Refuge in the time of COVID-19

29th June 2020

Authors: Leslie Villegas and Nasar Meer

COVID-19 has brought the global movement of people to a halt as individual states and whole regional blocs have introduced roughly 46,000 travel restrictions. While some states have been more cautious than others in accounting for international laws and conventions, access to refugee and asylum programmes across North America and Europe have been especially disrupted, leaving countless displaced migrants in even more precarious conditions. When it comes to migration, the risks associated with COVID-19 are not just viral contagion, but actually threaten the very basis of the international refugee conventions that have shaped our post-war landscape.

Since 1951, the Refugee Convention has protected refugees and asylum seekers from being returned to a place where they would be in danger because of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or their political opinion. Though this principle, also known as the principle of ‘non-refoulement’, is enshrined in international refugee protection frameworks, states have unilaterally closed their borders in recent months with few allowances for ‘exceptional movement’.

Besides nationals and residents of a given country, people who fall under this term include humanitarian and healthcare workers, those in need of urgent medical treatment, and commercial traffic. However, records show that since the COVID-19 pandemic began, seeking asylum has not been considered ‘essential’. Quarantine and social distancing measures have forced asylum and refugee reception systems to close in Belgium, Greece, and the UK, to name a few, and in North America, only two people have been admitted into the U.S. on humanitarian grounds in since March.

Though the virus has been slower in reaching the Global South and humanitarian response areas, it has nevertheless arrived leaving inhabitants who were already in precarious living conditions highly vulnerable to infections. Multilateral institutions such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), among others, have issued guidance for humanitarian actors on the ground who are responding to outbreaks in refugee camps and displaced migrant communities around the world. However, prior to COVID-19 many refugee camps were already lacking basic health and safety infrastructure such as water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) provision. Now, humanitarian actors are being faced with how to reconcile COVID-19 response with patchy and limited WASH access, limited medical services, and most importantly, living conditions that cannot necessarily accommodate social distancing measures. Slowly but surely, coronavirus cases have popped up in refugee camps in Bangladesh and Greece, leaving residents and humanitarian workers in other camps holding their breath for when it will reach them.

Though the circumstances for migrants living in non-camp settings are not as dire, they have not been spared from the pandemic’s fallout. COVID-19 has raised key issues for displaced and settled migrants in receiving countries including their lack of access to healthcare, their vulnerable accommodation arrangements, and their prominence in frontline occupations. From Portugal granting healthcare access to all immigrants regardless of legal status, to the UK issuing a moratorium on all evictions, relief to address some of these systemic issues has been inconsistently rolled out state by state, if at all.

While COVID-19 is not solely responsible for many of these issues, it has rapidly unraveled the frail systems that exist to protect the most vulnerable populations. Clearly, temporary travel restrictions should not apply to people with need of international protection or other humanitarian reasons. It is easy to forget that safety is a relative concept and while COVID-19 is a disease that can affect everybody, it will not do so equally.  There are ways to manage border restrictions in a manner which respects international human rights and refugee protection standards and it is imperative that in all the uncertainty accompanying this virus these approaches and standards are upheld.

For a more in-depth overview of how COVID-19 has affected global migration, please see the working paper, The Impact of COVID-19 on Global Migration

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