Impact of COVID19 on Migrants and Refugees

With travel restrictions encompassing 93% of the global population, the revolution of our globalised world has stood still on its axis since the declaration of a global pandemic. As governments implement restrictions on both interstate and intrastate travel combined with concerted national efforts to contain and control the COVID19, policies to protect asylum seekers, refugees and migrants have been uneven.

The WHO highlights that refugees and migrants are particularly at risk due to overcrowding, lack of basic health provisions, poor access to sanitation, inadequate shelter and loss of income from irregular and seasonal work. With 2.6 million refugees (10% of global refugee population) registered in camps, they represent a highly at risk group. Large refugee camps have some of the highest population densities in the world and mounting cases may lead to them being major hotspots during the pandemic. Even in better staffed and equipped centres, high infection rates have been reported due to the lack of capacity for protective equipment, sanitation and social distancing. 

In addition to those living in camps, some of the most vulnerable asylum seekers, refugees and migrants are those caught in transit or unclear legal status. It has been reported that irregular migrants have been unwilling or unable to access healthcare during the crisis due to eligibility or fears of deportation. In more extreme cases, some states have refused entry to asylum seekers and suspended applications in contravention of international law.

There have been some promising policy directions that may provide a way forward during the crisis and post-crisis phases. For example, Portugal has decided to grant temporary residence to all immigrants with pending applications in order to provide social and healthcare support during the pandemic. Such measures may be necessary to contain the spread of the disease within host countries as well as provide protection to vulnerable populations.

The already politically charged issue of migration combined with concerns of cross-border mobility during COVID-19 poses a key challenge for decision makers. A balance must be struck between implementing sensible border management policies and governments fulfilling their legal and moral responsibility to protect populations most at risk. 

Key Lessons and Recommendations

  • States must uphold international law and norms such as nonrefoulment [1] and protection of those seeking asylum.
  • Increase support to governmental agencies, international and civil society organisations that provide aid and assistance to refugees and migrants.
  • International cooperation is critical to easing push and pull motivations for movement as well as facilitating temporary settlement during the pandemic.
  • In line with the recommendations of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and WHO, healthcare provisions must be extended to refugees and migrants irrespective of legal status to prevent and control the spread of COVID-19.

For more information on the global work being done to protect refugees and migrants from COVID-19, visit


[1] Article 33 of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees


CENTRIC Case Study