Despite being one of the most vulnerable groups during the pandemic, refugees have disproportionately suffered from the virus and have had little access to vaccinations. The struggles felt by refugees have only been exacerbated by the introduction of strict migration and social distancing rules, and the rising anti-migrant rhetoric in many countries has left refugees living in overcrowded camps with poor hygiene for extended amounts of time.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Uganda, Africa’s largest refugee-hosting country, closed its borders without making an exception for refugees or asylum seekers causing 10,000 people to be stranded along its border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. Refugees and migrants have often been blamed for spreading COVID-19, causing some countries to apply practices that violate fundamental human rights. These practices involve arbitrary mass pushbacks, and forced detention in overcrowded camps that do not allow for social distancing.
The pandemic has also had negative impacts on refugee living standards including poor sanitation, lack of access to food, medicine, and education, as well as extremely overcrowded sleeping situations. These conditions have made the spread of COVID-19 much quicker in refugee camps. More than 1,350 COVID-19 cases were recorded in the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh alone. Vaccination of refugees is essential to protect lives and to slow down the spread of the virus, yet a staggering number of refugees remain unvaccinated.
The main reason for the lack of refugee vaccination is the alarming global vaccine inequality. Eighty-four percent of all vaccine doses have been administered in some of the richest countries with only 0.1% administered in poorer countries. Since the majority of refugees live in lower income countries, they are often right at the end of the list when it comes to vaccination.
However, even in countries with less limited vaccination campaigns, refugees have been overlooked. According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), in Europe refugees are the least vaccinated group. Refugees in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden have higher rates of infection than the rest of the population and in Italy and Spain, they are more likely to be hospitalised as a result of COVID-19. Furthermore according to Border Force officers, in the UK, refugees crossing the channel are 20 times more likely to contract the virus than the rest of the population.
Undocumented migrants face further challenges when trying to get vaccinated since many countries require identification documents accepted by their government registration systems. Belkis Wille, senior researcher in the crisis and conflict division at Human Rights Watch (HRW) stated:
“If the registration system that the government has established requires a certain type of identity card that refugees don’t have access to, or that other migrants don’t have access to, they will be de facto left out of the vaccine campaign regardless of what the government said in its plan.”
In the lead-up to World Refugee Day on 20 June 2021, NGOs and non-profit organisations have been raising awareness about the impact COVID-19 has had on refugees and migrants. Daniel Wordsworth, CEO of World Vision Australia commented:
“These are people who have been forced to flee their homes, whose children have been pulled out of school and forced to work or pushed into early marriage to ensure their survival. COVID-19 has added another layer of devastation to their lives.”
While more awareness is being spread about vaccine inequality, particularly in relation to refugees, not enough action is being taken to improve refugee conditions. UNICEF has been maintaining essential health services for roughly 120,000 refugees living in Za’atari, Azraq, King Abdullah Park, and Emirati refugee camps set up in Jordan. Furthermore, to allow for a fairer distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, the World Health organisation has set up the COVAX programme which managed to deliver more than 38 million doses to over 100 countries in its first 42 days of running.
However, due to India’s export ban, many countries have not received the right amount of vaccines. Uganda, Pakistan, Lebanon, and Colombia are among those that have received only a fraction of the vaccine doses allotted to them through COVAX. What little vaccines are received are mainly offered to its general population rather than to refugees living in overcrowded camps.
During the G7 summit held in Cornwall, world leaders agreed to donate one billion vaccine doses to poorer countries by next year. And while this decision will hopefully increase the number of vaccines offered to refugees, it is an offer that should have been made months ago.