Plight of refugees worsens during the pandemic

Plight of refugees worsens during the pandemic

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The world is witnessing the largest exodus of refugees from their homelands since the Second World War. At present, 26.4 million people have been forced to flee their homes, including 7.36 million from the Middle East and North Africa region.

A number of factors are behind this forced migration and displacement, such as the need to escape wars and conflicts, economic or political instability, famine, environmental hazards, gender-based violence, and ethnic persecution. Children make up half the total refugee population, with yearly births into refugee life reaching 340,000, according to UN Refugee Agency data.

With the spread of the pandemic across the globe, many refugees have been flung into harrowing, life-threatening situations. Some countries have had to suspend resettlement travel for refugees due to global travel restrictions and border closures. Additionally, refugees were more susceptible to job and income losses because of their restricted rights to employment and the type of work in which they are allowed to engage. This has limited their access to food and water, housing, education, sanitation and healthcare.

Last year, the World Health Organization conducted a global survey on 30,000 refugees living in 170 countries to understand the effects of the pandemic on their livelihoods. Respondents blamed job losses and financial insecurity for restricting their access to basic services, including healthcare. Additionally, more than half the respondents said they are suffering increased feelings of depression, anxiety and loneliness as a direct result of the pandemic. Many refugees living in insecure housing situations or asylum centers also reported reduced access to food, clothing and medical care from non-government organizations.

The refugee crisis is the most tragic humanitarian catastrophe of this century. It is vital countries work together to strengthen resettlement programs that enable refugees to thrive in host countries, with smooth assimilation programs and access to essential services. It cannot be emphasized enough that such resettlement programs can often be life-saving for this group. Furthermore, welcoming refugees is a win-win situation for host countries, which benefit greatly from their unique knowledge and skills, economic productivity and cultural diversity.

Globally, the UN Refugee Agency is the designated organization for referring refugees to host countries. Governments usually commit to yearly quotas for welcoming refugees, as is the case with Canada, the US, UK, France, Finland, Sweden, Germany and New Zealand. However, more needs to be done to scale up the number of countries accepting resettlement submissions, as well as the number of refugees accepted.

It is also vital to solidify partnerships with the private sector and philanthropic organizations to provide funding and support for refugee resettlement services.

The refugee crisis is the most tragic humanitarian catastrophe of this century.

Sara Al-Mulla

Guidance published by the UN Refugee Agency explains the various criteria for accepting refugee resettlement applications. Considerations usually include specific needs and vulnerabilities around protection, victims of violence or torture, medical needs, females at risk, family reunification in host countries, and children or adolescents at risk.

Governments have also put in place holistic resettlement services to facilitate refugees’ assimilation. For example, the Australian government has committed to receiving a number of refugees on a yearly basis. Before traveling to Australia, refugees are enrolled in a voluntary five-day orientation course to prepare them for life in the country, with information on available settlement services, housing, healthcare, finance, education, employment and rule of law.

On arrival, refugees are offered permanent residence status, and a range of services is provided to help them settle. These include the provision of suitable accommodation, food and essential items, health insurance, access to local services, and a registered bank account. Refugees are also enrolled in English-language courses for up to 510 hours of instruction and can undertake relevant education or training programs, in addition to validating their skills and qualifications. Most importantly, they are offered help to find employment and given support in establishing a new business. With such a wide-ranging program, refugees can become self-reliant and active members in their new communities.

In Sweden, a resettled refugee is granted permanent residence and can apply for citizenship after four years. Municipalities are responsible for receiving refugees at the airport, as well as providing suitable apartments and registering them with government agencies. For the first two years, refugees also receive financial support from the government to help them resettle, while at the same time validating their qualifications and experience, enrolling in educational or training programs and finding employment. A supplemental grant is offered for elderly or disabled persons and for unaccompanied minors. Parents are also entitled to state allowance for each child.

Enrolment in Swedish-language courses and a civic orientation course to understand Swedish society also help refugees to assimilate in the local community. As permanent residents, they are also entitled to basic essential services, such as childcare, education, healthcare, and social security. After three years they also enjoy voting rights in county council and municipal elections. Furthermore, refugees are permitted to take up employment on equal terms with Swedish citizens.

Such successful resettlement programs have enabled refugees to rebuild their lives and enjoy a quality life, much like the residents of host countries. Indeed, it is a win-win situation for humanity and must take priority in governments’ agendas.

  • Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature. She can be contacted at
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