20200909 migrant refugee camp
Image Credit: Reuters

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in late 2019, interest in the plight of the world’s most vulnerable populations, the refugees, began to wane, reaching its zenith by the end of 2020. It is as if the refugee crisis has disappeared entirely.

But it has not. In fact, the world’s erstwhile leading humanitarian crisis has deteriorated tremendously, despite it not being a recurring news item. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of June 2020, there are 26 million refugees worldwide.

Victims of war, poverty and international neglect before the spread of the deadly pandemic, the refugees were forced to contend with yet new hurdles that compounded their protracted, collective agony.

While worsening the refugees’ existing atrocious conditions — of statelessness, malnutrition, lack of health care, education and so on — the global lockdowns brought the refugees’ journeys of destitution to a complete halt, stranding them in time and place, leaving them bereft of hope and, at times, blamed for allegedly spreading the disease.

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It is convenient to argue that a global pandemic that affects the world’s entire population is expected to eclipse what now seems to be a secondary crisis that afflicts a far smaller number. Not only is this thinking inhumane — as a disease-stricken refugee dying in an enclosed refugee camp with little or no access to proper medication should be handled with great urgency — it is also dishonest. Indeed, the refugee crisis, which was exacerbated during a decade-long political upheaval in the Middle East, has rarely been an international priority.

The many high-level meetings held to discuss the various refugee crises, especially of Middle Eastern refugees arriving in Europe, were not serious attempts aimed at honestly addressing the collective responsibility towards the world’s rising refugee population, or even earnestly and immediately responding to its horrific consequences.

Instead, attention was often placed on the political and ‘security’ fallouts of allowing refugees a safe passage through Europe’s national borders. This has contributed to the rise of racist and chauvinistic political parties which are flourishing on the promotion of fear and sinister theories about refugees.

This unfortunate and dangerous reality is evident in Europe, the United States and other parts of the world. According to this skewed thinking, the refugees are a burden, and a formidable threat.

A confused and complex picture

One can only imagine how the COVID pandemic has confounded an already confused and complex picture. Thankfully, there is no need to speculate, as the ample research conducted by international human rights groups can help us appreciate the immensity of the challenge at hand.

The most urgent issue pertaining to the refugee crisis now is that of access to proper health care which, according to the Mixed Migration Center, is related to “lack of funds, not knowing where to go, and discrimination against foreigners”.

In many parts of the world, especially in Latin America, the lack of documentation serves as a double-edged sword. Without residency permits, refugees are unable to find steady jobs, without which they are denied access to health services.

While income loss resulting from the shutdown of various sectors of economies worldwide has aggravated existing inequality, pushing unemployment — thus poverty — to significantly higher rates, vulnerable refugees are in a far worse situation than anyone else.

According to the UNHCR, an estimated “70 per cent of refugees live in countries with restricted or no right to work”. Considering that the refugees were already subsisting in a state of poverty, vulnerable to exploitation and used as cheap labourers, the COVID lockdowns have pushed them to even lower categories of want and subsequent exploitation, unprecedented in recent years.

School enrolment eroding

The same logic applies to other fields, such as that of education. As the COVID crisis resulted in new and creative ways of schooling, for example, learning online, refugee children rarely have the same opportunities. With no alternative to whatever basic schooling available at refugee camps and, considering growing poverty among refugees, UNHCR has reported that school enrolment among refugees has been eroding.

Of course, there is the issue of the direct and deadly impact of COVID-19 on refugees. “Numbers of infections in (refugee) camps across Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories have risen sharply,” since the start of the pandemic, the British Guardian newspaper recently reported.

Lowering the lethal impact of the disease in these refugee encampments is not easy, not only because of the indifference towards assisting the refugees, but also because many of these camps are located within war zones. To provide safety equipment, testing kits, life-saving medication or the newly-dispatched vaccine requires a political will among all involved parties. Alas, in the context of the refugee crisis, experience has taught us that such willingness rarely exists.

One can only hope that our collective tragedy and loss could produce enough kindness in our troubled world to place the refugees at the centre of our thinking and policymaking because, when COVID-19 is long gone, the refugees will still be there, hungry, stateless and abandoned.

Ramzy Baroud is a noted journalist and author