Why resettlement continues to be important during a global health crisis
Travel arrangements for resettling refugees have been severely disrupted since mid-March when international air travel faced drastic reductions and many countries began to limit entry across their borders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. While closing international borders is not a new response to pandemics, the World Health Organization (WHO) notes that “restricting the movement of people and goods during public health emergencies is ineffective in most situations and may divert resources from other interventions.” The response to halt immigration, including resettlement programs, does little to stop the spread of COVID-19 and instead places an undue burden on families seeking refuge. Considering that the majority of refugees live in areas with fragile health systems, the current travel restrictions and border closures are also increasing the likelihood of refugees remaining in environments that will only accelerate their chances of contracting COVID-19. To ensure the safety and protection of refugees, it is necessary for countries to resume resettlement programs while incorporating additional protocols to protect against COVID-19.
The Need for Resettlement During a Global Health Pandemic
On March 17, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) announced they would temporarily halt resettlement, stating resettlement “provides a vital lifeline for particularly vulnerable refugees” and that the two organizations will “continue their work in refugee-hosting countries, in collaboration with all relevant partners, to ensure that the processing of cases for resettlement continues.” The IOM and UNHCR are also working in close coordination with states to ensure that resettlement can still take place in the most critical of cases. They have also ensured that this pause in resettlement is “a temporary measure that will be in place only for as long as it remains essential.” However, they did not define what qualifies as essential and when the pause of resettlement would be expected to lapse.
It is of great importance that resettlement can continue. Regional responses have emerged with guidelines on how member states should proceed with resettlement during these unprecedented times. The European Commission“encourages Member States to continue showing solidarity with persons in need of international protection and third countries hosting large numbers of refugees,” as resettlement needs are even more pressing. European member states are encouraged to continue to facilitate the arrival of individuals who are in need of international protection whenever practically feasible, as the temporary travel restrictions allow for travel of vulnerable groups. The European Commission also issued some practical guidance for member states to consider new ways to keep their resettlement programs active, such as video interviews or remote pre-departure orientations, to ensure an immediate transition for selected persons once travel restrictions have been lifted.
We have seen how resettlement is a crucial, life-saving tool during this time with some countries allowing for resettlement to continue. For example, due to the perseverance of refugee families, and the collaboration of groups Safe Passage and Alf Dubs, a resettlement flight from Greece to the United Kingdom was able to take place in early May. After advocating for 52 vulnerable migrants, housed in unsanitary and overcrowded camps on the Greek Islands, to receive family reunification, both countries agreed to allow migrants to fly from Greece to the United Kingdom on a return repatriation flight arranged to bring Greeks stranded in the UK home during a time where commercial flights are suspended. This shows that it is possible for governments to be utilizing more efforts in order to continue resettlement for vulnerable migrants during this time.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the World Health Organization emphasized “the need for inclusive national public health measures to ensure migrants and refugees have the same access to services as the resident population, in a culturally sensitive way.” Few countries have shown a commitment to this statement, one example being Portugal. In an effort to preserve refugee and migrant rights, Portugal announced that “all asylum-seekers and undocumented migrants seeking regularization would automatically be granted temporary residence, with access to all public services.”
While there have been some positive examples of efforts by the European Commission and policy changes coming from Portugal, the vast majority of countries are simply not doing enough to ensure the safety of refugees during this time, as well as the opportunity for those most vulnerable to resettle. The Italian government suspended all hearings and appeals relevant to asylum seekers, France has failed to provide shelter and essential services for child refugees, including unaccompanied minors, and the United States is turning asylum-seekers away.
Calling on Countries to Resume Resettlement Programs
Refugees are particularly vulnerable to outbreaks of COVID-19 due to issues of population density in places where refugees are housed, such as camps, informal settlements, and urban communities, as well as poor medical infrastructure within these spaces. To prevent the spread of COVID-19 governments globally have been enforcing policies of social distancing, however, it is impractical for refugees to socially distance themselves while living in spaces with such high population density. Leaving families awaiting resettlement in limbo for the foreseeable future is unfair and in turn, is almost certainly leaving them at risk. For these reasons, halting resettlement during this pandemic is irresponsible and fails to ensure safety for the most vulnerable refugees. It is unacceptable for countries to use COVID-19 as a pretext for further restriction of the rights of refugees and migrants, which have already been gutted in recent years as was seen with countries drastically decreasing their resettlement caps and turning refugees away from their borders.
Given the hostility towards refugees and asylum seekers prior to COVID-19, many refugee law experts are concerned that this could lead to normalizing the violations of non-refoulement, which is “the practice of not forcing refugees or asylum seekers to return to a country in which they are liable to be subjected to persecution.” With refugee law already under assault, it is seeming that the closing of borders and halting of resettlement and asylum-seeking processes will further endanger migrants with the possibility of prolonged closures.
Refugee Pathways calls on countries to resume resettlement for most vulnerable cases, with COVID-19 health protocols in place, as soon as possible, as well as committing to resuming resettlement in full once travel restrictions have lifted.
Emily Ervin for Refugee Pathways