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Displacement and COVID-19

The global COVID-19 pandemic is a humanitarian, economic, and social crisis on a nearly unprecedented scale. Its impacts have devastated communities throughout the world, but displaced people have been disproportionally affected. Since the outbreak of the crisis, DRC has been working to identify and address the specific challenges faced by refugees and displaced people.

Posted on 12 Mar 2021

Refugees and displaced persons around the globe face challenges that leave them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 and its related impacts. Many refugees live in precarious circumstances with limited access to livelihoods, which were further deepened by lockdowns and movement restrictions across the globe. Furthermore, the pandemic and restrictions imposed to curb it also accelerated protection concerns such as gender-based violence and child labour. Access to international protection including asylum has also been significantly reduced.

DRC’s COVID-19 related programming reached over 4.8 million displacement-affected people during 2020, in 34 countries around the world. Source: DRC's Global Covid-19 Response

Dealing with a pandemic in a crowded refugee camp

Refugee camps around the world are frequently overcrowded, making social distancing nearly impossible. Access to sufficient hygiene, hand washing, and protective equipment like masks can also be a significant challenge, as well as access to adequate medical care if one were to fall ill.

Medical, hygienic, and testing capacities in most refugee camps are inadequate to ensure the appropriate identification, isolation, and treatment of COVID-19 cases. This leaves camp populations acutely vulnerable to the pandemic’s worst effects.

In many other refugee camps around the world, host governments severely restricted access to camps on the grounds of combating the pandemic.

The ‘closure’ of these camps did not only restrict outsiders from entering, but also prevented residents from leaving and entering, depriving them of livelihood and other opportunities available outside of the camps which reduced their ability to provide for themselves. Restrictions also impacted humanitarian organisations’ ability to provide aid. However, DRC quickly adapted to other modalities including using online tools and scaling up community-based response mechanisms.

This unfortunate combination of circumstances has left residents of refugee camps particularly vulnerable not only to the direct health impacts of COVID-19, but also to a range of other impacts such as loss of livelihoods and educational opportunities as well as protection risks.

Displacement and COVID-19

Displacement and COVID-19

The impact of COVID-19 on our work

DRC’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic is conducted in keeping with our core vision of ensuring a dignified life for all displaced. COVID-19 was a global crisis which affected all parts of the organisation, whether at our headquarters in Copenhagen or our field offices in hotspots across the globe.

Almost overnight, significant operational challenges arose in early 2020, including border closures preventing the arrival of critical supplies and increasingly restricted access to vulnerable populations. Many of these restrictions remained in place well into 2021.

The needs of vulnerable populations also changed overnight, and DRC has worked to evaluate all planned and ongoing responses to ensure that they are best suited to meet the critical and emerging needs faced by displaced populations right now. Thanks to a wide network of national and international staff and partners, DRC was able to quickly assess and react to the rapidly changing needs during this unprecedented time.

Even among those already vulnerable to its impact, the COVID-19 pandemic affects diverse populations unequally along age, gender, and other lines. To ensure our support is both accessible and appropriate to all who need it, DRC has worked to systematically identify and assess the unique needs presented by specific population groups.

Addressing COVID-19 risks for people on the move in Bosnia & Herzegovina

In Bosnia & Herzegovina, thousands of refugees and displaced persons are sleeping rough during the country’s notoriously severe winter.

Many stay in improvised shelters in the forest or abandoned buildings.

Overwintering in these conditions without adequate heating or hygiene facilities puts them at serious risk for COVID-19 and other illnesses. That’s why DRC provides health and protection services to people on the move through Bosnia, regardless of where they stay.

Read more: Thousands of refugees in Bosnia and Herzegovina will face hardship during winter

DRC and COVID-19 Assistance

While the pandemic globally presented itself as a health crisis, early on it became clear from DRC’s and others analysis, that the impact on the protection of people of concern, and on their economic situation, would be severe.

Therefore, while DRC responded across all sectors it works in, the significantly increased needs related to protection and economic support were met with proportionate responses.

DRC’s activities related to economic recovery assistance reached more than eight times the initial target globally, while our protection programmes reached six times more people. And we were able to assist more than five times as many people as originally planned with basic needs responses, including food, hygiene packages etc.

All of DRC’s interventions aim to ensure that displaced people are better able to protect themselves from the virus and maintain a dignified standard of living, even if their circumstances make doing so a challenge.

DRC’s efforts vary according to needs worldwide, and have included:

  • Distribution of water tanks in Syria, ensuring that residents have access to clean water for cooking, washing, and bathing
  • Hygiene support in Bangladesh, increasing access to bathing and washing facilities at Kutupalong camp
  • Protection outreach in Bosnia & Herzegovina, visiting informal accommodation sites and ensuring residents have access to hygiene facilities and, if needed, medical care
  • Community outreach in Afghanistan, setting up public hand-washing facilities in high-traffic areas and training community members in hygiene best practices
  • Economic support in Djibouti, distributing cash assistance and livelihood recovery grants and loans to COVID-19-affected individuals and households
  • Protection efforts in Turkey, identifying high-risk children and families and connecting them with online psychosocial support and information
  • Basic needs support in eastern Congo, providing vulnerable out-of-camp internally displaced persons with household items, hygiene kits, and cash grants
  • Provision of socio-legal counselling, medical care, and food to refugees and displaced people made increasingly vulnerable by lockdowns in Italy
  • Provision of household heaters and remote schooling equipment, so that displaced children and families can safely isolate at home in Ukraine
  • Development of virtual integration support and asylum seeker counselling, as well as multi-lingual COVID-19 info hotlines in Denmark

DRC on Vaccine Access

Vaccine access has emerged as a contentious topic around the world, with countries jockeying to get a hold of limited supplies for their residents.

DRC calls for equal access to vaccines for all countries and groups of people who need it. This includes refugees, asylum-seekers, migrants, and internally displaced persons, who risk exclusion from accessing the COVID-19 vaccine thanks to unequal frameworks surrounding eligibility and inclusion in national health schema.

COVID-19 does not discriminate according to migration status. Ensuring that everyone who needs it can receive the vaccine as quickly as possible is the surest way out of the current crisis.

See our full statement here


  • COVID-19 (short for Coronavirus disease 2019) is the disease caused by a virus known as ‘severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2’ (SARS-CoV-2).
  • It is believed to be of animal origin (or zoonotic) and was first identified in humans in late 2019 in China.
  • It is contagious, and can be spread from person to person through close contact, particularly through exposure to respiratory droplets and aerosols from an infected person.
  • Infected people who have no symptoms can still infect others, who may go on to develop symptoms themselves (asymptomatic spread).
  • Fewer than a dozen countries globally – nearly all of them isolated Pacific island states – have escaped the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The Covid-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented social and economic disruption around the world
  • Border closures and restrictions on travel became commonplace in 2020, impacting many people’s ability to seek protection
  • There have been more than 115 million cases and more than 2.5 million deaths around the world as of March 2021
  • Adequate sanitary precautions and public health facilities are critical to virus response and containment
  • Several vaccines against COVID-19 have been developed. Mass vaccination campaigns began at the end of 2020 and are expected to continue for several years. However, many refugees and displaced persons will struggle to access vaccines.
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