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The Plight of Displaced People Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic

An opinion piece by Jason Muyumba – Johannesburg, South Africa

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a cascading effect across the world that has filtered into almost every aspect of human life. Of the 251 countries and territories recognized by the United Nations. approximately 92% (231 countries) have recorded positive cases, largely accompanied by some form of local restrictions to social and economic activity aimed at controlling the spread of the virus. This has prompted governments globally to scramble in an unprecedented manner to cushion their countries from the ensuing fallout. While the pandemic has deepened the precarity of many people it has concomitantly exposed the persistent uncertainty faced by displaced people.

Displaced people are individuals and families who have forcefully relocated in an attempt to escape adverse conditions in their homes, while this could be for a range of reasons many end up fleeing conflict, persecution and economic disparity. Varying forms of displaced people include refugees, asylum seekers, undocumented migrants and stateless people. Stats from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) tally approximately 70.8 million displaced people across the world, most of which are found in middle and low-income countries, in other words the developing world, where economic resources are relatively scarce and there is a high dependence on external aid and support. 26% of displaced people can be found in Sub-Saharan Africa, with 1.2 million of these displaced people – the third-largest extant group – being found in Uganda. The issues that displaced people are forced to grapple with are multifaceted and increase the burdens they contend with when attempting to navigate life in their host communities, burdens have only been aggravated in the face of a pandemic.

According to John Spiegel,  Director of the Centre for Humanitarian Health at John Hopkins University, 1 in 3 refugees globally lives in a refugee camp. While temporary, a World Bank official puts the mean duration of a refugee in these camps at 10.3 years, meaning that an average displaced person will spend over a decade of their lives constricted to the unconducive conditions prevalent in such settlements. Not only are these settlements under-resourced and densely populated, but their remote location also leaves many lacking access to effective public health systems capable of attempting to control potential outbreaks. A bleak prospect, particularly in a pandemic where healthcare systems in even the most well-resourced countries are overburdened with the worst cases of the virus. Life within the confines of refugee camps represents somewhat of a better reality to stateless people, who often exist on the periphery of societies lacking access to modern social conventions critical to their survival. Their illegal status prevents them from integrating into society (whether the need arises or not) in fear of facing prosecution, leaving these communities jarringly vulnerable to the pandemic.

Not all refugees and asylum seekers live in refugee settlements, yet life for this community even when granted the freedom to integrate into their host communities is marred by hardships. When it comes to employment particularly, displaced migrants disproportionately access the labour market through the informal sector where they engage in  irregular, low-wage jobs or run micro businesses - surviving from hand-to-mouth.  Due in part to the scarcity of economic resources in host countries, yet increasingly as a result of restrictive laws and policies that prevent displaced people from actively participating in economic activities. COVID-19 restrictions have therefore abruptly plunged such communities further into precarity with no safety net or social security protection that would typically be provided to host citizens.

Many countries have recorded unsurprisingly low economic activity, which has necessitated a revision of growth forecasts to reflect the muted prospects and the looming threat of a global recession. Within countries, labour forces are faced with retrenchment en masse and in the more extreme, yet growingly frequent, case enterprises are closing their doors indefinitely. Leaving even the most traditionally stable communities perturbed in their efforts at rekindling life as it once was.

Da Kuk / Getty Images

As the global economy embarks in an anticipated long-drawn-out and uncertain recovery back to pre-pandemic levels, central banks and treasury offices have deployed a range of policies aimed at protecting and stimulating consumption and productivity. Governments are in response reducing their donations and contributions to humanitarian organizations whose work is to support vulnerable communities, having a direct impact on displaced people who are heavily reliant on this assistance. With the work of such organizations and government agencies targeted at supporting these communities being debilitated, the hardships for these communities are only compounding. This all takes place amidst a backdrop of systematic exclusionary policies that are keeping displaced people from vital helplines. Whether this is through restricting access to adequately resourced healthcare systems or through the provision of cash grants, food security initiatives and other likened social security programs and policies. The fight against the pandemic can not be segregated and its effectiveness rests in the ability of all members of society being empowered to fight the pandemic in their immediate surroundings.

Birthing solutions that will be inclusive of society’s most vulnerable, but specifically displaced people and communities, must take into account the unique challenges they contend with. There is a responsibility for states to promulgate policies which are anti-discriminatory and place human rights and the safety of communities at the forefront. There is a need for mandatory firewalls preventing displaced people, strictly those peacefully seeking to access social security nets and public services, from being exploited and arrested. Failing to do so will not only violate the very rights that all people have afforded to them as human beings but will also prove counterproductive to efforts aimed to minimise the effects of the pandemic on society.

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