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Liliana Lyra Jubilut

Refugees, as creations of the nation-state international architecture and as one of the most vulnerable groups of people within it, are among the most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic (alongside other forced migrants). It doesn’t matter where they are in their journey; migration can be seen as a lifespan process. Amid the pandemic there are new challenges deriving from the “geographies of migration”, based on the places to and from which people move, as well as challenges relating to the “subjects of migration”, namely, refugees and the people involved in refugee protection.

Challenges to protection: “geographies of migration”

COVID-19 imposes limitations at three geographical levels. First, in their country of origin,  refugees may face a greater risk of human rights violations and persecution with heightened discrimination and ‘emergency’ pandemic measures enabling crackdowns on democracy. At the same time, restrictions on freedom of movement may make it impossible for people to leave in search of asylum – and being outside one’s country is essential to obtaining protection as a refugee.

Secondly, the pandemic imposes challenges at the borders. Border closures (in the form of total shutdowns, travel bans or travel restrictions) can impede refugees’ ability to travel abroad to apply for refugee status, or to be resettled. If refugees are turned around at a border, then the fundamental principle of non-refoulement (non-removal to a risk of persecution or other serious harm) may be violated. Even though States have the right to impose border control measures, there are legal exceptions for those seeking international protection.

Thirdly, in the country of asylum, refugees may face a number of challenges, including access to (adequate) refugee status determination procedures; documents; services (especially health care); livelihoods; and assistance/stimulus packages, and the fear of forced returns. 

Challenges to protection: “subjects of migration”

The challenges to refugee protection in terms of the subjects of migration can be divided into two different groups. First, refugees themselves may suffer from physical and/or mental health issues, (including in the prevention and treatment of COVID-19), and face specific vulnerabilities (eg related to gender, age or disability), which may affect their community engagement (whether positively or negatively). 

Secondly, in the case of the subjects of migration governance, challenges can be separated into two sets, one pertaining to host societies and the other to the international community. In host societies, challenges may depend on the existing level of infrastructure and political choices, which vary from refugee camps to urban environments, from developed hosting countries to developing or least developed countries, from countries that allow freedom of movement to ones that are still using detention, and from existing health systems to emergency responses. These might impact access to rights and services, as well as levels of assistance. Moreover, they might affect the above-mentioned inclusion of refugees in governmental assistance packages to ensure livelihoods. 

When it comes to the international community, challenges to refugee protection relate to both international cooperation and international action. These determine the resources (financial and otherwise) available to protect refugees –generally, as well as in the particular scenario of the pandemic.  They also shape what solutions are forthcoming – or not (eg the near-freeze on resettlement due to COVID-19). In this regard, it is paramount that the international community raises awareness to include refugees in responses to the pandemic, and to ensure that actions are designed and implemented in accordance with the most protective standards possible.

The challenges to refugee protection in the time of COVID-19 are multilayered, affecting different territories and different actors of movement, thus impacting the geographies and subjects of refugeehood and of refugee protection. All of these challenges need to be diagnosed in order to be addressed, so as to ensure integral protection for refugees.

While special measures are of course needed to face the pandemic, these must take into account existing frameworks of protection (such as international refugee law and international human rights law) to ensure that the least rights-intrusive options are chosen. Balancing the needs of refugees against the interests of States is also key, so that adequate measures against the pandemic can be secured at the same time as refugees are protected, and responses to the pandemic do not result in rights violations and/or increased vulnerability for an already vulnerable population.


  Professor Liliana Lyra Jubilut is a Professor of International Law, Human Rights and Refugee Law at the Universidade Católica de Santos, Brazil. She holds a PhD and Master in International Law (Universidade de São Paulo) and a LLM in International Legal Studies (NYU School of Law). Liliana has been working with refugees academically and in practice since 1999. 


Read Kaldor Centre Director Jane McAdam introducing COVID-19 Watch with ‘The impacts of COVID-19 on the world’s displaced people: A watching brief’, and find all the analysis in COVID-19 Watch. Don’t miss any new posts, follow the Kaldor Centre on TwitterFacebook and LinkedIn and subscribe free to our Weekly News Roundup, delivered to your inbox every Monday. 


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