The Plight of the Stateless: Refugees and COVID-19
“If ever we needed reminding that we live in an interconnected world, the novel coronavirus has brought that home.”
– UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi
Disbelief, anger, sadness, acceptance and hope were the five stages of emotions that the world experienced as the virus pushed large parts of the globe into a lockdown. Most countries in the world were closed, with increased border and immigration restrictions and travel bans, but the virus knew no borders, language or barriers. The pandemic had adversely affected those who had the least, that is, the people from the most vulnerable sections of the society. Due to the various restriction measures adopted by different governments around the world; the refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced people (IDPs) and migrant workers were the most vulnerable sections and, therefore, they became the worst affected by this pandemic. People were forcibly displaced while the world was combating the virus. The pandemic unveiled the brutal socio-economic inequalities in the society. Food insecurities, limited access to hygiene, poor social distancing measures, inequality and penurious living conditions in refugee camps are amplifying the threat posed by the virus. With the closure of schools, churches, temples and mosques; many in these communities have even lost their traditional support networks.
THE GLOBAL SCENARIO
Refugee camps across Africa, Middle East and Asia are packed with traumatized and malnourished people with limited access to basic sanitation, which then becomes breeding grounds for various contagions. Physical distancing is very difficult, in overcrowded camps and dense urban settings, when people live side-by-side in small-congested shelters with their extended family. Queuing for water and food increases the risks of contamination. In these settings, preventative measures become impossible. In such places, doctors have witnessed patients die from what looks like the corona virus but are unable to treat them as they lack beds, medical kits and professionals. Illnesses from viral fever to deadly diseases go untreated.
The crisis has received a lot of coverage, especially the still developing South-east Asia. Such are the conditions in the Rohingya refugee camps situated in Bangladesh. Around 800,000 Rohingya refugees are under threat in the two refugee camps — Teknaf and Kutupalong, which were set up in Bangladesh in 2017 after hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled their country. Life was already a struggle for many of the 2,09,234 forcibly displaced people in India including 1,10,095 from Tibet, 64,689 from Sri Lanka, 18,914 from Myanmar, and the remaining from other small nations, but the pandemic has made their survival even more unsteady.
Almost all of the refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced people (IDPs) live in small make-shift shelters built with bamboo and tarpaulins. The camps are overcrowded and lack many basic amenities, such as clean drinking water and sanitary facilities. Currently, the international organizations such as UN, UNHCR, and IOM are accentuating on equipping the local hospitals with at least some resources to tackle the potential outbreaks of COVID-19. These humanitarian agencies are putting in their best possible efforts to tackle the situation in the camps, but the task at hand is colossal. Rohingya Human Rights Initiative, also known as R4R, a non-governmental organization working for Rohingya welfare across India, says that the situation in the camps across Delhi-NCR is precarious. The testing centers had begun requesting proof of address for the purposes of contact tracing, which refugees without formal rental agreements do not have. With lockdown restrictions preventing the UNHCR staff from being physically present in the communities, the UNHCR has been relying on community-based refugee volunteers in order to distribute aid and monitor needs.
THE PANDEMIC IN INDIA
In India, the internal and external migrants together created a refugee crisis that the State was not prepared to handle. The condition of migrant workers in India was highlighted when thousands of migrant workers were fleeing possible starvation in cities, trekking hundreds of kilometers to try and reach the safety of their home villages during the nationwide lockdown. Battling hunger and fatigue, the daily wage earners of all ages trudged along in the heat, driven by the prospect of reaching home. Many of these refugees are employed in the unorganized sector and, due to the lockdown, the people working in this sector are no longer able to earn a livelihood. Those who survive on daily wages had no savings to stock up on essential goods.
Furthermore, the temporary suspension of UNHCR’s refugee status determination (RSD) activities during the lockdown has severely affected the asylum seekers whose cases are still pending as well as those who have not yet registered with UNHCR. Refugee Camps in the National Capital Region of Delhi, Mumbai, Haryana etc. are at a high risk for contracting Covid-19, as they live in extremely cramped quarters with very limited access to public healthcare facilities. The nationwide lockdown in India had hit the migrant workers particularly hard and, once travel restrictions were lifted, 11 million interstate migrants returned home. Bihar’s migrant workers returned to cities as rural employment schemes fell short. Many complain that the payments under MGNREGS have been delayed for months and the government has failed to provide the required help to the internal refugees in States such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The 116 districts under the Garib Kalyan Rozgar Abhiyaan; a new job scheme to help the migrant labourers during the lockdown suggests that Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are the worst affected States due to reverse migration.
In order to address these issues, it is important to determine the population of refugees. Mass campaigns need to be organized by the interest groups and non-governmental organizations with the help of the government to raise awareness among them regarding the virus and how they can protect themselves. For these ill-protected refugees, basic amenities like soaps and masks are luxury, therefore, ground level initiatives are required which should include a relief package including food ration, basic sanitation needs (soaps and face-masks). Access to healthcare and spraying disinfectants in slums, refugee camps and asylums by the local municipal corporations should be carried out at regular intervals. The New Trade Union in Delhi’s Khajuri Khas has initiated the drive collecting funds for food and rations. About 80 families of Rohingya refugees are being looked after by a local peasant’s organization in DeraBassi, Punjab. Several NGOs and individuals across the country have contributed to the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative.
India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, neither has it evolved a legislative definition of the term “refugees”. The pandemic pushed the refugees living in India to the brink. The countries most vulnerable are dealing with the growing burden of rent, lack of savings, absence of job opportunities and healthcare facilities, increasing racial discrimination and the fear of contracting the virus. Apart from physical health, refugees and migrants are reported with increasing mental health issues due to fear of infection, stigma, loss of livelihoods and uncertainty about the future. Less than 10% of refugees in the country have work visa. Most end up working in the informal sector as laborers if they are uneducated, or as translators and guides at tourist sites if they know more than two languages. Most of these jobs have been lost to the pandemic. None of the social protection packages offered by the government for daily wagers have provisions for non-citizens. Indispensable support is required to ensure the availability of psychosocial services for refugees and those displaced.
To mitigate the impact of the pandemic, the governments around the globe should implement safety measures such as declaring face-masks and sanitizers as essential commodities, announcing a relief package to address the urgent needs of the refugees and the ones who are in need of assistance. There is need for setting up new help lines to extend assistance remotely in refugee camps and asylums as the refugee women are typically reluctant to approach government authorities to prevent gender-based domestic violence due to their obscure legal status and fear of retribution within their communities. Also, to limit overcrowding in prisons, correctional/protection homes and detention centers for refugees wrongfully detained for ‘illegal’ entry should be maintained. The governments must establish committees to determine whether any prisoners, people on trial or ‘illegal immigrants’ could be released.
BATTLING THE PANDEMIC AND THE PATRIARCHY: WOMEN AND COVID-19
Within the already vulnerable and displaced refugees, women and girls have become more susceptible to vulnerabilities now. Due to the prevailing gender norms in our societies, women are often the ones to be the most adversely affected. Cultural norms, underrepresentation, lack of education, limited financial independence and a host of other factors further marginalize them socially, politically, and economically. Worldwide, women perform three times more unpaid care giving work than men. Refugee and other displaced women do not escape these social norms. They take care of the children and elderly family members, and manage the household. These responsibilities further increase as people become sick, putting women and girls at heightened risk of becoming infected during a healthcare emergency.
Furthermore, having a source of income is critical for refugee women, especially for those who are also the heads of their households. Owing to the lockdown, all over the world, the economic opportunities are disappearing for women and they are struggling to make ends meet. Women and girls also have specific healthcare needs that are crucial to their safety, health and well-being. There has also been a rise in domestic violence, worsened by refugee women’s inability to access existing support systems. The current crisis makes it all the more difficult for women to seek help as medical facilities around the world scramble to respond to the virus.
In families whose economic difficulties are exacerbated by the displacement, parents choose not to educate their daughters. By forcing schools to close, the pandemic jeopardizes the education of the more than 740 million girls who are less likely to opt for homeschooling or re-enrollment. Education is the supreme tool for empowering women as it can deliver knowledge, skill and confidence, which would enable them to fight for their rights. It is essential to adapt to the contemporary teaching methods and adopt online mode of teaching to ensure that women, girls, and youth still have access to education during the lockdown. Teaching students virtually, recording video lessons, and sending them to their parents to assist the students with their homework are how this task is being carried out.
THE WAY FORWARD
The refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced people (IDPs) and migrant workers are at heightened risk with limited access to mainstream services and support because of their indeterminate legal status and the rapidly deteriorating protection environment. Therefore, skills, leadership and resilience are the need of the hour to emerge from this crisis and build back better. With the help of political and financial support of the nations in the current global crises, the protection of the refugees can be ensured.
In many countries, governments have unnecessarily detained people seeking asylum, putting them at risk of contracting the virus. Amnesty International is calling on governments to provide adequate food, water supplies and health care to camps and ensure that relief packages and protections are given to asylum seekers and refugees. The organization has also asked countries to consider temporary regularization of all migrants, regardless of their documentation status. The governments are, therefore, under international pressure to uphold the right to seek asylum under the principle of non-refoulement. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the UNHCR have signed a new agreement in order to strengthen and advance the public health services for the millions of forcibly displaced people around the world. The key aim this year is to support ongoing efforts to protect some 70 million displaced people from contracting the COVID-19 infection. The European Union can establish a definite and powerful response towards the troubling situation. European Union Pact on Migration and Asylum provides an opportunity for the European Union to protect the forcibly displaced people in Europe and abroad, and also support host countries.
United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHRC) plays a crucial role in co-operating with the European Union to ensure that access to asylums by determining who needs international protection and who does not. The effective support mechanisms would help to demonstrate that public well-being can be protected through quarantines and regular heath check-ups. The International Organization for Migration an United Nations agency, that aims towards migration in an orderly and humane manner that benefits migrants and society, has launched a social media campaign in Mexico to create awareness on respecting the rights of migrants, avoid hate speeches towards them and address the concerns of the United Nations system over the impact of COVID-19 on the most vulnerable groups, i.e., low income groups, migrants and refugees.
The aim of the campaign is to reach out to populations in those communities where there are migrant shelters, safe houses, or temporary camps for people on the move. The health and socio-economic consequences of the pandemic are affecting the forcibly displaced disproportionally with adverse implications on their protection. This brief examines some of the policy options that are currently being considered: (i) to ensure that international regulations on refugee protection are applied; (ii) the forcibly displaced are included in the national and international health policies and programmatic responses; (iii) that adequate response measures are financed and implemented.
As the pandemic continues to shatter our world, the “have-nots” are the ones who are being affected the most. While the State and civil society groups are helping these asylum seekers, there needs to be more intervention by the government to ensure their safety and well-being. This includes regularly discussing their needs and priorities with them, and developing solutions together. It is essential to first of all identify these groups and ensure that they benefit from the various programs and initiatives of the government during this healthcare emergency. The governments, agencies, representatives and the citizens need to work together in order to provide a better tomorrow for them.
No matter how poor someone is, what their gender or ethnicity is or which part of the world they come from as human beings; every person is entitled to a good life where justice prevails. Prejudicial behavior against them must be addressed; the police and the local health authorities should not become accessories of stigmatization against these individuals, especially since they have had almost all of their rights trampled, had their homes burned down, relatives murdered, their citizenship denied and have been forced to leave their own country by their own government. There needs to be more social solidarity, caring for those who are vulnerable, all the while ensuring physical distancing. The UN Secretary-General has expressed hope that the COVID-19 crisis will lead to a rethinking of how the world supports refugees, migrants and internally displaced people.
ENDNOTES  A.Z.M. Anas, Rohingya scapegoated as Bangladesh battles COVID-19, (July 7, 2020), https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Asia-Insight/Rohingya-scapegoated-as-Bangladesh-battles-COVID-19.  UNHRC Fact Sheet India,(2016, February), https://www.unhcr.org/50001ec69.pdf.  Livemint, Lockdown Impact: Over 41 lakh migrant workers return to Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, (June 22, 2020), https://www.livemint.com/news/india/lockdown-impact-over-41-lakh-migrant-workers-return-to-uttar-pradesh-bihar-11592800284093.html.  The Hindu, Refugee women facing greater violence risk during corona virus crises, (April 20, 2020), https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/refugee-women-facing-greater-violence-risk-during-crisis-unhcr/article31386348.ece.  Amnesty International, Ignored by COVID-19 responses, refugees face starvation, (May 13, 2020), https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/05/refugees-and-migrants-being-forgotten-in-covid19-crisis-response/.  World Health Organization, How WHO is supporting refugees and migrants during the COVID-19 pandemic, (May 28, 2020), https://www.who.int/news-room/feature-stories/detail/how-who-is-supporting-refugees-and-migrants-during-the-covid-19-pandemic.  UNHRC India, UNHRC issues recommendations for EU to ensure refugee protection during the pandemic and beyond, (July 1, 2020), https://www.unhcr.org/news/press/2020/7/5efb7e544/unhcr-issues-recommendations-eu-ensure-refugee-protection-during-pandemic.html.  IOM UN Migration, IOM launches Social Media Campaign in Mexico to prevent discrimination during the COVID-19 pandemic, (April 14, 2020), https://www.iom.int/news/iom-launches-social-media-campaign-mexico-prevent-discrimination-during-covid-19-pandemic.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
This blog has been authored by Saptaparni Majumdar, who is pursuing M.A. Criminology with Specialisation in Forensic Psychology & Krupa Nishar, who is an Assistant Professor at National Forensic Sciences University, Gandhinagar.
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