World Refugee Day amidst the pandemic: A call for global solidarity to improve health for all

Authored by:  Rosie James, Ellen O’Hanrahan, Evani Patel and Lotte Lehman de Lehnsfeld,

Photo taken with permission by Rosie James in BidiBidi Refugee Settlement, Northern Uganda. July 2018.

Photo taken with permission by Rosie James in BidiBidi Refugee Settlement, Northern Uganda. July 2018.

This year’s United Nations World Refugee Day, June 20th 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, marks what could be a turning point for global health, particularly to ensure vulnerable populations are not left behind. It is currently estimated that there are 25.9 million refugees worldwide. Their health and wellbeing is threatened, as many lack adequate WASH, housing and access to care, and some are also disproportionately affected by underlying health conditions. As borders close, many are left separated from their families with nowhere to turn.

Researchers from Johns Hopkins recently published a modelling study of the Kutupalong-Balukhali camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh which warns of a high-degree of spread of COVID-19 and a severe lack of resources. The Lancet Migration and WHO have called for refugees to be included in the global COVID-19 response. As Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees said: “COVID-19 is not just a physical health crisis but it is now also triggering a mental health crisis. While many refugees are remarkably resilient and are able to move forward despite having experienced violence or persecution first-hand, their capacities to cope are now being stretched to the limit.” Now more than ever, global solidarity is required to protect the health and wellbeing of refugees.  This should include:

  • Improved living conditions in settings such as accommodation centres, settlements, camps, including adequate water, sanitation, hygiene facilities and food security
  • Culturally and contextually appropriate Information, education and communication about COVID-19, translated to relevant languages.
  • Suspension of laws that might  prevent refugees from accessing health services.
  • Psychosocial support to help refugees cope with the mental health challenges that the pandemic brings.
  • Vaccines (routine immunization as well as for COVID-19) being made available and accessible to all refugees.

There are lessons to be learnt from some countries that have been quick to include refugees in their response. For example, Singapore has enhanced risk communication to foreign workers with the help of NGOs to assist with translation, Portugal has been granting temporary citizenship to migrants to increase their access to health services and social security, and many EU countries have set up COVID-19 hotlines for migrants in several languages. We urge that these measures remain in the long-term, to strengthen the health system sustainably.

There is a pressing need for urgent policy-making that utilizes new evidence and scientifically-sound studies to address the impact of the COVID19 pandemic on refugee populations. The WHO has published further recommendations for refugees and migrants in camp and non-camp settings. The platform is compiling qualitative evidence from the field, and has links to many resources. The Lancet Migration is providing situational country briefs, and the Mixed Migration Centre is compiling national, regional and global snapshots of their qualitative research about how migrants are experiencing the pandemic. Evidence Aid has summarized numerous systematic reviews specific to refugees and COVID-19 prevention and response, including; the prevention and control of communicable diseases in holding centres, the training and deployment of lay refugees to provide basic health services in camps, WASH interventions in humanitarian crises, and risk factors for communicable disease outbreaks in humanitarian emergencies.

Let us use the disruptions of this pandemic to bring forth change that will ensure no-one is left behind. Everyone can do their part, as global citizens. Join the UNHCR’s #StepWithRefugees challenge.


Rosie James is a board member of the Irish Global Health Network. She is currently pursuing her MSc Global Health with Maastricht University in India and the Netherlands. She is entering her final year of Medicine at the National University of Ireland Galway. In her spare time, she volunteers for Evidence Aid and the Geneva Centre for Education and Research in Humanitarian Action (CERAH).

Ellen O’Hanrahan studies nursing at University College Cork. This year she was the events coordinator for the UCC Fáilte Refugees, a society which seeks to promote the rights of Refugees and Asylum seekers around Ireland. Ellen has volunteered in Greece to  provides essential medicines and food packages to local refugee camps under Médecins du Monde and The Voluntary Action Group of Pieria. Ellen plans to pursue global health as a masters.

Evani Patel is a Canadian medical student at the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland. Before moving to Dublin, she completed an Honours BSc  in Global Health at the University of Toronto. During her time in Toronto, she was involved with research on refugee and migrant health, which soon led her to a trip to Greece where she was able to learn about solidaric health systems and the importance of equity in community partnerships.

Lotte Lehman de Lehnsfeld obtained a BSc Health- and Life Sciences in Amsterdam and is currently pursuing the MSc Global Health at Maastricht University, where her thesis research concerns mental health policies and the needs of migrants living in the Netherlands with the United Nations University-MERIT. She hopes to pursue a career in policy-making for health system strengthening.