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OPINION: When will refugees get a COVID-19 vaccine?


OPINION: When will refugees get a COVID-19 vaccine?

Jordan and Lebanon are including Syrian refugees in their vaccination campaigns. If we don't live up to our commitments to refugees we risk a lost generation.
5 February 2021
Kenya. Refugees and host community access maternal health during COVID-19
Burundian refugee Ishimagizwe Eliana washes her hands at the entrance to the Natukobenyo health clinic, Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya, October 2020.

For the world’s poorest people, COVID-19 has brought social and economic catastrophe. Up to 115 million likely fell into extreme poverty in 2020, the World Bank estimates. Most live in low- and middle-income countries, especially in fragile and conflict-affected settings. Even progress on vaccines is tempered by uncertainty about when these will reach vulnerable populations worldwide. 

The vulnerable include refugees and internally displaced people uprooted by conflict. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, warns that their number has now passed 80 million, equal to the population of Germany. For example, in Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq, COVID-19 has pushed a million Syrian refugees and 180,000 internally displaced people into poverty, along with over four million people in host communities.

Today, 85 per cent of refugees are hosted by low- and middle-income countries. The current economic contraction is compounding crises of conflict, violence, and food insecurity that were already pushing communities to the brink. These countries’ infrastructure, health, education, and social protection systems are not set up to cope with a shock on this scale. Short of an urgent increase in humanitarian and development support, countries risk drastic, long-term destabilisation.

The desperation among refugees is stark. UNHCR staff report more instances of self-harm, including suicides in countries as different as Uganda and Lebanon, a sign of acute anguish. Yet many refugees are  able and willing to give back to host communities if they have the opportunity. In Jordan, France, and Peru, for example, refugees with a background in public health or medicine have joined frontline responders in the pandemic response.

Even last February, before the pandemic, the World Bank estimated that, in 10 years, up to two-thirds of people living in extreme poverty would be in countries affected by fragility and conflict, where progress on poverty was reversing. Amid protracted conflicts, four out of five refugees now live in host countries for five years or more.

Since the start of the pandemic, UNHCR and the World Bank have stepped up health, water, sanitation, and hygiene services to protect people forced to flee. We have worked with host country governments to ensure that the displaced are included in pandemic response and economic recovery efforts.

But the economic crisis means efforts must be stepped up further: people forced to flee need long-term help more than ever. In 2019, more than half the world’s seven million school-age refugees did not attend school. Now, with COVID-induced closures, severe learning loss risks a lost generation of refugees with few job prospects and little hope.

Refugee populations with the best access to job markets were typically in cities, but the coronavirus and recession have both hit urban areas hard, making them vulnerable to losing incomes, particularly the self-employed and informal workers. Social and economic stress could spill over into violence, triggering new waves of displacement.

Host countries can benefit by including refugees and internally displaced people in recovery efforts and ensuring their access to public health, education, and labor markets. Many are making commendable efforts. Jordan, for instance, is including Syrian refugees in its national vaccination campaign and Lebanon has just committed to doing the same. Refugees have no safety net, and even data on their socioeconomic status is often lacking. Including them—in national statistics, in emergency response and long-term recovery—makes them visible, helping us understand the scope of the challenge and how we can help.

Investing in refugees cannot be the responsibility of host countries alone. In December 2018, the international community joined together on the Global Compact on Refugees, which commits donors and multilateral institutions to this shared responsibility as a global public good. We must live up to that commitment to refugees and host communities in spirit and deed.

This op-ed was first published by Thomson Reuters Foundation.