Office of Government Relations

Refugees and COVID-19

April 23, 2020
Office of Government Relations

By: Rushad Thomas

The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic (commonly known as coronavirus) has upended life for hundreds of millions of Americans. The country now confronts a massive public health crisis that will take the lives of far too many. The pandemic has already proven disastrous for the economy as well. As we survey the damage of the present moment, we would be remiss not to consider the pandemic’s impact on refugees, already among the most profoundly vulnerable people the world over.

One of the first unfortunate, but necessary, actions came from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). On March 19 UNHCR and IOM jointly announced a temporarily halt to all refugee resettlement travel. This step was taken in compliance with public health guidance restricting international travel to slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2.

The pandemic also threatens refugees in camps around the world. Refugees often live in precarious environments, with limited access to adequate housing, health services, and the like. Refugees in some of the most delicate hot spots around the world, such as sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and northern South America, could be in for a seriously difficult time as the virus continues its pernicious march across the globe.

Reports out of Africa, for instance, have shown limited cases of COVID-19 thus far. Yet, much like the United States a few weeks ago, it is unclear whether the low numbers reflect low infection rates, or a lack of widespread testing. Should the virus spiral out of control in Africa, the fallout would be colossal, given the high number of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPS) on the continent. The story is the same in refugee hot spots across South America, the Middle East and Asia.

It is more important than ever that U.S. lawmakers remember the plight of refugees and provide emergency funding to support refugees, both overseas and here in the United States. Fortunately, Congress recently addressed the international side of the issue. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed into law by President Donald Trump on March 27, 2020, includes $350 million for Migration and Refugee Assistance (MRA), an account in the State Department’s budget that aids refugees overseas. The CARES Act also includes $258 million for USAID’s International Disaster Assistance account (IDA), which provides humanitarian assistance to internally displaced people in crisis situations around the world. We applaud Congress for appropriating these critical funds.

This overseas aid is crucial to blunting the impact of SARS-CoV-2 on refugees. Nonetheless, more should be done. Congress should appropriate greater sums to MRA and IDA in future emergency legislation. None of the emergency bills thus far have included additional funds to assist refugees currently in the United States, or the agencies that serve them. We encourage members of Congress address these concerns as they consider the next steps of their pandemic response.

Additionally, the president should tap the Emergency Refugee and Migrant Assistance (ERMA) account. ERMA gives the president a burse to tap quickly in the face of emergent international refugee situations. The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic qualifies, yet the president has been reluctant to spend current ERMA funds, and even called for the account to be zeroed out in his Fiscal Year 2021 budget proposal. Now is the time for the president to put those funds to use, as Congress intended when they authorized ERMA.

Amid the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic we must focus on assisting the most vulnerable people in our own country and around the world. Refugees are at the top of this list. Lawmakers must do more to protect refugees from this virus and help them maintain financial solvency for the duration of the crisis.

Rushad L. Thomas is the migration policy advisor in The Episcopal Church’s Washington, D.C.-based Office of Government Relations.

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