Global Refugee Developments: March 2020 – August 2020
January 9, 2022
This summary was last updated on August 17, 2020.
Refugees and forced migrants can contribute significantly to the response to the global pandemic, and yet face unique vulnerabilities during the crisis. The summary of refugee-related developments during the COVID-19 pandemic was regularly updated and supplemented from March 2020 – August 2020. It uses the term “refugee” in its broad sense to cover the estimated 71 million persons under the mandate of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and considered populations of concern (PoCs) to UNHCR, including refugees, asylum-seekers, stateless persons, internally displaced persons, and returnees. It covers these groups and other migrant populations in situations of peril and great vulnerability, including the danger posed to them by COVID-19 and the denial of protection and support to them by nations because of COVID-19. It also discusses appeals for funding to assist them during the pandemic, how that funding is disbursed, and for what purpose.
New Developments July 17-August 17
Contributions of Refugees. A former refugee living in St. Paul MN has become a “cultural broker” for Karen refugees living in the St. Paul area, providing the community information about how to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Lwepaw Kacher, herself a Karen refugee from Myanmar who arrived in the United States in 1996, connects the refugee community in the Twin Cities, including the Hmong and Burmese communities, to mental health counseling, drug addiction services, transportation, and legal aid. She has created a video, distributed flyers, and supplied masks to the refugees, while also referring them to testing and treatment for COVID-19.
Saidel Karim is one of 1,400 Rohingya refugees who go “door-to-door” in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, providing information on health and hygiene to prevent COVID-19 infections, looking for signs of illness, and recording births and deaths. Karim and his fellow refugees act as a bridge between the 860,000 refugees in the camps and health-care services in the local community. READ MORE.
Impact on Refugees. South Sudanese refugees living in the Adjumani district of Uganda in and around Gulu City have struggled to access food rations because of the restrictions on movement imposed by the Ugandan government. The livelihoods of the 2,000 South Sudanese refugees in the area have suffered because of residents not leaving their homes and having money to purchase services, such as hair styling, provided by the South Sudanese refugees.
On August 15, 4 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon died from the coronavirus, increasing the total of Palestinians in Lebanon who have succumbed to the virus to eight persons.
In a Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh, IOM has set up a third infection and treatment center, known as a Severe Acute Respiratory Isolation (SARI) center, to provide care for refugees with severe cases of COVID-19. There are also 93 quarantine shelters in the camp and 465 cases of COVID-19.
Tibetan refugees in India have been deprived of their livelihood of making and selling sweaters, as the selling season, which usually starts in June, has been canceled until at least September because of COVID-19. Vendors cannot obtain permission to sell and use shop space. READ MORE.
Denial of Protection. In a statement issued July 30, 2020, UNHCR called upon states to increase their support and protection of victims of human trafficking, stating that migrants are more at risk of being trafficked during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because they have lost jobs and livelihoods during the pandemic, migrants are more susceptible to exploitation, the statement said.
UNHCR and IOM issued a statement August 13 saying they are “troubled” by the use of interception and return of refugees attempting to cross the English channel, mainly by French and British border control vessels. The policy of interception has caused some controversy in England, which continues to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
As of August 18, 2020, 77 countries have closed their borders to asylum-seekers because of the pandemic, while 77 have some exceptions for the protection of asylum-seekers, according to UNHCR data. READ MORE.
Funding. As of August 16, 2020, UNHCR has delivered $50 million in cash assistance to 1 million refugees in 65 countries. UNHCR still remains nearly 40 percent below its fundraising goal of $745 million for 2020. READ MORE.
The Contributions of Refugees to Addressing the Pandemic
UNHCR has established a live blog that features the ways in which refugees and their host communities have taken action to “stay smart, stay safe, and stay kind.” Three US states, for example, have announced they will issue temporary medical licenses for foreign medical personnel, and several municipalities have established inclusive outreach and health strategies.
The blog also recounts the generosity and heroism of refugee health care workers, including a Rwandan refugee nurse working with COVID-19 patients in Kenya, an Iraqi refugee nurse working in the COVID-19 quarantine ward in a hospital in Iran, and a Syrian refugee in the United Kingdom who disinfects COVID-19 wards in hospitals.
In fact, refugees and migrants are essential workers in a wide variety of jobs, from health care to agriculture. Stories of refugees contributing food, health-care supplies, and other essential goods abound. Nevertheless, they may not always be eligible for the benefits that citizens receive or may have difficulty accessing them, especially during this pandemic.
Refugees continue to serve as front-line workers during the pandemic. A Syrian refugee granted asylum in England is giving back as a hospital worker and fundraiser. Refugee tailors and artisans are making face masks and protective gear for health-care workers.
In some nations, however, refugees with medical skills are unable to assist with the pandemic because of their tenuous legal status and antedated credentialing rules. In the developing world, refugee-led organizations are working to protect refugees from the virus, filling gaps in service to them. In Kakuma camp in Kenya, a Burundian refugee has been making and selling soap at a reduced price for refugees in the camp.
Syrian refugees who have fled persecution in their homeland are contributing to the fight against COVID-19 in their new homeland of Germany.
Asylum-seekers are contributing to the fight against COVID-19 as health care workers, although some may eventually be sent back to their home countries. Certain countries forbid asylum-seekers from working as they await their hearings, leaving them unable to legally assist in fighting the pandemic. Some nations, working with UNHCR, are expediting licensing and residency requirements for immigrant and refugee health-care workers that wish to help fight the virus.
Cuban asylum-seekers are working as volunteer doctors and nurses at a clinic in Matamoros, Mexico, helping to protect thousands of asylum-seekers waiting to enter the United States under the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP).
An Afghanistan refugee in Michigan sews 120-150 masks a day for frontline workers fighting COVID-19. Known as the “mask master,” Ebrahim Mohammad Eshaq states that he is “proud to help the community.” In Serbia, refugees have launched online classes during the pandemic to teach locals how to speak different languages.
Refugees with medical licenses from outside the United States have been unable to work as doctors during the pandemic because of strict US training and education requirements, but two Iraqi refugees are providing coronavirus tests to the public.
The New Zealand Red Cross has honored several refugees who worked in essential jobs during the lockdown in New Zealand—a nurse, truck driver, supermarket worker, bus driver, and case manager—to highlight the essential work of refugees in helping the nation survive the pandemic.
In Uganda, women peace mediators—many of whom are refugees—are educating refugees on how to protect themselves from the virus through basic hygiene and social distancing. They also help mediate domestic disputes and other conflicts which have increased during the pandemic.
Refugees serving as community workers in refugee camps in northern Iraq are providing mental health support to fellow refugees struggling with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many refugees have lost their livelihoods because of the pandemic and are trying to cope with unemployment and a lack of basic necessities.
Refugees living in Lesbos, Greece have made thousands of masks for the members of churches in South Carolina. Close to 300 church members in the state have visited the refugee camps in Lesbos over the last three years to provide material and spiritual support. By producing the masks, the refugees are returning the generosity of the church members, who have also distributed the masks to a local university.
Impact of Pandemic on Refugees
The vulnerabilities of refugees result from insufficient permanent responses to their situation, their living conditions, and exclusionary policies. Refugee-producing conditions, such as war and conflict, work at cross-purposes to prevention and protection strategies. UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres has said the “virus illustrates the folly of war” and has called for a global ceasefire.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, argues that “the best way to protect us all” is to ensure that the global response to the pandemic includes all persons. To that end, UNHCR supports full access to “health facilities and services” to refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced persons.
Many refugee host countries cannot sufficiently care for their native populations or for refugees. The United Nations launched a Global Humanitarian Response Plan on March 25, 2020. Because of health concerns, on March 17 IOM and UNHCR announced a cessation in refugee resettlement travel worldwide, leaving tens of thousands of refugees in limbo and danger. On June 18, the agencies resumed resettlement departures.
Because of a lack of resources to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in refugee camps, some countries are beginning to impose restrictions on the movement of refugees outside of the camps and on access to the camps.
Yet UNHCR has also pointed out that 84 percent of the world’s refugees live in low- and middle-income states with “weaker health and water and sanitation systems.” The pandemic poses a particular risk for the millions of refugees and migrants in vulnerable situations. For example, 2.6 million refugees reside in camps, which are typically crowded, often unsanitary, and lack sufficient health-care services to combat the virus. Sixty percent of the world’s refugees reside in poor urban areas, which also are experiencing challenges fighting the pandemic. These refugees face a high risk of infection, and insufficient health care and services.
In March, UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the International Red Cross issued interim guidance on readiness and response for outbreak of COVID-19 in refugee camps and camp-like settings. The guidance highlighted the “strong public health rationale to extend all measures to everyone, regardless of status and ensuring inclusiveness.”
A lack of testing for refugee populations and limited health care access and facilities both hinders the response to this crisis and risks pitting citizens against refugees. Moreover, because of their insecure and uncertain status in some countries, some refugees risk deportation when seeking treatment for COVID-19.
UNHCR and other organizations are working to prevent the outbreak of COVID-19 in camps worldwide by strengthening health-care support, water and sanitation, and education. However, restrictions on travel, border closures, and delays in supply chains are hindering the overall effort. Refugees who have been resettled to a third country, including the United States, remain vulnerable during the pandemic. States and local communities have devised ways to help them through the crisis.
There is growing concern among UNHCR and World Food Programme (WFP) officials that the COVID-19 pandemic is causing large-scale hunger among refugees who are no longer able to find work to support themselves and feed their families. In Africa, millions of refugees are at risk, with rations diminished because funding has dwindled and supply chains have been compromised.
Refugees remain at risk of contracting COVID-19. On April 22, a refugee woman in a Palestinian camp in Lebanon tested positive, with a UN medical team dispatched thereafter to contain any outbreaks. A man tested positive in a refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan. The camp was subsequently placed on lockdown.
In April, Greece has started implementing restrictive measures in refugee camps after outbreaks among refugees and migrants. Advocates fear that more outbreaks in refugee camps are inevitable, given the lack of preventive measures in host countries and the difficulty of social distancing in the camps. Authorities in Greece extended a lockdown in refugee camps until May 21, 2020, although no cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the Aegean Greek islands hosting many of the camps. Nearly 150 refugees have tested positive in camps on the mainland. On May 9, 2020, 50 refugees and asylum-seekers flew to the United Kingdom to reunite with family members. Greece intends to relocate 1,600 refugees to European countries.
On May 1, 2020, UNHCR warned of a looming humanitarian crisis in South Sudan due to COVID-19, where 1.7 million displaced persons live in crowded camps. Health-care facilities in the country have been decimated by the long civil war.
On May 14, 2020, Bangladeshi officials announced that two individuals living in or adjacent to Rohingya refugee camps in southeast Bangladesh tested positive for COVID-19, raising fear that the virus could spread among the region’s one million Rohingya refugees. Conditions in the camps are crowded and unsanitary, with little access to the facilities and equipment, such as ventilators, necessary to combat the virus. NGOs and UNHCR are working to establish a 50-bed treatment center in the area. The first death from COVID-19 in a Rohingya refugee camp was recorded on June 3 in southern Bangladesh. UNHCR and NGO officials remain concerned that the virus could spread through Rohingya refugee camps near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where at least 25 refugees have tested positive for the virus and nearly 1 million refugees reside in cramped and unsanitary conditions.
UNHCR reports that as many as 5,000 indigenous Venezuelan refugees in the Amazon region of Brazil are at risk for contracting COVID-19. UNHCR is working with multiple governments to build shelters for the population, which live in crude conditions and are without health-care.
Refugee children living in urban settings are unable to effectively access education because of school closures and the lack of online access, leaving them vulnerable to regression in their development.
Refugees in urban areas in Uganda are struggling to support themselves during the pandemic, as the Ugandan economy has slowed severely due to a nationwide lockdown. UNHCR and other international organizations are providing cash assistance to refugee families in Uganda and other countries in the region, but many remain at risk of hunger.
Syrian refugees in several host countries are experiencing economic challenges because of the pandemic, losing what meager income they have to support their families. UNHCR has provided income support to 200,000 Syrian families since the pandemic began, but many more families remain at risk of losing food and medicine without income.
In Libya, UNHCR and the World Food Programme are providing emergency food and medicine to at least 10,000 refugees who are unable to support themselves due to an absence of work during the pandemic.
On June 29, 2020, UNHCR High Commissioner Filippo Grandi called for additional funding for Syrian refugees on the eve of thfourth Supporting Syria and the Region conference in Brussels, stating that Syrian refugees are at great risk because of the loss of jobs and their livelihoods during the pandemic. Grandi stated that 7 of 10 Syrian refugees in Lebanon have lost their livelihoods since the beginning of the pandemic, sinking them further into poverty. Eighty governments attending the conference have already pledged $5.5 billion for the remainder of 2020 and $2.2 billion for 2021.
Three asylum-seekers have tested positive for the coronavirus in Matamoros, Mexico in a camp of 2,000 asylum-seekers along the US-Mexico border, stoking fear that the virus could spread within the camp. Several thousand asylum-seekers attempting to obtain protection in the United States have been returned to Mexico to await asylum hearings, which have been postponed until US and Mexican border states meet health criteria.
The Denial of Protection during the Pandemic
Reports abound of refugees and migrants being denied protection during the pandemic. Greek authorities, for example, have turned back Syrian refugees fleeing through Turkey. Rohingya refugees in camps in southeast Bangladesh have difficulty accessing health care and services, with the elderly especially at risk. African and Syrian refugees have become stuck – attempting to reach Europe – in war-torn Libya, where they are susceptible to COVID-19.
Developed nations turn back asylum-seekers at their borders, including the United States, which returns asylum-seekers and unaccompanied children to Mexico or to their home countries, without due process or required screenings. Member nations of the European Union are citing the pandemic as justification for keeping their borders closed to asylum-seekers from Africa and the Middle East.
Advocates have argued that travel restrictions and border closures imposed by countries during the pandemic should exclude asylum-seekers. IOM has developed a running tally of COVID-19 related travel restrictions; as of March 31, it reported that 190 states, territories and areas had imposed 41,925 travel-related restrictions, focused on entry, departure, and medical requirements.
Refugee advocates have criticized closures of borders and ports during the pandemic, claiming that certain governments are using the crisis to deny protection. Italy and Malta have closed their ports. Malaysia has denied Rohingya refugee boats from entering its waters. And the United States has virtually shut down its asylum system.
In addition, mixed-migration populations have begun to return in growing numbers, both voluntarily and involuntarily, to their home countries from COVID-19 hotspots, including Venezuelans from Colombia and Afghans from Iran. This has placed pressure on their governments and created backlash against the returnees.
Bowing to pressure from the international community, Greece has begun evacuating up to 1,600 unaccompanied refugee minors from refugee camps on Greek islands to countries of the European Union, citing concerns regarding COVID-19. A dozen children were sent to Luxembourg on April 15, 2020, while 50 were evacuated to Germany on April 18, 2020.
Ten EU countries and Switzerland are receiving children under a plan agreed to March 13, 2020. Approximately 5,200 unaccompanied refugee minors are currently located in camps in Greece, including on three Greek islands—Lesvos, Samos, and Chios.
Several fishing boats filled with Rohingya refugees have been trapped at sea for several weeks – denied entry to Malaysia and other Asian countries and refused return back to Bangladesh because of fear that the refugees are infected with COVID-19. On May 2, 2020, one boat was taken to a small Bangladeshi island, while other boats have been rescued or remain stranded on the ocean. Rescued refugees have told stories of people dying of hunger and their bodies being thrown into the water.
On May 6, 2020, UNHCR, IOM, and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) issued a statement urging countries surrounding the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea to accept Rohingya refugees – Bangladesh has sent at least one boat of 280 refugees to an offshore island, which advocates have criticized as isolated and without access to services.
On May 9, 2020, UNHCR and IOM reported that 167 countries had either fully or partially closed their borders because of the pandemic, with 57 countries denying protection to asylum-seekers and refugees.
On May 11, 2020, UNHCR issued guidance for the care of stateless persons worldwide during the pandemic. Approximately 3.9 million stateless persons live in 78 countries worldwide—although the number could be much higher—without full legal rights and on the margins of society without access to health-care or basic support.
On May 13, 2020, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that border restrictions in the Schengen area of Europe could be lifted by June 15, 2020, allowing travel among nations. Schengen nations have established visa guidelines for the entry of third country nationals after July 1, 2020. Each of the 26 Schengen countries is opening its borders gradually, based on public health information from sending countries.
Greece is preparing for another wave of refugees to attempt to enter its territory, as Turkey begins to relax COVID-19 travel restrictions. In recent days, Greece has deployed soldiers to the Greece-Turkey border and installed 12-miles of razor wire. About 37,000 refugees, including 1,600 unaccompanied children, are stranded in the Greek islands near Turkey, where there is little capacity to accept a new wave of refugees.
On Tuesday, June 2, 2020, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, called upon nations to provide protection to refugees and displaced persons around the world. 150 nations have closed their borders during the pandemic, with the majority of them denying protection to asylum-seekers. Refugee advocates fear that some nations will use the pandemic to abandon asylum protection permanently.
UNHCR has joined with Yale University to conduct a survey of Rohingya refugees in an effort to help determine how best to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among the Rohingya population in southern Bangladesh. UNHCR also is providing income support and job assistance to 14,000 Syrians residing in Armenia, where many have lived since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011.
UNHCR has called upon Greece to investigate reported incidents of pushbacks of refugees by Greek authorities. Although it is unclear if the pushbacks are related to COVID-19, UNHCR has offered Greece and other nations assistance with establishing testing and quarantines for newly arrived refugees.
Bangladesh has denied a Malaysian government request to take back 269 Rohingya refugees rescued at sea off the Malaysian coast, stating that Bangladesh has no obligation to take the refugees. Malaysia also has requested that UNHCR resettle the refugees to a third country.
According to UNHCR, international protection for asylum-seekers has been significantly weakened during the pandemic, with 82 countries having closed their borders to asylum-seekers and 27 other countries considering closures. Only 10 countries globally have kept their borders open to asylum-seekers without restriction.
The prime minister of Malaysia, Muhyiddin Yassin, stated June 26, 2020, that Malaysia can no longer accept Rohingya refugees due to the economic downturn in the country caused by the pandemic. More than 100,000 Rohingya refugees reside in Malaysia. The government has recently turned back boats filled with Rohingya fleeing persecution in Myanmar as well as detained Rohingya living in Malaysia.
A sinking boat of 94 Rohingya refugees was rescued by local fishermen near Aceh province in Indonesia in late June. UNHCR has urged Australia and Indonesia, co-chairs of the Bali Process, to halt the smuggling of refugees in the region and to develop a plan to rescue refugee at sea in the region and protect them.
On July 1, 2020, UNHCR issued protection guidelines to European Union countries in an effort to protect refugees attempting to reach Europe. Some European nations have closed their borders and turned back refugees during the pandemic.
Refugee Funding to Address the Pandemic
As of May 6, 2020, UNHCR had raised $227 million of the initial $255 million requested in its COVID-19 emergency appeal, nearly 90 percent of the total. However, UNHCR has raised its appeal to $745 million until the end of the year, noting that 134 refugee-hosting countries had reported local transmission of the virus and 71 million refugees and displaced persons were at risk for contracting it. On May 7, 2020, the United Nations raised its global humanitarian appeal from $2 billion to $6.7 billion.
On May 11, 2020, the United States contributed $24.5 million to the newly revised UNHCR appeal of $745 million for the remainder of the year. The US contributed over $64 million in March.
The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, a $3 trillion stimulus bill passed by the US House of Representatives on May 15, contained no funding for a global humanitarian response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including funding for refugee protection. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed into law in late March, appropriated $350 million for migration and refugee assistance, including funding for overseas efforts.
About $3 billion in aid from 60 countries was raised May 26, 2020, to assist 5 million Venezuelan refugees, including those returning to Venezuela from neighboring countries. The United States pledged $200 million to the effort.
As of July 9, 2020, UNHCR had raised only 36 percent of the $745 million needed until the end of the year to assist refugees during the COVIDA-19 pandemic.
In Ethiopia, only 10 percent of the necessary funds are available to meet the preventative and long-term health care needs of refugees, leaving them vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19.
On May 3, UNHCR launched an initiative to assist refugees stranded in Libya who are vulnerable to COVID-19. These refugees, who are mostly heading to Europe, cannot find jobs and live in crowded urban areas. The UNHCR initiative provides food and preventative care kits for up to a month. It sought to reach 4,000 refugees in northern Libya during the Ramadan period.
UNHCR has upgraded Dadaab camp in Kenya, one of the largest refugee camps in the world, with a quarantine center consisting of 955 beds, personal protection equipment, hand-washing stations, and COVID-19 training for health-care workers.
UNHCR and local partners are providing various forms of support to refugee populations. In Syria, 300 tents have been installed in Aleppo and Idlib to be used as triage stations in health facilities. Two isolation and treatment facilities with 200 beds have been opened in Bangladesh. In Burkina Faso, Mali, and Kenya, UNHCR has provided solar-powered radio sets to refugee children to ensure they have access to distance learning programs.
To date, funding been directed to cash support programs in 40 countries, as refugees report that the loss of jobs and food insecurity because of the pandemic.
UNHCR has also directed funding to mental health and psychosocial support. In Bangladesh, 43 psychologists and 500 community psycho-social volunteers have been trained to work with refugees.
On June 16, 2020, UNHCR warned that it is running out of funds to continue a cash assistance program for Syrian refugees in the Middle East, with only 17,000 out of 49,000 vulnerable families in Jordan served. Syrian refugees have been hit particularly hard economically by the pandemic.