COVID-19 has exposed the vulnerabilities and structural inequities of our societies. The most vulnerable, amongst them refugee and displaced populations, have been severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and related lockdown measures.
In terms of health, it is difficult, if not impossible, to apply social distancing measures in crowded refugee camps and urban areas where displaced populations are concentrated. Access to health care is often limited and adequate information on risks and measures to be taken is often not available or adequately disseminated, including for language reasons.
Worse still, in some countries, the pandemic has been used to justify discrimination, xenophobia, and hostility against refugees, including violent attacks, and has been exploited politically by populist nationalists.
Many refugees have been awaiting asylum and their requests have been suspended due to the crisis. Refugee families as other marginalized households are most likely to suffer from the economic crisis post-pandemic (greater unemployment, child labour, etc.).
In terms of education, difficulties of access to digital devices and internet connections for refugee communities mean that children and youth have limited access to remote emergency teaching.
Inclusive solutions for exiting lockdowns
COVID-19 has demonstrated the importance of inclusion. In the context of easing lockdown measures, and re-opening education, the specific needs of refugees should be taken into account in order to come up with truly inclusive solutions.
According to the UNHCR, "most of the refugee and host communities have limited access to hardware devices, and connectivity can be prohibitively expensive. Lack of access also limits acquisition/development of digital literacy and skills required by teachers, students, and their communities to make the most of the available learning resources."
It is important that specific support measures are adopted to compensate for possible long interruption of education, often adding to previous interruptions in schooling. Time should not be lost in restoring and radically improving the quality of and access to education to ensure that refugee children are not penalised for the lack of education opportunities during the pandemic.
Specific attention should be paid to countering dropping out of school and child labour in refugee/displaced communities.
Appropriate health and safety measures should be put in place to protect students and teachers in refugee settings. Increased hardships that may be experienced during lockdowns by refugee communities and families, especially women and girls (e.g. domestic violence, sexual harassment), linked to living conditions in camps, should be assessed and addressed in measures to support student and teacher well-being and mental health/recovery, throughout the re-opening process.
Refugee teachers and education unions should be included in the development, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of any policies affecting refugee education, including those related to COVID-19 and reopening of schools. The salaries and working conditions of refugee teachers and all teachers in refugee camps should be maintained during COVID-19 induced school closures.
Solidarity is imperative
Developing countries will suffer the most from the consequences of the pandemic, and countries hosting large number of refugees and/or facing conflict situations may face aggravated political instability, as well as social and economic hardship, and require enhanced support.
COVID-19 has demonstrated the importance of the Global Compact on Refugees and its key principles of burden and responsibility sharing and solidarity. It is important to maintain momentum and implement the UN Global Compact on Refugees and the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, as well as pledges made at the Global Refugee Forum in 2019. Pledges for education should be prioritised and their implementation accelerated.
Countries hosting large numbers of refugees should include refugees in their COVID-19 responses, especially in relation to education, including reopening of schools, and be adequately supported in their efforts to develop refugee inclusive policies and measures including through global solidarity.
COVID-19, even in countries where progress has been made, is not necessarily over. Correction of dangerous, unsafe conditions is urgent, regardless of infection. However, if the virus returns, crowded, unsanitary conditions for refugees will be a threat to them and to everybody else. Wherever possible, refugees should be removed from camps and placed in situations where social distancing is possible, there are good sanitation practices and decent conditions. Quality health care and many other public services are vital to refugees and should be available and accessible to them.
Governments should fully respect international conventions (the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol) that they have ratified, including those related to asylum, rights, and access to public services and should cooperate and take measures in line with the Global Compact on Refugees. Any measures concerning borders that may have been necessary for health reasons should be temporary and should not infringe human rights or lead to exclusion.
Governments and political leaders should act to heal tensions and attacks against refugees and fight hatred and disinformation. The global community should also act responsibly to resolve armed conflicts and other untenable situations that have led to the growth in the number of people fleeing their homelands.