How Covid-19 is highlighting the daily risks faced by refugees

By David Crane

Covid-19 has gripped the world for the best part of 2020, and appropriate response plans have been intensely debated by policymakers, researchers, and the general public alike. However, as a vastly under-represented group – in both global and local-level discussions – refugees have remained largely absent from such debates. This silence has compounded the adverse effects that Covid-19 has had, and will continue to have, upon refugees who already face disproportionate risks from emergency situations.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

During the pandemic, the most obvious of these risks has been the closing of international borders. Even countries like Uganda – which hosts more than one million refugees and is globally recognised as exercising progressive refugee policiesclosed its borders between March and July. This left thousands of refugees unprotected and vulnerable within the nations that they were attempting to flee. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance, displaced populations attempting to flee the Kamwaina Nsapu rebellion, where over one million individuals have already been displaced, were left stranded in remote and inaccessible areas, having been refused access into Uganda. Rather than simply creating new issues and vulnerabilities, however, the virus has also highlighted, and in many cases perpetuated, the precarious nature of refugees’ everyday livelihoods, whether facing a global pandemic or not.

For example, camp settings are notoriously densely populated, a characteristic which has been proven to facilitate the spread of the virus. On the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which witnessed a Covid-19 outbreak in January, the virus spread four times more quickly than in Wuhan due to the close proximity of those on board. However, the population density on the Diamond Princess was just 24 people per 1,000m². In contrast, the Moria refugee camp in Greece has a population density of 204 people per 1,000m², nearly ten times higher. The overcrowded nature of refugee camps presents catastrophic levels of risk, causing cases within these settings to sharply rise. What’s more, due to the high levels of disease and illness affecting refugees, local health services already tend to be stretched beyond their capacity, which is now being exacerbated by the dramatic increase in demand that the virus presents.

The spread of the virus is also being facilitated by the limited access to water and sanitation systems within camps, making the effects of Covid-19 far more dangerous. Public health organizations such as the World Health Organization have routinely urged the public to wash their hands frequently as a defence against the virus, but clearly this is not possible without access to clean water, or when needing to travel extremely long distances to obtain it.

Additionally, the closure of schools has (and will continue to) disproportionately impact refugees. Their parents are likely to be less familiar with the new education system, and the resources provided by schools for the parents to continue their children’s education from home may not be in their native language, causing refugee children to fall further behind in their studies. This is particularly troublesome because refugees are already more likely to be held back or forced to repeat years of schooling because of their experiences as a refugee and the time spent adjusting to the host country’s education system. Globally, 3.7 million refugee children are out of school, with just 63% of those at primary education age enrolled.

A girl attends class in a Sahrawi refugee camp, Algeria. Covid-19 has enhanced the existing difficulties faced by refugee children in accessing education. Photo credit: Shutterstock

Hence, whilst the Covid-19 pandemic has undeniably perpetuated insecurity and vulnerabilities amongst refugee populations, it has also served as a stark reminder that the current global refugee regime is failing to provide their basic necessities, even during times of relative ‘normality’. Less-developed countries host 84% of refugees, and therefore it is paramount that not only do resettlement rates to Northern states improve, but also that their financial contributions to the global refugee regime increase dramatically. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which leads the global response to refugee crises, routinely reports receiving less than 50% of the necessary funding for combatting crises.

Whilst it is tempting to become overwhelmed by this perfect storm, UNHCR and a plethora of domestic and international NGOs continue to work tirelessly to amplify the voices of refugees and raise their living standards. Click here to find out more about UNHCR’s Covid-19 response, and how you can support their cause.  

David is an international development consultant. He has a master’s degree in Development Studies from LSE and his main research interests are African economic and political history, conflict, and forced migration.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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