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Coronavirus forces evacuation of Japanese humanitarian aid workers

KYODO

A number of Japanese groups offering humanitarian assistance abroad have recently been forced to evacuate staff due to the spread of the novel coronavirus, casting a shadow over their support for refugees and poverty-stricken regions.

The nongovernmental organizations have repatriated some Japanese workers due to tighter travel restrictions and poor health care systems in the countries where they operate.

Japan's state of emergency, declared in early April, has compounded the uncertainty over when the repatriated aid workers can be dispatched again.

"Sanitation is poor in refugee settlements and the virus could spread rapidly," said Aya Fujita, who worked in Uganda as a member of the Association for Aid and Relief, Japan.

The 29-year-old, who had supported refugees from conflict-torn South Sudan, returned to Japan in late March when Uganda began limiting domestic travel and international flights.

She worked in a remote area without well-equipped hospitals, more than 10 hours by car from the capital Kampala.

"Our lives would be in danger if we became infected," Fujita said. "What's more, we definitely need to avoid becoming a source of infection."

Fujita had heard reports that local authorities were using violence to force people to stay at home and she felt the security situation had "rapidly deteriorated."

With school closures and gatherings banned, the NGO was unable to continue its educational support programs.

Before Fujita returned to Japan, a refugee leader said there was a shortage of soap and disinfectant necessary to prevent the spread of the virus.

"Their situation is dire enough, so it's crushing to have to cancel even a portion of the support activities," she said.

Fujita is currently working from her home in the Tokyo area to support the refugees through local staff.

"I'm especially worried about the children and women," she said. "The world is in a hard place (due to the virus) but I don't want people to forget those in more vulnerable positions."

Senior Managing Director Yoshiteru Horie, 51, said AAR Japan, which operates in around 10 countries, had no choice but to ask many of its workers to return temporarily to Japan.

Japan International Volunteer Center said staff dispatched to Cambodia and Laos had also evacuated. Workers in areas where airports have closed, such as Sudan, remain in place but their domestic travel has been restricted, according to the NGO.

The group, known by the acronym JVC, has continued to work with local organizations to improve the nutrition of young children and support educational programs.

"We're worried about the effects of the long absence of our workers in the field," said JVC Secretary-General Takatoshi Hasebe, 47.

Meanwhile, Medecins Sans Frontieres Japan has kept about 40 workers in around 20 countries, mostly in the Middle East and Africa.

Those dispatched will continue to provide normal medical aid in addition to implementing measures to prevent the spread of the virus. However, its workers have been compelled to stay at their locations beyond their stints due to travel restrictions.

"(Those countries) are in crucial need of medical assistance," said an MSF Japan spokesperson. "We are therefore unable to evacuate."

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