A battle on all fronts: How the pandemic has plunged Arab refugees into new depths of disaster

Migrant minors wait to be tested for COVID-19 upon their arrival to Europe [Getty Images]
6 min read
18 June, 2021

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every soul on the planet, though some more than others, and has exposed ever more clearly massive inequalities. If there is one group that is most vulnerable it is refugees. International Refugee Week is a worthwhile point to take stock of the challenges facing the 79.5 million refugees and displaced people in the world but even more so given the threat of the pandemic.

The first thing to notice is just how fast refugees and displaced numbers have risen. Their population would make them the 20th most populous country in the world and the 2nd largest country per capita in the European Union. At the end of 2015, the number of refugees and displaced persons was around 65 million, so it has risen 15 million in just five years.

Contrary to popular belief in the West, the majority of refugees are not all hosted in richer countries. In fact, 86 percent are in developing countries. In terms of Covid-19 this is highly relevant as the richer states have better health care systems and have also bought up the overwhelming majority of vaccines.

International Refugee Week is a worthwhile point to take stock of the challenges facing the 79.5 million refugees and displaced people in the world, but even more so given the threat of the pandemic

About a third of all refugees are in refugee camps.  Typically, these are overcrowded with limited facilities, especially on the health front. Sanitation conditions are often poor, even dreadful, so a perfect place for the spread of a virus. Refugees also tend to be prone to underlying conditions such as malnutrition.

Even before the pandemic, host governments also remain under acute strain. A quarter of those in Lebanon are refugees, largely from Syria but also Palestine.  The country’s economic crash and lack of resources hit them hard. It also tests the host society’s willingness to continue to provide resources for the refugees. To access health services, Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon require identification documents something many of them do not possess. In Kenya, the government has been trying to close down major refugee camps at Dadaab and Kakuma that host a combined 430,000 refugees. The East African country has also played host to refugees for years, in the case of Dadaab since 1991.

The lockdown and restrictions have multiple impacts on refugees and IDPs. Many could not access jobs so lost vital earnings.  According to the UNHCR, “Half of the refugees are not allowed to work in their country of refuge.” For refugees, education is vital and seen as a ticket out of their dire situation, so the closure of schools has hit them hard. Children in rich countries have liable to a mental health crisis so imaging what this does to refugee children already traumatised by conflict.

Vaccination in priority countries is kicking off under the Covax mechanism. Covax earmarked 73 million doses to 25 priority countries in the first round.  Many of those have large displaced populations. Developing countries will have to wait many months even years before being able to roll out the sort of vaccination programmes seen in the US and UK. But, not all countries are giving equitable access to these refugees and displaced.

Jordan must take some credit among the 134 refugee-hosting nations. Despite its limited resources, it became one of the world’s first countries to give COVID-19 vaccinations for refugees.  Sadly, not all countries have done the same and refuse to include refugees in their national vaccination drives.

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Other issues threaten vaccination programmes among refugee communities. One concern is the negative perception of the vaccines amongst these communities. Many fear to take the vaccines and have fallen vulnerable to the many conspiracy theories about the vaccines not least because of a lack of credible authoritative information available to them.  This is happening even among migrant communities within the EU so one can only imagine the challenges in countries that lack public health educational resources.

One issue is that refugees and IDPs may miss out on some of the innovative tech platforms introduced to assist with Covid. Smartphones and even the internet can be a luxury.  On the positive side, creative projects have ensured access to information and even helped some refugee schoolchildren continue to learn. At the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, its only radio station did just that.  Broadcasting in Somali, refugees used it as a vital channel for information and learnt for example about how to shield against the virus.

A failure to assist poorer countries to combat the pandemic and roll out an effective vaccination programme jeopardises everyone

The pandemic has also seen the closing of borders even to those fleeing conflicts and persecution. Since the start of the pandemic, 168 countries have fully or partially closed their borders of which 100 did not make an exception for those seeking asylum. Many even had to return to the countries they had fled from. Refugee hosting countries were reluctant to take asylum-seekers in, with the UNHCR reporting the lowest number of resettlement of refugees globally in two decades, with a mere 23,000 being resettled in 2020.

Political issues impact refugees and IDPs.  Syria is a prime example. Major powers are once again arguing at the UN about approving the cross-border humanitarian operations next month. If this is not resolved, three million IDPs will suffer. The IDP camps in Idlib are so of the most vulnerable to the virus

In Gaza where 70 percent of the population are refugees, Palestinians were already facing a Covid crisis but the Israeli bombardment in May has made this acute. For a period of time, Gaza’s only Covid testing centre had to close. Refugee camps were bombed and many had to move into overcrowded shelters – often UN schools, all perfect locations for the spread of the virus.  The situation would not be so severe if Israel had honoured its international legal obligations to vaccinate Palestinians under its military occupation. 

Israel’s position on Gaza underscores the dangers of how the richer states are dealing with the pandemic. Its own successful vaccination programme for Israelis is put at risk by the refusal to vaccinate the very Palestinians the country is occupying.  Variants are springing up with alarming rapidity and soon existing vaccines may not offer protection.

A failure to assist poorer countries to combat the pandemic and roll out an effective vaccination programme jeopardises everyone.

Many argue that patents should be lifted on vaccines to allow for mass local production of vaccines. This is particularly the case for refugees and migrant populations, who are still fleeing persecution and conflict.

Aside from the legal and moral obligations to help them, helping refugee communities thwart the virus should be seen as a universal interest and priority.  They should not be left at the back of the queue.

Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (Council for Arab-British Understanding). He is a regular opinion writer and commentator on the Middle East and has organised and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to the region.

Follow him on Twitter: @Doylech