The world’s 70 million displaced people are one of the groups most vulnerable to COVID-19 while having the least tools to combat it. With COVID-19 spreading across the globe many countries have closed their borders, including for refugees. At present, 93% of the world population lives in countries with border restrictions for non-citizens and 39% live in countries completely closed to non-citizens. Countries that have traditionally welcomed many refugees are closing their borders and reception facilities. This has resulted in uncertain and dangerous situations for refugees. Meanwhile, organizations like the World Health Organizations (WHO) question the long-term merits of closing the border.
Multiple European countries have closed their borders for refugees and shut asylum offices and government restrictions have severely limited integration services. Many of the search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea have been halted and refugee boats are not allowed to disembark in many countries, resulting in dangerous situations. Refugees who already made it into Europe are put in danger as well. Particularly in Greece where refugee camps are already densely overcrowded with poor medical, sanitary and housing conditions. Instead of protecting refugees and improving medical assistance, they are put in collective quarantine. At the moment, 23 refugees in two camps have already tested positive for COVID-19, and the resulting quarantine leads to significant risks Amnesty International warns, especially giving the poor conditions. The UN Migration Agency has called for Greek authorities to relocate people from the camps on the islands to the mainland, as well as EU member state solidarity and continued efforts to provide healthcare for refugees. The problem however, is that the construction of the camps on the mainland is not yet finished. Furthermore, people that are transferred to the mainland cannot be returned to Turkey under the EU-Turkey deal.
After the first diagnosis of COVID-19, Uganda declared an emergency situation, which means that refugee law and practice can be suspended. The country closed its border, transit and reception centers to new refugee arrivals. Uganda traditionally has an open door policy and is one of the top hosting countries in the world with 1.4 million refugees, 60% of them children under 18. Refugees enjoy free movement, access top employment, free healthcare and education and some refugee families receive plots of land. Refugee camps, however, are overcrowded which means that social distancing necessary to curb COVID-19 is impossible to enforce. Furthermore, there are not enough intensive care units and ventilation equipment to supply the refugee settlements. Despite the closure of the border, refugees from South Sudan are still able to cross; some come to pick up food and supplies distributed by humanitarian agencies before crossing back to South Sudan.
Ethiopia, host to some 900.000 refugees and 2.6 million internally displaced people, has also closed its borders. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has appealed to the government to take into consideration asylum seekers, but the situation is still uncertain. Along the Kenya-Ethiopia border members of a militia involved in human trafficking and illicit trade attacked workers digging a trench along the border to curb illegal crossing. Furthermore, anti-foreign sentiment has reportedly risen, with foreigners being harassed and assaulted in a xenophobic response to the virus. In many African countries aid is either already blocked or slow down with many migrants, refugees and asylum seekers stranded due to closed borders.
In a statement Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, says that all “states must manage their borders in the context of this unique crisis as they see fit. But these measures should not result in closure of avenues to asylum.” The WHO states that restrictive movement, like closing the border, “may prove temporarily useful” but that this measure is only “justified at the beginning of an outbreak” to allow countries to gain some more time to prepare. In the long run “evidence shows that restricting the movement of people and goods during public health emergencies is ineffective in most situations and may divert resources from other interventions.” A report by Refugees International recommends an approach based on international cooperation to reach all vulnerable people globally, with special focus on communication, deployment of medical personnel, supplies and protective equipment, prioritization of sanitation, hygiene and quarantine capacity while building up testing and surveillance capabilities.
In relation to refugees, the report recommends providing alternative shelters to the overcrowded refugee camps and providing access to testing and healthcare regardless of status. The International Committee of The Red Cross wrote in an article that travel bans are a critical first step, but a coordinated international response, sharing information and facilitating access to health and sanitation are also needed. The need for international solidarity cooperation, providing information, supplies, equipment and medical personnel to combat COVID-19 is also voiced by Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), the Norwegian Refugee Council and the United Nations. Furthermore, Refugees International’s recommendation to relocate refugees from detention centers is also advocated by Human Rights Watch (HRW), human rights commissioner Dunja Mijatovic of the Council of Europe, Amnesty International, MSF, and many others in an open letter European governments .
In Europe, Seeking alternatives for people in detention centers and refugee camps is a vital step. Germany is seeking to airlift refugees from the Greek islands, a much needed effort according to MSF. MSF is taking steps to assist in protecting migrants and refugees in different European countries. Portugal has opted to temporarily treat all foreigners pending applications as permanent residents at least to July 1 to curb COVID-19. This ensures that they have access to public services including national health service, bank accounts, welfare benefits and work and rental contracts. Solidarity, cooperation and proper healthcare are needed to fight COVID-19, including for refugees, asylum seekers and other vulnerable people.