The rapid global spread of the COVID-19 has demonstrated that no matter how successful America is at fighting this pandemic here at home, we will never stop this threat unless we’re also fighting it around the world. In this series of issue briefs, the USGLC takes an in depth look at the global response and COVID-19’s impacts on vulnerable populations, global development and diplomacy, and the future of U.S. global leadership. Read more from our series here.

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.

  • At one camp in northwestern Syria, an area where more than 1 million people have been displaced, families suffer from cramped living conditions, weak or nonexistent healthcare systems, and lack of access to clean water. New cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in a camp in Jordan, where 40,000 Syrian refugees live in similarly cramped conditions.
  • Following an increase in testing, 32 new COVID-19 cases were reported in the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, which is home to 745,000 Rohingya. Conditions inside these densely populated camps have led experts to warn that the lack of sanitation will create the “perfect storm” for disease transmission. On the Greek island of Lesbos, more than 240 people tested positive for coronavirus after a fire destroyed the overcrowded Moira camp and forced relocation to the temporary Kara Tepe facility.
  • While the world’s largest refugee camps have yet to report large-scale presence of the virus – likely due to a lack of testing, strict lockdowns, and the isolated nature of refugee camps – the virus has now been identified in dozens of refugee camps across the globe. At least 15 Syrian refugees in one Lebanese town have tested positive for COVID-19, prompting fears that it could spread further among the nearly 2 million refugees living in the country. Camps in Bangladesh, Syria, and OCED countries like Germany are also seeing case numbers begin to rise.
  • As many countries are dealing with a second surge, Bill Frelick, the director of Human Rights Watch’s refugee and migrant rights division, highlighted the consequences of the virus further spreading in refugee camps: “If the disease gets introduced into [more refugee] camps, it would be a tinderbox.” The luck case rates we have so far seen are “just a lucky break.”

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.

  • As a result, refugee resettlement is at a two-decade low. UNHCR recently reported that the number of refugees resettled in safe countries during 2020 is on course to be the lowest in almost two decades. 15,425 refugees were resettled between January and September of this year compared to over 50,000 during the same period last year.
  • This comes as we are seeing both new and exacerbated refugee crises in Africa, South and Central America, and the Middle East. Global COVID-19 surges only complicate the restarting of these programs.

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.

  • Jeremy Konyndyk warned, “When the first 100 million doses of vaccines come out, it’s going to be a big fight over who gets those, and it’s going to be very important that [they] not just go to those who can afford them.”

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.

  • Organizations like IRC are continuing to carry out lifesaving programs in refugee communities, but their strain on resources has prompted them to appeal for an additional $30 million to meet the staggering needs for preparedness and 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.

  • French health services can now recruit refugee professionals in their own countries, Spain is fast-tracking the status of 200 foreign-born professionals, and Germany is signing up hundreds of foreign professionals who do not yet have licenses to practice.

Written by Sung Lee and Zach Wehrli

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