1134 GMT December 04, 2020
COVID-19 has transformed the world beyond imagination, affecting almost everyone in some way.
Yet for me the changes have felt familiar — from movement restrictions to quarantines, every measure taken to prevent the spread of the virus reminds me of what it means to live as a refugee in a camp.
I was once one of them. After my family fled Somalia, we settled in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp, where I lived for many years.
As soon as we crossed the border we were registered, put in an isolated camp and basically quarantined from the rest of the Kenyan society.
This is how refugees are treated when they end up in displacement camps. They are not allowed to leave their designated settlements. They live in prison-like conditions indefinitely, where their movement is controlled by local authorities.
I’m one of the lucky ones who got resettled in a third country. I currently live in the UK and have been confined to Northwest London.
The coronavirus lockdown brought back stark memories of life in the camp.
It first started when people were panic buying in March. I had to wake up very early to join a long queue at the local Sainsbury’s. The lines of people holding carrier bags and trolleys to carry as much food and toilet paper as possible reminded me of queues in the camps where refugees wait for the monthly UN food distributions.
As no one respected physical distancing rules, I would hear people standing close to me complain about the lack of food in the supermarket, and wondering how they would survive with so little. I would think to myself, “Imagine if these people were in refugee camps where they would receive food only once a month? Imagine if they were forced to skip meals, sleep hungry until the next cycle of distribution?”
We have the luxury of driving to a different supermarket to buy extra food, but refugees in the camps have no choice. And when inside the store, we enjoy the freedom to choose whatever we want from the shelves. For the refugee, there is no such choice.
The lack of freedom of movement has been the most striking thing about the pandemic for me.
This is how life is in camps. In Dadaab, you have to apply for a special travel permit to travel to other parts of the country — even for emergency medical reasons. Think about this when you complain about the temporary restrictions.
COVID-19 has provoked social stigma and misconceptions about people who get infected. This has evoked memories of the stigma we faced in the camp.
I remember a time when members of the host community refused to sit in the same room with refugee leaders. They complained to the meeting organizers and asked why they were made to share a table with refugees.
“You should meet with them [refugees] first and then call us after you are done with them,” one of the locals said in Swahili, thinking none of us understood his language. That view has changed over time as the host community now depends on businesses created by refugees.
The pandemic is global, it has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and brought down the world’s economy. But the good news is that more than 150 countries are engaged in the race to find a vaccine. The unprecedented collaboration secured billions of dollars to support this life-saving global effort.
Unfortunately, there is no such sense of urgency when it comes to finding durable solutions for the millions of refugees displaced around the world. Rather, governments are shutting their borders, and even those desperately crossing treacherous seas are being returned.
Today there are 79 million people — or one percent of humanity — displaced around the world, forced to flee their homes by war, persecution or natural disasters. Millions end up in refugee camps, their lives put on hold indefinitely.
The impact of the pandemic offers an opportunity to understand the lives of millions of people displaced around the world. Take a moment to think about them with empathy whenever you feel angry about the temporary disruptions COVID-19 has brought.
* Moulid Hujale is a Somali journalist mainly covering humanitarian news in East Africa. This article was first published in the Guardian.