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How the COVID-19 Pandemic Impacts Refugees

How the COVID-19 Pandemic Impacts Refugees

The COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a halt and upended people’s sense of security. The unknown, and all its associated stress and fear, has become the new normal.

It’s important to remember that global crises of inequity continue, and worsen, amid the pandemic. Clowns Without Borders International wrote in its statement regarding the human rights catastrophe along EU borders:

“As COVID-19 sweeps the globe, all of us are in search of safety for ourselves and our loved ones. Meanwhile, on the borders of Europe, many people are also in desperate need of safety from war and persecution. How much more difficult is their plight now, in the face of the current global pandemic?”

This statement applies to migrant and refugee crises around the world, not just at the EU border. Displaced people often lack access to basic material resources, face discrimination, and are denied human rights, like clean water, health care, or the ability to travel. How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting some of the most vulnerable people on the planet?

Exposing Weaknesses

According to the UNHCR, over eighty percent of the world’s refugees and almost all internally displaced people (IDP) are hosted in low- or middle-income countries where resources are scarce. If it wasn’t already clear, this pandemic reveals our global community to be as healthy as the sickest person among us and as safe as the most vulnerable. Refugees and migrants often live in crowded conditions where social distancing is impossible, and medical facilities are ill-equipped. The UNHCR has rushed to provide emergency medical equipment and expertise, but it’s a bandaid for a larger wound.

Prevention and Inclusion

The majority of refugees are hosted in countries with weak or inadequate health systems. Stopping the spread of COVID-19 is imperative, and it becomes even more so when few treatment options exist. The UNHCR is using a multisectoral response, which coordinates access to water, sanitation and hygiene, housing, medical care, and more, to support refugee communities and refugee-hosting nations. The agency is also working to stockpile supplies, identify outbreak response teams, and monitor misinformation.

Displaced people experience discrimination and xenophobia, and may even be denied a nationality. Now, fear, a sense of helplessness, and media rhetoric may impact pubic opinion about who “deserves” access to medical care. A coordinated COVID-19 response will not leave anyone behind, no matter their legal status or nationality. A highly contagious disease can only be controlled if everyone is included in prevention and education, and everyone has access to equitable treatment.

Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, write:

“Panic and discrimination never solved a crisis. Political leaders must take the lead, earning trust through transparent and timely information, working together for the common good, and empowering people to participate in protecting health.

Ceding space to rumour, fear mongering and hysteria will not only hamper the response but may have broader implications for human rights, the functioning of accountable, democratic institutions.”


Whether a someone is confined to a camp or fully integrated into a new community—or something in between—refugees and displaced people are vital members of society. They are teachers, farmers, care-givers, artists, engineers and more, and they are working tirelessly to subdue the COVID-19 pandemic:


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