For displaced populations, the impacts of a pandemic will hit particularly hard. In camps and detention centres, there is a greater risk of disease spreading. People are in close quarters where physical distancing may simply not be possible. Insufficient sanitation can hamper life-saving hand-washing. Testing and medical treatment may be rudimentary at best, absent at worst.  

Refugees living in the community may be finding their feet, with no job security, savings or family support networks around them. Asylum seekers are often in an even more precarious position, working in the informal economy and without a formal legal status entitling them to social security or other support. If people continue to work simply to survive, there could be significant public health consequences.  

Much of the world is now experiencing deprivations that are the hallmarks of displacement –the inability to cross borders lawfully, loss of liberty, confinement, separation from family and friends, extreme uncertainty. But whereas for most of us, the measures will be temporary, for the displaced, this limbo may be permanent.

Stranded citizens returning home and being forced into quarantine may have good reason to complain that they are being housed in inadequate facilities, with unmet medical needs, poor quality food, and insufficient attention to their mental health. 

However, this puts into sharp relief the situation faced by millions of refugees and asylum seekers around the world, often living overcrowded, impoverished and unsanitary conditions for prolonged periods of time. Some people are subjected to indefinite deprivation of liberty, such as those detained in Australia’s immigration facilities or contained on Manus Island or Nauru, with no solution in sight. There and in the Global North, human rights courts and bodies have held time and again that States are inflicting inhuman and degrading treatment on people in search of protection.

At any time of crisis, vulnerable groups suffer most. And as governments decide how to deploy limited resources in response to COVID-19, it is likely that displaced people will be disproportionately affected. As one commentator asked last week, how might Turkey, hosting more than four million refugees, decide to channel its limited resources? ‘Imagine the European migration crisis that changed the politics of a continent happening again,’ he wrote, ‘but then add the ramifications of a few million people carrying a fast-spreading virus.’

The response of many countries has been to close their borders – to everyone other than nationals and permanent residents. But as UNHCR has emphasised, while governments may lawfully manage public health risks by screening, testing or quarantining people upon entry, this must ‘not result in denying them an effective opportunity to seek asylum or result in refoulement.’ In other words, people who need protection from persecution or other serious harm must still have an opportunity to be granted it. 

Counter-intuitively, formal border closures might in fact heighten the risk of coronavirus spreading, as people in need of protection find alternative ways to enter a country, bypassing health checks and quarantine.

There is no doubt that governments need to react swiftly and decisively to limit the spread of COVID-19, and that this justifies exceptional measures. However, all such measures must be non-discriminatory, provided for by law, and be reasonable, proportionate and necessary to protect public health.

Emergency powers should be time-bound and only extended if the situation continues to justify them, but there is a risk that certain restrictive practices become the norm. This happened after 9/11, when ‘exceptional’, temporary powers assumed by governments in the wake of the New York terrorist attacks become permanent mainstays of national security (leading to what some have dubbed a permanent legal emergency). COVID-19-related restrictions on movement and personal liberty could become the ‘new normal’ as well, with highly detrimental consequences for people in need of protection.

International cooperation has never been more important. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres said: ‘COVID-19 is menacing the whole of humanity – and so the whole of humanity must fight back. Individual country responses are not going to be enough’. Everyone benefits when the whole community has equal access to information, health care and testing, and international funding should support this. Yet, as Refugees International adroitly observed, just when global solidarity and cooperation are so needed, many countries are turning inward.

So, what comes next? There is the danger that governments retreat to nationalism, and people’s fears about borders and mobility harden. But there is also a chance we could see ‘a new type of pragmatic and protective internationalism’ over the longer term, something akin to the post-World War II optimism of a new, multilateral world order. That moment brought us the modern refugee and human rights law regime – protections that seemed unimaginable during the midst of the conflict. 

The Kaldor Centre is creating this online hub to examine COVID-19 and displacement, with expert commentary and analysis from refugees, scholars, practitioners and others. In our dedicated COVID-19 space, you will find insights, reflections, ideas – and hopes – about the world’s response to the pandemic. What are the particular implications for the right to seek asylum, freedom of movement, access to health care, social security and other assistance, and the meaning of protection? We already know that refugees and other forced migrants are among the world’s most resilient people, but without medical, economic and social support, even the most resourceful will be unable to escape the impacts of COVID-19. Here, we will keep a watching brief on how the challenges play out.

Read Kaldor Centre's COVID-19 Watch for expert analysis of COVID-19’s impact on refugees and other forced migrants.

Jane McAdam