World Refugee Day – 20 June – celebrates and honours the strength and courage of people who have been forced to flee their home. It is an occasion to remind the world of their plight and recognize their resilience in rebuilding their lives. 

This year’s theme “Together we heal, learn and shine” promotes greater inclusion of people forced to flee in health systems, education, and sport.

UNHCR Dr. Gislaine Ada Ngaska, Senior Public Health Officer for the West and Central Africa Regional Bureau

“Humanity has to come together as one to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. We have to, because our collective action can positively or negatively impact the trajectory of this disease.”

If there is one thing that the COVID-19 pandemic has thought us, it is that no one is safe until everyone is safe.  Now more than ever, it is imperative that everyone receives equal access to quality health and psychosocial care – including vaccines – and this must include those persons who were forces to leave their homes to escape conflict and persecution.

Leaving no one behind 

Oftentimes, refugees and displaced persons live amongst the most vulnerable communities, facing legal, social and economic barriers that prevent them from accessing health and psychosocial care in either their country of origin or their country of asylum.

UNHCR continuously advocates for their inclusion in national health and safety net systems and works with partners to facilitate their access to medical and psychosocial services, including personal protection equipment, screening and diagnostic tests and medicines.  

“In West and Central Africa, populations have a culture of hospitality, brotherhood and sharing, so communities support  equal access to basic services, such as healthcare for refugees,” says Dr. Gislaine Ada Ngaska, Senior Public Health Officer for the West and Central Africa Regional Bureau.  

“In Cameroon, for example, the Minister of Public Health signed a note on the COVID-19 vaccination, instructing inclusion of vulnerable people, notably refugees, and prioritizing humanitarian frontline workers for the vaccine. We also signed a partnership agreement with the Ministry to start including refugees in the national health system.” This approach of systematic inclusion in West and Central African countries is a key contributor to their effective response to this pandemic, and their ability to limit the spread of COVID-19 amongst refugee communities. 

In Mauritania, several donors – including the World Bank, the United States of America, the African Development Bank and UNHCR – supported the government, which ensured inclusion of refugees in the national health system. “Refugees and humanitarian actors are immediately given access to health care, medicine, mental health and psychological support, as well as to, vaccination,” says Ridha Rezgui, Officer in Charge in Bassikounou, Mauritania. “When COVID-19 hit, Mauritania made no distinction between refugees and host communities. On the first day of the COVID-19 vaccination campaign launch, refugees received the vaccine right alongside the local population and humanitarian workers, without distinction.”

A truly global effort  

Across the world, the people who have been forcibly displaced have been instrumental to fight the virus, working alongside national health authorities and UNHCR on: disease surveillance, tracking suspected cases and contacts within camps and settlements; prevention, by producing masks and other hygiene supplies; communication, through disseminating information; as well as providing administrative and logistic support to vaccination campaigns in humanitarian settings.

UNHCR/ Patience Folley In Ghana, the Masks for Refugees by Refugees initiative saw the production of over 35,000 masks

In Ghana, over 35,000 fabric masks were produced through an initiative called ‘Masks for Refugees by Refugees’. “These masks were distributed to refugees in the camps and urban settings, as well as to host communities,” says Dr. Gislaine.

“With the support of UNHCR, the project helped to reduce the spread of the virus within local communities, as well as to create economic opportunities for many people in the region who had lost their livelihood due to the pandemic.”

In other spaces, refugees have stepped into leadership positions, proving critical to the endeavours of local health authorities and UNHCR seeking to contain the spread of the virus.

“In Cameroon, refugees contributed to the surveillance of transmission of COVID-19,” shares Dr. Gislaine. “At the peak of the epidemic in 2020, refugees organized themselves into surveillance committees within the camps, to keep the management of the camp and settlements informed, thus preventing spread of the disease”. 

In Mauritania, Ridha explains, two committees were set up to limit the spread of the virus within camps. “The first saw the sensitization of refugees on key prevention measures. The second committee was refugee-led – linked to what we call in French ‘Veille Communautaire’ (Community Watch) – and was put in place to help health workers deal with suspected cases within the camp. Thanks to their efforts, we now have zero cases of COVID-19 in the camp.” 

Beyond borders and nationalities   While refugees continue to aid in the fight against COVID-19, it is essential that we continue to advocate for their inclusion in national healthcare systems and vaccination campaigns.

UNHCR/Viola E. Bruttomesso In Mauritania, refugees and UNHCR colleagues got vaccinated together

“We are all in this together”, states Ridha, “The COVID-19 virus doesn’t distinguish between borders or nationalities. So why should we?”

As we go on, UNHCR will continue to facilitate access to medical and psychosocial services for the persons forced to flee, and to coordinate with regional health authorities to ensure that they are included in vaccination campaigns. Inclusive vaccination is the key to bringing an end to this pandemic. Because together we heal.

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