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  • Writer's pictureBJIL

Navigating the COVID-19 Economic Catastrophe: A Shock to Economic Well-being of Refugees

About the co-authors: Shreya Tripathi is a fourth-year student at Maharashtra National Law University in Nagpur, India and Rakshit Sehrawat is a fourth year student at Gujarat National Law University in Gandhinagar, India.

Photo available here.

You don't have to be an epidemiologist to realize that infectious diseases make their own preferential option for the poor-they afflict them more, and worse.”-Paul Farmer


On March 11, 2021, the UNHCR estimated that 57 state borders were completely shut, and 81 states had restricted cross border movement. In April 2020, an estimated 39% of the world’s population was living in states with borders open only to citizens and residents. These mobility restrictions brought on by Covid-19 have inconvenienced ordinary people, but for refugees, the inability to move between borders has decimated livelihoods.

To be considered a refugee, a person must have crossed an international border. This definition is well settled by virtue of Article 1(A) (2) of the Refugee Convention, and is supplemented by the mandatory principle of non-refoulement encapsulated under Article 33(1) of the 1951 Convention. This article affirmatively obligates states not to forcibly return refugees to their countries of origin whilst the risk of persecution persits. Thus, for persons to legally become refugees, mobility is essential.

Though individuals and groups escaping persecution have been granted protection by states for millennia, in order to officially be “refugees” instead of “migrants,” such people must meet the UNHCR requirements. A person who fails to qualify as a refugee because they have not crossed an international border may instead be classified as “internally displaced.” There is a marked distinction between the two. The International Committee of the Red Cross, considers refugees to be “people who have crossed an international frontier and are at risk or have been victims of persecution in their country of origin. Internally displaced persons (IDPs), on the other hand, have not crossed an international border but have abandoned their homes for whatever cause.

Thus, it is evident that the two terms are not synonymous and carry a different set of legal consequences. Internally displaced persons are more likely than refugees to become stranded in conflict zones, caught in crossfire, and are at peril of being exploited as pawns, targets, or human shields by belligerent parties. Displaced persons die at far greater rates than the regular population, and they are routinely deprived of proper housing, food, and medical care. Women and children make up the vast majority of internally displaced people, and they are particularly vulnerable to violations of their fundamental rights.

Economic Hardship of Refugee: A Humanitarian Crisis

One of COVID-19’s most serious ramifications for refugees is its economic consequences. “I can barely make ends meet. Whatever little employment I had by way of part time jobs has ceased.” “Even if I die, no one from my community would have funds to arrange burials for me.” These are just a few of the Rohingya people’s experiences, a group severely affected by the economic crisis.

The financial crunch in the aftermath of the pandemic has drastically affected the economic life of refugees. According to a survey by the Norwegian Refugee Council, more than three quarters of the refugee population has been rendered jobless by the pandemic, around 70% of the population is surviving on two square meals per day, and a majority of school-aged children dropped out of school to save money. Furthermore, according to the UNHCR, approximately 74% of households in developing countries housing the majority of the refugee population are meeting half or less than half of their basic needs due to extreme poverty caused by restricted access to traditional labour markets and the collapse of the informal economy. The problem worsens for refugee populations dependent upon daily wage earnings. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), refugee households dependent on daily-wage earning are among the groups most vulnerable to losing jobs due to the pandemic because many lack secure employment contracts.

The enormous funds earmarked for COVID-19 prevention by international organizations and humanitarian agencies have resulted in money being diverted away from refugees, many of whom had become highly dependent on direct government subsidies. Due to restricted access to economic resources, some refugee communities are on the verge of starvation and malnourishment.

Economic hardship on Entrepreneurs

Covid-19 containment measures, restrictions on freedom of movement and lockdown moves have sent shock waves through the refugee population engaged in micro, small- and medium-enterprises (MSMEs). Lebanon is one such place where deteriorating economic conditions have ruined the entrepreneurship sector due to limited access to finance, property, and requisite resources in small scale business.

Limited Access to Social Protection Schemes

In many countries, social protection measures have come as a respite to deteriorating financial conditions amidst the pandemic. However, data suggests that refugees have very limited access to social protection schemes such as sick leave, access to income support, and health insurance.

Refugee Laws: Where lies the Fault?

The refugee population’s present precarious economic condition raises a question: Does the normative international framework of refugee protection provide remedies for the protection of refugee rights in emergency situations?

In an attempt to answer this question, this article looks to various provisions of human rights bodies. Articles 7, 18 and 19 of the 1951 Convention establish three provisions relating to the right to work, right to wage-earning employment, and the right to self-employment. Article 17 of the Convention casts a mandate on the contracting states to provide sympathetic consideration,granting all refugees equal treatment with nationals. These provisions are further supplemented by other international instruments, such as Article 23 of UDHR, Article 6 ICESCR and the ICCPR, all of which contain non-discrimination clauses with an attempt to provide “everyone”, including refuges, the right to work, and the free choice of employment without distinction. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights urges states to adopt special, targeted measures, including through international cooperation, to protect and mitigate the impact of the pandemic on vulnerable groups such as refugees. Some human rights treaties, such as the CRPD, “call for strengthening protection in times of crisis.”

Hence, the International Human Rights framework is sufficient to safeguard the economic rights of refugees in emergency situations. The fault lies not with the normative framework of laws but the approach adopted by States. The States perceive the refugee problem as a political and economic agenda of politicians instead of looking at it from the perspective of a human-crisis approach. For instance: in South Asia refugee populations become targets of minority-religion driven hatred and are denied humanitarian assistance. Another classic example is South Africa, where the refugee protection issue is embroiled with the issues of national security, economic propensity, racial or cultural integrity, and the resistance to refugee protection is increasingly mobilized for political purposes. Thus, the politicization of the refugee phenomenon puts at bay the humanitarian management of this and other crises, thus leading to flagrant human rights abuses.

A novel and human rights centric approach is required to deal with the precarious economic condition of refugees in emergency situations

Progressive Measures Present A Way Forward

1. A More Inclusive Refugee Definition:

The 1951 Convention grants people refugee status on the basis of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or for their political opinion. But this definition is restrictive in its scope. As refugee protection is a core humanitarian issue, the definition should include those implicated by natural calamities, epidemics, or human rights abuses, as grounds to afford protection to refugees in a real sense.

A lot has changed since 1951, and new displacement contexts call for new approaches to refugee rights. Experts have warned that Climate Change will create the world's biggest refugee crisis with serious economic, political, and social ramifications. Since the Convention’s definition of the term “refugee” does not accommodate a growing population of people who have experienced displacement and loss of livelihood and resources due to climate change, food insecurity and natural disasters, this inclusive definition will broaden the refugee protection by securing their human right of right to live a meaningful life with decent standards of living.

2. Enforcing the Wilton Park Principles:

Built on the concept of shared responsibility and multi-stakeholder participation, this framework encompasses five mutually reinforcing principles that aim to enable participation in economic affairs and foster growth by providing impactful and innovative financing. The core principles are: (a)Work through national and local systems; (b) Support host communities and build social cohesion;(c) Enable economic participation and stimulate growth; (d) Provide impactful and innovative financing.

These principles focus on two major potential actors for refugee protection: firstly, the State and secondly, Refugees themselves. Devising a parallel functioning of both the national and local bodies, the principles aim to respond better to current needs, be resilient to future crises and ensure sustainability. Furthermore, by recognizing Refugees as a potential human capital rather than merely as a passive recipient of humanitarian aid, the principles aim to bring a novel concept of refugee employment to ensure economic participation and refugee growth.

For example, Subsidised Temporary Employment Programme (STEP), an initiative to generate jobs for Syrian refugees and Lebanese workers in Lebanon.

3. Improve Data and Evidence Collection:

Often, the data of displaced populations are conflated and skewed which makes global implementation of beneficial measures ineffective. Thus, a detailed and properly documented database could make the universal implementation of refugee protection measures more effective.

The Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) is a framework for more predictable and fair responsibility-sharing, recognizing that a long-term solution to refugee crises requires international cooperation. It lays out a roadmap for governments, international organizations, and other stakeholders to follow in order to guarantee that host communities receive the required assistance, and that refugees may live productive lives. It has four-fold objectives:

  1. To ease the pressures on host countries;

  2. To enhance refugee self-reliance;

  3. To expand access to third-country solutions;

  4. To support conditions in countries of origin for return in safety and dignity.

Built on the edifice of shared responsibility and burden sharing, the GCR provides protection-sensitive arrangements, Age, Gender and Diversity (AGD) approach as well as regular monitoring and accountability steps will help to fill the crucial gap between adoption and implementation of refugee protection measures.



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