Refugees and displaced people in camps in Syria, Greece and Bangladesh face a heightened risk of Coronavirus owing to conditions that are even more cramped and densely populated than the Diamond Princess - the cruise ship where transmission of the virus was four times faster than in Wuhan at the peak of the outbreak.

New analysis by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) examines the extreme levels of population density in refugee camps around the world, using research by ACAPS. The IRC found that when combining the close proximity between those living on board the ship with the limited access to water, sanitation and hygiene found in displacement camps, the disease will spread fast and could devastate communities.

Comparing the population density of the Diamond Princess (24,400 per km2) with Cox’s Bazar (40,000 per km2), Moria, Greece (203,800 per km2), and Al Hol, Syria (37,570 per km2), highlighted that we can expect the transmission rate of COVID19 in these contexts to surpass that of the cruise ship where 706 people tested positive for the virus in the 30 days after the first test. 

Marcus Skinner, Senior Policy Adviser for the International Rescue Committee, said:

“The rapid spread of COVID-19 on the Diamond Princess showed how the virus thrives in confined spaces but for millions of displaced people their conditions are far more cramped and poorly serviced and the risks are far deadlier. 

“Refugees living in overcrowded camps lack access to adequate healthcare, shelter, water and sanitation, posing major challenges in efforts to protect them from the disease. In some cases, a person’s legal status or gender could also impact whether they are able or willing to access healthcare services.

“However, with urgently needed funding, there are steps that can and must be taken to protect vulnerable and often marginalised camp populations. Increasing access to running water for regular handwashing and identifying isolation areas for those who show symptoms of the virus are critical steps to ensure people can protect themselves. Redesigning and building new shelters can reduce the number of families living in small tents or shelters and support social distancing. 

“The IRC is scaling up its global response to the outbreak of the virus, including in these severely overcrowded camps, mitigating its spread and thus the suffering of the world’s most vulnerable. For example, we have equipped staff in Bangladesh with 18,000 surgical facemasks and installed hand washing points at every programme location. Our global appeal of $30 million will enable our teams to continue saving lives in places like Syria, Greece and Bangladesh, while protecting those living there from the devastating impact that coronavirus can have.”

For data visualisations that depict the population densities of Al Hol, Cox’s Bazar and Moria, by Mona Chalabi, please see here.

Notes to editors:

Al Hol, Syria Population: 68,000 Area: 1.81km2 = 1,810,000m2

Population density: 37,570 people per km2 

In Syria, 68,000 people are living in Al Hol camp where one person must live within a tiny space of 27m2, similar to a single car parking space. Aside from the cramped environment, people must endure cold, harsh weather conditions and are at risk of flooding, making them more susceptible to illness and exacerbating the threat of coronavirus.  

Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh: Approx population: 1,000,000 Population density: 40,000 people per km2 (data from ACAPS population density assessment)

Meanwhile, Cox’s Bazar is home to more than 855,000 Rohingya refugees, who have inadequate access to healthcare and live in small, confined shelters. The population density of the Diamond Princess was almost double that of Cox’s Bazar, where 40,000 people share a single square kilometer. The transmission rate across the camp is, therefore, likely to surpass that of the cruise ship because of the inadequate space for isolating cases and poor sanitation that arises  as a result of such severe overcrowding and lack of proper shelter.

Moria, Greece* Population: 18,342 people, Approximate area: 93,715m2 = 0.09km2 

Population density estimate: 203,800 people per km2 *(The camp has grown both in size and numbers since the most recent satellite imagery was taken)

In Europe, Greece is hosting 20,000 refugees on Lesvos in Moria reception centre, in conditions 6 to 8 times more cramped as the Diamond Princess. Known for its severe overcrowding and insufficient water and sanitation facilities with around 1,300 people sharing a tap in some places, many people are living in makeshift shelters or under sheets of tarpaulin. When COVID-19 hits Moria, people will be exposed and it will spread rapidly. 

The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, and has launched a comprehensive response and mitigation plan to COVID-19 across more than 40 countries worldwide. To learn more visit