COVID-19 and the unravelling of refugee protection

By Alison Francis | 28 Apr 20

In an unprecedented moment in history, COVID-19 has pushed those of us with the freedom to move back into the confines of our borders. For the world’s 70.8 million refugees, however, there is no home to return to. The vast majority of these refugees live in camps without adequate sanitation and in cramped confinement with little or no access to health services.

The past month has seen countries turn within, closing borders and seeking immediate relief for suffering populations and crashing economies. Filippo Grandi, the head of UNHCR, has been explicit in his fear for those seeking asylum, expressing that the recent measure of the closing of borders ‘could altogether block the right to seek asylum.’

Where then does this leave those organisations that require the goodwill of nations to protect the world’s most vulnerable? Are we on the brink of a new era of protection?

Health risks in refugee camps as COVID-19 spreads

The response required to prevent the spread of coronavirus has forced the UNHCR to call for urgent funding for the world’s refugee camps. Despite this call, many of the world’s refugees are facing an imminent risk of the virus.

In the Middle East, the number of potential infections is harrowing. In Idlib, Syria, almost one million people are at risk. In the northern Gaza Strip, 86,000 Palestinians are facing a similar fate, with most residing in spaces packed with a density of 12 people per room. In Yemen, 3.6 million are living in overcrowded camps and in Libya, 900,000 refugees are currently forced to reside in temporary centres. In Greece, there are currently 42,000 asylum seekers trapped in the five camps on the Greek Islands. And in Bangladesh, one COVID-19 death has already been confirmed, leaving over one million refugees susceptible to the virus in its refugee camps.

The sheer scale of the risk for the most vulnerable is stark, not only for the imminent danger of the virus spreading to millions of people but also for access to healthcare for those who become infected. This reality sits alongside the fact that the legal frameworks that have existed to protect those most at risk are now tenuous in the face of a global pandemic. 

A receding world and its impact on refugee protection

As the coronavirus tightens its grip on the world, the UNHCR has attempted to pave a way forward to ensure that international refugee protection standards are met as countries close their borders to the pandemic. Grandi has been explicit in his concern, emphasising that authorities have the capacity to put in place screening, testing and quarantine arrangements to safely manage arrivals of asylum seekers and refugees as they flee persecution and conflict.

Yet what is fast becoming clear is that a globalised world is now retracting at an overwhelming pace.

In some cases, the pandemic is exacerbating existing anxieties around globalism while legitimating nativist regimes that have arisen on the basis of nationalism and anti-immigration sentiments.

The spread of coronavirus is testing political and economic structures as nations pull whatever resources they have to tackle the spread. And in the case of refugee protection, the international institutions that have existed to protect the world’s most vulnerable will be directly affected by such moves.

The imminent threat of a virus as insidious as COVID-19 may be the only situation in which countries can justify turning away refugees, leaving a gaping legal vacuum in the application of the Refugee Convention for countries who are signatories.

Whether this vacuum is filled to ensure the protection of the world’s most vulnerable will depend on the goodwill of the global community. Unfortunately, this global community is now disrupted as nations battle the virus within their own borders with little capacity (or will) to co-operate internationally in the way that they have since the Second World War.

As coronavirus continues to send shockwaves throughout the world, the future of refugee protection hangs in the balance. 

The economic impact on international organisations

Over the past month, following the immediate focus on the health of populations at risk, countries have desperately sought to keep their economies afloat, a factor that will inevitably impact the aid and funding distributed by western states to international organisations such as UNHCR. The functioning and operational capacity of UNHCR relies almost entirely on the voluntary donations from governments, intergovernmental institutions and the private sector.

If the current top donor countries (excluding contributions from the European Union) were to remove their voluntary contributions to UNHCR, an estimated 70% of the funds required to keep the UNHCR in operation globally would disappear.

Furthermore, this amount is required in a context without the threat of COVID-19 on millions of refugees, the vast majority of whom do not have any defences against the disease, nor access to adequate health care. That is if they have the right to access it at all.

Voluntary donations to UNHCR could potentially cease in the foreseeable future as countries fight to keep the virus from infecting their own populations and protect their economies from falling further. 

An uncertain future 

The past month, in its chaos and unprecedented reach, has stopped the world in its tracks. Those who are optimistic see it as a pivotal moment in history, turning us away from the vicious trajectory of capitalism and individualism to a future where we reconnect with our common humanity. Such optimism fails to take into account the effects on the international order and, in particular, those institutions that were built on the premise of ‘never again’ in the aftermath of the Second World War. UNHCR, an organisation that works to protect millions of refugees worldwide, may now be staring at an uncertain future.

As countries seek to protect their own by closing their borders and implementing drastic economic measures in defence of an invisible enemy, the contribution of states to the ongoing work of organisations such as UNHCR is at risk. A common solidarity has been born in the fight against COVID-19, and as we now look to our common humanity, so too must we ensure that it is protected well into the 21st century.

That includes the continued protection of the world’s 70.8 million forcibly displaced people without a home to return to.