already left the camps or suspended their services. 

In places such as these camps, the virus will spread much faster and its impact on the residents will be much more catastrophic. Not just physically, but mentally as well. Pandemics lead to panic, heightened fear, unrests and more aggressive behaviour.

Photo: Movement On The Ground

One of our partners, Movement On The Ground is one of the very few organisations still allowed to be present in refugee camps. They are working harder than ever to adapt to this crisis and help the residents of the camps in Lesvos and Samos. They are educating people in the camps about the importance of hygiene and hand-washing for protection, installing hand sanitizer dispensers where hand-washing facilities are limited and distributing food packs.

They have also started preparing their resident volunteers in both camps for situations that might require them to manage services such as food distribution, waste collection and energy provision on their own, with remote assistance from Movement On The Ground staff.

People’s struggle to access basic human needs and rights in refugee camps is not news.  However, the COVID-19 pandemic is a wake-up call about the urgent need to come up with better solutions on how to develop, establish, manage and maintain such camps.

Realistically, this is not going to be the last time there will be a need for refugee camps. What we can already learn from these ongoing crises, the refugee crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, is that we need to be prepared. We need to develop camps and systems that are ready for emergencies.  

Solutions should not just be about halting pandemics or ending civil wars but also about how to effectively and sustainably tackle emergencies when they inevitably happen. 

Resident volunteers in Samos. Photo: Movement On The Ground

Movement on the Ground's efforts in Lesvos and Samos to prepare their resident volunteers to self-manage the camps is part of their Camp to CampUS project. The project is working towards making camps sustainable, self-sufficient and innovative by involving locals and refugees in the processes. The goal of the projects is to provide residents of such camps with access to proper education, healthcare and nutritional food, alongside communal areas for socialising, sports and arts. Join Movement On The Ground's mission to improve the quality of life in refugee camps by donating below.

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