How refugees’ COVID-19 problems can be eased

How refugees’ COVID-19 problems can be eased

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A Syrian boy at a camp for displaced people in Atme town, in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, near the border with Turkey. (AFP) 

This year’s World Refugee Day, on June 20, highlighted the vulnerabilities and resilience of refugees around the world during a particularly challenging time, as they face the health and economic risks posed by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). 

Fortunately, so far, COVID-19 outbreaks in major refugee populations have been limited — at least according to the available data, which might not tell the full story. Major concerns remain about the potential for the virus to spread through crowded refugee camps and dense urban environments where many refugees live. Many refugees lack reliable access to soap and water, let alone any ability to maintain social distancing. The young demographics of many refugee communities might mitigate the potential impact of COVID-19, but many refugees already suffer from the health effects of a displaced life, which could increase the risks of exposure to the virus. 

The primary impact on refugees, so far, appears to stem from the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. Refugees are particularly vulnerable to economic shocks. They often work in the informal economy and are frequently the first to lose their jobs. The loss of assets when they flee their home, combined with the cost of escaping and often low incomes, mean that many refugees lack savings. Furthermore, border closures and efforts to limit the number of potentially infected people entering camps have reduced services in some cases. Refugees are facing an epidemic of poverty, as well as of coronavirus. 

The pandemic and its economic effects are exacerbating the challenges facing refugees and other displaced people. The recent annual UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Global Trends report showed a clear spike in displaced people over the last 10 years. Today’s public health and economic crises are layered on top of a pre-existing displacement crisis. 

However, there are reasons for hope. UNHCR, other international organizations, nongovernmental organizations and refugees themselves are demonstrating creativity and dedication. For example, modern technology is being utilized to communicate COVID-19 awareness, provide ongoing education despite school closures, and build business skills to improve refugees’ long-term prospects. UNHCR and other organizations have also worked to provide hygiene kits and isolation units to help manage the pandemic, as well as increasing cash assistance to help refugees cope with the economic fallout. And they are working to improve infrastructure to provide refugees with access to water and adequate shelter. Some donors have stepped up to provide critically needed funds.

So important actions are being taken, but there are still crucial steps that the international community can take to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 among refugee communities and to help refugees cope with the economic impact. Many organizations that work with refugees are already taking some of these steps, but they need more support. 

Plans for addressing COVID-19 and the world’s economic recovery should take the needs of refugees into account. National recovery plans and loans from organizations such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund should include refugee communities. Similarly, plans to help refugees should include the host communities, especially when refugees are commingled with host country citizens in cities and towns. Addressing the public health and economic needs of host communities as well as refugees is a more practical approach to fighting the pandemic and helps to diminish problems that can lead to hostility toward refugees. 

While advocates for refugees have expressed appreciation for the generosity of some donors, there is a pressing shortage of funds to assist refugees and host communities. UNHCR faces significant funding gaps and the UN’s Global Humanitarian Response Plan has been less than 25 percent funded so far. 

Enhancing infrastructure in camps and other areas that host large refugee populations would help to address immediate and long-term needs. While infrastructure requirements vary by location, improving water infrastructure, adequate shelter, and sanitation would go a long way toward improving many refugees’ health and economic opportunities. Another key component of infrastructure is enhancing digital infrastructure; this is immediately necessary to ensure continued education for refugee children during the pandemic, as well as to support refugee entrepreneurship, communication, and skill-building in the long term. 

Many countries have instituted border closures to help control the spread of the virus. While this is an understandable policy, it is important that countries continue to allow emergency supplies and humanitarian aid to pass through borders so they can reach vulnerable populations. 

Plans for addressing the pandemic and the world’s economic recovery should take the needs of refugees into account.

Kerry Boyd Anderson

Fundamentally, refugees need durable, long-term solutions. Part of the spike in the number of displaced people is the result of protracted conflicts that make it difficult for refugees to return home. Creative, diplomatic solutions are needed to help address the root causes of refugee flows, such as war and persecution. The international community also needs to accept that return will not be an option for many refugees and consider expanding other solutions, such as resettlement for the most vulnerable refugees to other countries and assistance for integrating some refugees into host countries. 

These are only some of the potential solutions to help address refugees’ and host communities’ needs today. These are big asks when the world is trying to respond to the pandemic and resultant economic crisis, and donor fatigue is likely to increase. It is important to remember that, in addition to a moral imperative to assist the world’s most vulnerable people, viruses spread wherever there is opportunity and a failure to address potential spread among refugees would also pose significant health risks to the broader public. 

  • Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 16 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica and managing editor of Arms Control Today. Twitter: @KBAresearch
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