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Editorial: Tokyo should not be blind to plight of refugees in virus crisis

  • May 29, 2020
  • , The Asahi Shimbun , 1:33 p.m.
  • JMH Translation

The new coronavirus pandemic is threatening to ravage the world’s most vulnerable people.


In many parts of the globe, internal and international refugees who have fled from conflict and persecution are finding themselves trapped in a deepening humanitarian crisis.


The international community should not become oblivious to its responsibility to protect human lives.


Earlier this month, two refugees tested positive for the new coronavirus in the world’s largest refugee camp for minority Rohingya Muslims who have fled to escape persecution in Myanmar.


These were the first confirmed cases among refugees in the overcrowded camp in neighboring Bangladesh, where more than 1 million Rohingya live. The refugee camp is so cramped that social distancing is impossible, a perfect breeding ground for a contagion.


With highly limited access to water, food, health care and basic sanitation, refugee camps are desperately ill-prepared to deal with the worsening of the health conditions due to the outbreak.


The Bangladesh government has placed the town where the refugee camp is located under lockdown and reduced its support to a minimum.


United Nations bodies and international nongovernment organizations are struggling to provide support to refugees because of restrictions on cross-border transportation of people and goods amid the risks of infection.

Rohingya refugees are far from alone in facing the nightmare of a coronavirus outbreak within a refugee camp.


There have also been confirmed cases of infection among people in refugee settlements in Greece where asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa hoping to settle in Europe are encamped.


In Syria, which is torn by civil war, displaced people fearing infection are leaving refugee camps to return to their destroyed hometowns.


A lack of testing makes it almost impossible to get an accurate picture of infections within refugee camps.


The growing number of refugees had long been an urgent humanitarian problem demanding serious responses from the international community even before the coronavirus began to threaten to rip through these camps. 


The pandemic has only made it harder to deal with this deepening crisis.


There are more than 70 million refugees and internally displaced people around the world. Protecting these people is the obligation of all countries under international law. But economically weak middle- and low-income countries have accepted more than 80 percent of international refugees.


In most of the countries that are producing refugees, the government is dysfunctional due to violent conflict. The health systems in these countries are ill-equipped to deal with any outbreak of infectious disease while their governments are too preoccupied with responses to the spread of the virus at home to help refugees.


It is vital for the international community to make collective efforts to support U.N. bodies and NGOs so that they can continue humanitarian aid activities in refugee camps.


Infectious diseases know no borders. Containing the outbreak in one country or area is not enough. We all need to understand the grim reality that the spread of COVID-19 in one area could create a wave of infections that threatens the entire world.

Japan has traditionally been a champion of humanitarian aid. The concept of “human security,” a key guiding principle for Japan’s foreign policy, is about protecting the lives and livelihoods of individuals regardless of their nationality.


At a time when many countries are assuming a “me first” attitude, Tokyo should lead international debate on how to build an effective system to ensure joint global efforts to deal with humanitarian crises.


But Japan has been less than eager to accept refugees. The dismal treatment of people who are placed in immigration facilities in Japan has been criticized.


It goes without saying that Japan needs to improve its own policy efforts for refugees while seeking to play a more active role in international efforts to support such people.

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