The UN refugee agency said Tuesday it’s working closely with partners and governments in eastern Africa to find solutions for urban refugees in these challenging times sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The UNHCR said urban refugees are struggling to survive as economic impact of COVID-19 worsens in East, Horn and Great Lakes of Africa.
“Refugees in urban areas across the East, Horn and Great Lakes region of Africa are struggling to meet their most basic needs as the economic impact of COVID-19 begins to take hold,” it said in a statement.
UNHCR is requesting some 13.4 billion shillings (about 126 million U.S. dollars) for life-saving interventions in response to COVID-19 in those regions.
“However, we fear that without further support, many urban refugees will become extremely vulnerable to exploitation, risk falling into significant levels of debt and may be forced into desperate situations to survive, such as transactional sex or child labor,” UNHCR said.
UNHCR has been providing emergency cash assistance to the most vulnerable in both Rwanda and Kenya and exploring options to expand programming.
In Uganda, UNHCR and WFP are introducing one-off cash assistance for some 80,000 urban refugees using mobile money to help cover rent, food and other key items, said the UN refugee agency.
However, it said these are only temporary measures and socio-economic conditions are expected to deteriorate further in the coming weeks and months.
UNHCR urged the international community to support its emergency response with further funding so that the UN agency can meet the rapidly rising needs before the situation reaches a breaking point.
It said urban refugees are facing job losses as businesses are forced to downsize or close due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“Many were daily wage workers or worked in the informal economy and were already living hand-to-mouth before the pandemic struck,” said UNHCR.
UNHCR said many urban refugees are also living in overcrowded and unhygienic conditions and are particularly vulnerable to the spread of the virus, as in Kenya where thousands of refugees live in impoverished neighborhoods in Nairobi with little access to clean water, making it nearly impossible to practice regular hand washing.
UNHCR called on states to ensure that urban refugees additionally have access to social safety nets providing health insurance, food and cash assistance, which the international community should further support.