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Mustafa Alio, Shaza Alrihawi, James Milner, Anila Noor, Najeeba Wazefadost and Pascal Zigashane

The speed with which COVID-19 has spread around the globe has been as extraordinary as the impact it has had on communities. This includes refugee communities, but in very particular ways. From refugees in remote and isolated camps, to refugees living in precarious conditions in urban settings, to all whose movement has been blocked by the closing of borders and increased state controls, scores of refugees have been significantly affected both by the arrival of the virus and by state policies implemented in response. 

On 8 April 2020, the Global Refugee-led Network (GRN) hosted a conference with more than 100 refugee leaders participating from around the globe. We heard how refugees have been excluded from healthcare systems in hard-hit countries like Iran, how the shut-down of the economy in Uganda has made previously self-reliant refugees destitute and desperate, and how asylum seekers in Greece remain in cramped conditions ripe for the rapid spread of the virus. 

Likewise, in Amman, Jordan, refugees previously reliant on the informal economy are no longer able to feed their families. Anxiety is high in remote refugee camps, like Kakuma in Kenya, and in urban contexts, like Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, due to a lack of information, basic sanitation and any capacity to respond to the pandemic. And UNHCR has issued guidelines in response to the challenges it expects to be faced by refugee women, older persons, survivors of gender-based violence, children, youth, persons with disabilities and LGBTI persons in the midst of the pandemic. 

Clearly, there is a need for urgent action for refugees. But equally important is the need to recognise, support and amplify the action already being undertaken by refugees.  

Around the globe, refugee leaders and refugee-led organisations have mobilised to provide support and essential information in response to the pandemic within their regions. From East Africa, to Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and beyond, refugees are providing information and training, direct food distribution, legal support, online mental health support, arranging transportation for those in need of medical care, and filling critical gaps in basic services from health, to education, to protection. Refugees are also mobilising to raise awareness of how their fellow refugees are being affected by both the virus and state responses.

For example, in Lebanon, Basmeh & Zeitooneh is working to support 10,000 families in need through the provision of food baskets, hygiene kits and monthly rents. Elsewhere, the Asia Pacific Network of Refugees, just one of the GRN’s regional chapters, has showcased the many refugees and asylum seekers serving as healthcare providers on the frontline of the pandemic response. It has drawn on this expertise to host live online events featuring healthcare providers answering questions in Farsi, Dari and other languages to help refugees. 

These localised responses, by refugees for refugees, are but the latest examples of how refugees are typically first responders to crises that affect their communities. These responses will need to be more fully understood and supported if we are able to effectively meet the critical challenges facing refugees during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially where international actors – UN agencies, international NGOs and governments – are constrained by regulations that require them to shelter in place. 

In fact, when the United Nations launched the Global Humanitarian Response Plan for COVID-19, it noted that the response would emphasise ‘the importance of involving and supporting local organizations’ especially as the crisis is ‘increasingly being characterized by limited mobility and access for international actors.’ Yet the US$2 billion requested from donors is being directed to the very multilateral actors that are constrained in their ability to respond. Yet again, refugee-led organisations, even those with the proven capacity to manage donor funds and mount effective responses, are not being included in the response to COVID-19 in a direct, meaningful and substantive way. 

This marginalisation of refugee-led organisations comes just over a year after the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) was affirmed by the UN General Assembly. The stated purpose of the GCR is to ‘provide a basis for predictable and equitable burden- and responsibility-sharing among all United Nations Member States, together with other relevant stakeholders… including… refugees themselves’ (paragraph 3). Just weeks ago, at the Global Refugee Forum (GRF) in Geneva, states, international organisations and a host of other actors re-affirmed the importance of meaningful refugee participation. Many took the GRN’s Refugee Participation Pledge.

These commitments to refugee participation need to be honoured and implemented, now more than ever. It is not only the right thing to do – given normative commitments from the GCR, the Grand Bargain and the New York Declaration – but it is also a good thing to do. Research from the Local Engagement Refugee Research Network, Oxford’s Refugee Studies Centre and the Refugee Hosts project have all painted detailed pictures of the many contributions refugees make to responding to the needs of their communities. These contributions are valuable and complementary to the responses of international actors, like UNHCR. Their significance needs to be more fully reflected in research, policy and practice.

In practice, donors and humanitarian actors should collaborate closely and directly with refugee-led organisations in developing and implementing their responses to COVID-19. This should include direct funding to refugee-led organisations with the capacity to deliver and report on their impact. Refugee-led organisations should also be included as part of the multilateral response to COVID-19, not only as implementors, but as equal partners in the planning of responses.  

In policy, refugee-led organisations need to be equal partners in discussions of how state responses to COVID-19 are affecting all communities, including refugees. They also need to be part of the planning for how the international community will continue to pursue global goals, such as the Sustainable Development Goals, both during and after the pandemic. As detailed in the GRN’s Guidelines for Meaningful Refugee Participation, this involvement in policy processes must be substantive, with the capacity to affect outcomes, not cosmetic.

Likewise, research on the impact of COVID-19 on refugees must include refugees in all stages of the research process, from design, to data collection, to data analysis and the presentation of findings. The inclusion of refugees will lead to research that is better informed by the realities it seeks to explain and more likely to alleviate the suffering it studies. 

These are important lessons not only for our response to COVID-19, but beyond. As the global refugee regime seeks to rebuild from this pandemic, strong, meaningful and substantive refugee participation will help ensure that we build back better.  


  Mustafa Alio is Co-Founder of Jumpstart Refugee Talent (@AlioMustafa).
  Shaza Alrihawi is Interim Chair of Global Refugee-led Network (@ShazaAlrihawi).
  James Milner is Project Director of Local Engagement Refugee Research Network (@lerrning).
  Anila Noor is Steering Committee Member of Global Refugee-led Network (@nooranila).
  Najeeba Wazefadost is Founder of Asia Pacific Network of Refugees (@NajeebaWazefado).
  Pascal Zigashane is Executive Director of URISE Initiative for Africa (@zigashanepascal).


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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