2020, refugees and Covid-19: an interwoven tragedy


The biggest problem Covid-19 has presented to refugee communities is not fear of the disease itself but a lasting grief over all its social effects.

This may be surprising but, according to Jan Egeland, writing for Al Jazeera, the number of Covid-19 infections and fatalities in 2020 in refugee communities pales in comparison to the virus’ socio-economic ramifications in those same communities around the world.

Earlier in this pandemic, it was said that the death toll of refugees due to Covid-19 could be monumental. The fears were totally legitimate: a 2020 UNHCR report on the early stages of the pandemic recognised that health safeguards such as hand washing and social distancing are hampered in refugee communities by a lack of suitable facilities and overcrowded living areas. It even reported that sometimes entire families had to rely on a single face mask.

Fatalities in refugee camps have been far less than expected.

Yet, despite these grave concerns, fatalities in refugee camps have been far less than expected. As of December 2020, only 32,000 refugees worldwide had been registered as having the virus, out of 26 million. Indeed, in the largest refugee settlement camp in Bangladesh, only 356 Rohingya refugees had contracted the virus from the 860,000 there.

The statistics on the official number of refugees that have succumbed to Covid-19 are not clear: testing is unreliable. Despite this, even if mushroomed to 10 times their current estimates, these figures would still be proportionately less than virus-stricken countries such as the USA and UK.

Paradoxically, instead of health, it seems to be within the socio-economic contours of refugee communities that the effects of Covid-19 have been expressed most profoundly. Lockdowns in camps are often stricter, with social integration limited by lack of work and the focus on prevention.

This has meant many people have been unable to work and the UNHCR is concerned that these dire conditions could lead to negative coping mechanisms from families such as child marriages, and women resorting to ‘survival sex’ to support themselves.

The world’s refugees are existing in a bleak liminality between food insecurity and starvation.

Research from the Norwegian Refugee Council across 14 countries found that 77% of respondents had lost their jobs or income since the beginning of the pandemic. Many of the worlds’ refugees are existing in a bleak liminality between food insecurity and starvation. This is strikingly apparent in South Sudan where, as a result of years of civil war, over half of its population need urgent food assistance and 40% of the population is internally displaced.

In the midst of this, the country’s economy, which relies on oil exports, was hit by a spiralling fall in prices last year.

Border closures have been used to stop asylum seekers.

Meanwhile, in October 2020 almost 500,000 refugees in Uganda did not have enough to eat due to reduced food aid and Covid-19 restrictions. Recent analysis showed that more than 91,000 people in 13 refugee settlements in Uganda were experiencing extreme levels of hunger. In April last year, the World Food Programme announced a 30% reduction to food rations and cash transfers to more than 1.4 million refugees who had fled violence in South Sudan, DRC and Burundi, which coincided with the start of the pandemic.

In a projection for April to July 2021, a UN-backed report has said it expects that approximately 7.24 million people would ‘face either a state of official food crisis or worsening acute food insecurity.’ Additionally, border control has been a performative agent in dictating immigration laws for a long time now but this has gained further poignancy in the Covid-19 pandemic.

As we have seen in the UK this week, borders have been closed to halt the spread of the virus and they have also, through 2020, been closed to stop an influx of asylum seekers. At the peak of the first wave of Covid-19, 168 countries had, to some degree, closed off their borders. 90 countries made no exceptions for refugees.

Although 111 countries did relax these restrictions to some degree for refugees, new asylum applications dropped by a third in the same period as 2019 while similarly, the number of refugees returning home dropped by 22%. Further, the UNHCR reported that resettlement travel for refugees in the first six months of 2020 was half that of 2019.

Hopefully, the generosity of some will be replicated around the world.

Clearly, this may have helped prevent escalated numbers of deaths of refugees and asylum-seekers from Covid-19 due to lack of mobility, but this has caused those with little to have even less support and access to basic nutrition. As the world grapples to contain the virus amidst vaccination rollout, in the 90 countries currently developing vaccinations only 51- 57%, according to the UNHCR, have pledged to include refugees.

Jordan has said that anyone within its territory, native or not, can receive a free vaccine. Hopefully, this generosity will be replicated around the world, allowing pragmatic and urgent socio-economic relief to reach refugee communities.

Image: DFID- UK Department for International Development via Creative Commons

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