Refugees are on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic. Let's give them the rights they deserve

Medical staff members take off their protective suits after evacuating 170 asylum seekers from a hostel as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Lisbon, Portugal April 19, 2020.  REUTERS/Rafael Marchante - RC2P7G9UUMJ4
"All of a sudden, the origins and legal status of displaced people seems to matter a great deal less than the skills, knowledge and experience they can bring"
Image: REUTERS/Rafael Marchante

Carmen is one of the many coronavirus heroes. A doctor working as part of an ambulance service team, she has been on 24-hour shifts to reach people at home who suspect they have the virus or get critical cases to hospital. But Carmen has one other characteristic that makes her stand out: she is an asylum-seeker.

Around the world, refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants with medical qualifications are reporting for duty – from the Iraqi cardiologist caring for neighbours and patients in Atlanta, to the Syrian teacher cleaning hospital wards in London, to Carmen, a Venezuelan doctor now saving lives in Lima.

And those on the front line need their support troops: refugees have been making soap and personal protection equipment, cooking free meals for health workers, staffing information centres – joining in the massive volunteering effort in their host communities.

All of a sudden, the origins and legal status of displaced people seems to matter a great deal less than the skills, knowledge and experience they can bring to bear on our shared predicament. The stories of these refugees and asylum-seekers illustrates what happens when people are empowered to make use of their skills, knowledge and experience: everyone stands to gain.

Caught in a trap

But most of the millions of people forced to flee their home countries, especially the 25.9 million refugees who have crossed an international border, are caught in a labour trap. Highly trained professionals find that their qualifications are not recognised. Converting or updating them is either bureaucratically impossible or dependent on access to education and training – which refugees are often denied.

Refugees who once ran thriving businesses find it hard to secure the necessary licences to start up new enterprises or are denied the right to rent retail space. Even in the 50% of countries that grant refugees access to labour markets, an array of other restrictions – on movement, property rights, access to skills training – make finding sustainable, regular, properly paid employment well-nigh impossible.

Image: UNHCR

Some refugees have bucked the trend, like the former Liberian refugee now working as a nurse in Pennsylvania, or the Iraqi refugee who requalified as a doctor in the UK thanks to a pioneering scheme to alleviate pressure on the country’s health service.

But the principle of harnessing the power of refugees should apply across the labour market, not just the health sector. As we mark International Workers’ Day in the midst of a pandemic, crops still need harvesting, supplies still need transporting, the children of emergency workers need caring for, shelves need filling and tills need staffing. With the coronavirus doing strange things to the term “essential worker”, the displaced and the stateless have stepped forward to offer their services.

At the same time, we should remember that around 85% of refugees live not in Europe or the US but in developing or the least developed countries. As COVID-19 spreads, millions of people who live hand-to-mouth in urban areas and depend on casual, irregular employment could be plunged into poverty when restrictions on movement render that employment unviable.

Rent and food bills will be impossible to meet. Basic health systems that were already struggling to cope will come under extra pressure. If the aim really is to “build back better” once this crisis has passed, helping those countries to strengthen their basic infrastructure and boosting labour markets with much-needed investment are good places to start. Both host communities and displaced populations stand to benefit.

That refugees have vital contributions to make is now obvious. Granting them access to labour rights and allowing them to fulfil their potential is in everybody’s interests – strengthening our health systems, food security, community care and countless other functions our societies depend on.

States should overhaul their labour laws to give refugees the right to work at all times, not just in a crisis. As the International Labour Organization has said: “Access to productive employment and decent work is the most important strategy for a sustainable response to the presence of refugees and other forcibly displaced persons.”

Full participation in the lives of their host countries gives refugees self-reliance, increases the pool of consumers and taxpayers, promotes social cohesion and extends more helping hands to the vulnerable.

After she fled Venezuela, Carmen spent more than two years working as a waitress, a receptionist and a sales attendant until UNHCR and a Venezuelan non-governmental organisation helped her to validate her medical qualifications in Peru. Her story illustrates just how counter-productive it is to shut out her kind of talent, energy and courage.

Change requires political leadership, audacity and vision – but if we can meet the short-term cost, we can reap the long-term gain.