Opinion: Will migrants and refugees be left out of mass vaccine programs?

By Birgitte Bischoff Ebbesen

After a brutal year dominated by the coronavirus, 2021 at last promises hope.

When mass vaccination campaigns roll out, it will mark a critical turning point in the pandemic.

However, vulnerable communities – especially migrants and refugees – run the risk of being left behind again.

COVID-19 has exposed and magnified inequalities, destabilized communities, and reversed major development progress made over the past decade.

For the 80 million people who remain forcibly displaced in 2020, the pandemic has exacerbated existing challenges and pushed them into more devastating, vulnerable and exploitative situations.

About 66% of migrants and refugees have lost access to work due to COVID-19, with many losing the sole income they rely on. Many have experienced ballooning debts, which forces many to cut spending on essentials, including health, education or food to survive.

People on the move too often fall through the cracks when it comes to accessing essential health services and we worry the same could happen for the vaccine. People in particularly fragile settings, like displacement camps, have access to fewer basic health care services.

Many barriers exist, including direct exclusion, laws restricting access based on migration status, language barriers and lack of culturally-accessible and appropriate information about the vaccine.

The health and socio-economic impacts of COVID-19 will have a lasting effect on millions of refugee and migrant families for years to come. We must address the many barriers to universal health coverage and ensure that migrants are fully included in national vaccination campaigns.

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has been at the center of the pandemic, stepping up our support to migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, providing access to critical information, health services, psychosocial support as well as helping to mitigate COVID-19’s socio-economic impacts and strengthen the resilience of vulnerable groups.

In Greece and Spain where there have been large number of people arriving, Red Cross has for several years been supporting individuals and families by providing food, water and other practical support so they’re treated with dignity and respect along their journeys.

Through the Emergency Social Safety Net (ESSN), funded by the European Union and implemented by the Turkish Red Crescent and IFRC, 1.8 million refugees receive cash assistance every month to help cover their essential needs such as rent, transport, bills, food and medicine. Additional financial support was provided from June to July to help people cope through particularly tough months.

All migrants, irrespective of status, should be protected from harm and have access to health care and the vaccine without fear of arrest, detention or deportation. This includes ensuring COVID-19 testing, tracing, treatment and the vaccine are available and accessible to everyone.

The inequitable distribution of vaccines globally not only threatens to leave the most marginalised behind but also risks undermining our shared health if the virus is left to continue among unprotected communities. The vaccination roll-out must work in parallel with access to critical public health preventative measures.

We ask governments, the private sector, international organisations and civil society to unite towards “a people’s vaccine.” A people’s vaccine should equally protect the affluent and the poor, those in cities and in rural communities, older people in care homes and those living in refugee camps. A global social contract for a people’s vaccine against COVID-19 is a moral imperative that brings us all together in our shared humanity.

We must take concrete action to prevent the exclusion of groups at significantly higher risk of severe disease or death, such as refugees, migrants, internally displaced persons, asylum seekers or those affected by humanitarian emergencies.

Migrants and refugees must not be left behind while the rest of the world recovers: none of us are safe until all of us are safe.

*This opinion piece was originally published on Thomson Reuters Foundation on December 24, 2020.

This article covers humanitarian aid activities implemented with the financial assistance of the European Union. The views expressed herein should not be taken, in any way, to reflect the official opinion of the European Union, and the European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.