II. Impact on Refugee and other Displaced Communities
Around the world, more than 70 million people live in displacement as, refugees, Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), stateless persons, or as asylum seekers (Rajput, 2019). Most often the displaced live in fear of violence, starvation and with compromised immune systems. Even under normal conditions, these persons live in cramped spaces, without access to running water, soap or medical facilities. The survival of these communities is largely dependent on humanitarian groups, who in the midst of COVID-19 have had to determine how to adjust their operations in light of restrictions placed on them, in order to limit the spread of the virus. Although most governments consider the lifesaving humanitarian operations as ‘essential services’ however, not all groups have the resources to operate in this unprecedented public health crisis. Complying with ‘physical distancing’ now a universally prescribed preventive measure, has restricted the operations of many humanitarian groups and many have shut down, leaving a gap in the services that the displaced have come to rely on for daily survival. With non-essential workers required to stay home, public services strained, resources diverted, and charities operating at reduced capacity, displaced persons have become more vulnerable. Many have lost access to income, the rented space and food. The World Bank has cautioned the world of a sharp decline in growth and it estimates that as many as ‘71 million people may slip into extreme poverty’ (World Bank, 2020). The United States Institute of Peace (USIP, 2020) suggests that the densely populated communities in South Asia [and elsewhere] located in economically deprived outskirts have complicated the response to this pandemic and have ‘exacerbated societal fractures and structural problems, including religious, caste, ethnic divisions’ and issue of minority communities, given the ineffective communication and the pre-COVID-19 tensions.
Medical guidance, in response to COVID-19, such as ‘shelter-in place’ ‘social distancing’, ‘frequent hand-washing’ and ‘sanitizing the surroundings’ have become taxing for the people, who have no space, water, soap, or sanitizing supplies. The former Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States, Ambassador Maleeha Lodhi, suggests that the ‘distancing’ may not only be a challenge for those in the displacement camps, but rather a ‘challenge of the developing countries’ (Lodhi, 2020). However, as is clear from the spectrum of public figures and others who have become victims of COVID-19, such as positive testing of England’s Prince Charles, Hollywood celebrities, journalists, priests, teachers, doctors and nurses; the overall threat of this virus does not recognize borders of geography, political affiliation, race, age, gender, or a person’s migration status.
In responding to COVID-19 pandemic, many nations have taken harsh measures against, refugees and migrant workers. These have included border closures, wire-fencing of the refugee camps, expulsions, lock-downs of migrant communities, stoppage of internet connections and the confiscation of SIM cards used for mobile phone. These communities have also been excluded from programs adopted by the countries to secure the health and economic well-being of their own citizens. Actions taken by countries, to control and prevent the spread of the virus have ignored the international human rights norms. The right to health and information, and non-return of refugees to areas with threat of persecution apply to all refugees and at all times.
However, many governments, such as the Colombian government and others have made sincere efforts to include their refugee population in the country’s pandemic response, such as the right to testing and the treatment for those who test COVID-19 positive. Nevertheless, the virus has overwhelmed even some of the most well-developed health systems in the world and has in particular taxed the hosting nations that had already lacked the capacity to address the daily needs of the displaced communities within their borders.
The following section details the specific response to COVID-19 virus undertaken by several nations as it impacts the displaced communities.