82.4 million people. Those were the statistics for the number of refugees and displaced people in the world at the end of 2020.
According to reports from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), nearly 1 person is forcibly displaced every 2 seconds as an outcome of conflict and persecution.
Refugees arise due to a myriad of reasons such as poverty, lawlessness, war or environmental disasters. Consequently, the definition of a refugee has been a subject of intense debate for decades. This raises the question - Who qualifies as a refugee?
According to the 1951 refugee convention, a refugee is defined as an individual who has fled their country as a result of “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”.
However, this convention cedes a lot of vital decision-making to the nations. It does not compel its signatories to grant anybody refuge but rather only requires them to hear their case and not push them back to a country where they could face persecution. Even upon fortunately being granted refugee status, they encounter numerous challenges in socio-economic integration predominantly due to racism and xenophobia.
Enter COVID-19. As though the issue wasn’t exacerbated enough, the pandemic drastically worsened the plight of refugees and asylum seekers. The refugee populace is deemed alarmingly vulnerable to the virus as a result of their questionable living conditions, which lack the facilities to support social distancing and ensure competent access to water, sanitation and healthcare. To add to their woes, ongoing welfare efforts have been thrown into disarray and limitations have risen in the provision of aid.
Approximately 85% of the world’s refugees are hosted in low- and middle-income countries that are exceedingly burdened by their own financial hardships and fragile healthcare systems.
The economic repercussions of COVID-19 are proving disastrous, forcing multitudes into starvation and homelessness. As struggles for aid and employment intensify, refugees are more susceptible to violence and discrimination.
Meanwhile, well-heeled nations have cut back on humanitarian assistance in an attempt to redirect money into bolstering their own economies through the crisis. Pandemic-induced crises are driving nations to shift even the last of their attention and resources towards domestic relief, inevitably setting aside the refugee community as a low priority group.
Although vaccines are being administered around the globe, countries are looking to immunize their citizens first, as a consequence of ‘vaccine nationalism’. How aid will reach these vulnerable communities is a matter of utmost concern as it is only further impeded by practical challenges with regard to accessibility and distribution.
Regrettably, the pandemic has enabled governments to suppress civil liberties and extremists to push their propaganda. It has been increasingly observed that the virus is being utilized as a pretext to curb access to asylum. Deepening border restrictions and lock-down procedures have brought about a lamentable decline in mobility among the masses.
The scale of this humanitarian crisis calls for us to re-examine and improvise our modus operandi. World leaders ought to press for shared accountability through the expansion of resettlement plans. This would greatly help to reduce the brunt of the refugee influx on the host countries. Nevertheless, the end of this crisis will scarcely be in sight, not unless we also tackle the root of the issue by advocating for the rehabilitation of their home countries.
To read more about how COVID-19 has affected refugees: