As COVID-19 spreads from Europe, East Asia, and the US to other parts of the world, medical professionals and human rights advocates have been pointing out the special threat the virus poses to refugees and asylum-seekers.
According to the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, there are 70.8 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, including 25.9 million refugees and 3.5 million asylum-seekers.
In the Guardian, Annie Kelly writes that refugees in camps in France are vulnerable due to a lack of proper sanitation, water supplies, and food. Unless the refugees are resettled where they can socially distance, the virus could spread exponentially, according to refugee advocates there.
Refugees in camps in Syria face similar difficulties, as well as a lack of doctors to treat those who are sick, according to Sasha Abramsky, writing for the Nation.
The number of confirmed cases is low, but they are spreading. There has now been a reported case in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where one million displaced Rohinyga live. The Council on Foreign Relations has a helpful video on threats to this population, as well as the steps that international aid organizations are taking to try to mitigate the spread in these densely populated camps.
“The global response to COVID-19 must be inclusive if it is to be effective,” says Hardin Lang, Refugee International’s vice president for programs and policy. This inclusiveness means stopping the spread in refugee camps, detention facilities, and the neighborhoods where resettled refugees live.
Besides threats to their health, refugees and other displaced people are encountering politicians who are using the pandemic as a tool to flout international laws on the treatment of these populations. Writing for the Jurist, Dr. Nafees Ahmad argues that the suspension of entry into Hungary’s transit zone amounts to a deprivation of the right to asylum. The government’s reasoning—the “risk related to the spread of COVID-19”—is inadequate, considering the lack of evidence that asylum seekers are carriers.
Similarly, Bosnia is detaining people in Lipa refugee camps near Croatia, and South Africa has constructed 40 kilometers of border barrier along the border of Zimbabwe to prevent people from entering the country. Limiting the movements of asylum seekers and refugees under the guise of preventing the spread of COVID-19, Ahmad argues, is an outgrowth not of public health recommendations but of “far-right nationalism” and “populism.” Certain leaders, Ahmad argues, are manipulating the crisis, not managing it.
Portugal, meanwhile, has granted provisional citizenship rights to all refugees, asylum-seekers, and migrants with pending applications for residency certificates so that they can access health care and prevent the transmission of the virus.
Amidst this crisis, there is a robust international legal framework to support the right to health of both citizens and migrants, including the Constitution of the World Health Organization, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. A human rights approach to health care would include an understanding of the international laws and institutions that govern how the pandemic affects the most vulnerable populations, including migrants and refugees, and what these populations are legally entitled to under international law.
The Hamilton Lugar School has a strong record of researching and teaching about these international structures and debating the role of human rights considerations in foreign and domestic policy. Last fall, it hosted Navigating the Backlash Against Global Law and Institutions, an international conference that debated the rise of destabilizing global political developments and featured a keynote speech by human rights advocate and Justice Michael Kirby. In the spring, it sends a delegation of students to the UN Convention on the Status of Women to present on and learn about the role of international structures in shaping domestic laws, although the pandemic prevented this trip in 2020.
The BA in International Law and Institutions provides a framework for understanding the legal basis and possible responses to complex global issues like the rights of displaced peoples. And human rights is a major topic of International Studies. Courses this fall include Immigration Law and Policy, Peace and Conflict, and Human Rights and International Law.
As COVID-19 continues to determine how we live and relate to one another, an education in human rights law and international institutions is more valuable than ever.