Refugees are paying the highest price in the COVID-19 pandemic

Geneva, 18 June 2021 – Ahead of World Refugee Day on 20 June, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) raises the alarm about the situation of refugees who are facing severe humanitarian hardships, which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jagan Chapagain, IFRC Secretary General, said:

“Vulnerable groups, such as refugees, are paying the highest price in the COVID-19 pandemic. We are seeing alarming trends that show many refugees around the world are unable to pay for food or rent and are struggling to access health care and education.

“Refugees have been disproportionately affected by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and have often been left out of socio-economic support policies. A large number of refugees have lost their sources of income or depleted their savings and are now adopting negative strategies to survive.”

In Bangladesh, latest analysis carried out in refugee camps in Cox's Bazar by the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society – with support from the IFRC – reveals that communities are struggling to cover their essential needs, particularly due to COVID-19 related movement restrictions, health issues, restricted access to markets, and a recent major fire in the camps.

Price hikes in local markets and further displacement caused by camp fires have pushed many families further into food insecurity. During April and May, around 30,000 refugees in the Cox's Bazar camps raised questions and concerns, with 63% seeking services, including urgent food relief and shelter. Just over one third (37%) requested health or medical care.

In the past year, reduced presence of humanitarian organizations in the camps due to COVID-19 restrictions also led to an increase in child labour, sexual and gender-based violence and heightened risk of human trafficking. In addition, an increase in child marriage has been observed since the start of the pandemic, often seen as an alternative to education or work.

In Colombia, border closures, movement restrictions and loss of livelihoods led to limited
access to food and accommodation, with many refugees and migrants – most of whom are from Venezuela - eating only once per day. 18% of those surveyed by the Red Cross Red Crescent Global Migration Lab cited food security and malnutrition as the biggest risks for children during the pandemic.

In Turkey, a recent study – conducted by the Turkish Red Crescent and the IFRC – indicates that, among the 4,500 refugee households surveyed[1], debt levels have increased by nearly 50% over the last year. Even more alarming is the fact that many families are unable or can barely afford to pay for what they need most, such as food (72%) and rent (66%). However, cash assistance provided by the EU-funded Emergency Social Safety Net (ESSN) is helping refugees to cover some of these costs.

In order to cope with the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, refugees are increasingly relying on survival strategies, such as reducing food consumption, buying cheaper and less nutritious food, buying food on credit and borrowing money from relatives and friends. These strategies have negative consequences on health and well-being and contribute to worrying levels of food insecurity and skyrocketing debts for refugees.

“Nobody should be forced to choose between giving their family food or paying their rent; nor face hunger or forced evictions,” said Jagan Chapagain. “Governments should work together with donors, international and multilateral organizations, private sector and civil society to effectively mitigate the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on vulnerable groups, such as refugees and migrants. It's our shared responsibility to ensure that everyone can meet their most essential needs”.


[1] Households receiving cash assistance from the EU-funded Emergency Social Safety Net (ESSN) are identified as “eligible” in the Intersectoral Vulnerability Study, while those not receiving support are “ineligible”. In Turkey, refugees are officially recognized as “foreigners who are under international protection or temporary protection”.


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