Nations should not discriminate against refugees, migrants during pandemic

This outbreak and the requirements of precautionary measures have emerged as an extra health threat to migrants who work abroad to keep their families well and also to asylum seekers. These people play a crucial role both in the economy of the countries they live in and in their countries of origin too,  writes Abdul Alim for South Asia Monitor

Abdul Alim Jun 04, 2020

The unprecedented outbreak of novel coronavirus COVID-19 has stretched the frontier of human capacity to combat an emergency situation. Before the emergence of this virus, we had not often been forced to face the fact that human beings are hostages to nature. The present world has witnessed many classifications of human beings. This classification was done on the basis of wealth, human resources, technology, atomic energy, even on the basis of culture, and so on. Moreover, the economic stratifications developed - society, developing society, least developed society, and underdeveloped society - crystalize this classification. 

But this lethal COVID-19 virus, infecting indiscriminately, reminds us of the principle of equality. It infects people from all classes, people from all countries regardless of their status, health, wealth. However, it teaches us many things. It has given the environment a considerable pause from human intervention. It has stopped some cruel wars in the world. It teaches us the cleanness of the body and mind. It sets some people to pray to their God. It makes us understand that there are things which human beings can’t grasp because of their superficial knowledge, or their health, or their fame, or their pride, or their wealth.

The most important lesson of COVID-19, we have found, is that it does not discriminate while it infects people. It does not discriminate between a president and a beggar; between rich and poor; between a servant and a boss; between an inmate and a free person; between an asylum seeker or migrant and a national; between a stateless person and a citizen of a country. It has infected us defying the classifications and stratifications of the modern world. It does not know who are migrants, or refugees or stateless persons. Governments world over are also very busy developing precautionary measures and with the treatment of infected citizens – but each is more concerned about the health of their own citizens – those who have the nationality of their country.

Questions arise, for example, do we all get equal treatment from the government in response to this invisible virus regardless of our nationality and our present status? The answer seems to be ‘no’. Amongst others, we would like to highlight the situation of migrant workers, asylum seekers, refugees, and stateless persons; the most vulnerable groups of people who lack equal treatment from the governments of the countries where they have been living amid the COVID-19. Let us have a look at the scenario of the miseries of these people during this crisis. The outbreak of COVID-19 abruptly halted the cross-border movement of people all over the world. 

This outbreak and the requirements of precautionary measures have emerged as an extra health threat to migrants who work abroad to keep their families well and also to asylum seekers. These people play a crucial role both in the economy of the countries they live in and in their countries of origin too. They promote trade and investment and bring innovation, skills, and knowledge to their countries of origin and destination.

Migrant workers' woes

But amid this crisis, migrants especially those who lack legal status or who work on a temporary basis. face obstacles in many cases like housing, food, water, sanitation, obstacles to access to health care programs, and other services. Frequently, they have to live in overcrowded, unhygienic conditions. They along with others are often denied an adequate standard living by the countries of destination because of their legal status, and often also some regulatory and practical barriers. While the authorities make demands of the people to practice good personal hygiene, migrant workers often have no other option but to live in overcrowded places not permitting social distancing which may increase their contact with the disease. 

Migrants workers especially those who are from the least developing countries have been passing hard times usually having no work and no supplementary budget from the governments. We have seen in places like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait, governments have introduced policies to move migrant workers to camps or to detention centres, or to remote islands. But it is often seen that these camps, detention centres and islands are not suitable enough to accommodate the huge number of people.  This means these workers have to live in crowded places where there is no access to proper water, sanitation, enough space to breathe even. 

The same policy has also been adopted by countries like Bosnia, France, Greece, and Libya for asylum seekers. It is also to be noted too that countries like Sweden, the Netherlands, and Belgium have suspended administrative services for migrants and asylum seekers.

Let us acknowledge the contribution of migrant workers (legal and who lack legality) in the national economy and health sector of the countries of destination during this pandemic. A study of the Migrant Policy Institute shows that around six million migrants, which is 19 percent of the total US frontline workers, work in industries vital to the pandemic response like health care, grocery stores, pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting. This statistic helps us infer the contribution of migrant workers in their countries of destination. Accordingly, they should not be denied a reasonable standard of living by the governments of the countries where they live during this crisis. They should be included in any support provided by the governments to their citizens during the pandemic COVID-19. Migrant workers should not be left behind but should be included in any measures taken by governments.

Christine Cipolla, Regional Director of Asia-Pacific of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has said, “Governments in the region should do more for the migrants. It is in their best interest. It saves lives; it protects society as a whole.” In this context, stateless people and internally displaced people are also in extremely vulnerable positions. They face disproportionate risk in relation to this invisible lethal virus as they often live in unbearable conditions. They frequently live in unhygienic camps, often in tents where it is next to impossible to follow the directions of the World Health Organization (WHO) of maintaining social distancing as precautionary measures to combat the pandemic. These people are often denied access to proper health care, safety net programs, and other social welfare services taken by governments. 

“If COVID-19 arrives in the camps it will be devastating,” says UNCHR, the UN refugee agency. We cannot deny this warning and this is the same picture of all refugee camps in the world. We must keep in mind that these people did not take the term ‘stateless person’ by themselves. It is ‘we’ who forced them to be stateless, to be refugees.

Diverse political opinions, ideological conflict, wars, racial discrimination, religious persecution are things that drove these people to be Rohingya refugees, Syrian refugees, Venezuelan refugees, etc. It is unfortunate to see that many countries have adopted measures to combat the situation leaving behind this large number of people. While this virus shows us the principle of non-discrimination, we have been meting out discriminatory treatment by excluding these people from the national health care system. However, there is news that some countries have been doing well in providing facilities for them. We should applaud these countries which host these large numbers of people and have been doing their best to provide multi-sectoral responses to mitigate risk. 

Facing situation collectively 

It is pertinent to mention here that the majority of the world’s 25.9 million refugees and 41.3 million internally displaced persons are living in developing countries. So, it can confidently be assumed that these countries like Bangladesh, Lebanon, Syria, and Kenya - with their limited resources - will face considerable hurdles to provide adequate support to these large numbers of people during this crisis. As the pandemic poses a global threat to humanity more than ever, the world should face the situation collectively irrespective of the status of people. And the world’s financial institutions and other multinational companies should come forward to help governments play a vital role in this crisis. 

In 2015, the UN with the presence of world leaders adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to create a better world by 2030. The motto of this agenda is ‘leaving no one behind’. This echoes the vision of an inclusive society where everyone irrespective of their status will be included in the process of development. It does not discriminate against migrant workers, or refugees, to stateless persons, or internally displaced persons. So, in the year 2020, we should not forget our responsibility to work for an inclusive world where no one will be discriminated against on the basis of status, race, and country of their origin.

Let us have a look at some universal principles of non-discrimination. Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) provides that no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty. In Article 25, it also protects the right to health for all people under all circumstances. We should not forget that the United Nations was established, amongst other reasons, with the purpose to achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without the distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.

The constitution of the WHO recognizes the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health; one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic, or social condition. Article 3, 33 of the UN Convention relating to the status of refugees, 1951 also establishes the principle of equality and non-expulsion while the host countries deal with the refugees. One of the core human rights conventions, the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (CRMW), 1990 also sets minimum standards for migrant workers and members of their families.  

Considering these provisions, we must admit that the right of these people under international law and comity has received great attention and the same must be protected by the countries of reception. To respect the principle of non-discrimination, countries are to guarantee that the human rights of these refugees and stateless people are to be exercised without discrimination of any kind based on their sex, race, political opinion, country of origin, status, and so on. Therefore, they should not be left out of mainstream services provided by countries to their citizens during this pandemic. This disease can only be controlled if there is an inclusive approach, truly leaving no one behind.

(The author is Member, Bangladesh Judicial Service and a human rights analyst. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at

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