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What Does It Mean To Be a Refugee During The Pandemic?

India Migration Now
Aug 5 · 7 min read

by Annesha, Kanika and the IMN Team

A Global Trends Report by UNHCR reveals that 1 in every 97 people are displaced, about 1% of humanity is either a refugee, asylum seeker or internally displaced person, 80% live in developing countries, many in camps that lack basic social and health services. In this blog, we explore what the pandemic has meant for refugee communities around the world.

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A Rohingya camp in Delhi-NCR: Yadhu Krishna, USPF

As of 25 July 2020, COVID-19 has resulted in over 642,000 deaths, and continues to uproot and disrupt the lives of people across the globe. However, it is clear by now that some communities are more vulnerable to this outbreak than others — refugee groups being one. Lack of sanitation facilities, robust medical support, and proper food in refugee camps makes the implementation of COVID-19 preventive measures almost impossible. Additionally, loss of livelihoods, closure of international borders and an increase in xenophobia are just some of the many factors contributing to the enhanced risks refugees are facing. In response, the UNHCR has launched donation calls worldwide and is working with civil society organisations in multiple countries to provide essential services to the refugee population and raise awareness in different languages.

Refugees Worldwide

Research conducted by the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Turkey, home to the largest refugee population in the world, found that 70% of refugees surveyed had lost their jobs during the pandemic, while 80% reported an increase in daily expenses. As a result of this widening economic disparity, many refugee families had been forced to borrow money, increasing the future risk of indebtedness. Red Cross and Red Crescent teams reported similar observations in camps across the world in diverse locations in South America, Central America, and Bangladesh.

In April, 2020, a study conducted with 909 households in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh, found that 25% showed at least one of the three most common COVID symptoms. Households also reported issues of access to food and cramped living quarters not conducive to social distancing. The Mixed Migration Centre’s April update of 4Mi data surveyed Afghans in India and Indonesia. It found that although most were aware of the disease and its prevention measures, they also lacked access to proper healthcare, especially in India, and had also been economically impacted.

The pandemic has also had similarly devastating consequences in the refugee camps of Greece where asylum seekers from several countries including Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Eritrea, and Iraq arrive annually for a hope of a better life in Europe. Cramped areas such as the Aegean Islands and Moria are particularly vulnerable and house thousands of people in close proximity. Efforts are underway to prevent and contain outbreaks in the refugee camps of Burkina Faso, Mozambique, and Kenya. Alarm bells are also ringing at the US-Mexico border where an outbreak in Matamoros may be imminent.

IN INDIA

As the pandemic rages on in India, leaving millions unemployed, refugees living in the camps across India fight an even more chaotic battle. In India, some refugees are supported by the government (refugees from Tibet, Sri Lanka, etc.) and some are aided by the UNHCR (refugees from Myanmar, Afghanistan, etc.). This disparity leads to a difference in identity documents, wherein the ones procured by the latter are usually not accepted by local government bodies, leading to further segregation amongst the humanitarian response to the refugees. The pandemic has brought these skeletons in accessing healthcare and receiving health services from the government out of the closet.

The lockdown leading to the loss of employment has brought numerous refugees close to starvation, as the informal sector fails across the country. Those not eligible for the livelihood assistance schemes of the country are particularly impacted. Xenophobic responses such as ‘corona bomb’ have also affected particular communities such as the Rohingya, for instance. Packed in crowded spaces where they live with bare minimum, social distancing is a privilege that refugee communities across the country cannot afford. The pandemic’s impact on the refugee status determination process which hinges on interviews with the UNHCR has also impacted asylum seekers. Asylum seekers who, ordinarily face an even more precarious existence as they wait for their claim to be validated by the UNHCR, will have to experience a protracted period of waiting before any action can be taken on their applications.

READ: Our coverage of the COVID impact on Rohingya refugees in India

READ: IMN BLOG Who is a refugee, who is a migrant?

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The Gendered Impact

Gender and refugee status interact to create unique vulnerabilities for women and girl refugees. Evidence from previous pandemics and disease outbreaks such as Ebola have shown that such outbreaks have differential impacts on men and women. These are often exacerbated by their existing vulnerabilities and prevailing gender-based inequalities. Given that women and girls make up around 50 per cent of the global refugee population, it is imperative to look at the specific gendered implications of COVID-19 on refugees.

Unpaid Care Work:

Globally, women perform 76.2 per cent of the total hours of unpaid care work. Indian women, in particular, spend approximately 5 hours 52 minutes per day on unpaid work, while the average for Indian men is merely 52 minutes. This unequal and gendered division of labour also impacts refugee women and girls, thereby compromising their access to education and employment opportunities. For instance, while refugee children are five times more likely to be out of school than non-refugee children, for every 10 refugee boys in primary and secondary school, there are fewer than 8 and 7 refugee girls, respectively.

The onset of the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns which have led to the closure of schools and places of employment have increased the burden of care work on women and girls across the world. Given the obstacles refugees face in accessing healthcare, women and girls within refugee families are also the primary caregivers of the ill in their family, putting them at an additional risk of being exposed to infections during this pandemic.

Access to Health Services:

As public and private healthcare actors shift their focus and resources towards the pandemic, other healthcare services are being scaled back. This, in addition to lockdowns forcing ‘non-essential’ services to shut down, restrictions on movement and lack of public transport, are together impacting women and girl’s access to sexual and reproductive health services (SRHS), such as contraceptives, abortions, etc. Analysis by the Foundation of Reproductive Health Services India has shown that the disruption in access to SRHS can lead to a significant rise in unintended pregnancies, unsafe abortions and maternal deaths. This is likely to have a disproportionate impact on refugee women and girls, as they remain excluded from most public health and nutrition programmes in the country. The impact on SRHS for refugee women was also highlighted in an interview with the Migration and Asylum Project in May 2020.

Gender-Based Violence (GBV):

Prior to the pandemic, global estimates suggested that 1 in 3 women have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. Now, gender justice organisations are sounding the alarm about a ‘shadow pandemic’ of violence against women, evidenced by the steep rise in cases in countries across the world. Refugee women and girls were already at a heightened risk of GBV, particularly intimate partner violence, which has now been exacerbated by a combination of social and economic stresses, restrictions on movement, and disruption of support services for survivors, leaving many of them trapped with their abusers.

In line with the global trend, India too witnessed an increase in GBV during the lockdown. In April, the first month of the nationwide lockdown, the National Commission for Women received 315 complaints of domestic violence, the highest at the time since August 2019.

Refugee women and girls in India face certain additional difficulties in reaching out for help to the police or support services, particularly in cases where their legal status is uncertain, due to a mistrust of authority; linguistic barriers; poor access to information; fear of stigma, retaliation, detention and deportation.

Gender is just one of many dimensions, apart from class, religion, ethnicity, that has the potential to exacerbate the impact of any general crisis such as COVID. The planning and implementation of effective and holistic COVID-19 response programmes thus requires specific attention to be paid to the ground realities of refugees, including the disproportionate impacts of the pandemic on refugee women and girls.


EXPLORE PRAVASI.HELP- A webpage dedicated to our work and the work of multiple organisations and collectives in the area of COVID relief and rehabilitation.

All our work in the last few months has been aimed at understanding the needs of migrants and their households, providing and coordinating relief, and contributing to the research and policy agenda going forward. We have written about the challenges migrants face, been interviewed by leading media outlets, and pursued advocacy strategies to effect change for migrants everywhere. Do consider supporting our work with migrants and their households by donating through the link below.

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India Migration Now

Written by

Migration is an opportunity, we want to ensure India grabs it. IMN is a South East Migration Foundation venture, based out of Bombay, since Feb 2018.

India Migration Now

Written by

Migration is an opportunity, we want to ensure India grabs it. IMN is a South East Migration Foundation venture, based out of Bombay, since Feb 2018.

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