COVID-19 PANDEMIC: DESERTING THE DESERTED

“It is the obligation of every person born in a safer room to open the door when someone in danger knocks.”

— Dina Nayeri

The following article highlights the devastating impact that the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has had on the refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons. Further, it addresses the measures that can be undertaken to mitigate their deplorable living conditions.

INTRODUCTION

The human race is witnessing an unprecedented catastrophe by a ‘microscopic being’ which is bringing the world to a standstill. Nations are inundating with deaths, more than they can cremate, but the virus shows no signs of slowing down. Countries, big and small, have come under its clutches and are witnessing its blow. With an upsurge in global cases, most of the countries in the world have been experiencing nation vide lockdowns with increased border security,[ii] travel bans, immigration restrictions, etc. Millions of people across the globe observe this emergency scenario from the safety of their homes, comparatively at peace, whilst following the social distancing norms. However, this remains a far-fetched dream for most of the vulnerable sections of our society.

IMPACT OF COVID-19 ON THE VULNERABLE SECTIONS

Today, 79.5 million[iii] individuals are forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations. The pandemic has only exacerbated the pre-existing social and economic disparities faced by them. They lack the basic amenities needed to protect themselves from this deadly virus. Even before COVID-19, refugee camps that were lacking adequate resources,[iv] have sprung concerns regarding public health and basic human rights. Considering most of them live below the poverty line, a bar of soap is also a luxury for them, let alone the ability to afford masks, sanitizers, etc. Moreover, to maintain physical distancing in inadequately ventilated, overcrowded, and closely situated camps is implausible. Unhealthy living conditions and dire standards of hygiene and sanitation make them more susceptible. Further, gathering of crowd at water and food points increases the risks of contamination. In such circumstances, a single case can cause the virus to spread like wildfire. 

The virus is specifically brutal on women and girls[v] as they are outrightly denied care and face life-threatening delays getting emergency services. This has increased the risks of maternal deaths, infections, prenatal and neonatal mortality. As witnessed in the past during the Ebola outbreak[vi], the closure of maternal health clinics in West Africa resulted in a 70% spike in the rate of maternal deaths. The pandemic adds injury to the pre-existing societal and cultural norms, gender biases, underrepresentation and a host of other challenges that further marginalize them.

The pandemic has pulled the global economy to pieces with an estimated loss of 8.5 trillion USD.[vii]A majority of the refugee population works in informal markets and therefore, they rely on daily wages by working on construction sites, manufacturing, retail, etc. In recent times, with businesses closing down and several industries being hit hard, the refugees have lost their crucial income and other livelihood opportunities. This has in turn led to acute malnutrition, starvation, and dehydration among them. In Jordan, about 80% of the Syrian refugees are under the poverty line, and only 2% of households have paltry savings.[viii] They cannot afford to stock up on groceries and food, which is particularly problematic when prices of essentials also increase. Further, they are also not benefited from social schemes announced by governments to feed and pay the daily wagers since such schemes are not extended to non-citizens.

Further, they are deprived of adequate health care opportunities[ix] and are left on their own, to battle the virus. Refugee camps lack hospitals and modern healthcare facilities. The pandemic raises a pertinent question of whether refugee populations will be permitted to access the hospitals and ICUs of the host-country, especially when such services are falling short to serve their own population. There have been a plethora of incidents to respond negatively. In India, despite a Delhi Government Orderdated April 17, 2020 stating that all the inmates of Rohingya refugee camps should be tested, no such tests were done. [x] It has caused many asylum seekers to return to their country of origin despite the potential risk to their life and liberty. Further, the lockdown restrictions in Colombia incapacitated Venezuelan refugees to earn an income and force them to return to the crisis they once fled.

Furthermore, many countries like Canada that otherwise have a soft refugee policy, are now adopting strict measures and denying entry to asylum seekers- who are also stigmatized as ‘disease carriers’. On April 23, Bangladesh’s coast guards denied entry to Rohingya refugees. Similarly, Italy closed its ports on the grounds of public health concerns. In Malaysia, a boat carrying 200 Rohingya refugees was denied entry resulting in the death of around 30 Rohingya refugees[xi]. Thus, a subversive pattern is in the trend where governments are using the pandemic as a justification to ignore international principle of non-refoulement[xii]. This principle forbids governments from returning refugees and asylum seekers to countries where they fear persecution. To avoid worsening of the world’s largest humanitarian emergency, the international community must hold nations accountable for closing ports of entry.

Travel restrictions have paralyzed the movement of humanitarian workers. Even International Organizations and the UNHCR have suspended their resettlement projects temporarily as a preventive measure to curb the spread of the virus. Governments of various countries are putting refugee camps under lockdown, further enhancing their immobility.

MEASURES TO BE TAKEN

“If one person is sick with COVID, we all are,”[xiii] said Triggs, the UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner while urging national health systems to incorporate refugees. It is imperative that they are given equal elbow room for healthcare facilities. Various governments, international organizations, NGOs, and social workers are playing in the front foot to alleviate the spread of the virus.

The United Nations, too, is amplifying its actions for their protection. It is setting out basic sanitation facilities and adopting measures to prevent community transmission in refugee camps. In India the UNHCR office in Delhi partnered with several local NGOs, distributed hygiene kits in the refugee areas and conducted awareness camps.[xiv] Similarly, the UNHCR office in Mexico allocated soap bars to asylum seekers in Tijuana.[xv]

To achieve the norm of social distancing, the UN redesigned and rebuilt shelters for certain refugee families living in compact tents. Other measures include closing schools and explaining the masses what the virus is, how it can be transmitted, and what measures can be undertaken to reduce its spread. Isolation areas should be identified and existing programs must be re-examined to ensure that they are COVID-19-sensitive. In Greece, the UNHCR is moving over 1,000 asylum seekers from overcrowded island centres to safer accommodation in hotels and apartments.[xvi] In Sayam Forage camp, Niger, an additional transit centre is being built to ensure there is necessary distancing between shelters.[xvii]

Despite the backlogs of movement restrictions, technology has emerged as a catalyst to reach refugees.  In the Za’atari and Azraq refugee camps in Jordan, a curfew is placed from 6 p.m. to 10 a.m.[xviii] Even during the day people must stay indoors, unless they have to buy essentials or seek medical help. Restriction in the movement of UN staff has been addressed through buoyant blockchain cash-disbursement systems and helpline numbers as they can be managed remotely. 

Since the outbreak of the virus, there has been an escalation in gender-based violence in many parts of the world. To resolve this, the UN Women field staff have switched their operations to online platforms.[xix] With as much as in their hands, they have been on the front lines of prevention, arduously undertaking more than 100 calls daily to provide information, counselling, and psychosocial support to vulnerable refugee women in the camps, via phone and WhatsApp. The UN Women have also used ‘WhatsApp’ to provide accurate information on COVID-19 from the government and WHO.

To tackle the growing unemployment rates, it is need of the hour that nations perceive refugees as a helping tool to revive the plummeted economies. Since more than 80% of the world’s refugee population lives in low to middle-income countries, it becomes difficult for host countries to provide opportunities to refugees seeking asylum in their country. Even though high-income countries are currently hit hardest by COVID-19, they need to fund low and middle-income countries because those countries are ill-equipped and do not have the means to deal with the outbreak within these populations; and that puts the rest of the world at continued risk. It’s both humanitarian interest and self-interest to support these countries. Public-private partnerships should be encouraged. The host country should tie-up with humanitarian civil society organizations to address the refugee crisis. Industrialists, business tycoons must provide additional contributions to support refugees and host populations who have been negatively impacted by the virus. Governments must provide immediate cash assistance, long-term financial schemes and, interest-free loans to enhance economic recovery, support small and medium-sized businesses and help refugees to become self-reliant.

Immediate national policy reforms to improve labour market access and entrepreneurship opportunities – for both refugees (of all nationalities) should be made. They must be made part of labour and health care legislation, to make sure that they do not face disabilities in accessing jobs and business opportunities. Additionally, host countries should remove legal barriers and extend public services, socio-economic welfare benefits, healthcare, sanitation to increase the self-reliance of the refugees. Portugal has recently made a commendable decision to provide provisional citizenship to migrants, refugees and asylum seekers to give them access to the healthcare system.[xx] Such pragmatic policy measures must be welcomed by the global community.

Nevertheless, every country around has been prey to the COVID-19 pandemic, it requires a global effort to revive the status of the refugees upholding their basic human rights. The pandemic should not be used as an excuse to increase xenophobia and stigmatization or to implement policies such as stopping asylum. Refugees should not be seen as a burden, rather their talent, courage and strengths should be stimulated towards effective use. This is profoundly evident from the success stories of refugees around the globe- from the Syrian teacher cleaning hospital wards in London, Iraqi cardiologist caring for neighbours and patients in Atlanta, to Carmen, a Venezuelan doctor now saving lives in Lima.[xxi]

CONCLUSION

“If ever we needed reminding that we live in an interconnected world, the novel coronavirus has brought that home”.[xxii] These words coming from UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, express that the coronavirus knows no borders and no language barriers. This pandemic has nothing to do with status—who’s an asylum seeker or a refugee—it affects everyone. 

The world is amidst the worst public health emergency and an economic crisis, which if not controlled might turn into a human rights crisis. To prevent this, there is a pressing need that the Global Community works in concert, embracing everybody and ensuring that no section of the society is left out in the cold.

Recently, Uganda’s Zombo district temporarily opened two border crossings allowing thousands of refugees facing violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo to seek asylum.[xxiii] This manifests that a pandemic should not be a reason to shun international human rights and a balance should be struck between border restrictions and refugee protection standards. Nations around the world should take inspiration from this and ensure that their policies do not end up being more detrimental to the refugee population than the pandemic itself. The time to act and make important reforms is now and it is of utmost duty to not fail the refugee population this time.

Fatema Lightwala and Aashi Shah are zealous law students of SVKM’s Pravin Gandhi College of Law based in Mumbai. Currently in the third year of the five-years B.L.S LL.B. course, they are interested in legal research and writing. Both in individual and joint capacity, they have written various articles, case comments and research papers on socio-legal and socio-political issues. You can reach them at fatema0504@gmail.com / aashishah43@gmail.com or connect on linkedin.com/in/fatema-lightwala-726823180 / linkedin.com/in/aashi-shah-97565a150 


[i][i]

[ii] Syed Bardul Ashad, The status of refugees during COVID-19 pandemic, NE NOW NEWS (May 9, 2020, 10:06 pm), https://nenow.in/health/status-of-refugees-during-covid-19-pandemic.html.

[iii] UNHCR, Refugee Statistics, USA FOR UNHCR, https://www.unrefugees.org/refugee-facts/statistics/.

[iv] Jacquelyn Corley, Why Refugees Are The World’s Most Vulnerable People During The COVID-19 Pandemic, FORBES (Apr. 21, 2020, 11:04pm),

https://www.forbes.com/sites/jacquelyncorley/2020/04/21/why-refugees-are-the-worlds-most-vulnerable-people-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/?sh=595f1dfe4112.

[v] Women and girls face greater dangers during COVID-19 pandemic, MEDECIN SANS FRONTIERS (July 2, 2020), https://www.msf.org/women-and-girls-face-greater-dangers-during-covid-19-pandemic.

[vi] Gender Matters: COVID-19’s outsized impact on displaced women and girls, RELIEF WEB (May 7, 2020),

https://reliefweb.int/report/world/gender-matters-covid-19-s-outsized-impact-displaced-women-and-girls.

[vii] Department of Economic and Social Affairs, COVID-19 to slash global economic output by $8.5 trillion over next two years, UNITED NATIONS (May 13, 2020),

https://www.un.org/development/desa/en/news/policy/wesp-mid-2020-report.html.

[viii] ODI Report, A promise of tomorrow: The effects of UNHCR and UNICEF cash assistance on Syrian refugees in Jordan (Nov. 2017), at 29, https://www.refworld.org/pdfid/5a2a62240.pdf

[ix] Samuel Volkin, How are Refugees affected by COVID-19, JOHN HOPKINS UNIVERSITY (Apr. 20, 2020), https://hub.jhu.edu/2020/04/20/covid-19-refugees-asylum-seekers/.

[x] Tapan Kumar Bose, COVID-19: Rohingya Refugees in India Are Battling Islamophobia and Starvation, THE WIRE (May 01, 2020),

https://m.thewire.in/article/rights/india-rohingya-refugees-starvation-covid-19.

[xi] Daniella Ritzau-Reid, Rohingya refugees left to starve at sea, MEDECIN SANS FRONTIERS

(April 20, 2020), https://www.doctorswithoutborders.ca/article/rohingya-refugees-left-starve-sea.

[xii] UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), UNHCR Note on the Principle of Non-Refoulement, UNHCR (November, 1997), https://www.refworld.org/docid/438c6d972.html.

[xiii] Emma Batha, UNHCR: Businesses have a vital role to play in helping refugees through COVID-19, WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM (June 19, 2020)

https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/06/businessesrefugees-covid-19-coronavirus-employment-jobs/.

[xiv] Syed Bardul Ashad, supra note 1.

[xv] Syed Bardul Ashad, supra note 1.

[xvi] UNHCR, Coronavirus Outbreak, INDIA FOR UNHCR (Aug. 14, 2020),

https://www.unhcr.org/en-in/coronavirus-covid-19.html.

[xvii] Supra note 15.

[xviii] Using technology to assist vulnerable Syrian refugees during COVID-19 lockdown, UN WOMEN (Apr. 28, 2020),

https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2020/4/feature-technology-to-assist-refugees-during-covid-19-lockdown.

[xix] Supra note 16.

[xx] Nafees Ahmad, Refugee Rights and Health: The Impact of COVID-19 on Refugee Camps, JURIST (Apr. 5, 2020 05:02:41 AM), https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/04/nafees-ahmad-refugee-rights-covid19/.

[xxi] Filippo Grandi, Refugees are on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic. Let’s give them the rights they deserve, WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM (Apr. 30, 2020),

https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/meet-the-asylum-seekers-on-the-frontline-of-the-coronavirus/.

[xxii] UHNCR, Supra note 15.

[xxiii] Duniya Aslam Khan, Uganda opens border to thousands fleeing Congo violence, UNHCR FOR INDIA (July 01, 2020),

https://www.unhcr.org/news/latest/2020/7/5efcada04/uganda-opens-border-thousands-fleeing-congo-violence.html.

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