Seeking asylum in the time of coronavirus: COVID-19 pandemic effects on refugees and people seeking asylum

The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting almost every country across the globe, and creating a multitude of challenges for the entire world community. Refugees and people seeking asylum face particular vulnerabilities. Specific concerns include: maintaining safety measures in overcrowded camps and detention centres; lack of access to countries of asylum or resettlement due to border closures; and lack of income support for those who have lost their jobs.

The global situation

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that 131 refugee-hosting countries have experienced community transmission of COVID-19. While there have not yet been any major outbreaks reported in refugee populations, this remains an ongoing concern, and efforts are focused on improving hygiene, sanitation and medical care capacity in refugee camps and refugee-hosting communities.

UNHCR launched an appeal for funding on 25 March to support its emergency response plan to boost preparedness, prevention and response activities in addressing the health needs of refugees and host communities affected by the spread of COVID-19. This appeal is part of a wider United Nations COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan seeking USD2.01 billion in donor funding.

As at 1 May 2020, pledged donations had reached UNHCR’s initial target of USD225 million. The largest donations have come from the US (USD64 million), Germany (USD38 million), the European Union (USD28.7 million), the United Kingdom (USD24.8 million) and Japan (USD23.9 million). Australia contributed around USD0.8 million (AUD1.25 million).

COVID-19 affects asylum seekers at the most fundamental level—their ability to seek protection in another country. The global refugee system is built around people’s ability to leave their country and seek asylum elsewhere—a person cannot be recognised as a refugee until they have crossed an international border. On 1 May 2020, UNHCR estimated that 167 countries have partially or fully closed their borders to contain the spread of COVID-19, and 57 of these are not making exceptions for people seeking asylum. Even where borders remain open, or exceptions are made for asylum seekers, there are limited commercial transport options.

Border closures and flight cancellations have also affected the movement of refugees for resettlement. On 17 March 2020, UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) announced they would temporarily suspend resettlement travel for refugees for ‘as long as it remains essential’. A Refugee Council of Australia briefing summary on the outcomes of a 28 April meeting between UNHCR, IOM and resettlement countries notes that departures to resettlement countries of refugees referred by UNHCR were down 36 per cent in the first quarter of 2020 compared to the same quarter last year, and UNHCR will not meet its goal of resettling 70,000 refugees in 2020.

Asylum seekers and refugees in Australia

Many of the issues facing refugees and asylum seekers globally also apply to those in, or wishing to come to, Australia. With Australia’s border closed to everyone other than Australian citizens and permanent residents (and their immediate family members), pathways for asylum seekers to travel to Australia and apply for protection are effectively closed. The Refugee Council of Australia reported Department of Home Affairs (DoHA) advice that the granting of offshore humanitarian visas was suspended on 19 March 2020. Resettlement of refugees already granted a visa under the offshore humanitarian program has been largely suspended, in line with the UNHCR and IOM suspension of resettlement travel. People who are outside Australia and have already been granted a Global Special Humanitarian (subclass 202) visa are still permitted to enter Australia, as they are permanent visa holders. However, they must arrange their own travel, options for which are currently very limited.

For asylum seekers and refugees already in Australia, advocates have identified two main issues.

The World Health Organisation identifies places of detention, including immigration detention facilities, as being particularly vulnerable to potential outbreaks of COVID-19. The Australian Department of Health similarly identifies people in detention centres among the categories of increased risk. As at 31 March 2020, there were 1,373 people in immigration detention facilities in Australia, of whom 512 were ‘Illegal Maritime Arrivals’. DoHA reports that there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 within the immigration detention network in Australia. However, refugee advocates and healthcare professionals have raised concerns about the possibility of physical distancing in detention centres given the shared nature of sleeping, eating and other facilities, and point to examples of overseas countries releasing people from immigration detention centres in response to the COVID-19 threat. At least one court case seeking release of a refugee from immigration detention due to the risks of COVID-19 has been lodged in Australia. A complaint has also been lodged with the Commonwealth Ombudsman, on behalf of 13 men in immigration detention who claim that the inability to practice distancing in a detention environment places them at serious risk of harm in the event of an outbreak.

The second concern is the economic impacts of COVID-19 on asylum seekers and refugees. Refugees on permanent visas (those granted visas under the offshore humanitarian program or asylum seekers who have been granted permanent protection visas) are able to access the full range of government support available to people facing economic hardship. However, asylum seekers living in the community on bridging visas while they await processing of their claim, and refugees who have been granted temporary protection visas, are (like other temporary visa holders) not eligible for income support, such as the JobSeeker and JobKeeper payments. Charities that support refugees and asylum seekers have reported significant increases in demand from asylum seekers in need of assistance due to the pandemic. Some state and territory governments (for example, Victoria and the ACT) are assisting charities in supporting asylum seekers and temporary migrants who have lost their income due to COVID-19, but these measures are relatively small and do not extend nation-wide. Accordingly, refugee advocates, human rights groups and charities have called on the federal government to extend the full range of income support measures to refugees and asylum seekers on temporary and bridging visas.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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