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It’s time to help migrants and refugees bearing the brunt of COVID-19

9 July 2020 at 3:21 pm
Ezekiel Simperingham
It is clear that the pandemic is affecting some more than others. We need to look beyond our own communities and provide support to those who are far from home, often isolated and at grave risk, writes Ezekiel Simperingham.

Ezekiel Simperingham | 9 July 2020 at 3:21 pm


It’s time to help migrants and refugees bearing the brunt of COVID-19
9 July 2020 at 3:21 pm

It is clear that the pandemic is affecting some more than others. We need to look beyond our own communities and provide support to those who are far from home, often isolated and at grave risk, writes Ezekiel Simperingham.

COVID-19 has become one of the most far reaching crises of the past century, disrupting the lives of communities around the world, from small island villages to densely populated economic powerhouses. As it spreads around the region and the globe, it is clear that the virus discriminates, affecting some communities more than others, exposing existing inequalities in our societies. It takes a heavy toll on the poor, the homeless and those without access to adequate health services. 

On the frontline of exposure to COVID-19 are millions of migrant workers who have left their homes in search of employment to support their families, many now making the dangerous trek home after their jobs disappeared. There are millions more who have been forced to flee their countries due to conflict and persecution who are now living in overcrowded camps and settlements. Globally, more than 41 million people are displaced within their own countries due to conflict and human rights abuses, with millions more displaced as a result of disasters and climate change, which affect the Asia Pacific more than any other region.

Many of these migrant workers, refugees and internally displaced people are among the most at risk from COVID-19 as well as its socio-economic fallout. Migrants and refugees often struggle to access proper health care due to language barriers, a lack of culturally appropriate care or prohibitive prices. Others, particularly the undocumented, live in fear of seeking medical care, due to the risk of being arrested for their immigration status, placed in detention facilities and forcibly deported.

There’s great interest here in Australia in a COVID vaccine as well as the public health issues related to the challenges in providing vaccines for diseases like polio and measles due to lockdowns. It’s vitally important to ensure a COVID vaccine for all including migrants and there’s great cooperation between the international Red Cross movement and the vaccine alliance, GAVI on this. 

The risks of the virus are further amplified for refugees and migrants living in camps and settlements, where physical distancing is near impossible and health care services are already overstretched. The race is on in the fight against the virus that threatens close to one million displaced people living in temporary camps near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, now the world’s largest settlement of displaced people.

Red Cross Red Crescent health teams, including Australian aid workers, are working around the clock alongside Bangladesh medics, the United Nations and other humanitarian agencies. The crowded living conditions, limited access to health care, and the monsoon and cyclone season all magnify the risk of the disease spreading rapidly in the camps. We also see critical risks for more overcrowded and unhealthy camps across Myanmar, Afghanistan and Pakistan. All have limited access to fresh water and health care. 

Despite the enormous challenges we face with COVID-19, now is the time for all of us to look beyond our own communities and countries. We need to provide support to those who are far from home, often isolated and at grave risk. It is critical that all migrants – irrespective of their legal status – have access to basic services and health care. This is a humanitarian imperative, that natural compulsion that people feel to reach out and help those around them.

COVID-19 highlights a huge public health concern for us all. It is vital that everyone in our communities feels safe to come forward for testing, treatment and care. Red Cross and Red Crescent health teams across the region are working with governments to reinforce this humanitarian approach, and to emphasise the importance of understanding the specific needs of refugees and migrants, and systematically including and addressing these needs in national COVID-19 response plans, as well as broader health systems.

It is also important that we look beyond the devastating health impacts on refugees and migrants to the socio-economic upheaval, for we cannot predict when the virus will disappear. Refugees and migrant workers – particularly those in the informal sector and who work as day labourers – are often the first to lose their jobs and the last to receive social protection and assistance.  

When the UN warns of global hunger doubling as a result of coronavirus, my mind turns to the hundreds of thousands of daily wage migrant workers from India, Nepal, Bangladesh and the Philippines who have suddenly found themselves without jobs or income. This will have major flow-on effects, with a crisis of hunger and housing unfolding in communities across the region due to a historic decline in cash being sent home to the families of migrant workers. We fear this will lead to migrants and refugees taking further risks to feed themselves and their loved ones. 

It’s important to ask, are we doing enough to support these people who are the backbone of our economies? Whether searching for work, displaced by conflict or disaster, migrants and refugees are at greater risk of contracting the virus. We have a duty to provide extra care to save lives, and action is needed to prevent secondary crises. As we look to protect our future, we must look to others and ensure that they too can be safe and well. 

Ezekiel Simperingham  |  @ProBonoNews

Ezekiel Simperingham is the Asia Pacific migration and displacement coordinator for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

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