COVID-19: A New Challenge Facing Migrants and Refugees’ Health and Security

Photo by Steve Evans via Flickr.com

The effect of COVID-19 on the lives of migrants and refugees has been challenging, to say the least. The facilities for displaced persons, refugees, and migrants are already over-capacitated with limited resources and health services. They are therefore, facing an insurmountable obstacle when it comes to COVID-19 and forestalling its spread. The risk faced by these families and children whose lives have already been uprooted and arduous, is compounded by COVID-19[1] making them even more susceptible to this deadly virus. Internally displaced persons and refugees are stuck in a continuous and vicious cycle of having been forced to leave their homes to seek shelter and safety, only to find themselves in these already poor and overcrowded camps,[2] at risk of a new threat to their lives- COVID-19.

At present, the concern for migrants and refugees has been discussed by numerous international organizations including ICR, UNHCR, UNICEF, OHCHR, IOM, and WHO; in addition to NGOs such as Amnesty International; as the ability to cope with the ramifications of COVID-19 are severe. COVID-19 is not just a challenge for the global community, it has also illuminated pitfalls within the health care systems around the world. With a virus as contagious as the coronavirus, the consequence of pockets of the world being unable to face the challenges of handwashing, social isolations and a consulting health center are magnified. This is harsh reality within the impossibly overcrowded refugee camps.[3] The effect is potentially catastrophic, with thousands of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers confined in close quarters with limited access to health services and sanitation. There has been call from multiple international organizations and UN bodies for an immediate inclusion[4] of all migrants within national responses to COVID-19.

COVID-19 has led to many nations limiting social gatherings, tightening travel within and restricting cross-border movement. This has caused everyday life to come to a stand-still, transforming the way we interact.[5] Unfortunately, this halt of our day to day lives has not stopped wars and persecution. Today, people are still facing continued threat and fleeing danger, seeking to find shelter and safety within these camps. Regrettably, these sites are unable to administer all the necessities needed to overcome these hurdles. With roughly 70 million people (31 million children)[6] already fleeing their homes due to conflict and disaster[7] there is an immediate and grave need to address and manage refugee camps with greater detail to combating the spread of the virus.

Aggravating this already difficult situation is the fact that three-quarters of the world’s refugees and migrants’ populations are hosted in developing countries where the healthcare systems are already overwhelmed and under-capacitated to handle COVID-19 concerns.[8] The situations for refugees and migrants is unrelenting: with facilities and access constraints, lack of privacy, long and cumbersome application processes- forming a multitude of different societal hindrances to their physical and mental health; without adding in a new, contagious, and deadly virus into the mix.  Migrants and refugees are placed into unfamiliar environments, with acute stressors and horrid living conditions without latitude to find alternative arrangements.

The strain in providing effective protection and health services to migrants and refugees is not isolated to developing nations. We can see the challenges facing many migrants, refugees, and displaced persons just by taking a look at the camp situation in Greece. At the Central accommodation site, 23 migrants have tested positive for COVID-19[9]. Overcrowding is a major concern on the Greek Islands, and other migrant and refugee camps, as it is extremely difficult to take the necessary precautions of social distancing and hygiene.[10] On the Greek Island of Lesbos, Camp Moria has been largely sealed off to prevent a coronavirus outbreak. This island houses 18,000 refugees.

In Germany, overcrowding has also detrimentally impacted reception centres for refugees applying for asylum. In Ellwangen, where refugees are accommodated while their asylum applications are processed there has been an increase from seven to 251 confirmed COVID-19 cases in just five days.[11] The facility at Ellwagen has come under sharp criticisms from its residents complaining of crowded conditions, shared facilities, and a lack of protective equipment and disinfectant.[12] Residents also said that toilets and baths are shared among 50 to 80 people. It is this type of environment where the virus can flourish and cause preventable and potentially deadly harm to these individuals. As a result, the refugee council for the state of Baden-Württemberg has called on states across Germany to reduce cramped conditions of migrants’ facilities.[13]

In order to overcome some of these obstacles, countries such as France have been transporting refugees and migrants to new sites in order to reduce the spread of the virus and adhere to social distancing practices. However, the transportation of thousands of people is challenging. The prefecture is bringing buses every two days, taking roughly 30 people to an alternative accommodation but there is not enough space on the bus.[14]

Fortunately, there are solutions to help overcome the hurdles that exist with border and camp management during these uncertain times including identifying health risks, promoting and enabling screening arrangements with testing, and quarantine measures.[15] This allows for countries to respect international refugee protection standards while maintaining adherence to health and safety concerns of COVID-19. By creating a more inclusive approach to COVID-19 and health care, more generally, for migrants and refugees who are disproportionately vulnerable to disease and infections due to their living arrangements; we can help curb the outbreak and protect the rights and health of all people.

In Bosnia & Herzegovina, the reception centers of Borići, Sedra, and Bira have also dealt with the increased rates of infection by installing sanitizer stations, educating the staff and residents about safety while increasing the cleaning procedures of their facilities. With just under 500 infected residents (as of April 1st) out of 5,500 migrants and refugees,[16] the importance of health, sanitation, and social distancing procedures has never been more important in cutting the rise of COVID-19. 

We stand to gain a lot by removing distinction and social barriers for migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. Around the world, these individuals are “reporting for duty”[17] by making soaps and personal protection equipment, cooking free meals for healthcare workers, joining volunteering efforts in their host communities, or using their education to save lives. In Atlanta, an Iraqi cardiologist is caring for neighbours and patients. This is not the only example, with a Syrian teacher cleaning hospital wards in London. These individuals are more than just the legal status that has been delegated to them. They are able to assist in the prevention of COVID-19. When “empowered to make use of their skills, knowledge and experience, everyone has stands to gain,” as said by UNHCR High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi.[18]

The core principles of refugee protection are being put to the test during these times, with people who are fleeing conflict and persecution[19] now being subjected to unsanitary and overcrowded conditions leaving them in a precarious position ripe for a COVID-19 outbreak. This is the time to work together to ensure that everyone has adequate access to health services, a clean environment, with an appropriate level of space to practice social distancing. The outbreak of COVID-19 has changed the way in which we live our lives, at least for the time being but we should do all that we can to protect the vulnerable and help stop the spread.

The way in which we handle refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrants needs to be re-envisioned and updated. The current structure is limiting, allowing skilled and successful migrants to be placed in counter-productive, bureaucratic schemes that severely limit what they can do in their host country. If COVID-19 has shown us anything, it is that all individuals have the capacity to assist during a crisis, no matter who they are. By continuing to subject migrants to harsh conditions with limited healthcare options, we are effectively saying their lives don’t matter as much. This not only violates international laws, but it illustrates a lack of empathy and understanding. Migrants have a lot to offer, not only during this pandemic but always. The current crisis being faced by migrants in response to COVID-19 concerns illustrate that we are all susceptible, we are all vulnerable, and we all desire protection from this deadly virus. Migrants and refugees are facing a unique challenge and it is time we stepped up our policies to enforce their immediate inclusion in all healthcare services and sanitation while providing liveable, spacious conditions where they can administer social distancing. To prevent the spread of COVID-19, we need to do more, and we need to take greater care of our exposed populations such as refugees and migrants.


Kelly Demjanick is a legal scholar with experience in international criminal law and environmental law. Her research has focused on victims before international tribunals and human right abuses related to environmental concerns.



[1] Statement by UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore, “COVID-19 pandemic could devasted refugee, migrant and internally displaced populations without urgent international action” (Press Release, UNICEF, 1 April 2020) accessed at unicef.org/press-release/covid-19-pandemic-could-devaste-refugee-migrant-and-internally-displaced.

[2] “COVID-19: Refugees are in a vicious circle that make them particularly vulnerable” (Council of Europe, Parliamentary Assembly, 14 April 2020) accessed at assembly.coe.int/nw/xml/News-View-EN.asp?newsid=7852&lang=2.

[3] Statement by David Miliband as UN launches $2 billion appeal: Coronavirus is not just a problem for the rich (Press Release, IRC, 25 March 2020) accessed at rescue-uk.org/press-release/statement-david-miliband-un-launches-2-billion-appeal-coronavirus-not-just-problem.

[4] The Rights and Health of Refugees, Migrants and Stateless Must be Protected in COVID-19 Response, (OHCHR, IOM, UNHCR and WHO- Joint Press Release, 31 March 2020) accessed at iom.int/news/rights-and-health-refugees-migrants-and-stateless-must-be-protected-covid-19-response.

[5] Statement by Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, on the COVID-19 crisis (Press Release, UNHCR: The UN Refugee Agency, 19 March 2020) accessed at unhcr.org/uk/news/press/2020/3/5e7395f84/statement-filippo-grandi-un-high-commissioner-refugees-covid-19-crisis.html

[6] UNICEF has release statistic, that as of April 2020 there are 31 million children who have been uprooted from their homes: including 17 million internally displaced, 12.7 million refugees and 1.1 million asylum seekers. For more information see: Statement by UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore “COVID-19 pandemic could devastate refugee, migrant and internally displaced populations without urgent international action” (1 April 2020) accessed at unicef.org/press-releases/covid-19-pandemic-could-devaste-refugee-migrant-and-internally-displaced.

[7] Statement by David Miliband as UN launches $2 billion appeal: Coronavirus is not just a problem for the rich (Press Release, IRC, 25 March 2020) accessed at rescue-uk.org/press-release/statement-david-miliband-un-launches-2-billion-appeal-coronavirus-not-just-problem.

[8] The Rights and Health of Refugees, Migrants and Stateless Must be Protected in COVID-19 Response, (OHCHR, IOM, UNHCR and WHO- Joint Press Release, 31 March 2020) accessed at iom.int/news/rights-and-health-refugees-migrants-and-stateless-must-be-protected-covid-19-response.

[9] ‘’Everyone at risk’ as coronavirus cases tick up among migrants and refugees sheltering in Greece’ (UN News, Migrant and Refugees, 2 April 2020) accessed at news.un.org/en/story/2020/04/1060972.

[10] ‘’Everyone at risk’ as coronavirus cases tick up among migrants and refugees sheltering in Greece’ (UN News, Migrant and Refugees, 2 April 2020) accessed at news.un.org/en/story/2020/04/1060972.

[11] Oltermannn, Philip. “Refugees in German Centres Fear Lack of Protection as COVID-19 Cases Soar.” (The Guardian, 15 April 2020) accessed at theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/15/refugees-in-german-centre-fear-lack-of-protection-as-covid-19-cases-soar.

[12] IBID.

[13] IBID.

[14] Makszimov, Vlagyiszlaz, “Refugees left behind in coronavirus crisis, aid groups warn” (EURACTIV, 9 April 2020) accessed at euractiv.com/section/justice-home-affairs/news/refugees-left-behind-in-coronavirus-crisis-aid-groups-warn/.

[15] Statement by Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, on the COVID-19 crisis (Press Release, UNHCR: The UN Refugee Agency, 19 March 2020) accessed at unhcr.org/uk/news/press/2020/3/5e7395f84/statement-filippo-grandi-un-high-commissioner-refugees-covid-19-crisis.html.

[16] COVID-19: from conflict to pandemic, migrants in Bosnia face a new challenge (UN News, Migrants and Refugees, 3 April 2020) accessed at news.un.org/en/story/2020/04/1060982.

[17] Grandi, Filippo “Refugees are on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic. Let’s give them the rights they deserve” (World Economic Forum, 30 April 2020) accessed at weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/meet-the-asylum-seekers-on-the-frontline-of-the-coronavirus/.

[18] Grandi, Filippo “Refugees are on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic. Let’s give them the rights they deserve” (World Economic Forum, 30 April 2020) accessed at weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/meet-the-asylum-seekers-on-the-frontline-of-the-coronavirus/.

[19] Beware long-term damage to human rights and refugee rights from the coronavirus pandemic: UNHCR, (UNHCR, 22 April 2020) accessed at unhcr.org/news/press/2020/4/5ea035ba4/beware-long-term-damage-human-rights-refugee-rights-coronavirus-pandemic.html

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