Covid-19 restrictions are part of life for refugees

Covid-19 restrictions are part of life for refugees

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to spread to the furthest reaches of the globe, with infection cases and the death toll soaring, many governments were caught flat-footed, leaving them simply unprepared for a health emergency of this magnitude.

This has resulted in the creation of "policy on the go", a process that has by-and-large left the unique needs of refugees and migrants by the wayside. Especially during this critical time, it is important for everyone, including politicians, bureaucrats, law enforcement and the general public to remember and reflect upon refugee populations, and how Covid-19 has further heightened vulnerabilities that are being encountered by already vulnerable individuals.

Such considerations must not only be reflected in immediate responses to this crisis, but also in long-term programming, policies, and perceptions of refugees.

Unfortunately, for many refugees, they have been coping with the vast majority of the restrictions and anxieties the world now faces, well-before the term "Covid-19" even came into being. In particular, refugees have long encountered issues such as accessing healthcare, being "stranded" in foreign lands, being unable to return to their home country, being forced to self-isolate at home (not in fear of a virus but rather in fear of arrest and detention), and, being unable to move freely.

One of the visible effects of Covid-19 has been the widespread restrictions on international travel. In an effort to stem the number of imported transmissions, many countries have executed travel limitations on new arrivals. Such restrictions have led to airlines severely cutting back their services, resulting in a situation where travel to one's home country has become a logistical nightmare or almost impossible.

This inability to travel, is all too familiar for refugees throughout Asia, such is the case with brothers from war-torn Syria, Samad and Bassam, who have called Bangkok home for a number of years. Unable to return to their home, and as of yet unable to be considered for resettlement to a third country, they have done their best to contribute to Thai society and build lives for themselves. They both speak Thai, are employed (albeit tenuously) in the hospitality sector, and live frugal yet relatively comfortable lives. Despite this ostensible stability, for many years visa concerns and restrictions around travel have been an almost daily challenge. Not long after arriving in Thailand, Samad tried to extend his visa as most foreigners do, in a neighbouring country. Almost every border rejected his ability to enter for the purposes of a visa extension. On one occasion, these restrictions even resulted in him having to travel from Bangkok to Laos, to Myanmar, to Cambodia and finally to the Malaysian border in just a couple of days. The frustration, insecurity and restrictions that Samad faced, including his inability to move freely and travel safely, is now a global norm, as thousands of holidaymakers and citizens attempt to navigate complex visa arrangements and regulations to return home.

Many nations have also implemented various limitations upon movement both within cities, across regions, and throughout countries as a whole. In Thailand, a state of emergency has been implemented, limiting freedom of movement. For many, these limitations have been a difficult adjustment, with families juggling caring responsibilities, stress/concern around their employment situation, feelings of social isolation, and boredom. In the case of low-income earners and migrants, the restrictions have resulted in cases of food insecurity, family separation and financial hardship.

Again, when thinking of refugee communities, such challenges have always been, and continue to be a daily reality. Without access to legal status, with limited financial means, and with family members often living thousands of kilometres away in unstable and unsafe locations, refugees are often forced to live in cramped and difficult living quarters. Such challenges are of course exacerbated for refugees that are in detention facilities. Whether it be in ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) facilities in the United States, or overcrowded and unhygienic detention centres in Southeast Asia, refugees in these contexts have been restricted in their movements for years and in some cases even decades.

With numerous constraints now being imposed upon individuals, families and cities around the world, it is important that many of us, including governments, reflect upon our privilege, and think about the lives of refugees and other forcibly displaced persons. We have the privilege to employ social-distancing measures, to return to our home countries if we wish, to work remotely, and to access adequate hygiene facilities. More often than not, refugees do not have these privileges. For them, restrictions/limitations around freedom of movement, potential difficulty accessing healthcare, and job insecurity, is a pre-existing part of everyday life.

In some ways, Bassam and Samad are facing similar issues to the majority of people during these uncertain times. They share the same concerns and worry for their loved-ones, trepidation for their own personal health, and anxieties for the safety and wellbeing of their local community. However, they are also acutely aware of their additional vulnerabilities and limitations as refugees. Should the worst-case scenario occur, and one of them falls ill, they will have almost no ability to cover their healthcare costs, and will likely be reliant on friends, families, community members, or perhaps even strangers to assist. Similarly, despite their worries for their elderly parents, they do not have the luxury of most citizens to pursue travel home, irrespective of how costly it may be. Instead, Samad and Bassam are solely reliant on technology to communicate with their loved ones, praying that one day they will be reunited. To that end, it is our collective responsibility to ensure that refugees and migrants are not forgotten during this crisis.

Evan Jones is a Southeast Asia-based refugee advocate.

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