Since March 10, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the European Committee on Migration (CDMG) and various international bodies on refugees have suspended the resettlement of the refugees temporarily as a preventive measure to fight the spread of COVID-19. Approximately 70 million displaced persons and 131 refugee-hosting countries have been affected during the pandemic. This has mass repercussions during this global crisis.
A major cause of concern for migrant workers is food, shelter and healthcare. The fears of infection, loss of wages and of the safety of close ones, only exacerbate the anxieties among the migrant population. Additionally, detained migrant populations are at the highest risk as the virus can spread quickly in a crowd.
Refugee camps are often dangerously overcrowded, which increases the risk of spreading the virus. Members of the same family or community have limited space in which they reside, making social distancing next to impossible. These camps are often under-resourced and understaffed in terms of healthcare facilities, thereby putting the refugee populations in a vulnerable position should the coronavirus infect them. Refugees will also suffer disproportionately due to COVID-19 due to factors such as poverty and malnutrition, which are prevalent in refugee communities.
Globally, in war-torn regions, 40 million people have left their home in fear of persecution and conflict. They remain within the borders of the nation and are referred to as “internally displaced people.” In more stable regions, internally displaced populations usually consist of migrant workers. All of them are desperate for security and other basic necessities such as money, shelter, food and so on. COVID-19 poses a additional risk for these populations because they often lack the political and economic rights of other residents in the area. Even when they do, conditions are rarely suitable during such a time of crisis, and the options to return home in hopes of safety are limited. These migrants do not possess the luxury of living and working from their homes which contributes to their fear and insecurity.
In the United States, refugee aid organizations are dipping into emergency funds to pay for rent and food for families after losing federal dollars. They have pivoted from training families for work and school to teaching them how to apply for unemployment benefits and attend online school. In particular, unemployment has hit the new refugees hardest, and government assistance has been lacking.
The Kenyan government has put one of the world’s largest refugee camps in lockdown as a preventive measure to fight the pandemic by banning movement to and from the refugee camp. Here “a possible outbreak of the coronavirus would be a disaster with a quarantine capacity for only 2,000 people in place and only one dedicated COVID-19 health facility including 110 beds for more than 270,000 people,” reported Philippa Crosland-Taylor, of Geneva-based organization CARE. On the other hand, Bangladesh, one of the biggest countries by population density, has enforced complete lockdown in the Cox Bazar refugee camp. This has unintendedly restricted the movement of aid workers in those camps, a recipe for a devastating outcome.
At this juncture, states and countries should work together to provide humanitarian assistance to populations stranded away from their homes. Refugee and migrant health is a crucial factor of global interest due to its interconnectedness with global health, and thus their needs and wants should be properly addressed—all the more in light of current circumstances. Preparedness plans, between host countries and refugee organizations, should be finalized and executed as soon as possible.
There are effective, humanitarian ways to deal with migration and asylum - all it requires is compassion and empathy towards those less fortunate.