COVID-19 exposes deep inequalities

Published online 1 December 2020

The pandemic is developing into a human rights crisis for minorities, migrant workers, refugees and internally displaced persons in the Middle East and across the globe.

Natasha Tynes

MOHAMMED ABED/AFP via Getty Images
A recent report by Minority Rights Group International reveals that COVID-19 has developed into a crisis of human rights as well as public health, exposing deep inequalities between different communities in the Middle East and across the globe.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Middle East is home to 2.7 million refugees, mainly from Syria, and 10.3 million internally displaced persons (IDPs). More than 2,500 COVID-19 cases have been documented among refugees in the MENA region by the organization.

Rula Amin, UNHCR spokesperson for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), says large refugee families often live very close together, making it difficult to social distance or self-isolate when a family member has contracted COVID-19. The UNHCR has built isolation units in refugee camps to address this issue, she says. Refugees may also disregard basic precautionary measures in pursuit of their livelihoods, in a region where three million additional people are projected to have fallen into extreme poverty due to the pandemic. “People tell us they are more likely to die of hunger than of COVID-19,” says Amin. 

Discrimination is another major challenge. For example, several municipalities in Lebanon have issued restrictions of movement on Syrian refugees that do not apply to Lebanese citizens, compounding the barriers they face when accessing basic care. “Minorities and indigenous peoples now face an even more hostile environment, characterized by increasing racism, xenophobia and scapegoating,” the report says.

In eastern Libya, authorities have forcibly expelled more than 5,000 refugees and migrants without due process because some were “carriers of contagious diseases”. 

The pandemic has also taken a toll on displaced persons’ mental health. UNHCR field reports point to a rise in suicide attempts since the onset of the pandemic among people living in protracted displacement. 

The difficult living and working circumstances of many of the millions of migrant workers living in the Arab region place them at an increased risk of infection with COVID-19, according to Ryszard Cholewinski, a migration specialist at the International Labour Organization (ILO).

In November 2020, for example, 1,920 migrant garment workers at a factory in Jordan, mostly from South Asia, tested positive for COVID-19. Cholewinski explains that migrant workers often live in dormitory-type accommodation with poor sanitation, while the factories where they work lack proper ventilation. Undocumented migrant workers will also lack the necessary identification documents to access adequate healthcare. 

Human and labour rights organization Equidem reports that some governments of Arab Gulf countries have “been guilty of racial discrimination in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic, acting quickly to provide financial and other benefits to local businesses and nationals, while leaving millions of migrant workers in jobless destitution.”

On the other hand, many women in the MENA region are paying a heavy price during the pandemic, having lost their jobs while still managing many responsibilities, including childcare, says Hafsa Halawa, at the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. 

Violence against women in the region is also on the rise. “With lockdowns and curfews in place, families are spending significant time together, increasing stress and tensions,” says Halawa.

To combat these challenges, Minority Rights Group International recommends ensuring effective data collection and communications, safeguarding human rights, and guaranteeing inclusive health systems and economic support.