Covid-19: One danger too many for refugee children

fille réfugiée avec un masque à cause du Covid-19

In Bangladesh, Greece and Lebanon, refugee families were already living in very precarious conditions. Housed in tents or emergency shelters, they are now suffering the full force of the devastating consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. Our teams provide emergency aid and demonstrate creativity in the field to reduce the risk of infection and to respond to the growing needs of children and their parents. 

The Koutsohero refugee camp in Greece is surrounded by a fence. Behind it, as far as the eye can see, are long rows of white containers that serve as shelters for families. Since March, the camp has not been spared the global disaster caused by the coronavirus. While the pandemic has brought the health and economic systems of the richest countries to their knees, its consequences are devastating for population groups such as refugees who are already living in precarious conditions. 

"The current situation has created additional trauma for the families, adding to their already very difficult lives," explains Jezerca Tigani, head of the Terre des hommes delegation in Greece. "People are living in overcrowded camps. The lack of space prevents them from following social distancing. Kitchens and sanitary facilities have to be shared and protective material is available only to a limited extent." Basic care has been reduced to a minimum in most camps in Greece or is completely lacking. 

The general insecurity and the new restrictions make the situation particularly frightening for children. "Families of six or seven live in a 12-square-metre container that serves as their accommodation, without anything to do. The children show signs of anger and aggressiveness. We often see them crying," explains Jezerca. Similar conditions prevail in the camps where we work in Lebanon and Bangladesh. 

Inform and prevent 

Part of our emergency aid is spreading prevention messages in the refugee camps. For many people we are one of the few trustworthy and regular sources of information. Sazed Ansari, national coordinator for child protection in the Teknaf camp in Bangladesh, reports: "We raise awareness among parents and children about the importance of health and hygiene measures and show them how to wash their hands properly."

Petite fille et petits garçons se lavant les mains à cause du covid
Petite fille et petits garçons se lavant les mains à cause du covid

In the refugee camps in Bangladesh, we are educating children about the importance of handwashing.

Aggravated financial situation 

"Many parents can no longer work, which means that families have no income to meet their basic needs," adds Sazed. The parents often have no choice but to send their children to work. 

The parents' insecurity and stress also affect the rest of the family members. Maysaa Shami, our specialist in the mental health of children in Lebanon, explains: "Some parents feel guilty that they no longer have any income. They are frustrated and worried, which increases the risk of physical and psychological violence against children." 

In the context of this global health crisis, it is our priority to continue to support children while respecting the rules of distance. A challenge we can meet, thanks to the creativity and commitment of our local staff. 

Overcoming fears 

Psychological counselling sessions are now held from a distance. In Lebanon, for example, we work with Syrian and Palestinian refugee children living in camps. "Instead of visiting them, we communicate by phone or video call," explains Maysaa. "They ask a lot of questions: 'What is going on? Is it normal that I feel bad?' We help them to understand the situation and their reactions to it."

Anas*, a 14-year-old Syrian refugee, takes part in these talks. "I have someone to talk to and whom I can tell what I feel and what is going on in my head. These conversations give us the positive energy we need to overcome our worries."

Père et fils libanais dans la rue lors du covid
Saïd with his son Anas
Syrian refugees in a camp in Lebanon

"Our lives have been turned upside down"

Positive effects can soon be seen. "We observe a change in the children's behaviour, their zest for life is gradually returning. They take initiatives themselves, start drawing, write poems and small articles, do handicrafts or cook," Maysaa Shami continues. 

The parents are also involved, which is very important. "We reassure them and help them adapt to this new life. This will make them feel better, which will allow them to improve their relationship with their children."

Remote psychological counselling is indispensable but also has its pitfalls. Trust between child and social worker is more difficult to establish. "We can't understand every facial expression or body language over the phone or on video. It takes more time," explains Maysaa.

Femme distrayant des enfants réfugiés par appel vidéo a cause du covide
Femme distrayant des enfants réfugiés par appel vidéo a cause du covide

Maysaa Shami facilitates a remote psychological support session.

The commitment of the team on site 

Our teams at the front are under a lot of stress themselves. Jezerca Tigani in Greece emphasises the commitment of the staff. "I am impressed by their commitment in these difficult times. The staff had the choice to work in the camps or from a distance. Most of them did not hesitate and continue to work on site." 

Read the full report here.

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