• As the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic intensifies in refugee communities, preparedness is more important than ever.
  • The spread of misinformation in refugee camps poses a serious threat to refugees and humanitarian workers.
  • Asylum seekers fleeing dire situations are trapped due to increasingly harsh migration policies and border closures.

Around the world, refugees and asylum seekers are suffering from the physical and political effects of COVID-19, which are compounded by the circulation of misinformation, provoking fear and uncertainty.

In areas where access to government services such as medical care is limited, there is a pressing need for international cooperation to protect the rights of vulnerable groups. World Refugee Day – 20 June – is an opportunity for a call to action across sectors to build the resilience of refugees and asylum seekers in the midst of the crisis.

World Economic Forum Global Shapers and Young Global Leaders from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Konexio, Kakuma Hub and The New Humanitarian convened virtually to discuss challenges and efforts to provide access to knowledge and aid for those who need it most.

We are currently in the ‘stillness before the storm...it isn’t a question of if the pandemic will hit the refugee population, but a matter of when.

— H.R.H. Prince Jaime de Bourbon de Parme, Young Global Leader and Senior Adviser, Private Sector Partnerships for UNHCR

UNHCR response to impact of COVID-19 on refugees and asylum seekers

UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, is utilizing a multifaceted approach to brace camps around the world for possible outbreaks. Ongoing work with governments to advocate for the inclusion of refugees in national health responses is central to the approach. COVID-19 magnifies a long-existing crisis, in which the majority of refugees and asylum seekers reside in countries with poor health systems.

Filling infrastructure gaps and ensuring the availability of personal protective equipment for health workers is crucial. According to H.R.H. Jaime de Bourbon de Parme, UNHCR's Senior Adviser for Private Sector Partnerships, at the moment of the session, “UNHCR has globally distributed 6.4 million masks, about 600 to 640 ventilators to 525 high-priority countries and are setting up isolation facilities.”

Cash assistance programs have also been put in place to assist refugee families and individuals who are experiencing income loss due to enforced quarantines. However, many questions remain, including how to best respond to the myriad socio-economic impacts, including halted education.

Building resilience in Kakuma Refugee Camp

Nestled in Northwestern Kenya’s Turkana County, Kakuma Refugee Camp is one example of the kind of densely populated settlement all too common among refugee camps worldwide. As of March 2020, the camp hosts over 190,000 residents, creating implications for social distancing measures and fuelling the rapid spread of inaccurate information.

Children jump rope as they play at the Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya, March 5, 2018. Picture taken March 5, 2018. REUTERS/Baz Ratner - RC1F94C5F5B0
Children at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya in 2018
Image: REUTERS/Baz Ratner

The Kakuma Hub, a network of young people displaced by conflicts and instability in neighbouring countries, partnered with UNHCR to combat the spread COVID-related misinformation. The project used social messaging apps to disseminate context-specific updates sourced from UNHCR Kakuma to community leaders and residents.

Kakuma Hub Global Shaper Zakaria Odowa explained that “by sharing the correct and relevant information, community members in the refugee camp are able to protect themselves and their family members.”

Additionally, the partnership launched a handwashing campaign using WHO guidelines to educate the camp on hand hygiene and sanitation.

Harsh migration policies

"Hundreds of refugee-led organisations have the trust of their communities and are able to reach people in effective ways, but they don't have the support and the resources that they need," said Heba Aly, Young Global Leader and Director of The New Humanitarian.

The pandemic has created operational and logistical constraints on immigration services around the globe. Border closures and temporary halts on administering asylum claims have made it impossible for those fleeing conflict areas to evacuate and seek asylum. In addition, new asylum claims cannot be registered in countries like Italy, where immigration offices have been reassigned for emergency coronavirus-related duties. As a result, refugees and asylum seekers can't register a new status claim and are then deprived of basic health care without any formal identification and registration documents.

The pandemic has also been used as a justification for countries to advance anti-migrant policies. Governments are taking advantage of the crisis to push through legally dubious hardline migration policies that are not justified by public health concerns.

Uganda, which hosts approximately 1.4 million refugees primarily from the Great Lakes region, announced the suspension of reception of new refugees and asylum seekers. Regulations restricting the movement of asylum seekers could curtail protection of individual rights and physical safety – especially if these new regulations remain after the crisis.

coronavirus, health, COVID19, pandemic

What is the World Economic Forum doing to manage emerging risks from COVID-19?

The first global pandemic in more than 100 years, COVID-19 has spread throughout the world at an unprecedented speed. At the time of writing, 4.5 million cases have been confirmed and more than 300,000 people have died due to the virus.

As countries seek to recover, some of the more long-term economic, business, environmental, societal and technological challenges and opportunities are just beginning to become visible.

To help all stakeholders – communities, governments, businesses and individuals understand the emerging risks and follow-on effects generated by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the World Economic Forum, in collaboration with Marsh and McLennan and Zurich Insurance Group, has launched its COVID-19 Risks Outlook: A Preliminary Mapping and its Implications - a companion for decision-makers, building on the Forum’s annual Global Risks Report.

The report reveals that the economic impact of COVID-19 is dominating companies’ risks perceptions.

Companies are invited to join the Forum’s work to help manage the identified emerging risks of COVID-19 across industries to shape a better future. Read the full COVID-19 Risks Outlook: A Preliminary Mapping and its Implications report here, and our impact story with further information.

A call to action

Young Global Leaders and Global Shapers were presented with clear calls to action to support refugees during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond:

"Many refugees live in urban settings – it could be a city in which you are working or living," said H.R.H. Prince Jaime de Bourbon de Parme of the UNHCR. "I would encourage YGLs and Shapers to reach out to them through local NGOs and religious organisations and chat with them about what they truly need."

"Inclusive and non-discriminatory national and international policies are very crucial to protect and improve the lives of refugees, while keeping in mind the need for refugees' participation in decision making processes," added Zakaria Odowa of Kakuma Hub.

"Staying up to date and informed about what's going on with refugees across the globe is a first step," concluded Heba Aly of The New Humanitarian.