Last updated December 8, 2020
As the United States and other high-income countries continue to reopen, refugees and displaced communities – along with the broad network of stakeholders that support them – are experiencing the catastrophe they’ve been bracing for over the last few months. Coronavirus cases are spreading fast in developing countries that house the vast majority of refugees and displaced people worldwide. Nine developing countries, including Uganda, Nicaragua, and Zimbabwe, all saw their number of cases double in less than a week.
Today, an unprecedented 79.5 million people – more than 1 percent of the world’s population – have been forcibly displaced around the world. Nearly 90% of the world’s refugees live in developing countries that often struggle to provide basic services, let alone combat a global pandemic. According to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), 34 conflict-affected and fragile countries could see up to 1 billion COVID-19 infections and 3.2 million deaths.
Refugees face immense and unique challenges that make some communities more vulnerable to infectious diseases – from living in crowded conditions that make social distancing impossible to lack of clean water for hand washing. Kieren Barnes, Mercy Corps’ Syria County Director says: “Social distance is a fantasy in a camp, but if we’re going to prevent a massive outbreak, we need to make it a reality.” There are more than 25 million refugees in camps around the world who face particularly acute obstacles in the fight against COVID-19, according to the United Nations.
The pandemic has also affected resettlement programs, with 168 countries fully or partially closing their boundaries at the height of the crisis. Of these 168 countries, approximately 90 made no exception for those seeking asylum, and some have pushed asylum speakers back to their countries of origin.
While refugees have so far escaped high rates of infection and death, the pandemic has had a huge impact on their lives. The global economic recession has led to major cuts to humanitarian funding for refugee camps, which has led to food shortages and limited employment opportunities for displaced people. In fact, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) estimates that more than three quarters of displaced and conflict-affected people have lost income since the start of the pandemic.
The spread of COVID-19 is already hindering the aid community’s ability to address the needs of refugees, and attention and resources in the world’s donor capitals are still largely consumed with the domestic impact of the virus, putting added pressure on NGOs.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has launched a global $255 million appeal for its urgent push to lessen the impact of COVID-19 outbreaks within refugee communities, as part of a wider UN Global Humanitarian Response Plan. Yet the United Nations has suspended all travel for refugee resettlement, leaving thousands with no alternative to overcrowded camps.
Without additional resources, adequate testing capacity, and expert assistance, these communities will be slow to recover. The dearth of resources like personal protective equipment (PPE) currently facing the United States and Europe will be even worse in the developing world and there is likely to be competition for treatment and vaccines when they become available.
The humanitarian community is also struggling to balance these needs with ongoing projects that are critical to the well-being of vulnerable populations around the world relating to education, food access, and conflict prevention.
Despite the staggering challenges, many refugee and migrant communities are helping combat COVID-19 around the world. Several countries have now relaxed immigration rules for refugees and migrants who are medically trained, allowing doctors, nurses, and other workers to help combat the coronavirus.