Five ways to protect people on the move during a pandemic

Refugees and migrants are among those most threatened by COVID-19

During a COVID-19 information workshop for migrants and refugees, MSF staff teach people how to keep a safe distance from each other, practice proper handwashing, and use a face mask.
Mexico 2020 © Cristopher Rogel Blanquet/MSF
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The COVID-19 pandemic is hurting the world’s most vulnerable people—including the more than 70 million people who have been forcibly displaced worldwide and the many others who have migrated in search of a better life. 
 
Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams provide medical aid to refugees and migrants whether they are on the move or trapped in camps, informal settlements, or detention centers. In such circumstances, infection prevention measures can seem impossible. Displaced people don’t have adequate shelter or ready access to soap and water. It’s tough to maintain social distancing in overcrowded camps and dense urban settlements.
 
Displaced people often live with insecurity, facing the threat of arrest or abuse. They may be stigmatized as carriers of disease in an environment of fear, misinformation, and xenophobia. 
 
In many countries, the pandemic is being used as an excuse to block access to asylum and curb migration. People seeking safety and shelter are being turned away at land and at sea, and returned to places where they may face serious threats to their life or freedom. 

So what can we do to protect people on the move? 

  1. Make sure that COVID-19 is not used as an excuse to enforce deadly migration control policies.
    Governments must not use the pandemic as an excuse to enforce even more restrictive migration control policies and evade international obligations to protect refugees and asylum seekers. Turning back men, women, and children seeking refuge is not in accordance with public health guidance and will only endanger more lives, making all of us less safe. 
  2. Respect human rights. Governments must not use emergency public health measures to target refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants. 
    Any restrictions on rights must be strictly necessary, based on scientific evidence, and not applied in an arbitrary or discriminatory way. They must be limited in duration, respectful of human dignity, subject to review, and proportionate. Governments must also continue to allow people to request asylum. 
  3. Protect vulnerable people affected by lockdowns and mass quarantines.
    Any lockdown and quarantine measures should be applied fairly and without discrimination. Health care, social and psychosocial support, and basic needs as food, water, and other essentials should be provided to those in quarantine; mass quarantine should be avoided where possible. Forcing people to live in overcrowded and unhygienic camps was always irresponsible but now so more than ever due to the threat posed by the coronavirus.  
  4. Evacuate people at risk from crowded camps and detention centers.
    Where possible, MSF is calling for the evacuation of vulnerable refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants. For example, in Greece, MSF is calling for the evacuation of people most vulnerable to COVID-19, including the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions. In Libya, MSF is calling for the international community and European governments to put in place direct humanitarian evacuation corridors for the most at-risk refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers trapped in detention centers.   
  5. Safeguard access to health care for all.
    COVID-19 control measures should not come at the cost of access to urgently needed health care. This means that border closures must not stop medical and humanitarian supplies, as well as medical and humanitarian staff, from getting to countries where they’re urgently needed. Governments must also ensure that restrictions in camps, detention facilities, or reception centers do not block people from accessing health care.