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Protecting refugees during the COVID-19 pandemic

Protecting refugees during the COVID-19 pandemic

This World Refugee Day, June 20, coincides with 70 years of the 1951 Refugee Convention, a multilateral treaty that shaped the standards that provide the bedrock of international protection for refugees against discrimination and violation of their human rights. The COVID-19 pandemic has weighed heavily on the 26·3 million refugees worldwide today. International guidelines and national programmes to curb transmission have not always considered the needs of refugees living in densely populated shelters without water and sanitation facilities. The economic harms of the pandemic disproportionately affect the poorest people, applications for asylum and resettlement were disrupted by lockdowns, and refugees have been blamed for spreading SARS-CoV-2. It is timely to consider whether the spirit of the Refugee Convention is being upheld and whether refugees are getting the protection to which they are entitled.
Vaccination is the central pillar of global recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, but most refugees face a double burden of vaccine inequity. First, 86% of refugees live in low-income and middle-income countries (LMICs), which are heavily reliant on COVAX, an initiative set up to ensure equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines and built on principles of solidarity. But as a World Report in this issue explains, weaknesses in design and selfish political motivations have led to the failure of this vision. As of June 14, only 87 million doses have been shipped to 131 countries through COVAX, far below targets. Second, many LMICs that have received vaccines are not prioritising refugees. For example, in Bangladesh, where 2·5% of the population is fully vaccinated, not a single dose has been administered in Cox's Bazar. In the world's largest refugee camp, non-pharmaceutical measures remain the sole tool to prevent major outbreaks.

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