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Soap for refugee shelters; a matter of life and death as pandemic continues

Soap bars distributed for use in refugee shelters in Tijuana, Mexico, by UNHR Mexico

In Tijuana and Mexicali, close to the border with the US, some 30 shelters house refugees and migrants, including thousands of Nicaraguans; part of an exodus of people in Central and South America, claiming asylum from persecution and human rights abuses.

The shelters are run by civil society – mostly faith-based organizations – working closely with UNHCR Mexico, and hygiene conditions can sometimes be found wanting. For this reason, particularly during the current COVID-19 pandemic, the work of the Clean The World Foundation, is crucial.

This US-based NGO provides water sanitation and hygiene facilities to vulnerable populations in crisis situations, and distributes soap made from used bars, collected from hotels, and recycled. Some of these bars are being donated to the camps in northern Mexico, where it is hoped they can make a major difference helping keep coronavirus at bay.

Shelter in place

“These supplies represent up to two years of soap availability that will benefit migrants, asylum seekers and refugees”, Rene Arguellez, from UNHCR Mexico, explained to UN News. “It is of fundamental importance to our initiatives, particularly in the current situation where there is a real scarcity of hygiene products, and where the concentration of people could lead to challenging situations if a contagious outbreak occurs.”

An employee at Clean the World collecting recycled bars of soap, by ILO Photo/John Isaac

For Mr. Arguellez and his colleagues, the pandemic has meant adapting to new conditions. This includes providing general cleaning products, and personal hygiene products to shelters, and counselling, although this is generally provided via smartphone, or Whatsapp messages, as UNHCR’s presence has been reduced to “critical staff” only.

“Aid workers face daily uncertainty,” he continues, “and we need to be adaptable and creative to provide an effective humanitarian response. As for the refugees and migrants we are supporting, their inherent resilience will also be an asset in these complex and changing circumstances.”

Hotel soap drying up 

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With the hospitality industry hit hard by the pandemic, the Clean the World Foundation is having to look for new ways to guarantee supplies, as many of their 8,000 partner hotels, have been forced to close. 

Sam Stephens, the head of the NGO, told UN News that these closures come at a time when demand for their soap is much higher than usual. “Normally, we would distribute some four million bars of soap in the first half of the year. So far, we have distributed an additional six million bars for projects related to the COVID-19 pandemic, on top of our regular projects.”

For now, he says, soap manufacturers are filling the gaps, and donating excess stock. And, with some hotels opening up in Asia and Europe, and possibly the US, donations may pick up, although Mr. Stephens expects additional partnerships to be necessary to meet the excess demand.

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