Migration & COVID-19

Denied space.

Denied access to health-care.

Denied adequate protection.

Denied security.

Denied inclusiveness.

Denied information.

And above all, denied DIGNITY.

In radical contrast to many of our own lives, scenes in the Cox’s Bazaar Camp in Bangladesh (with a population density of 40,000/km sq), the Moria Camp in Greece (203,800/km sq), Syrian refugee camps in the Middle East (Al Hol: 37,570/km sq), and other camps and informal settlements across the world make the new norms of social distancing and isolation, seem much like utopia.

Saidul Hoque, who is one among the 860,00 refugees living in the Cox’s Bazaar Camp for Rohingya Muslims in Bangladesh, shares a 10 ft shelter with 8 other persons. He expressed his distress to staff of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR): “We all know everyone is facing difficulties due to the COVID-19 pandemic, even European countries with their strong economies and advanced treatment facilities….So just imagine what will happen if the virus comes to the world’s largest and most congested refugee camp.”

As we have come to understand, maintaining social distance is imperative to contain the spread of the corona virus. Nonetheless, refugees in congested camps and densely populated areas, who have been displaced owing to conflicts and natural disasters, and left increasingly vulnerable to the dangers of the virus, are leading life precariously. With limited access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene, the devastation will be colossal if the disease spreads in these areas. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has observed, “Refugees and migrants face similar health threats from COVID-19 as their host populations. However, inadequate access to essential services and exclusion makes early detection, testing, diagnosis, contact tracing and seeking care for COVID-19 difficult for refugees and migrants thus increasing the risk of outbreaks in these populations and presenting an additional threat to public health.”

Needless to say, women and children stand most exposed, as in all crises situations. According to Marcus Skinner, Senior Policy Advisor for the International Rescue Committee, “In some cases, a person’s legal status or gender could also impact whether they are able or willing to access healthcare services.” Furthermore, women also face the risks of abuse. Gertrude Mubiru, a Gender-Based Violence Specialist with UNICEF in Cox’s Bazar, acknowledges that COVID-19 prevention is a major focus of humanitarian efforts around the camps right now. But that doesn’t mean that help isn’t available for women and girls who need it, especially as UNICEF continues to monitor a number of  protection issues affecting Rohingya and Bangladeshi women and girls.

Most governments are now focused on bringing this pandemic to a screeching halt as expeditiously as possible, and in the process, insulating their economies from the global recession that is likely to occur hereinafter. Attention on refugees may seem amiss, however not all hopes are lost. Several countries that host large migrant populations, alongside international organisations and civil society organisations, continue to tread on the path of  the ‘no one should be left behind’ principle. Measures have been implemented and steps have been taken which are inclusive of all the segments of the society. The Bangladeshi government, for example, has established the Annual Joint Response Plan to protect the Rohingyas in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. The plan takes a ‘whole of society’ approach that includes both the Rohingyas and local people from neighbouring villages. Health facilities have been set up in the vicinity of the refugee camp, and the Bangladeshi government has also suspended import taxes for supplies and equipment to fight COVID-19. The decision of the government of Portugal to grant provisional citizenship rights to all refugees, asylum-seekers, and migrants with pending applications for residency certificates to facilitate their access to healthcare may be considered an exceptional and pragmatic initiative for human dignity for all.

The International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC), International Office of Migration (IOM), UNHCR and WHO have jointly prepared the ‘Interim Guidance on Covid-19 for Outbreak Readiness and Response Operations – Camps and Camp-like Settings’, addressing the specific needs and considerations required in humanitarian situations. These guidelines attempt to ensure that refugees, asylum seekers, IDPs and migrants who live in collective sites are:

  • Not scapegoated, stigmatised or otherwise targeted with specific, discriminatory measures;
  • Are provided with timely and accurate information in accessible forms and appropriate languages;
  • Are involved in the design of readiness and response plans, policies and strategies and incentivised, including, for example, through the declaration of temporary amnesties, to fully participate.

The full document can be found here: https://interagencystandingcommittee.org/other/interim-guidance-scaling-covid-19-outbreak-readiness-and-response-operations-camps-and-camp

Interim guidelines have also been prepared by WHO for refugees and migrants in non-camp settings, which can be accessed here: https://apps.who.int/iris/rest/bitstreams/1275039/retrieve

It reaffirms the inclusiveness approach, and makes several recommendations to state parties. Such recommendations stress the need for social inclusion of refugees; enhancing the capacities of health infrastructures to accelerate universal health coverage; international partnership and cooperation for securing the health of refugees and migrants; strengthening social protection systems to cover such populations, etc.

The question remains as to what tangible steps state parties are taking on ground by following the above recommendations, to reduce the susceptibility of migrant and refugee communities to Covid-19. A persisting lacuna in all the guidelines formulated so far is the failure to acknowledge the potential problems particularly faced/likely to be faced by women migrants and refugees, and specific redressal of the same. Such problems could include discrimination when accessing health care services, clean water and sanitation, perpetration of gender-based violence, problems likely to be faced by pregnant women living in camps, and other economic as well as psychological issues. Young girls from non-camp areas are also likely to face impediments towards their education, due to the lack of adequate infrastructure and technology, as opposed to children from more privileged sections of society, most of whom are able to continue their education under lockdowns with the aid of technology.

Furthermore, sufficient gender-segregated data on the impacts of Covid-19, particularly concerning vulnerable women from such populations, does not seem to be available.

As the world continues struggling to ‘flatten the curve’, migrants and refugees, and particularly women, are faced with unimaginable battles resulting from the disease and from already being vulnerable due to displacement. While more countries should come up with contingency plans for mass migration resulting from climate change and conflict, attention should be particularly given to women and girls, so that the years of advancement made by feminists are not bulldozed by the ongoing pandemic.

By Ayushi Kundu

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