Elissar Gerges

Elissar holds a Master of Science in Education from Walden University, a Master of Education in Curriculum Studies and Teacher Development from the University of Toronto, and a Doctor of Education (EdD) in Educational Leadership from Western University, Canada. Elissar’s research focus is on learning communities, team leadership, instructional leadership, and integrating citizenship in science education. Elissar uses her background in education to highlight the importance of schooling in building self-sustainable and resilient communities.

Refugees and COVID-19: An Invisible Crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic has weighed heavily on all countries, overwhelming healthcare systems,  shattering economies, and disproportionately affecting vulnerable people such as refugees, asylum seekers, and those living in poverty. In many countries, refugees living in densely populated camps, shelters, or sites were blamed for the spread of SARS-CoV-2. Pre-existing inequalities have deepened, and anti-refugee sentiments have increased. 

Social, infrastructural, economic, and health factors have made refugees more vulnerable than others to contracting COVID-19; yet, they are more likely to be left out of the pandemic response measures. Listed below is an explanation of the countless inequalities that refugees have faced since the pandemic began.

Refugees are often the neglected segment of society during health emergencies and are left behind in global health discussions and international responses to the pandemic. Excluding refugees from national and international responses contradicts the ethics of justice that underpin public health. Actions taken to control and prevent the spread of the virus must be consistent with the international human rights norms such as non-discrimination, equal treatment, rights to health, and rights to information that apply to all persons, irrespective of their citizenship and immigration status.

Infrastructure: The pandemic has heightened the inequities within refugee communities who already reside in crowded conditions, with minimal access to water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) measures. Social isolation and physical distancing are practically impossible, increasing the risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2 and forming an ideal COVID-19 breeding ground. The remote and unplanned structure of the camps offers inadequate space for creating isolation units with limited COVID-19 testing and reporting.

Health Risks: Given mental and physical traumatic experiences, refugees have greater comorbidities and underlying health conditions that make them more susceptible to COVID-19 compared to the general population. Of particular concern are high-risk groups such as the elderly, pregnant or lactating women, children, and disabled people. Lack of medical treatment to manage chronic diseases is also a factor that increases the risk of COVID-19 emergency cases among refugees. 

Healthcare Services: Even before the pandemic, refugees had little access, if any, to healthcare services in the hosting country due to multiple barriers such as policy, language, and affordability. Refugees had limited access to COVID-19 testing and treatment. Refugees needing medical assistance have put even more pressure on the host country’s health care system. More importantly, vaccines, the fundamental pillar for controlling the pandemic, were not equitably accessible.

Legal Barriers: Countries require individuals to present an identification card to register for the vaccine online; many refugees are unregistered. Coupled with language-related difficulties and lack of internet access, the problem was exacerbated. Low literacy levels and limited access to reliable information have made refugees vulnerable to misinformation and promoted vaccine hesitancy. The distrust in governments, fueled by prior traumatic experiences, causes many refugees to avoid disclosing potential COVID-19 symptoms out of fear of being deported. 

Economic Consequences: Pre-pandemic, some refugees worked in informal employment sectors that have been the most affected by mass layoffs. The lockdown has also left many without income if they had any at all. 

Humanitarian Aid: Isolation has increased the cases of sexual and gender-based violence. Humanitarian assistance was restricted within countries as social workers had to adhere to safety precautions, lockdowns, and other governmental regulations. Additionally, funds were diverted away from refugee aid during the pandemic and fewer resources were available.

While governments continued to issue advisories, very little has been done to address the situation of refugees in the COVID-19 response. 

  • Advocacy: Large-scale vaccination plans should be implemented at campsites, supported by media campaigns, and in partnership with local organizations. 
  • Community Engagement: Accurate health-related information about the virus, preventive measures, and vaccines should be communicated to refugees in their language.
  • Continuity of Services such as:
    • Providing WASH services in camps
    • Enabling social workers to reach the camps
    • Ensuring access to COVID-19 testing
    • Establishing isolation units in camps
    • Providing medical support and resources (medication) 

The psychosocial and health stressors have worsened the mental health state of many refugees, especially when combined with insecurity and a traumatic history of displacement, violence, and armed conflict. 

One cannot ignore the fact that the negative health and economic consequences of the pandemic are immense, and recovery will be a lengthy process with uncertain timelines to overcome the pandemic. Yet, the threat of COVID-19 has no boundaries, and the current crisis demands robust action plans. Leaving no one behind is a collective, moral responsibility that has never been more urgent. 

References:

  • Bohnet H, Rüegger S. Refugees and Covid19: Beyond Health Risks to Insecurity. Swiss political science review. 2021;27(2):353-368. doi:10.1111/spsr.12466
  • Ismail MB, Osman M, Rafei R, Dabboussi F, Hamze M. COVID-19 and refugee camps. Travel medicine and infectious disease. 2021;42:102083-102083. doi:10.1016/j.tmaid.2021.102083
  • The Lancet. Protecting refugees during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Lancet (British edition). 2021;397(10292):2309-2309. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(21)01366-0

Importance of Education for Refugee Children

Article 28 of The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that every child has the right to education, which includes the right to a place in school, curricular support, protection, and assistance. It also implies an environment where children can enjoy safety and care. While these rights include refugee children, they often are excluded from the education system for a multitude of factors.

Although research studies suggest that integrating refugee children into the education system benefits both the child and the host country, refugee children are often positioned as a potential threat to the education system. Because of this, refugee children face considerable problems that impact their access to education.

Oftentimes, they are viewed from a deficit lens, focusing on what they lack and overlooking the strengths these children could bring to the classroom. Several intersectional factors prevent these children from recommencing their education in the host country and act as barriers to their academic progress:

  •     Lack of school resources and shortages of school places: Schools have limited capacity and parents of refugee children cannot afford school supplies, transportation fees, any other expenses. 
  •     Strained finances: Financial hardships force refugee children, boys and girls, to work and financially support their families instead of attending school.
  •     Grade placement: Some researchers favor enrolling students based on their academic level, irrespective of their age, others advocate for enrollment based on age, etc.
  •     Literacy: Learning the language of the host country is a crucial factor for education as well as for social interaction. Language barriers often force students to drop out because they cannot cope with the bilingual curriculum of mainstream education.
  •     Educational opportunities: Many have little previous schooling, if any, while others had interrupted schooling. Therefore, refugee children are often behind in all subject areas. 
  •     School environment: Resistance results from unfair treatment, racism, bullying, discrimination, marginalization, and even corporal punishment, turning the school into another harmful space.
  •     Competing demands: Teachers are under pressure from challenges associated with teaching students who have experienced intense psychological traumas and are often not prepared for such an emotionally demanding task.
  •     Transportation: Unsafe transportation to and from school is a major concern, particularly for girls. Incidents of harassment, physical, and verbal abuse are common.
  •     Special needs: Refugee children with special needs or disabilities face the biggest challenges of all. They are at a higher risk of abuse and are often sheltered from the community. Resources to support their development are limited.
  •     Traumatic past: Refugee children carry the weight of prolonged stress which impacts their ability to learn and interact with their peers. Many experience psychosocial isolation and struggle to communicate with others. 
  • Non-formal education: This form of education takes place in mosques, unregistered education centers, or non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Despite these efforts, formal education is still the only option for refugee children to continue pursuing educational opportunities and work in the future.

Refugee children are the most affected victims of the complex interplay of these factors. They are in dire need of access to education and additional support as they manage trauma, uncertainty, instability, loss, and violence. Safety in education allows healing to happen with schools being a space of positive social interaction and self-development. Refugee children experience a sense of belonging at school that helps them in processing the forced displacement by the brutal war.

Refugee children scattered in different countries and accommodated to different education systems are treated as a homogenous group, despite their diverse experiences and varying levels of trauma. Many have experienced intense ordeals associated with war, dislocation, and political conflict. They have witnessed atrocities, moved through different countries on their flight to safety, lost family members, or got separated from caregivers. 

The ‘education crisis’ is labeled a humanitarian and a social justice issue. Humanitarian assistance is a relief-based, temporary approach. However, the ‘education crisis’ calls for a development approach with a longer time frame that addresses the language of teaching, certification of learning, and the availability of prospects to motivate families to enroll their children in schools and aspire for the future.  Education is a long-term process that prepares children for the future and allows them access to the job market with legal employment opportunities. 

Education creates a sense of normality which supports children’s cognitive, physical, and psychosocial health. It is also a fundamental human right for all children – including refugees.

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