Deprioritised in the health response: fragility of refugees in the Middle East and North Africa region during the COVID-19 pandemic
Jasmin Lilian Diab and Dana Nabulsi, American University of Beirut, Lebanon
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has experienced a massive influx of refugees and internally displaced persons over the last decade with Jordan and Lebanon currently home to the highest number of refugees per capita worldwide. In Jordan there are 657,000 UNHCR-registered Syrian refugees and in Lebanon there are 1.7 million refugees including 1.5 million from Syria – with unregistered migrants putting that number somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million refugees. A number of refugees live in heavily populated camps or impoverished regions with poorer health, water, sanitation and hygiene facilities making preventive measures in these areas and throughout these camps, such as regular access to water and basic sanitation and hygiene, social distancing and self-quarantine, very challenging to implement. As a result, the situation for refugees amid COVID-19 is exceptionally challenging in Jordan and Lebanon in terms of access to health services and opportunities to obtain legal work permits amid large-scale unemployment exacerbated by the pandemic. In conflict-ridden areas, where health systems are already fragile and medical resources are scarce, refugees lack adequate access to both detection mechanisms and necessary medical attention, rendering it almost impossible to assess the prevalence of the pandemic and track its spread. It is evident at this stage in the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic that it has rendered humanitarian and conflict-affected areas especially vulnerable and finding ways to integrate migrants and refugees, regardless of their formal/legal standing, in national development and rescue plans for tackling the virus is essential toward preventing the pandemic from spreading in refugee camps.
Ala Uddin, University of Chittagong, Bangladesh
While many countries were taking necessary measures to fight the coronavirus, Bangladeshi leaders were largely in denial of the magnitude of the pandemic and were busy making speeches in line with this tune until around mid-March 2020. As we watched the virus spread across China, Europe and America, we were continuously reassured that, like other flus (e.g. Swine flu, SARS, Ebola or Zika), coronavirus would not hit Bangladesh. Despite these delusions, the first COVID-19 patient was eventually confirmed on 8 March 2020, with the first death following only ten days later. Time and again, we were assured that 'we are prepared enough to fight against the virus', and that it is 'like flu, not serious diseases'. However, even as COVID-19 was being brushed off, weariness and mistrust was already building against migrant workers, foreign travelers and other outsiders as they were quickly blamed for bringing COVID-19 into Bangladesh — an attribution that has resulted in both internal and returning migrants experiencing ‘Otherness’ in their own society.
Mehr Mumtaz, Ohio State University, USA
COVID-19 has not affected all communities equally, and within the United States, racial and ethnic minority groups have been disproportionately affected by the virus. Reports indicate that immigrants and refugees, who constitute a large portion of the minority frontline workforce in healthcare, agriculture, and food supply chain industry, are at a higher risk of exposure to the virus. Although media and scholarship have hitherto focused on the public forms of marginalisation experienced by immigrant and refugee workers amidst the pandemic, such as their exclusion from healthcare coverage and financial relief measures, less attention has been paid to how the pandemic has reverberated along multiple dimensions of their private lives and domestic households. Within this group of people, refugee women face unique implications within complex systems of racial, cultural, national, religious, gender and class-based inequality in the country, and broader structures of gender inequality have especially exacerbated the vulnerability of refugee women and their families during the COVID-19 crisis. Refugee women in the United States typically work in client-facing low-wage jobs, which has threatened their paid employment due to closures of businesses in the country.
Mattias De Backer, Université de Liège, Belgium
This contribution is based on the testimonies of about 25 frontline workers who, despite the dangers associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, have continued to support vulnerable groups including: undocumented migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, young people in special youth care, homeless people, and overall, people in poverty. This research is part of a European, HERA-funded research project on 'The everyday experiences of young refugees and asylum-seekers in public space'.
'Invisible people': the working and living conditions of undocumented immigrants in Jordan during the COVID-19 crisis
Cevdet Acu, University of Exeter, UK
While the coronavirus has spread indiscriminately across the world, the negative effects have been felt differently, as COVID-19 has amplified conditions for some of the most vulnerable groups which, in Jordan, are mainly undocumented immigrant workers. Workers can lose legal status when they leave a permitted job for one in an underground economy, or become irregular workers because their visas allow residence but not employment. Undocumented workers are not fully protected by the legal regulations and are frequently exploited by employers through wage theft, sexual harassment and unsafe working environments. Unfair treatment such as low pay, inhumane work hours and denied payment for working overtime are regular occurrences in their lives, but beyond this, undocumented workers must now grapple with fears of transmitting COVID-19 and the restrictions that have come with it.
Emmanuel Raju, University of Copenhagen, Denmark
I left my home, my people and my land,
Searching for a ray of hope, a light through the tunnel,
I fled poverty and marginalisation,
I fled, looking for hope! I made a bed in a ‘slum’ as they call,
I shared the shower with a million others, I shared my space with ten others,
Space? Yes, just a fifteen square metres and a loft with another few men,
Under the sheets of tin, we cooked, we ate and we worked,
Fires and floods? Who cared?
The virus came, they care! Not about me but that the virus might come into their home,
Told me to stay home, they called it social distancing, they get paid for that, I don’t!
And if we all stayed home in the slum, how do we distance?
Clean water, I never saw that before! How do I wash my hands for 20 seconds without water?
I don’t get to eat because I have to stay home,
What do I do? Walk home no matter the distance.
It was a few hundred kilometres I succeeded, no matter the heat,
I collapsed once, some water came, then some food,
Thank you Good Samaritan!
Then came the barricades, to stop me, the migrant!
Then came the sanitisers for the buses but they sprayed on me,
Then came the canes, the police’s parade of power asking why am I walking,
Because I cannot work from home, and if I don’t work, I don’t eat!
They closed the borders and the sight of my real ‘home’ gone,
Even if I had the virus, nobody cares because I have left the city,
No water, no soap, no distancing,
Unemployed, unpaid and starved,
The poverty, my darkest fear that I fled, I see it come again,
But I walk home, the long walk home!
Anjali Karol Mohan, India
'As in the photo of the daal packet, it is reassuring to see that there are civil society organisations that are promoting the message of equality especially during this time of crisis'.
Prior to COVID-19 taking centre stage as a global pandemic, a two-part seminar series called 'The "Southern Tilt" in the Urban Embedded Wisdom and Cultural Specificity as Pathways to Planning' was held in Colombia and India. The series sought to evolve planning approaches and methods to shape city futures in Latin America, Asia and Africa, geographies that promise to be the future of urbanisation. The main objective was to establish relevant and appropriate vocabularies, methods and processes to comprehend, steer and manage the emerging urban. Animated discussions on informality, migration, housing, land, displacement and conditions of displaceability had, in my opinion, made for a successful seminar. Six weeks later, however, while the discussions seem to be woefully inadequate in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, the objectives of the series could not have been more pertinent.
Dogus Simsek, University College London, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, UK
A few days ago, I received a WhatsApp message from an undocumented migrant living in Istanbul stating that, 'Our situation is getting worse. I lost my job because of coronavirus. I am stuck here with my child. I do not know how I will pay the rent, buy food for my child. I do not know what to do if we catch the virus. We cannot go to hospital. We are stuck here with very limited facilities. I am very worried about our lives. There is no one to help us. Many of us who do not have documents feel very desperate at the moment'. This is probably one of the worst experiences she has gone through since she migrated to Turkey from Ghana. Trying to understand this feeling of desperation without the social, political and cultural context is hard.
Megha Amrith, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Germany
Migrant domestic workers in Singapore have always faced multiple restrictions on their mobilities and rights: their stays are governed by the most restrictive of work permits which require them to live in employers’ homes. They have one day off per week (or in some cases, fortnight or month), and many suffer ongoing forms of exploitation and abuse behind the closed doors of their employers’ homes as labour legislation does not apply to domestic workers. Those who have been working abroad for a long time have found their own ways to negotiate the restrictions on their mobilities to find spaces of freedom, faith, friendship and belonging. These routines, however, have been overturned by the pandemic and trust that has been built over long periods of time has revealed itself to be deeply fragile as new anxieties, coupled with intensifications of existing anxieties, come to the fore.
Identities COVID-19 Blog Series
Explore expert commentaries curated by Identities on the dynamics between displaced migration and COVID-19.