We Cannot Abandon Migrant and Refugee Women During the COVID-19 Crisis

We Cannot Abandon Migrant and Refugee Women During the COVID-19 Crisis
“We hear that the COVID-19 does not discriminate—but the context in which it spreads does.” Pictured: Syrian refugee women in a cash-for-work tailoring program in the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan, October 2018. (UN Women / Christopher Herwig)

As COVID-19 sweeps around the globe, much of the world’s focus is on how leaders of the wealthiest nations are scrambling to respond to the pandemic.

Far less attention is being paid to those with the fewest resources necessary to defend themselves: the world’s 70 million people forcibly displaced by conflict or crisis, more than half of whom are women and girls. 

Refugees and internally displaced persons—the latter of whom number more than 41 million worldwide—often face restrictions based on their displacement status, and generally live in countries with weak health systems.

Health services, including mental health care, for refugees and migrants are generally scarce. Sexual and reproductive health services—despite constituting lifesaving care for refugee women and girls—is often the first on the chopping block in an emergency, leaving women at risk of increased maternal mortality and morbidity, sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancy.

According to one estimate, 9.5 million women could lose access to contraception and safe abortion because of the COVID-19 crisis—which will lead to women and girls dying from entirely preventable causes.

In addition, the risk of exposure to COVID-19 is particularly acute for refugees. Physical distancing is a privilege that most migrant and refugee women and girls don’t enjoy.

In Greece, for example, organizations like the Women’s Refugee Commission and Women Refugee Route have long warned of the overcrowded and dangerous conditions in camps, which put people at risk. Without urgent decongestion measures by Greece and other European governments, the camps will be a death trap for the elderly and those with chronic conditions.

“Nobody can feel safe in the camps right now,” said Maryam Janikhuskh, former representative of the Afghan community in the Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos and the first woman to hold this position. “There is no basic hygiene, no water, nothing.”

We Cannot Abandon Migrant and Refugee Women During the COVID-19 Crisis
Pictured: Children play in the Balukhali Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. (UN Women / Allison Joyce)

Janikhuskh named health and security risks, including rape and other forms of violence, as the main issues—but said no one is there to help.

Another problem, Janikhuskh said, is food distribution, as people come together three times a day without any protection. She is one of the few helpers remaining; once again, community leaders and grassroots organizations are picking up the pieces when governments shrug off any responsibility.

If past crises have taught us anything, it is that small, community-based organizations led by women, youth or persons with disabilities are often the first responders.


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Whether it’s disseminating information in the community or providing direct services—given their crucial role in protection and increased calls for localization of aid—it is imperative that these organizations be included in decision-making and benefit from COVID-19 emergency funding. They are on the front lines in response, hold trust, and know best what is needed and where. 

Organizations like ours were founded based on our experience that responses are most efficient if they are inclusive of those most affected. Ensuring that the humanitarian response to COVID-19 is age, gender and disability sensitive—and takes into account the displacement status of the individual and other diversity factors—is crucial to keeping everyone safe. 

Here are four key steps that global leaders and the humanitarian community can take:

1. Prioritize and invest in community-based organizations and offer financial flexibility and extended deadlines.

Small organizations led by refugee women and LGBTQI individuals—including organizations providing safe housing, organizations of persons with disabilities or those fighting for racial and climate justice—have suffered from chronic underfunding for decades. Some are at risk of disappearing over the coming weeks.

Now is the time to support them.

2. Ensure that information on COVID-19 and available care is accessible to all women and girls.

This includes those with physical, intellectual, psychosocial and sensory disabilities.

A devastating consequence of lock-downs is the rise of gender-based violence in confined spaces. Women’s shelters must be accessible to women and girls with disabilities—who can experience disproportionately high levels of emotional, physical and sexual abuse—and to women and girls without residence permits.

3. Acknowledge that women and girls experience the COVID-19 crisis differently from men and boys.

We Cannot Abandon Migrant and Refugee Women During the COVID-19 Crisis
Pictured: Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan, October 2018. (UN Women / Christopher Herwig)

Segregating data by age, gender and disability will make sure no one falls through the cracks.

Women, many of them migrant women, make up 70 percent of health workers—yet men dominate the scientific discussion on COVID-19 and emergency task forces assembled by governments. Decision-makers should be as diverse as the populations they serve, and racial and ethnic bias—which remains pervasive in health care services—must be urgently addressed. 

4. Ensure that quarantine and police protocols are LGBTQI-sensitive, including for trans women.

Human Rights Watch recently documented the case of a trans woman in Panama, a volunteer health worker, who was detained and fined by police based on gender-based restrictions, alleging that she was male and out on “the wrong day.” Movement restrictions can also add to police violence and job insecurity for those already facing racial injustice and xenophobia.

We hear that the COVID-19 does not discriminate, but the context in which it spreads does.

Emergency responses that exclude those most affected risk exacerbating structural inequalities. We can only win this fight against the virus if we truly are all in this together. 


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About , and

Stephanie Johanssen is the UN representative at the Women’s Refugee Commission.
Mina Jaf is a former refugee and executive director of Women Refugee Route.
Evelien Wauters is a legal advisor at Women Refugee Route.