Blog post by Arie Kelerstein, a masters student at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He specializes in examining issues of forced displacement and the role of the private sector in the context of refugee issues. Arie has worked for the private sector and community organizations which support asylum seekers and refugees.

Every morning I wake to an endless stream of articles outlining the devastation caused by COVID-19 and how this pandemic presents a turning point in our history. These articles often state that the health and economic consequences of COVID-19 are so profound that our world ‘won’t go back to normal’. COVID-19 has exposed the vulnerability of our own health, our jobs, and our livelihoods, whilst augmenting the already acute vulnerabilities refugees face in camp and urban settings. As the world confronts the pandemic, we have seen mixed evidence of increased solidarity and support for the plight of refugees, alongside continued ambivalence and disregard for their safety and their ability to contribute towards society.

For some, COVID-19 has acted as a catalyst to mobilize solidarity and support for the plight of refugees in the face of a pandemic. In Germany, activists have fundraised approximately €55,000 to airlift 1,500 refugees in Greece to the city of Berlin. This campaign has been supported by ordinary citizens, NGOs like Mission Lifeline, and charitable church organizations like Diakonie and Stadtmission Berlin. Although this initiative is commendable for its purpose and its ability to unite different sections of German society, it is an initiative entirely dependent on the policy and goodwill of the German state who has yet to accept this proposal. 

 In response to concerns over the vulnerability of refugees and asylum seekers, Portugal has given all migrants and asylum seekers temporary full citizenship rights until June 30. This decision has received substantial praise by humanitarian actors with UNHCR stating that “Countries should follow Portugal’s fine example. Inclusion, compassion and kindness are always the right choice.” Portugal’s actions deserve recognition and praise but we must also remember that it has only temporarily  granted full citizenship rights and questions remain over the long-term status of asylum seekers and if their temporary rights will be stripped come June 30th

These examples illustrate solidarity and awareness of the vulnerabilities that refugees and asylum seekers face in the era of COVID-19. They demonstrate that some have recognized that COVID-19 does not discriminate, and it affects everyone regardless of their residency status. While these examples may offer a positive anecdote in a time of great uncertainty and fear, they should not be mistaken for indications of a paradigm shift in the governance of refugees.   

As the world struggles to contain COVID-19, states are increasingly focused on the protection of their own citizens and are neglecting their obligations and commitments to the protection of those forcibly displaced. Refugee camps are in an acute position of vulnerability for the spread of COVID-19 and fears continue to grow over the possible devastating impact of an outbreak in a camp. Yet, it is these very camps which lack access to essential medical services and infrastructure which can facilitate treatment and self-isolation for the camp inhabitants. Moreover, as states continue to face economic pressure and shortages in medical supplies, it is unlikely that they will be willing to divert resources to refugees as they seek to provide support to their own citizens. 

It is growing increasingly likely that the economic fallout of COVID-19 will produce a devastating recession which will have serious implications for refugee governance. As an already underfunded organization, UNHCR may face further budget cuts with donors unwilling to continue their financial contributions as they struggle to maintain their crippled economies. UNHCR and other humanitarian actors must anticipate this reaction and begin planning for its eventuality. Addressing this challenge will require innovative approaches and organizational reform to address the complex and shifting landscape of a post- COVID-19 world. 

It is this very challenge which may present an opportunity for the refugee regime to reform and address some critical questions about its mandate and its operational activity. Over the course of its history, UNHCR has grown and adapted to the changing landscape of displacement and changing interests of its donors. This has given rise to an organization with thousands of highly qualified humanitarian practitioners who operate in diverse contexts with an ever-increasing mandate. It is an organization that is chronically underfunded and often unable to achieve durable solutions for refugees and asylum seekers who see generations wither away in protracted displacement situations. Looking ahead, UNHCR has already begun transitioning its outlook and operational focus towards supporting ‘livelihood programming’ through a ‘whole of society’ approach as outlined by the Global Compact on Refugees. This approach seeks to mobilize society and increase the self-reliance of refugees whilst simultaneously easing pressure on host countries and expanding access to third-country solutions. The global response to COVID-19 has validated this newfound approach because it has demonstrated that when faced with a multidimensional challenge, such as the refugee crisis, solutions are only viable in contexts of widespread societal solidarity both within and between countries. 

UNHCR should take advantage of the lessons taught by COVID-19 to further pursue ways in which refugees can reclaim their agency through the creation of viable livelihood projects. In many ways, COVID-19 has enabled refugees to demonstrate how they can contribute to society by leveraging their assets, expertise, and solidarity with the communities which host them or have resettled them. In the United Kingdom, the cost of training a local British doctor equates to over £250,000 while the estimated cost of accrediting and retraining a refugee doctor is only  £25,000.  Yet, many refugees face substantial financial and bureaucratic difficulties obtaining accreditation to practice their highly-trained skills in the United Kingdom. This has led to a situation in which refugee doctors work as delivery drivers for Uber in the midst of a pandemic as hospitals struggle to address staff shortages. It is therefore of no surprise that the United Kingdom launched a fast track accreditation program for overseas medics, including refugees, so that they may work as ‘medical support workers’ to the benefit of society. This initiative is an example which demonstrates the positive contributions refugees can make but also the negative consequences of abandoning refugees and disregarding their capabilities and assets. 

The pandemic of our time has exposed the inadequacy and particular vulnerability in which urban refugees find themselves. At the end of 2018, 61% of the world’s refugees and 98% of Syrian refugees, lived in urban settings through individual accommodation. Urban based programming has traditionally been a challenging and neglected area of operation for humanitarian actors. This is due to many complications but of critical relevance is the need for refugees to remain anonymous to avoid detection by authorities who do not permit their legal accommodation within urban settings. This condition of anonymity makes it difficult to provide effective and scalable programming for refugees who are often neglected by both the refugee regime and the host state. Urban refugees often lack access to medical support otherwise offered in camp settings and their condition of anonymity makes them apprehensive of engaging in state lead testing and medical programs. This apprehension poses an acute risk for both refugees and the host state because it increases the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission and it decreases the effectiveness community wide medical programming. This presents a serious area of concern to the refugee regime and to the host state, which risks diffusing refugees’ medical vulnerabilities to its general population because of irregular residency status, which leads to inadequate testing and medical support. UNHCR and other stakeholders should take advantage of this situation to promote greater integration of urban refugees and further increase their operational activities within urban settings. This will not only benefit the livelihoods and health of refugees; but, it will also benefit the host society through economic and medical programming. UNHCR can advocate for the regularization of refugee residency status in urban settings by leveraging its potential contribution to the health of host state populations. 

As we live through a period of uncertainty, of fear, and of sickness, we must be cognizant of those most vulnerable and aware that a whole of society approach is needed to overcome these challenges. Although this statement is in reference to COVID-19, it is equally applicable to the plight of refugees. In the face of the pandemic, we have seen positive instances of solidarity within German society and we have seen Portugal extend citizenship rights and medical support to asylum seekers. These examples suggest that the pandemic has the potential to diffuse principles of burden sharing and solidarity and shift the paradigm of the refugee regime. Yet, we have also seen how the pandemic has highlighted the vulnerability of refugees in camp settings and the unsustainability and chronic underfunding of the refugee regime. The transmission of COVID-19 across the world has exposed all to a deadly virus; yet, it is the shocking transmission of vulnerability and its augmentation which will form the enduring legacy of the times we live in. Although millions of people are physically separated from society in self isolation, we are intrinsically connected to the lives of strangers and we must remember that the vulnerabilities and hardships of refugees are transmissible too. Despite the darkness of this age, we find moments of opportunity to reframe our approach and reinforce the continued transition of the refugee regime. By enhancing refugee livelihood programming, host states can take advantage of refugee assets, such as medical training, for the betterment of their own citizens and refugees as well. Moreover, the irregular status of refugees in urban settings enhances the vulnerability of host populations and UNHCR can leverage this condition to improve services and regularize the residency status of urban refugees. While the world craves a return to ‘normalcy’, it is clear that the refugee regime must not return to normal and it must use the opportunities presented by COVID-19 to reform and adapt. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law InitiativeWe welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.