DEC Coronavirus Appeal: Refugee camps are at serious risk from pandemic. Please help – Jack McConnell

Millions of lives are at stake as Covid-19 threatens refugee camps and war-torn countries like Syria and Yemen. But Scotland has shown itself to be a generous country, willing to help others in their time of need, and now we must do so again, writes Jack McConnell.

DEC Scotland launches its Coronavirus Appeal to help millions of people at risk from the coronavirus pandemic in refugee camps and countries scarred by conflict (Picture: John Devlin)
DEC Scotland launches its Coronavirus Appeal to help millions of people at risk from the coronavirus pandemic in refugee camps and countries scarred by conflict (Picture: John Devlin)

The coronavirus emergency is not over. In Scotland, as restrictions begin to lift, we may feel that the worst is behind us. We can go to the shops again, travel a little, hug our grandchildren.

But around the world, life is very different. Families who have fled violence, conflict and hunger – who are already struggling to survive in places like Yemen and Syria – are being faced with a new, silent killer: Covid-19. That’s why the 14 aid agencies who make up the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) have launched an urgent fundraising appeal. People living in crowded refugee and displacement camps, lacking basic sanitation and where social distancing is impossible, urgently need our help.

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Millions of lives are at stake.

The coronavirus pandemic is affecting people in every country, and every person on the planet has a role in preventing the spread. Here in Scotland we have all made sacrifices to protect each other and save lives. And we have admired the tireless dedication of staff in our NHS. But, as lockdown measures gradually lift here, people around the world need our help: those in places where there is no NHS.

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Desperate parents have left everything behind to keep their families safe, only to face the deadly threat of Covid-19. This is the reality for people living in places like Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan and the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh.

Traumatised children holding onto hope

I have been visiting camps for refugees and internally displaced people all over the world regularly since 2008. In every camp, people are sharing tents, often with other families and strangers, and they are short of water and clean toilet facilities. Last summer I returned to Syrian refugee camps in Iraq I had previously visited in 2016. The children I met then are still there – many have been trapped there since 2012. The temporary facilities are starting to feel permanent as hope subsides.

The children are traumatised by their experiences, but they seize whatever limited schooling is available. They talk of rebuilding their countries; of the jobs and houses they hope to have in the future; of safety and seeing loved ones again. They all talk of returning home.

We may have occasionally felt imprisoned in our homes over lockdown, but we also felt grateful to have a home at such a time. These families, living in these camps, are far from home, and right now they are scared because they are extremely vulnerable to any coronavirus outbreak.

We know that the virus spreads more easily in crowded places. We have watched the impact as it spread in ski resorts, clothing factories and meat plants.

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In the most organised, developed and safe countries in the world, the virus moved fast and it was deadly. With incredible resources and outstanding professional skills, our governments have struggled to cope.

Violence in Syria continues

Just imagine how much more difficult that is in a refugee camp, and how many will die if Covid-19 takes hold.

These camps are some of the most densely populated places on the planet. In Syria the conflict has not been locked down over these weeks. The violence continues, so more and more families displaced by the war are sharing tents due to lack of space, with elderly and vulnerable relatives included.

In these places, basic handwashing facilities are shared between many people and often are not even available. In displacement camps in Somalia, it is common for people to wash their hands with ashes due to a lack of soap. These temporary settlements do not have enough hospital beds or supplies to treat those who fall ill. In these places, the virus will be even more deadly than it has been here.

The DEC’s 14 member charities are already present and working in refugee and displacement camps, despite the many challenges presented by the pandemic. Their staff and volunteers are just as brave and selfless as those who have stepped forward to protect lives here. With imagination and commitment, they are working tirelessly to keep Covid-19 out of the tents in these camps.

But they urgently need more funds to scale up their operations and save lives. The priority is to help families keep themselves safe and to provide frontline medical and aid workers with the equipment they need to protect the most vulnerable and safely care for the sick.

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Every pound saves lives

Scots have shown in the past that we can be a generous, outward-facing country, willing to go the extra mile to help others in their time of need.

We must now do so again. Millions of lives are at stake. Our governments are leading by example. The Scottish Government has pledged £240,000 to the relief effort and the UK Government will give up to £5 million to the DEC appeal, using Aid Match to double your donation.

Now it’s the turn of people across Scotland who are able to give, to do so. I know that for many of us, times are tough and money is tight, but every pound saves lives; just £30 could provide six displaced families with enough soap for a month, to keep themselves and others clean and safe. The coronavirus global emergency is far from over.

People who have suffered so much need your help now more than ever to face this new threat.

If you’re able to, please donate today and help save lives: text SUPPORT to 70150 to donate £10, call 0370 60 60 900 or visit

Rt Hon Lord Jack McConnell was First Minister of Scotland 2001-2007

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