COVID-19: Vulnerability of Refugee and Migrant Workers

Author:   Feroz Khan & Sadananda Sahoo

Feroz Khan, Research Associate, Institute for Research and Development in School Education (IRDSE), Modern School 

Sadananda Sahoo, Assistant Professor, School of Inter-Disciplinary and Trans-Disciplinary Studies (SOITS), IGNOU


Epidemics have had its impact on the human civilization for centuries. They have claimed thousands of millions life in human history. Interestingly it appears that the fight between human and epidemics are walking hand and hand. The occurrence of new bacterial or various diseases or re-emerging of old disease with modification is a common feature in bacterial and virus world.  Notably, many deadly diseases like cancer, HIV/AIDS, polio, lupus and diabetes are incurable (NCMH, 2005). Nonetheless, the outbreak of diseases likes plague, SARS, swine flu, Ebola virus and currently the Covid 19 has devastating impact on mankind. Disease like COVID-19 takes pandemic nature due to its cross border influence and high vulnerability. Remarkably, the spread of epidemic is quick and cause distressing impact on entire human civilization in a gigantic way. The Covid 19 has almost spread across all parts of the globe and covering all known human settlements. It is observed that the like many other diseases, Covid 19 has also uneven impact on the society.


The main objective of this commentary is to look into the


(1) Impact of COVID-19 on refugee and migration in general. Though the Covid 19 impact is just at the initial stage, one can sense the gravitas of the issues on various strata of people in society and among various countries.


(2) Like everything else, this crisis is not same for everyone. It differs from society to society, social class, governance and people’s skills to cooperate and adapt to the new challenge. Certainly, its impact on migrant workers and refugee is more uneven than others. This paper tries to highlight some of the issues related to the ongoing crisis based on the content analysis news from various sources.


Why Refugees?


The refugee population has increased from 17.2 million in 2016 to nearly 20.4 million in 2019 (Ravi, 2020). Moreover, nearly 17.2 million people reported to be forced migration. There are many factors responsible for this surge in refugee’s number. Of these conflicts, forced migration, climate change and political instabilities are some of the prominent elements (ibid). The spread of Covid 19 already marked in 200 countries including the countries with large refugee populations – Germany, Sudan, Pakistan, and Turkey (ibid). In response to the pandemic the issues related to primary and secondary health services for the refugees emerges as the grave concern in the host countries. The shortage of healthcare workers, shelter, soap and clean water and unstable supply chain will not only prevent the refugees from basic essential requirement, but will also aloof refugee’s from COVID-19 diagnostic.


(a)    Access to Quality Healthcare: In the absence of political support the refugees have neither have a secure housing nor environment. Generally, refugees are sufferer because of negligence. Government made policies for citizen, these policies rarely calculated refugees among them. Moreover, privatisation of healthcare excludes refugees to have access to primary as well as secondary health services.   



Case of Lesvos in Greek


The case of Lesbos is one of the fine examples in this regard. The spread of COVID-19 reported in Lesbos also known as Lesvos or Mitilini. It is a Greek island located in the northern Aegean Sea. It hosts nearly 20,000 people in Moria camp. Refugees in Moria camp live in appalling hygiene and little medical care (“Lesbos coronavirus case”, 2020). Condition of refugees gets worsened when island have seen several NGOs forced to reduce to close services over safety fears (ibid). Besides, doctors and journalists have been attacked by vigilantes and the numbers of migrants are increasing in the camp. According to the Guardian report half of the camp’s population under 18 and many families living without tents and basic facilities (ibid). 


Rohingyas in Bangladesh


Bangladesh is another example which host world’s largest camp of more than 1.1 million Rohingya refugees (“Bangladesh: Protect Rohingya Refugees”, 2020). The Rohingya are deprived from basic mobile and internet connectivity. Millions of Rohingya fled from Myanmar because of military-led genocidal attacks in 2016-17. The temporary substandard housing, inadequate water, un-hygiene surrounding and sanitation provide the potent atmosphere to wide spread any outbreak of COVID-19 in the camp. Moreover, the government officials also noted that they don’t have equipment to test virus but they will isolate the suspects. The Bangladesh Army also announced the construction of barbed-wire fencing around the Rohingya refugee camp (ibid, 2020). The construction of fencing has created heightens distress and fear among Rohingya (ibid, 2020).         


(b)   Lack of Constituency to mobilize resources: Refugees don’t have same level of political and social capital like the citizens to mobilize the resources, state support etc. The guidelines issued by WHO for health and sanitization are hardly going to be visible in refugee camps. It is because of lack of political support make these people more vulnerable. Their population density is another factor that restricts essential services at refugee camps, especially healthcare. Also, the lack of reliable information will limit the access of resources for refugees (“Covid-19 and the Displaced”, 2020).


(c)    Poor Social Security: The outbreak of coronavirus may lead to large number of displacement. The lack of social security in poor nations may force hundreds of thousand people to move in developed nation to seek for medical help. The outbreak of coronavirus may also leads to shortage of food at many refugee camps. For example Burkina Faso of sub-Saharan Africa is facing the issue of COVID-19 and food security simultaneously. The number of food insecurities is expected to more than triple to 2.1 million in at this place. Moreover the peace keeping operation sub-Saharan African many also get impacted because of the outbreak of coronavirus (Sevunts, 2020).   


(d)   Demographic concentration: As per United Nations Human Right Council (UNHRC) 2018, 70.8 million people are forced migrant as a result of conflict, violence or human right violence. Among these nearly 4 out of 5 lived in countries neighbouring to their countries of origin. Whereas countries in developed region hosted 16 per cent of refugees, or one-third of global refugee population, that is, 6.7 million. The report also noted that 67 per cent of all refugees worldwide came from just five countries, that is, Syrian Arab Republic (6.7 million), Afghanistan (2.7) million, South Sudan (2.3 million), Myanmar (1.1 million) and Somalia (0.9 million). Turkey reported to host the largest refugee population, with 3.7 million at the end of 2018, of which 98 per cent are from Syria as per the UNHRC report. Pakistan hosts the second largest refugee population with 1.4 million, largely from Afghanistan, followed by Uganda and Sudan with 788,800 and nearly 1 million respectively. The population refugees also marked increase in Germany, followed by Iran and Bangladesh (UNHRC, 2018).


According to World Health Organisation (WHO) advisory COVID-19 spread mainly by droplets produced as a result coughing and sneezing by the infected person. It spread through direct close contact (less than a meter). The report noted that the droplet survives on surface and cloths for many days. It leads to the possibility of getting infected through touching any such infected surface or cloths. The virus enters in a person through one’s mouth nose or eyes. To protect nationals from any such disease government of all the virus affected countries have issued advisory warning to maintain social distancing. Avoid gathering, maintain safe distance, avoid physical contact, avoid touching surface and wash hands frequently using soap and water. Nonetheless, refugees are the most vulnerable section of population for the eruptions of any pandemic or epidemic disease in the country. Country’s healthcare system and government policies plays crucial in impeding the wide spread of such diseases. The biggest concern for refugees lies in the government policies for hygiene and health care system in immigrant concentrated areas. The informal settlement of refugee increases the quick spread of any pathogenic diseases. Moreover the un-hygiene camp of refugee provides the potential ground for the spread of pathogenic diseases. Another aspect that affects internationally displaced person’s area is the lack of sanitation facilities and very limited health services.


The Impact of COVID-19 on Migrant Workers


It is quite difficult to provide the exact flow of out-migrants, when there is movement of large number of people at different directions. However, the general trend of internal migration shows that large number of migrants to metropolitan cities of India comes from economic backward districts. The state of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, and Orissa supplies large number of migrants to cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Kolkata as daily wage, construction workers, domestic helps and industrial workers. In general, Kerala and Tamil Nadu appear to be the favoured destination for the people migrating from North-Eastern part of India (Radhakrishnan & Pon, 2019). It is the skill that generally plays the role in for flow of workers in international migration. Skill workers generally migrates to developed countries; whereas large number of semi skilled and unskilled workers to under-developed countries. Counties like India, China, Mexico, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal supplies both large numbers of skilled and unskilled workers.


The less privileged migrant workers have similar disadvantages like the refugees. The outbreak of pathological disease disturbs the manufacturing operation worldwide. Industries that are largely depends on outsourcing of raw materials from China has affected the most. Data suggested that many companies have temporarily shut down their assembly line and manufacturing products. Besides, the restriction on national and international border has also mounted pressure of raw material and labour shortage in China and other parts of the world. Millions of migrant workers, from the under-developed region or from developing countries are on a halt because of restriction on national and international borders. The fear of getting infected either from migrant workers or after visiting the place of work also restricts the movement of many migrant workers. These migrant workers generally get occupied in small and medium businesses that are labour intensive. Nonetheless, the restriction on transport and access to countries hampers the daily functioning of these businesses. The working age population in COVID-19 affected areas either has to wait for the normalcy or these populations has to look for an alternate options for their livelihood. However, under this process the overall small and medium manufacturing units will be close.


Businesses that are associated with mobility of people gets worst impacted in the situation of pandemic or epidemic eruption. The recent epidemic COVID-19 has hit travel industry adversely. Hotel industry is another sector that are directly associated with movement of people, travel and tourism, and transport industries. The fear that COVID-19 may affect guests and care worker has distressed the hospitality business. The outbreak of COVID-19 has made hotels & resorts to change their policies. Under the impact of COVID-19 many hotels and resorts have waived away their cancellation charges. Moreover the cancellation of conferences and business trips has impacted hotel & resorts industry. The atmosphere of normality will once more accelerate the sectors that depend on human mobility. These industry largely functions on migrant labour. In the absence of work the migrant workers either adjust themselves in the available work or the situation of no work may lead to mass exodus. 


Vulnerability of Migrant Workers


Almost 150 million migrant workers are living in countries which have  reported the spread of coronavirus (“The neglected health”, 2020). The outbreak of COVID-19 has exposed these workers to many issues including basic health care facilities and securing their jobs. The situation of COVID-19 has clearly demarcated the line between ‘white collar’ and ‘blue collar’ workers. At one end most of the white collar workers either gets the opportunity to work from home or avail themselves the facility of paid leave, on the other hand the blue collar workers are deprived from their basic social securities. The condition of blue collars workers are not be rosy even in the normal time. These workers generally live low quality of life and face many issues to gather daily basic amenities for their survival. The circumstances of COVID-19 have worsened their conditions. The blue collar migrant workers face the problem of job security and lack of accurate information.


Case of Hong Kong and Macau


Many domestic help lost their jobs at Hong Kong and Macau and many other places because the employer has left the territory (“The neglected health”, 2020). Language barrier is another issue that creates panic among the migrant workers. In the absence of accurate and complete information in their own language, the migrant workers are in a state of confusion. ‘Quarantine’, appears one of the most deterrent factors for migrant workers. Getting detained for quarantine either in host country or receiving country generates stress and anxiety among migrant workers.   


Gulf Countries


In Gulf, thousands of workers are trapped in overcrowded camps (“Covid-19 lockdown turns Qatar's largest migrant camp”, 2020). Many of them also reported withholding of payments and abrupt dismissal from the work (“Gulf's massive migrant workforce”, 2020). In general the blue collar workers are deprived from the basic health care services. Many workers cannot obtain masks and hand sanitizers. In their camp they face shortage of food and hygiene. Migrant works from Gulf face the problem of abandonment from the native countries. For example Nepal’s government has closed its border on 22nd March 2020 and has stopped all the international flights. The decision was taken to keep its people safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, many of its citizens (working abroad) are stuck; of which many have lost their jobs and due to lockdown (Ganguly, 2020). The shutdown of many businesses in a country leads to mass exodus among migrant workers. The situation of migrant labours in GCC country appears one of the worst, especially the unskilled and semi-skilled labours. Many of the workers including nurses, small business men and labor have been infected with virus (George, 2020). These migrants are also facing the issues of shortage of medical coverage and quarantine (ibid).    


Other Countries


To curb the spread of virus Thailand curtailed most of its economic activities. The closure of business and borders made thousands of migrant workers from neighbouring countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia and Lao People’s of Democratic Republic jobless and have forced them to return home. In the time when people are expected to stay at home and maintain social distancing, lack of social security force blue collar migrant workers to cross the border (“Migrant Workers Stream Home”, 2020).  


Some briefs on India


India’s decision to contain coronavirus made many migrants to back their home. The 21 days lockdown and unavailability of public transport made lakhs of migrant workers to walk their home that were hundreds of kilometers away from work of place.  Many of these migrants were daily wage or temporary workers (“Coronavirus: How India’s cartoonists have depicted”, 2020) .The absence of daily earning, insecurity of food and future prospects have made these workers to migrate. Their unhygienic living condition mounts the pressure of getting exposed to the diseases.  


Migrant workers in Delhi


Chaos, fear and anxiety spread among the migrant workers because of the fear of COVID-19. The uncertainty of earning has made thousands of migrant in Delhi took the street to return to their homeland. The lockdown from central government makes them to walk hundreds of kilometers by foot to go to their native place. Looking at the decision of migrants the government of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh organized 1,000 of buses to the services for migrant workers. The meaning of lockdown got vague under this circumstance where thousands of migrants gathered on street in hope to catch the buses to go back to their home (“Thousands at Delhi Bus Station”, 2020).  


Migrant workers in Kerala


Like Delhi, the state of Kerala faces the similar issue of fear and anxiety among the migrant workers. Despite the fact of Kerala is considered as labour friendly state, migrant workers are on the street to ask for transport facilities. The anxiety of losing their daily earning along with the social security for their family members have forced them to come on the street and protest at the time of social distancing (Balan, 2020). The government of Kerala has also arranged food and shelter for migrant workers. Nonetheless, gaps in welfare servers provided by the state government and fear of the spread of COVID-19 forced 3000 migrant workers to come on the street and violate the lockdown (Babu, 2020).    


Unlike many other diseases in human history, Covid 19 is very pervasive and is wide spread globally. Though the vulnerability of particular section is more as compared to other, yet no particular section is immune to the virus. Besides, the virus directly impact on the web of social, economic and power relations that is intricately linked to one another which is more revealing during the Covid 19. It is in this context, the migrant and refugee population need urgent attention so that the impact of Covid 19 may be minimized.




The UNHCR has appealed for $ 33 million to improve the condition of refugee’s camp and settlement. To tackle the increasing threat of virus and deprived condition of migrant workers the UNHCR, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies released the interim guidelines for refugee camps and camp liking settings (Ravi, 2020). It has announced suspension of refugee resettlement. It has urged the needs to be taken to expand testing and screening services in a country with large refugee population (ibid).  Nonetheless, uncertainty in the future work opportunity and livelihood remains the same. Migrant workers and refugees are not the first priority for any country to provide support (ibid). To protect the migrant workers and refugee the government and international bodies should make the backup plan for any such situation. There need to have some social security insurance for the migrant workers to protect their health and economy issues during the time of pandemic outbreak. There is also a need for creation of funds that will take care of refugee’s health care facilities and hygiene. The fund may act as the shock observer at the time of pandemics and it will not put extra burden on the host countries.  


Unless there is an orderly and more sustainable management, there will be more abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence and torture of children, women and other vulnerable groups among migrants and refugee.





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