By Elizabeth Murphy
During the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, nations have increasingly restricted border crossing of foreign nationals as part of the pandemic responses. According to the UNHCR, “167 countries have so far fully or partially closed their borders to contain the spread of the virus.” This means that approximately 66% of all UN recognized countries and territories have increased border restrictions. As states make their borders impermeable to foreign nationals, stateless and displaced peoples are becoming increasingly vulnerable. According to the UN, at least 34% of states with increased border security will not allow entrance to asylum seekers. Currently, there are approximately 70 million people internationally who identify as a refugee, displaced person, or asylum seeker.
“Securing public health and protecting refugees are not mutually exclusive. This is not a dilemma. We have to do both.” - Filippo Grandi, High Commissioner for Refugees
Displaced peoples, particularly asylum seekers who aim to seek refuge in countries other than their country of origin face huge barriers. For over 2 months, at least three boats of Rohingya Muslims who fled persecution in Myanmar have been floating directionless in the ocean between Bangladesh and their intended destination, Malaysia. These refugees had been living in Bangladeshi refugee settlements, before paying smugglers to transport them to Malaysia, where there are more opportunities for employment. The Malaysian government has denied these refugees from docking, and they are unable to return to Bangladesh, whose government has argued that other nations should accept the migrants as Bangladesh has taken in the majority of the fleeing Rohingya Muslims already. The UN has called the situation a deadly “game of human ping-pong.” The boats have been characterized as “modern day slave ships” with harsh conditions including extreme overcrowding, which has led many to die during the journey. On April 15, the Bandgladeshi coast guard rescued a boat of Rohingya refugees denied from docking in Malaysia. Many passengers aboard did not survive, and the 400 who did were malnourished, and many faced physical abuse from their traffickers. This instance demonstrates how dire it is that a country accepts the boats that remain adrift. While coastguards from Thailand and Malaysia have delivered water and food to these ships, Rohingya aboard face huge dangers as conditions remain perilous and nations refuse to accept them.
“The core principles of refugee protection are being put to test – but people who are forced to flee conflict and persecution should not be denied safety and protection on the pretext, or even as a side effect, of responding to the virus.”- Filippo Grandi
Canada has made efforts to assist refugees within its borders. To support refugees legally recognized within Canada, the government will be accepting expired refugee documents, meaning they will allow those who have been previously recognized as refugees to remain in Canada legally, despite exhausting their documentation. Additionally, those with immigrant loans from the government will not be required to repay these loans until September, 2020. However, the government has closed their border to all foreign nationals, with exemptions only for those with certain visas. The nation has “paused” internal resettlement procedures involving refugee claimants, also referred to as asylees. Those who are already in Canada may file a refugee claim, though they are unable to proceed with legal hearings which would grant them this status, as such hearings have been postponed until further notice. Furthermore, without a government interview to assess one’s refugee claim, these claimants are unable to receive a work or study permit during this time due to a temporary suspension of services as interviews and hearings cannot be conducted virtually. This means that while those in Canada may make a legal claim for refugee status, they will not have legal authorization to work and study until they are able to have an interview and medical examination.
Furthermore, many workers on the frontline of the pandemic have been refugee claimants waiting on status approval. Particularly in Montreal, there is a large number of Haitian refugee claimants working to keep long-term elderly care homes in the area functioning, risking their own health. Many of these claimants depend on frontline work to support not only themselves, but also their family back in Haiti through remittances. Given their dedication to supporting Canada in a time of emergency, many organizations across Canada, including Maison d’Haiti — who settle Haitian refugees in Montreal—have called for a more secure pathway for refugee claimants working frontline jobs to access legal status in Canada. Refugee claim processes have a high level of unpredictability as well as long wait times, even without delays due to Covid-19. During this time, claimants work and pay taxes like Canadian citizens, but have fewer rights. Refugee advocacy and support organizations across Canada have urged government officials to allow refugee claimants to have their claims processed as immigrant visa applications, which have more certainty of approval than a refugee claimant application.
“Any kind of epidemic is never good, but particularly not this one, where physical distancing is impossible and home isolation is a joke.” -Annick Antierens, Strategic Advisor to the Medical Department for Doctors Without Borders
Currently, about 2 million refugees live in official refugee settlements internationally. It is impossible for residents to socially distance due to camp layout and communal facilities and there is limited hospital access within these areas, which leaves residents at high risk of infection. The first case of Covid-19 was detected in Cox’s Bazar settlement in Bangladesh on May 14. This is the world's largest refugee settlement, with a population density of 40,000 to 70,000 people per square kilometre. Kutupalong-Balukhali Expansion Site in Cox’s Bazar has become the prototype for refugee settlement response efforts and the subject of Johns Hopkins University research. In this camp, most services have been suspended or decreased in order to limit the number of staff entering the settlement. Suspension of non-essential activities, including education and mental health services, has taken a toll on resident’s wellbeing. Furthermore, due to government-imposed cell phone restrictions in the area, there is no easy way for residents to access reliable information or contact each other, which has led to high levels of misinformation and confusion about Covid-19. Even with early action through the suspension of non-essential services, the results of this outbreak will undoubtedly be “catastrophic”. According to Dr. Shamim Jahan, Save the Children’s Health Director in Bangladesh, “"Despite the best efforts of aid agencies and the government of Bangladesh, healthcare capacity in the refugee camps is limited… In the Rohingya refugee camps — home to nearly a million people — there are no intensive care beds at this moment.” He warns that thousands may die.
Internationally, there are aid projects to support those in refugee settlements and ensure that they may take extra precautions for protection during this time. Due to the communal nature of refugee camps and the overcrowded area, many refugees face extreme health risks. To mitigate these risks, the EU has pledged €350 million to support displaced people and the UNHCR has created a US$255 million relief fund. In Greece, the government has moved refugees with pre-existing health conditions from refugee camps on the Aegean Islands to hotels so that they may properly self isolate. Similarly, in Mexico, there is a cash based assistance program for refugees so that they have the financial means to move out of refugee camps.
While there is support for refugees internationally, it is imperative that countries continue to support displaced people and create a system for accepting asylees and refugees while ensuring the safety of their own citizens. In Canada, the government should support refugee claimants entering the country by using pre-existing self-quarantine systems to monitor their health upon arrival so that they can safely utilize refugee claimant housing after quarantine, if necessary. Furthermore, those who are frontline workers who have ongoing refugee claims should be recognized for their dedication to support Canada and be granted a more stable path to immigraiton. It is time to call on our government to extend their support to those currently in the refugee claimant process and those entering Canada as refugee claimants, and to support international efforts to aid the crisis among vulnerable populations abroad.