We are failing to protect refugees from the pandemic

By - Integrated Care Journal

We are failing to protect refugees from the pandemic

Integrated Care Journal (ICJ) Editor Francesco Tamilia spoke to Arash Bordbar, Chair of the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN)  about the main challenge refugees around the world are facing during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The impact Covid-19 has had and will have on our societies is dramatically devastating. It is also true that the pandemic has not affected everyone equally and has, in fact, forced us to confront our society’s widening inequalities. Disadvantaged communities have disproportionally suffered.

Nowhere is this truer than in the case of the world’s refugees, with no more a place to call home and feeling from life threatening situations. While countries were shutting their borders, refugees around the world found themselves left behind once again in the name of national interest.

Arash was 16 years old when he fled his home country of Iran. Now living in Australia, he  Chairs the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN), where he has been actively working to advance and support the rights of refugees and Co-Chair the UN Refugee Agency Global Youth Advisory Council, where he works specifically on how to amplify the voices of the forcibly displaced communities, especially young people in policy processes.



The “invisible refugees”

Throughout the pandemic countries have shut their borders to stem the tide of infections. According to Arash, this a caused a massive issue for refugees, “during the pandemic, countries have resorted to what they deem a needs-based approach rather than rights-based approach. ”

Closing borders, he says, is slowly becoming a culture, making it harder for migrants and refugees to enter safely. “We can also see that the number of resettlements and the number of countries actively receiving refugees is reducing significantly". Although there is nothing wrong with focussing on the country’s population, says Arash, this has meant putting the humanitarian priorities of the most vulnerable at the bottom of the global agenda.


According to the UNHCR, only a fraction of the millions displaced found a solution.


For those refugees who were in transit when the pandemic struck, the situation became particularly complicated.

“Because of their status, they were not able to receive any government support. This is because most of the times, like myself when I was in transit in Malaysia, they are working under the radar. Yes, you're working, but you have no rights and can easily be exploited. You can't report it to anyone. That is one of the main challenges. ”

Many young refugees have also been kicked out of their houses after losing their job because of the lockdowns. Again, there was little they could do.

The fear of being caught, with the possible scenario of being deported, has led many refugees to avoid seeking healthcare – this includes even being tested for Covid-19. “Throughout the pandemic refugees and asylum seekers were too scared to go out, to get tested or to ask for help in hospitals or clinics because of the fear of being caught. If you are caught in the street, it means you will be deported, and God knows what will happen to you then. ”



This was also confirmed by a report published last year by Refugee International, an independent humanisation organisation: “By law, foreigners in Italy have access to healthcare. In practice,” says the report, “many asylums seekers fear going to hospitals if undocumented, or face discrimination or language barriers. ” Consequently, this has made it harder to detect the virus amongst an acutely vulnerable population.

Some countries have moved to tackle this, Portugal temporally granted all of its migrants and asylum seekers with full citizenship rights to allow them to access the country’s healthcare. A great gesture of humanity that should have been replicated by more countries.


Refugees’ mental health during Covid-19 pandemic

“When the lockdown happened and many refugees lost their job, their living style changed. For young people, the spectrum of living in such precarious situations for a long period created lots of anxiety. Unfortunately, we have seen a rise in domestic abuse and, tragically, increasing reports of suicide. I hate to think about it, but we knew it was coming,” says Arash.

According to him, there were not enough investments in preventing that to happen.

How do we go about easing the pressure on young refugees during the pandemic? Arash points out to language-specific counselling as a possible solution. He argues that although governments are investing in mental health support, it is mostly in the country’s language rather than in the refugees' mother tongue. “They're coming from a very diverse background. Not being able to express themselves in effectively is a massive challenge,” Arash says.



He also insisted that those supporting the refugees should be familiar with their culture. Therefore, in many cultures mental health issues are taboo. It's not normal to talk about it or to acknowledge it. And not having somebody to know enough about that culture is also another challenge that needs to be overcome.

Arash’s dedication to help other refugees speak for itself. Despite his own struggles during the pandemic, has been at the forefront to help others.

“It was for one week. I remember I just had no energy to do anything. I basically couldn't answer any emails or phone calls. I didn't want to go to work. I guess I just couldn't take it anymore. And I didn't know what to do. There was nothing wrong with me, but there was a lot of things wrong with me,” says Arash as he talks about his hardest moment during the pandemic.

“It's quite complicated to talk about it. Although I advise young people to go and access mental support, I didn't do it. ”

Arash was able to overcome that week after talking with some friends, who were able to calm him down, “this is not possible for a lot of young people, I'm privileged I am living in Australia but not everyone has that privilege. ”

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Filippo Grandi has also raised alarm about an increase reports of suicide attempts since the onset of the pandemic. He warned that if the refugees’ wellbeing is not holistically addressed, the effects may “last for generations”.

“We need urgent investments to be made in mental health and psychosocial support programs for those displaced and their local, host communities. Within the wider package of assistance, attention to mental health is essential to support the development of resilient, mentally healthy societies,” Filippo said.

Increasing refugees participation in the debate

Despite the struggles, refugees around the world have contributed to tackling the pandemic in their own communities but doing so, according to Arash, without recognition. As an example, refugees took an active role in finding ways to create masks and soaps in refugee camps around the world. The threat of Covid outbreaks within refugee camps weighs heavy on Arash’s mind.


Aerial view of Akcakale Refugee Camp in Turkey.


“Covid restrictions in refugee camps are impossible to implement. You're living in an area where the capacity is one hundred but there are ten thousand people. How do you want to be isolated? that's impossible. And our biggest worry was,” Arash continues, “if it gets into the camps that it's quite crowded, how do we control that? So many young people took the initiative to start creating those makes and soaps and find ways that they could duplicate what others are doing. ”

Arash believes that if we are to properly tackle the refugee crisis, we must increase refugees participation in the debate. “Refugees have the expertise; they know what they need better than anyone and what is best for them.


"Why do they flee? Currently, there isn't enough platform for refugees themselves to participate meaningfully."
– Arash Bordbar


Tackling the refugees crisis won’t be solved in a blink of an eye, though, the responsibility to support them lies upon all of us. If only governments, NGOs, public and private entities and the public were to share the responsibility alike, we would stand a far greater chance of finally solving this crisis.

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