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A “Double Crisis” in Health and Livelihood: A Brief Examination of the Coronavirus’ Exacerbation of the Global Refugee Crisis

By Catey Vera, UNA-NCA Advocacy Fellow

A field worker from Intersos fastens a mask for a young refugee girl in Rome. Photo courtesy of UNICEF.

The ongoing pandemic has painfully aggravated stateless migrants and refugees’ already precarious situations: transnational travel has stalled, governments have slashed resettlement quotas, and densely-populated refugee camps are burdened with the added costs of supplying urgently-needed medical equipment. Critically, refugees must now navigate a “double crisis:” on the one hand, continuing to combat the xenophobia, racism, and oftentimes inhumane global treatment of refugees that predated the pandemic; on the other, facing the unique life-and-death threats associated with tight quarters, food insecurity, and a lack of accessible medical care.

Health threats often intersect with the existing challenges of refugee life, thereby exacerbating refugees’ difficulties in accessing asylum. According to a 2020 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 167 states had implemented full or partial border closures by April 2020 as a result of the pandemic, with 90 providing no exceptions for refugees seeking international protection. Those countries which did not entirely suspend asylum access then required proof of a negative coronavirus test before safe travel could be arranged; however, existing deficiencies in refugee camps meant that few had the capacity to dole out tests. As a result, reception efforts for new arrivals were significantly hampered.

Such receiving countries face an inherent tension between maintaining humane conditions in their own crowded refugee camps and allowing in more refugees fleeing human rights abuses. This is especially apparent in Turkey, since it “hosts the largest number of refugees in the world” and must thus frequently handle resource shortages and increasingly crowded facilities. Consequently, refugees must camp out indefinitely in poor or substandard living conditions, which in turn increases their individual exposure risk to the disease in the first place. Indeed, according to the UNHCR, quarantines are essentially meaningless in these tight quarters, and efforts to test and trace the disease remain elusive. Health services are further plagued by the lack of basic personal protective equipment (PPE) to enable providers to treat patients, let alone the costly and sophisticated ventilators and oxygen concentrators that are so crucial for those with underlying conditions. As such, Covid-19 spreads disproportionately rapidly through refugee communities. And yet, refugee health services’ challenges have likewise been exacerbated: in addition to the challenges brought on by the pandemic, such camps are also historically underfunded and chronically understaffed. The rise in Covid cases has thus forced camp health care providers to defer their usual duties or substantially limit them until present crises are averted. As a result, refugees who had relied on these providers to treat other chronic health conditions, such as HIV, diabetes, hypertension, and chronic mental health conditions, have faced significant disruptions in health care service, which in extreme conditions can crucially increase their vulnerability to the coronavirus.

For refugees fortunate enough to be granted asylum, a new set of challenges await them which the pandemic has likewise exacerbated. Notably, reports of xenophobic “Covid-related incidents” have been reported in at least 45 countries according to the UNHCR, and rampant stigmatization has made refugees a frequent scapegoat for the virus’ rapid spread. Refugees are also often discriminated against during hiring processes or are outright banned from seeking employment for a few months upon arrival, forcing many to thus work at the most marginal low-wage jobs. Unfortunately, the pandemic has once again exacerbated these existing income inequalities, since the very same marginal jobs that typically house refugees are those most endangered as local economies suffer the disruptions caused by Covid-19. Consequently, refugee populations face lost livelihoods and spiralling poverty, as the socio-economic impacts of the disease are felt heavily by society’s most vulnerable.

Another crucial dimension worth considering is that of migrant and refugee children. While the education of children globally has suffered amidst the pandemic, the impact has been disproportionately borne by refugee children: nearly half of the world’s refugee children cannot attend school due to Covid-19, according to a 2020 UNHCR report. Refugee children must already contend with significant educational disadvantages due to limited supplies and teachers; Covid-19 has thus profoundly worsened the educational opportunities of tens of millions of youth. The chasm between these most vulnerable populations and those more well-off has only grown as the requirements for school attendance in much of the world have come to include electronic devices and access to a secure internet connection. Since such sophisticated remote learning opportunities are less accessible to displaced communities — 48% of respondents to a Turkish refugee study reported problems in accessing online education, for example — refugee children cannot practice proper social distancing guidelines for schools as advised by the World Health Organization.

The threat to young girls’ education is particularly grave: pre-pandemic, refugee girls already suffered from less access to education and were half as likely compared to refugee boys to be enrolled in school by the time they reached secondary level. However, as a direct consequence of the coronavirus, the number of refugee girls in secondary school is estimated to drop by half. Since girls’ educational attainment is fundamentally correlated to their ultimate livelihood outcomes, such statistics on refugee girls’ lack of access to education are especially troubling given their link to a rise in child marriages, domestic and intimate partner violence, and harmful practices such as female genital mutilation. Without the benefits of a proper education, or even the substandard one that they might have received had there been no pandemic, these refugee girls must confront an especially bleak future.

Lastly, non-profit organizations, advocacy groups, and volunteers have devoted innumerable hours towards the betterment of these camp conditions — and yet once again, the pandemic has posed serious challenges to these efforts and thereby exacerbated the difficulties refugees must face. For example, activists may be unable to travel, donors may be unwilling to spend money given the economic crisis, and healthcare volunteers may opt out due to concerns for their own safety, since critical safety measures like reducing crowds, monitoring body temperatures, and enforcing proper hand washing, are crucial and yet not trivial to implement.

In essence, as UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi recently noted, “If ever we needed reminding that we live in an interconnected world, the novel coronavirus has brought that home.” Too often, global rhetoric has attempted to promote international solidarity by characterizing the virus and its inability to discriminate as a somehow “equalizing” force — however, these narratives problematically minimize the many ways in which refugees and other marginalized communities are doubly burdened by institutionalized xenophobia and increased vulnerability to disease.

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UNA-NCA Snapshots provides a platform for our community leaders, partners, members & staff to publish op-eds, reviews, and innovative research. The views in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of UNA-NCA. Ready to write? Submit your pitch to shayna@unanca.org.

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