The unprecedented global COVID-19 pandemic is now in its second year, and the world continues to face its vast consequences. From its direct impact on the health and lives of people to far-reaching political, social and economic consequences, the most vulnerable people and communities – as always – continue to be hardest hit.
With a record 82.4 million displacements in 2020i, refugees and internally displaced people have been particularly affected by the pandemic. These groups faced significant new challenges. An “infodemic,” or information glut – some accurate, some not – quickly spread alongside COVID-19, allowing narratives of disinformation to flourish.
Myths surrounding COVID-19 often undermine public health advice, and when communities encounter language, cultural and practical barriers to accessing health services, their impact can be particularly pronounced. Meanwhile, pre-existing obstacles to seeking international security and protection, obtaining decent work and integrating into local communities have been exacerbated.
The coordination of the response forced governments, NGOs and multilateral institutions to seek new approaches that could mitigate the impact of the pandemic. For example, new partnerships have been forged – including with organizations led by refugees and migrants – to better reach populations in need of public health care. Meanwhile, innovations in refugee resettlement and integration programs have enabled and given impetus to distance service delivery.
For example, the use of videoconferencing for interviewing refugee cases was implemented by the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) at the Resettlement Support Facility (RSF) in Turkey during the pandemic. This report builds on content from the transatlantic exchange sessions that explored the response to COVID-19 and made evidence-based recommendations to policy makers in the European Union (EU).
Recent developments mark an encouraging shift towards increasingly resilient programming models that are stronger, better able to withstand crises in the future and, most importantly, equipped to respond to the needs of refugees and other migrants. Incorporating new approaches and lessons into policy development and programming will not only help states ‘build back better’ after the pandemic, but will also enable progress towards global and regional frameworks such as the Sustainable Development (SDGs), the Global Compact on Refugees and the EU Action Plan on Integration and Inclusion (2021-2027).
While some of the COVID-19-related obstacles facing refugees seeking to build their lives in new communities can be overcome through existing policy frameworks, such as the Integration Action Plan, gaps remain. in the overall policy response and practice. In particular, more needs to be done to address the specific needs of refugees and migrants in tackling disinformation and providing equitable access to health care – including, critically, the COVID-19 vaccine .
With this in mind, the report calls for urgent action by the European Commission and Member States to support and capitalize on innovations in resettlement programs, tackle misinformation and promote equitable access to healthcare, and facilitate opportunities important for the participation of refugees in decision-making – not just within their communities, but in programming and policy-making.
In doing so, policymakers have the opportunity not only to respond effectively to the challenges posed by COVID-19, but also to chart a more inclusive path beyond the upheaval of the pandemic. A Europe that prioritizes protection, tackles disinformation in refugee and migrant communities and works in partnership with these groups, will succeed in fostering more inclusive and welcoming societies. This could be transformative for newcomers and host communities.