For 2020 and 2021, much of the world was restricted to a small space, with strict rules on people’s movements and facing uncertainty about their future incomes and livelihoods. For migrants and refugees spread out around the world in UN funded refugee camps and temporary accommodations, this is something that they’ve experienced for years and for some, even decades.
Covid 19 has brought on new issues and challenges for the international community and for asylum seekers and refugees in 2020-2021, this is no different. They’ve had to overcome obstacles such as hunger, loss of income and security and increased border restrictions in their efforts to achieve resettlement with the recent mass evacuations from citizens in Afghanistan, a reminder that humanitarian crises continue in the background of the Covid 19 dominated news cycle. For this article I will seek to address how Covid 19 has influenced refugee and asylum seeker policies in Asia and Europe since the beginning of 2020, the challenges faced by refugees, asylum seekers and displaced peoples in refugee camps during the pandemic and what can be done to address them.
At the end of 2020 the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) calculated that 82.4 million people around the world were forcibly displaced. This figure has doubled since 2010 and is the highest figure ever recorded, with massive humanitarian crises in Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar making up 68% of all displaced peoples. The Covid 19 crisis according to the UNHCR did reduce the anticipated number of displaced people by 1.5 million by the end of 2020 and a 33% fall in the number of asylum applications. The latter figure was largely influenced by many of the world’s leading economies who make up the majority of refugee resettlements, closing their migration offices in the early months of the Covid 19 pandemic to allocate resources to support their health systems and reduce their intake of migrants and refugees. This decision was in line with their objectives of decreasing the likelihood of introducing or increasing the presence of Covid 19 in their countries. Italy had a 38.3%decline of its refugee intake from March-May 2020 as a result of closing its migration office in March 2020 while Ireland, Cyprus, Poland and Portugal are some of the many other nations across Europe that closed migration officestemporarily during 2020 to direct resources towards containing the virus among their populations. Australia meanwhile decided to cut their refugee intake, reducing the number of resettlements from 13,750 to 5,000 people, a decision the Refugee Council of Australia called “shattering”.
Some nations across Europe found ways to continue to support asylum seekers residing in their borders with Belgium, Cyprus and Spain extending rights to allow asylum seekers already in the country to work in industries with labour shortages such as agriculture and forestry sectors. Finland, Germany and Portugal took steps to create safe housing options that served to both decongest existing migration centres and to reduce the risk of Covid 19 spreading into the community.
Those in 2020/21 who were already displaced would come to experience further hardships brought on by the pandemic. Conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Myanmar and Afghanistan continue to inflict violence upon civilians, leaving people with no choice but to seek refuge or asylum in other countries despite the health pandemic raging on around the world.
In Bangladesh more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees reside after fleeing from Myanmar due to what the UN describes as genocidal violence against the Muslim minority ethnic group. According to Oxfam International, when Covid 19 broke out into the global community, Bangladesh refugee camps struggled to get access to food. Extensive checks on food before entering the camps meant it often was rotten or inedible upon being provided to refugees. The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) estimated in August 2021 that more than 75% of displaced and conflict affected people have lost income since the start of the Covid 19 pandemic and 86% of the world’s refugees were hosted inlow-middle income countries with “significant financial challenges and fragile health systems”. This means that those without incomes continue to face famine related challenges with many children impacted as they make up over 40% of displaced people’s despite making up only 30% of the world’s global population. Furthermore, the World Bank estimates that the number of people pushed into extreme poverty by the end of 2021 due to Covid 19 will be 143-163 million people. In Afghanistan and Iraq, 81% and 66% of displaced people surveyed reported having their meals cut since the beginning of the pandemic while in West Africa, UNICEF reported that acute malnutrition experienced by displaced people will rise by 1.5 million from 2019 levels.
Women also suffered significantly due to cuts in supplies, resources and workers from sponsoring organisations. Many women in the camps were responsible for keeping their families’ areas clean and the pandemic meant their workload had to double. Their hardships were increased further when several organisations halted or decreased their contributions to UN refugee camps and those who ran the camps decreased the amount of security to reduce the risk of workers being infected with Covid 19. The consequence of this was an increase in domestic violence and sexual assault against women who now are increasingly concerned for their safety and the safety of their families residing in the camps.
At the end of 2020, Covid 19 had been reported to have been surprisingly absent from those residing in refugee camps. This could be attributed to many of these camps being in remote locations with the director of Human Rights Watch Bill Frelick claiming “No one casually goes in and out”. It could also be attributed to strict national lockdowns such as Jordan’s closure of airports and borders in early March protecting it’s 747,000 mostly Syrian refugee population. However, with many states gradually reopening their borders and easing restrictions, Covid 19 is becoming increasingly present in refugee camps with many camps in Jordan reporting their first cases in September 2020. With 40,000 per square km in the Kutupalong camp in Bangladesh and 21,550 per sq km in Tierkidi camp Ethiopia, people in these camps are particularly vulnerable to the Delta Covid 19 strain without the necessary protective and medical equipment.
So, what can the global community do to ensure refugees aren’t forgotten and left to despair during the Covid 19 crisis? The first is to answer the UN’s call for funding to ensure refugee camps are equipped with necessary food, ventilators, protective equipment and security to ensure those in the camps have necessary protection against Covid 19, have an income and have security against potential sexual assault and violence.
UNICEF’s Middle East and North Africa division only received 40% of essential funding in 2020 and the UN World Food Programme (WFP) faces budget cuts and has been required to reduce its food rations to refugees in Eastern Africa by 30%. The likes of Portugal, Italy, South Korea and the UK reduced their foreign aid budgets during 2020 with the UK reducing their budget by $US3.7 billion, further complicating efforts by the UN to raise essential funds. The UN in 2021 has called for $U35 billion in 2021 funding and while nations around the world have suffered significant blows to their economies to keep people employed and health systems afloat during the pandemic to the tune of $US10 trillion collectively, asylum seekers as has been earlier outlined, can play a role in filling essential roles in national economies. Furthermore, the recent crisis in Afghanistan where many states volunteered planes and visas to rescue desperate civilians threatened by the Taliban showed global collaboration was possible, the world needs to come together to fix the shortfall in funding and resources experienced in global refugee camps that threaten to become overcrowded wastelands if wealthy nations continue to reduce their refugee intake and funding that supports displaced people overseas. The Global Humanitarian Overview outlined that 160 million people in 56 countries could be helped if the $US35 billion was obtained in 2021 and much of that funding according to UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock would go towards helping the tens of thousands of flood victims in Bangladesh in addition to tackling violence against girls and vaccinating millions of refugees, which would go a long way to helping resettle them in nations that are fast approaching 90% national vaccination rates.
Another proposal is gradually increasing national refugee intakes to pre Covid 19 levels among developed nations. The UNHCR calculates that in 2019 64,000 asylum seekers started new lives abroad in host countries while only 22,800 did in 2020. More than 550,000 people according to UNHCR have fled their homes in Afghanistan this year while 3.5 million people are displaced within the country. Pakistan, Iran and Germany have taken in significant amounts of Afghan refugees with Germany processing 181,100 people and Chancellor Angela Merkel claiming another 40,000 still in the country may have a right to be evacuated to Germany if they are endangered by the Taliban. Whereas countries such as the UK, Australia and Belgium have taken in a collective 33,900 people in the last 12 months. Both Pakistan and Iran have told the international community that they have reached max capacity and those who seek asylum in those countries will have to stay in camps near the border until they can return to Afghanistan. Many European governments are fearing a political backlash similar to those experienced in 2015 when many Syrian refugees were resettled. Austria, Poland and Switzerland have outlined they will not accept any new Afghan refugees and are upping border regulations to guard against illegal arrivals. However international lawprohibits countries from denying entry to asylum seekers, during a global health pandemic and this law could be challenged in international courts over the coming months. While the crisis in Afghanistan is just the latest humanitarian crisis to cry out for significant refugee resettlement, many countries are simply looking to escape by taking a minimal number of refugees during their recovery from the Covid 19 crisis.
It will require a combination of significant monetary contributions to the UN and an increase in refugee intake to ensure refugee camps around the world don’t become wastelands to poverty, sickness and despair. Meeting the $US36 billion dollar annual goal will mean millions of displaced people sitting in overcrowded UN refugee camps around the world have access to essential supplies and protection from violence and Covid 19 while they wait to be processed and resettled. As violence and unrest ravages on in countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Myanmar and Venezuela during the Covid 19 pandemic, countries must not forget their obligations to international law and helping those in desperate need during the pandemic. While lockdowns are difficult to endure, enduring them in overcrowded refugee camps without access to protective Covid 19 equipment and access to food will mean the world will emerge from the Covid 19 crisis with another one on its hands.