Laxmi Maya Regmi, 72, a refugee from Bhutan, never thought that she would need a vaccination at her age. But on 19 March, she was among the first refugees to receive a COVID-19 vaccine at a settlement in Beldangi, in eastern Nepal.

“I didn’t want to miss this opportunity. I am very happy now,” she said, after receiving her first dose. “I had heard that old age people like me were more exposed to the disease. I feel safe now.” 

Nepal hosts nearly 20,000 refugees, mostly Tibetans and Bhutanese, with arrival dates in 1959 and in the early 1990s respectively.

Nepal is the first country in the Asia Pacific region to provide COVID-19 vaccines to refugees through its national vaccination rollout. The refugees at the settlement were vaccinated as part of the second phase of that rollout, which started on 7 March and targets people over the age of 65.

Just across the border in India, however, people are being hit with a new devastating wave of COVID-19. Essential supplies like oxygen are running out, and there are not enough hospital beds.

Like their neighbours in the host communities, refugees hosted in India are just as anxious about their family’s health and wellbeing. UNHCR is working to support refugees in accessing quality medical care and has scaled up life-saving basic assistance to the most vulnerable.

Cases are unfortunately still on the rise around the world, but vaccines offer some light at the end of the tunnel. Ensuring equal access to vaccines is a crucial test that we can’t afford to fail: we are not safe until everyone is safe.

“The risk of COVID-19 is the same for all,” said Shrawan Kumar Timilsina, the Chief District Officer of Jhapa, in eastern Nepal where the country’s two refugee settlements are located.

 

Bhutanese refugee Bhakti Prasad Baral, 83, receiving COVID-19 vaccination at the Beldangi refugee settlement in Damak, Jhapa district, Province 1 in eastern Nepal. @UNHCR/ Santosh Kumar Chaudhary

“It doesn’t matter if you are a refugee or not. Protecting the life of all people is our priority”

 

 

Nezamudden Linn, a 44-year-old Rohingya refugee, sits with his family in New Delhi. He arrived in India from Myanmar in 2013 and earned just enough as a translator to support his wife and three daughters. Since the country went into lockdown three months ago, his work has all but dried up. @UNHCR/ Nezamudden Linn

The world’s 80 million forcibly displaced people who UNHCR serves are at the same risk of catching the virus as anyone else, but they are even more vulnerable: uprooted from their homes, mostly living in often crowded settlements in low and middle-income countries where health facilities and workers are under pressure, and where access to national services is not guaranteed.

Nezamudden Linn, a 44-year-old Rohingya refugee who arrived in India from Myanmar in 2013 with his wife and three children, used to survive by doing translation work for a non-profit legal aid organisation in New Delhi, the capital. He earned just enough to support his family until India’s country-wide lockdown began three months ago.

Now, he is forced to load or unload goods for local grocery shops in exchange for food. “I can barely make ends meet,” he said. “Whatever little employment I had by way of part-time jobs has ceased.”

India began easing its lockdown earlier this month, but there has been a surge of new cases in recent days and most of the country’s refugees, who mainly survive on daily wage work in the informal sector, are still without an income.

Nezamudden acknowledges that he is better off than many others in the Rohingya community. He was able to sell a house in Myanmar to tide his family over. Others have little or no savings to fall back on and are more dependent than ever on aid from UN agencies, local NGOs and the Government of India.

“I can barely make ends meet. Whatever little employment I had by way of part-time jobs has ceased.”

Since the start of the pandemic, UNHCR and the World Bank have stepped up health, water, sanitation, and hygiene services to protect people forced to flee. We have worked with host country governments to ensure that the displaced are included in pandemic response and economic recovery efforts.

But the economic crisis means efforts must be stepped up further: people forced to flee need long-term help more than ever. In 2019, more than 3.5 million school-age refugees did not attend school. Now, with COVID-induced closures, severe learning loss risks a lost generation of refugees with few job prospects and little hope.

Refugee populations with the best access to job markets were typically in cities, but the COVID-19 pandemic and recession have both hit urban areas hard, making them vulnerable to losing incomes, particularly the self-employed and informal workers. Social and economic stress could spill over into violence, triggering new waves of displacement.

Investing in refugees cannot be the responsibility of host countries alone.

“The needs are huge, but we don’t have the funding to do more,” said Kiri Atri, Assistant External Relations Officer for UNHCR in India.

“To continue life-saving activities, urgent funding is required to support vulnerable refugees, asylum-seekers and host communities with food rations, cash-support and sanitary napkins for women and girls.”

Rohingya refugees use a handwashing station, installed to help combat the spread of COVID-19 at a settlement in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. @UNHCR

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