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The Disproportionate Measures Undertaken to Protect Refugees in COVID-19
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The Disproportionate Measures Undertaken to Protect Refugees in COVID-19

“The greatest nations are defined by how they treat their weakest inhabitants.” -Jorge Ramos

The COVID-19 outbreak has caused an upsurge in humanitarian crises, affecting millions of refugees across the globe. In these unprecedented times, the rights of the refugees are most vulnerable. Refugees are the forgotten ones, with the least access to essentials required to battle these crises due to a lack of political action committees giving them adequate attention. The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and International Organization for Migration will temporarily suspend sending refugees on to resettle in new permanent homes abroad because of travel disruptions caused by the coronavirus. This suspension would leave more people in temporary settlements.

Around 71 million people have been forcibly displaced including 25.9 million refugees. 134 refugee-hosting countries have been affected by the pandemic. These circumstances call for serious interventions to stop human rights abuses against refugees and safeguard their interests. Without effective implementation, refugee rights shall remain mere paper promises. Though various concerns regarding the lives of refugees have been raised by the UN Agencies, in reality, their rights are not taken care of.

The World Health Organization considers the right to the highest attainable standards of health as a fundamental right of every human being without distinction. Article 25 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees everyone the right to adequate health standards. Further, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, acknowledges the right of every human being to enjoy the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health without any discrimination. The ambit of this right is broad enough to include refugees as well. Yet there is hardly any indication of these rights being enjoyed by the refugees.

Over eighty percent of the world’s refugees are hosted in developing countries with under-capacity healthcare systems. Al Jazeera reported that several countries in Africa that host huge numbers of refugees have inadequate health-care facilities unavailable to large swaths of the population. Countries like South-Sudan, where more than 1.6 billion people are internally displaced, have a critical healthcare infrastructure. Quite surprisingly, the leading causes of mortality are curable diseases like malaria. Mental health and well-being remains a constant battle as well. It is estimated that about 1 in 20 refugees suffer from mental health conditions of clinical concern.

Practicing social distancing in these countries seems implausible since most of them live in overcrowded camps which lack even the most basic health care services. These refugee camps remain the most vulnerable to a virus outbreak. Taking the example of Cox’s Bazar camp in Bangladesh where around forty thousand people share a single square kilometer. There are about 900,000 Rohingya refugees—more people than the entire state of North Dakota—who have fled from Myanmar. Since social distancing cannot be afforded, sanitation and hygiene should be taken care of to contain the virus. The refugee settlements and camps are deprived of clean water and sanitation. Countering fake news and misinformation poses another growing concern. Access to reliable sources to create awareness among the refugees regarding the virus and precautionary measures remains a far-fetched dream.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is responsible for providing access to international refugee instruments and other related human rights instruments to the refugees. Article 23 of the 1951 Refugee Convention states that refugees staying in their territory shall be accorded same treatment concerning public relief and assistance as is provided to their nationals. Health-care services like testing are scarce to refugees. A joint-publication by the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees stated that it would give refugees access to health and education. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has catered to healthcare of 10.5 million refugees in 51 countries, but given the budgetary concerns it has, the impact is limited.

Previously, The United Nations Refugee Agency announced a 225 million dollar package to reduce the risk and effect of COVID-19 outbreaks in vulnerable communities. This money would be used to expand health care, create surveillance networks, and prevent the dissemination of misinformation, On March 31, 2020 Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the International Organization for Migration, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Health Organization made a joint press release to adopt an inclusive approach to fight COVID-19. Considering the lethal consequences of COVID-19, this release should not have been delayed and the authorities should have anticipated the risks in the initial stages of the outbreak.

COVID-19 presents a plethora of global challenges to humanity. It is high time that the primary emphasis changes to the protection of life, irrespective of status. Only one percent of all refugees make it to these “tertiary” destinations. A
majority of them remain stranded on “secondary” countries, neighboring their home nation. More than eighty percent of the world’s refugee population lives in low- to middle-income countries, and many of them reside in impoverished settings like crowded camps or urban settlements.

This situation calls for an effective and inclusive approach. Effective implementation of international and domestic legislation is the need of the hour. Refugee-hosting countries should work towards strengthening their health-care systems, ensuring sanitation by providing essentials like soap and clean water, conducting more testing and countering misinformation. Humanitarian crises demand global cooperation and the states should come together to protect the vulnerable communities, their dreams and their aspirations.

For more on COVID-19, see our special coverage.


Pravah Ranka is a first-year student at Gujarat National Law University in Gandhinagar, India pursuing a B.A. LL.B. (Hons.). Her research interests include Human Rights, Arbitration and Criminal Law.


Suggested citation: Pravah Ranka, The Disproportionate Measures Undertaken to Protect Refugees in COVID-19, JURIST – Student Commentary, May 26, 2020,

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