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The Covid-19 pandemic and refugees: fears and opportunities
By: Michael Collyer
Last updated: Wednesday, 10 November 2021
The inequalities of Covid-19 are now well established. In wealthy countries, age and pre-existing medical conditions are the crucial differentiating factors but as the virus develops in poorer countries, other factors will become significant. In poor, densely populated areas including informal settlements and certain refugee camps, poor sanitation and the inability to social distance will make the spread of the virus very difficult to contain once it takes hold. Limited access to healthcare for those who need it means that the impacts could be devastating. Beyond the immediate changes to mortality and morbidity, the virus is already damaging livelihoods which are more reliant on the informal and casual sectors.
This presents a dismal picture of the impact of Covid-19 on refugees around the world, both in camps and in dense, informal urban areas. Even in wealthier countries, refugees and asylum seekers frequently have limited access to healthcare and are disproportionately in lower paid, insecure work (Collyer et al 2018). There are clear reasons for concern that the most vulnerable will be the worst affected by this crisis. Information is available about what is needed to mitigate some of the worst impacts, in the context of the challenges faced in informal urban settlements, for example (SSHA, 2020). It is not clear if resources will be made available to support these necessary measures, particularly in the light of the projected global recession.
During the 2008 recession, money transfers by family members in wealthier countries provided a surprisingly resilient source of support, including for residents of refugee camps. Those who had access to international networks fared well and those who had to get by on local resources frequently struggled. Overall, the volume of private transfers from wealthy to poorer countries held up better than either Official Development Assistance or Foreign Direct Investment. Whether they will do again depends largely on the economic impacts of the crisis on low paid, casual work. This picture appears complex as although some people face unemployment other sectors of low paid work, particularly the delivery sector, have expanded and even developed elements of employee protection.
Within this uncertain picture there are some examples of bold political action which already stand out. In Europe, Portugal leads the way: on March 27th the `Portuguese government applied a temporary form of regularisation to a wide range of people with uncertain residency status, including asylum seekers. This allows them free access to all public healthcare facilities. In Spain, people who cannot be returned have been released from detention and in Germany there are proposals to allow asylum seekers to work, a humane response that also highlights the need for particular sorts of labour during the crisis (ECRE 2020). These are all sensible policies which should have been introduced long ago. The crisis has emboldened political decision makers to take good decisions and improve the lives for many.
There is obviously much more that can be done. The Greek government has simply imposed lockdowns on any refugee camps where anyone tests positive for C-19, despite the fact that refugees live eight people to a shipping container. In Bangladesh, the largest complex of refugee camps in the world, housing over a million Rohingya refugees in the vicinity of Cox’s Bazaar, had mobile phone and internet signals blocked in 2017 in an effort to maintain mobility restrictions. Preventing the circulation of information was always problematic but particularly during a public health crisis the internet lockdown makes a difficult situation needlessly much more difficult, yet the Bangladeshi government has so far resisted calls to lift the restrictions. Changing these policies will cost little and will improve survival rates in such challenging areas.
Beyond direct government action, there are indications that necessity is forcing the development of new economic models in refugee camps and informal urban areas. With international supply lines compromised amid overwhelming demand for vital products, humanitarian agencies are turning to small scale refugee producers to supply some essentials. UNHCR has highlighted the work of a refugee manufacturing soap in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya (UNHCR 2020), a product now in very significant demand. Self-sufficiency of refugees has been a priority for aid agencies for several years, often as a basis for withdrawing support, yet this provides a different model. Using humanitarian resources to develop small scale industries established by refugees is a more effective alternative.
The impact of the current crisis on refugees around the world is likely to be severe, in terms of health impacts, indirect economic effects and the reduction in international support. Yet, if the crisis also provides the stimulus to remove harmful barriers to refugees’ access to key services it will set an important precedent. It could even go further and provide the impetus to introduce new models of humanitarian delivery which would have a beneficial impact once the crisis has abated. In order for this not to appear wishful thinking, it is important to highlight and publicise the positive practices that are developing at the same time as humanitarian organisations prepare for the worst.
Written by Michael Collyer, Professor of Geography in the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex. Michael is primarily a political geographer with an interest in the relationship between people on the move and states.
Find out more about his Sussex Sustainability Research Programme (SSRP) project on 'Urbanisation and changing food systems'.
This blog is part of the
SSRP Forum: the Pandemic and Sustainability
This forum aims to contribute to the analysis of the impact of the pandemic on sustainability and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and to offer policy recommendations on how to respond to this unprecedented challenge.
The spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) presents us with an unprecedented challenge. We see losses of human life around the world, while one can hardly think what will happen if and when the pandemic reaches poorer countries with weaker economic and health structures. We see countries shutting down their economies to avoid the spread of the virus, as well as employing unprecedented measures of social distancing and population lockdown. We see whole economic sectors and households entering the intensive care of public financial support. In less than a month, the pandemic has redefined the priorities, parameters and boundaries of ‘what is possible’ in much of the world that we constructed since the Second World War.
The most urgent question is how to deal with the humanitarian crisis currently evolving and prevent it from getting out of control at a global scale. But a question we must also face is how the currently unprecedented mobilisation of public resources will be used to support our transition to a sustainable future, rather than a return to a socio-environmentally unsustainable past. One can hardly overstate the urgency of both these tasks. We in the Sussex Sustainability Research Programme (SSRP) community aim to contribute to this ‘mobilisation’ effort by setting up this Forum which aims to bring together experience, knowledge, ideas and recommendations to inform public responses to the pandemic and the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at both local and global levels.
Forum Academic Lead
Dr Andreas Antoniades, Senior Lecturer in International Relations in the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex.
Find out more about his Sussex Sustainability Research Programme (SSRP) project on 'Financial Crises and Environmental Sustainability'.