Impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable populations (IDPs, refugees, migrants)

AU Peace and Security Council 921st Session
Impact of COVID19 on Vulnerable Populations (IDPs, Refugees, Migrants)
Statement by ICRC President – Peter Maurer
(submitted as a written statement) 28.04.2020

Opening Remarks

  • Your Excellency Ambassador Catherine Mwangi of Kenya, Chair of the Peace and Security Council (PSC) for the month of April, Excellencies, Members of the PSC, Commissioner Chergui, Commissioner Cessouma, Commissioner Elfadil, it's an honor for the ICRC to address the Council on the impact of COVID-19 on displaced people, refugees and migrants.
  • We take this opportunity to commend African Union Members States for their proactive response to the COVID-19 pandemic recognizing the impressive coordination and technical role played by the African CDC in support to AU member states. We also commend the AU for its recent statements, recommendations and reminders to member states on the specificities and risks for the most vulnerable populations.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic comes on top of an already devastating humanitarian situation in many contexts brought on by conflicts, climate variability, and locust outbreaks. The ICRC is concerned that the pandemic will compound the suffering of vulnerable populations that are already struggling to meet basic needs such as shelter, food, water, and medical care.
  • In some contexts, for example in the Sahel and in Libya, we are seeing an intensification of conflict, further displacement and weakening of health systems that heighten the risk of the spread of COVID-19. In Abu Salim, in Tripoli we have seen a quadrupling of the patient-load in recent months, mostly due to the influx of displaced families.

Internal displacement

  • IDPs and refugees in camps and host settlements have limited access to basic services. They cannot practice physical distancing nor have access to hygiene measures. IDPs will also be disproportionately impacted by the economic repercussions of lockdown measures, given their already precarious circumstances and heavy dependency on external support from host communities and humanitarian actors.
  • It is therefore the ICRC's view that if COVID-19 containment measures are imposed, authorities need to prepare and/or allow for alternate methods of delivering assistance and providing services to IDPs and host communities, in conditions that protect the health of both IDPs and staff involved.
  • According to reports, the virus continues to spread to outside of the main urban areas and to villages very close to where large IDP communities are concentrated especially in the Sahel and Lake Chad regions. While the ICRC is not aware that any specific measures have been taken by the authorities for IDP camps, we can expect that this should change were the virus to hit inside any of the IDP camps in any of the countries.
  • Nonetheless, restrictions including the prohibition of large gatherings, no outside visitors, and access for humanitarian workers, could restrict lifesaving and necessary activities such as immunizations and maternal child health, water and sanitation, food distributions, and public campaigns and awareness on COVID-19. These movement restrictions out of the camps impact IDPs' livelihoods as some of them complement the assistance received with for example fishing and hunting.
  • On a positive note, the fear of contagion has contributed among other factors to voluntary return movements of IDPs. For instance, in Cameroon, this fear led to return movements of IDPs from Duala and Yaoundé (where the virus first spread) to the Anglophone regions at the beginning of the outbreak. Furthermore, the declarations of ceasefires by armed groups further supported the will of IDPs to return. Similarly, the improved security situation in some parts of South Sudan have seen some IDPs returning to their villages of origin on a voluntary basis.

Migrants and refugees

  • It is notable that during the pandemic, a number of African states have been compelled to take increasingly stringent measures restricting the mobility of people across borders. In such situations, migrants, including refugees and others in need of international protection, become most vulnerable, whether in transit or in destination countries.
  • In that respect, the ICRC welcomes the AU's recent appeal to African States to preserve the rights of migrants, including refugees, as contained in International Human Rights Law and International Refugee Law while adopting measures that restrict the mobility of people. The ICRC particularly commends the AU's call to states to enhance solidarity and cooperation on repatriation of migrants, and caution on the impact of mass deportations on the situation of migrants, and the capacity of countries of origins to safely manage the influx of people in manners that allow for adequate public health measures.
  • While the AU has always encouraged the free movement of people across its sub-regions, the current exceptional public health circumstances have altered border management strategies amongst African States, therefore accentuating the vulnerabilities of migrants, including refugees. Therefore, the ICRC calls on states to maintain avenues for asylum seekers to access international protection including safeguarding the principle of non-refoulement, and in the event of returns and repatriations, that such returns are organized and coordinated between states, and to be strictly voluntary. The ICRC also seeks to advocate to African and non-African countries that such repatriations are done in a spirit of international solidarity and responsibility-sharing that also takes into account the response capacity of countries on both ends.


  • As a part of society which is connected to surrounding communities by means of staff, families and visitors, detention settings are particularly prone to the spread of infectious diseases such as COVID-19. Prison health services are often more vulnerable than the general population due to various addictions, morbidities such as tuberculosis and HIV, malnutrition.
  • Prisons and other places of detention must therefore be critically included in all COVID-related contingency plans of national and local authorities, taking into account their specific characteristics.
  • We must nevertheless recognize the very positive mitigation measures taken by a number of countries who have implemented early releasees of detainees, expedited the judicial processes and put in place innovative tools such as telephone services to enable detainees remain connected to their families during these periods of restrictions on visits.
  • Across Africa today, with ICRC visiting more than 435 places of detention, in 31 countries, we have ramped up support to prisons in terms of sanitation and hygiene in order to protect this category of population.

ICRC response

  • We believe the fight against COVID-19 and the continued effort to provide assistance and protection to people caught up in conflict are complementary and mutually reinforcing. We are focusing our COVID-19 responses on conflict areas and locations inaccessible to other actors, focusing mainly on vulnerable populations IDPs, detainees, migrants.
  • We are taking all precautions to adapt our operations and put in place measures to safely work with populations and ensure the continuity of essential humanitarian services.
  • Together with national Red Cross and Crescent Societies, our responses include community mobilization and sensitization on Infection Prevention and Control, supplying clean water and sanitation in camps of displaced, support to prisons with infection prevention and control.
  • To address livelihoods and food security, we continue to distribute seeds and agricultural tools to farmers and provide veterinary services for livestock.


  • The long-term economic disruption (and resulting social disruption) will be far worse than the health/pandemic itself. We must therefore work very hard collectively and in solidarity to accelerate responses not just in economic terms but also safety nets and given that the economic and social disruption in fragile contexts will be most acute, the international community needs to support the response through dedicated resources to these contexts.

Thank You.