Refugee Policies Can’t Return to ‘Normal’ After Coronavirus

The Covid-19 crisis has given governments another excuse to ignore their responsibilities to refugees. Before the climate crisis to come, it's essential that everyone fleeing disaster is treated with dignity.

The coronavirus crisis has shown us how connected our world is. Yet when it comes to considerations such as migration and refugees, governments continue to look inward in their response. As they seek to protect their own citizens, the responsibilities of those displaced have been neglected. Not only is this wrong, it is self-defeating. 

Though it is by no means a great leveller, vulnerabilities are transmissible in a pandemic. When refugees are excluded from healthcare or social security, it enhances the vulnerability of host populations. Without protecting everyone in society, the virus will not be overcome.  

Of the 25.4 million refugees in our world, two thirds live in protracted situations, the average length of which is 26 years. By far the most live in Africa. With prolonged displacement persisting, and as donor attention focuses on short-term humanitarian emergencies, the budget for protracted refugee situations has decreased. 

Prior to Covid-19, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had already begun the transition from a care and maintenance model in protracted refugee camps to supporting the self-reliance of refugees. Covid-19 has hastened many trends, so it should be no surprise that this is likely to continue as donors struggle to repair their damaged economies.

In times of greater stability, refugees face legal barriers in moving, working or studying, and it is hard to imagine the possibilities for self-reliance. The fear is that refugees will continue to be warehoused in camps, with limited rights and ever-dwindling support. 

Dzaleka Refugee Camp in Malawi is comparatively small to other camps, such as Dadaab in Kenya, but is still home to 48,000 refugees. Intended as a temporary solution for 10,000 refugees in 1994, the assumption was that displacement would be short lived.

But this has not proved to be the case. In Dzaleka, whose residents have mostly fled from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, people live close together, and with only 38 water sources for the population. Social distancing and preventive hygiene measures are understandably difficult to practice. 

So far, local organisations have been fast and resourceful in responding. Working alongside the Malawian Government and UNHCR, they have developed plans to protect Dzaleka, particularly its most vulnerable residents. Local organisations have the trust of the community, using the camp radio to disseminate information on washing hands and keeping safe, as well as using WhatsApp to keep in contact with community leaders. 

Organisations employing refugees in the camp have switched to producing masks. They are fundraising to provide food packages but rely on the UNHCR or donors in the West. Malawi is the fourth poorest country in the world: there is no furlough scheme to keep even their own citizens afloat.

After decades of IMF-imposed austerity, most African countries can’t respond to the crisis with the economic moves we have seen in the West – debt makes up 60% of the continent’s GDP. But there are greater concerns than the virus at Dzaleka: many fear that with just six days’ worth of food provided per month and with no means of gaining income, many fear that they will starve before the virus reaches them. Now there are four confirmed cases in the camp, and with a lack of testing this is likely to be more. 

There are lessons to be learnt from how Africa has so far withstood the worst effects of the virus, with its 56 countries have less than one tenth of the number of deaths that Britain has suffered. But with a more fragile health systems – Malawi, for example, has only 7 ventilators for its population of 18 million – it is still a worry.

Refugees also cannot access the same basic rights as Malawian nationals, as many governments in the Global South view further integration as ways for those in the Global North to contain refugees there. Refugee numbers are increasing, and those in the Global South are carrying the greatest number, with the most limited resources. 

And advocating for host governments to soften policies towards refugee situations is hypocritical when wealthier countries governments are busy blocking asylum for refugees and reducing their overall commitments to refugees.

At the moment, Greece and Hungary are suspending the right to seek asylum, and Italy has closed its ports to migrant boats. Measures like this both violate international law and heighten the risk of Covid-19 spreading further if boats then circulate, searching for a place to land. 

In Britain, refugee resettlement is on hold, planned arrivals prior to the pandemic have been cancelled, and there has been no clarity on whether these arrivals will be rescheduled. Asylum seekers have limited access to welfare and support, and immigration detentions still hold people indefinitely.

Portugal has understood the importance of a more whole society approach, granting refugees and asylum seekers full citizenship rights until June 30th. But even this much-vaunted measure is only temporary – and Portugal is an outlier. 

Despite our own ongoing Black Lives Matter protests, little has changed since the Windrush scandal. Our government continues to pursue racialised policies and operate a hostile environment. A coalition of charities and church leaders have warned that Covid-19 risks pushing thousands with insecure immigration status into ‘exploitation, destitution, and homelessness’. 

The UK government recognised the threat to public health when it brought in measures to house rough sleepers at the start of the pandemic. Now this understanding ought to be widened by extending basic healthcare and social services to people living without secure status.

Those detained under immigration powers must be released, ‘no recourse to public funds’ conditions ought to be scrapped, and temporary leave to remain should be given to migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. 

Even as the Conservatives plan to bring in a points-based immigration system, Labour succeeded in forcing a U-turn on migrant charges for the NHS. And as the government announces citizenship measures for Hong Kong, the case should be extended for greater refugee resettlement.

Scapegoating refugees has worked to distract from the impact of almost two decades of austerity, a housing crisis, and market-based policies which have not matched the required welfare spending for meaningful intergration. 

Pressure is on for the government to avoid the mistakes of austerity and look towards a greener, fairer economic recovery from this crisis. The same must apply for refugees.

As Chema Vera argues, wealthier governments must also take steps to ‘internationalise the measures that many of them are already pursuing at home.’ Cancellation of debt is a first step, but it can go further.

Global trade needs to be rebuilt, financial systems must be made fairer, including tackling tax evasion and investing in public services on a global level. Without any real measures to tackle global inequality or the impact of climate change, armed conflicts will only increase. There must also be a fundamental review into the export of weapons.

During the crisis, with borders closing and international fights being greatly reduced, we have had the access of easy, safe, quick, and cheap travel temporarily withdrawn. For refugees living in protracted camps, they have never had an escape from immobility. Life has always been a lockdown. The critical juncture of Covid-19 beckons for us to imagine a new orthodoxy, after the previous fault-lines have been exposed. 

Millions of refugees stuck in protracted exile reflects the impact of policies drawn up on racial lines. There can be no return to this ‘normality’. This pandemic has shown the importance of solidarity: at this critical juncture, and when climate change looks set to cause the greatest flight of refugees in history, we should take the moment as an opportunity for change. If not now, then when?