Maverick Citizen

Coronavirus Op-Ed

We all lose when we exclude refugees, asylum seekers and migrants

A group of refugees living on the pavement near the Cape Town Central police station.( Photo: Nardus Engelbrecht / Gallo Images)

As Covid-19 diagnostics, vaccines and therapeutics become available, we must ensure equal, and affordable access for not only citizens, but for everyone in South Africa, including refugees, asylum seekers and migrants (irrespective of legal status and documentation).

One hard truth about Covid-19 is that it knows no borders. For this reason, government’s approach to tackling the pandemic must be all-inclusive and non-discriminatory, especially in the context of deepening unemployment, cyclical poverty as well as the racial and economic inequalities that exist in our society. 

Besides this moral obligation, South Africa has a legal mandate under Section27 of the Constitution to enforce equal access to healthcare services for all. Moreover, the ratification of the United Nations Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) on 12 October 2018 implies that all migrants, refugees and asylum seekers (documented and undocumented), shall be ensured their rights in full. 

As a host country, the government has a duty to provide access to essential health and social protection services for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants (and their children), through the current Covid-19 response and economic recovery programmes. 

In our quest to contain the virus and combat the associated socio-economic impacts, particularly on vulnerable communities, we should not forget that refugees, asylum seekers and migrants living in South African host communities and shelters (camps) face a heightened risk. It is difficult to practice physical distancing, for example, when you live in a crowded refugee camp, prison, or a detention centre. An outbreak of any respiratory disease, like the current Covid-19 pandemic, could gain a foothold in overcrowded confines and unsafe conditions that epitomise many informal settlements in which the majority of the poor, including migrants, reside. 

The vulnerability of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants is further exacerbated by existing socio-cultural, economic, political and legal barriers. These are characterised by limited access to (and awareness of their rights), healthcare and preventative services such as handwashing and sanitation facilities. 

In addition, water scarcity, especially in informal settlements, continues to be a growing concern, making people in these sites more prone to exposure and less resilient to fight off the virus. Even in instances where some migrant groups have access to healthcare services, they tend to avoid them due to fear of deportation as well as xenophobic and discriminatory attitudes in host communities. Ample evidence suggests that social stigmatisation and anxieties generated by restrictive immigration policies undermine migrants’ access to health rights while minimising their sense of entitlement to such rights.   

In his 21 April 2020 address to the nation, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a massive social relief and economic support package of R500-billion (10% of GDP), to stabilise the economy and address the socio-economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet his plan is not explicit on how it will address the needs of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants. 

Even though pandemic preparedness plans across Africa are inadequate in addressing the complex needs of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants during pandemics, South Africa needs to adopt a holistic approach that prioritises the health needs of this population group in the current Covid-19 containment measures and economic stimulus plan.

If we limit access to essential Covid-19 services (testing, treatment and personal protective equipment), for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, we do so at our peril. We run the risk of jeopardising our limited resources and the efforts that have been committed so far to flatten the curve of infections. This could lead to a new chain of infections in migrant communities after the lockdown is lifted as the virus will spread from shelters to host communities. DM/MC

 Adam Andani is a senior programme officer at the Open Society Foundation for South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.


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