By Patrícia Nabuco Martuscelli
On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 a pandemic. At the time, few people imagined that within a year more than 131,487,572 people would be infected, and 2,857,702 would die as a direct consequence of this disease (WHO, 2021 – data of April 06, 2021). Since 2020, people’s lives have been affected by the measures adopted to control the pandemic, including the closing of borders, schools, and non-essential services, as well as general lockdowns. Amidst new mutations of the coronavirus and competition for the recently approved vaccines highlighting global inequalities between developed and developing countries, experts and international organizations have reinforced the necessity of not leaving anyone behind, including migrants and refugees (people forcibly displaced of their countries of origin due to persecutions based on race, nationality, religion, political opinion or membership in a particular social group).
However, migrants and refugees tend to be ignored in sanitary emergencies (Ventura, 2015). As non-nationals they are deprived of access to information and services. Besides that, they tend to be blamed as “responsible” for the transmission of illnesses. Experts have reflected on the challenges refugees face in protecting themselves from this disease, especially people living in crowded detention centers and refugee camps with no social assistance and limited access to hygiene measures and healthcare even before the outbreak of this pandemic (e.g., Ponce, 2020; Raju & Ayeb-Karlsson, 2020; Riggirozzi et al., 2020; Sandvik & Garnier, 2020). According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR, 2020), 85% of all forcibly displaced people live in developing countries. Besides that, many refugees (especially in Latin America) live in cities and not in refugee camps. Therefore, it is essential to understand how the refugees themselves experienced the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic to understand their challenges, lessons, and expectations. Refugees are experts of their own lives. Suppose decision-makers decide not to leave refugees behinds in the COVID-19 responses. If that were the case, it would be necessary to understand their views.
Brazil presents an interesting case for the analysis of the situation of refugees. It has progressive legislation towards asylum (Law 9474/1997) and migration (Law 13.445/2017) with an expanded definition of refugees (including those fleeing a situation of severe and generalized violation of human rights) and the guarantee of rights with no discrimination to refugees and asylum-seekers including the right to work, education, access to the public healthcare system (Sistema Único de Saúde – SUS) and social benefits. Brazil ranked sixth in the world-wide admittance/reception of asylum-seekers in 2019 (UNHCR, 2020). With more than 331,433 deaths, Brazil is one of the countries most affected by the pandemic, (behind the United States of America) (WHO, 2021). The Brazilian government ranked the worst in terms of its responses to the pandemic (Lowy Institute, 2021). This has repercussions for the refugee population living in the country.
As part of my research, I interviewed 29 refugees of different nationalities (Syria, Venezuela, Mali, Cameroon, Guinea, Guyana, and Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC]) living in the states of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo (where the governors initially adopted the WHO measures of social distancing and closure of schools and non-essential business) between March 27, 2020, and April 06, 2020. The interviews were conducted by means of Whatsapp audio calls following the ethical Recommendations of the International Association for the Study of Forced Migration (IASFM, 2019). The refugees’ narratives on how they were coping with the pandemic and the recommendations to stay at home present a unique picture of the pandemic’s initial outbreak in Brazil. This blog post presents the refugees’ main reflections on their problems, lessons, and expectations for the future in times of COVID-19. In sum, they highlight a general uncertainty regarding the disease and the future.
Refugees perceived that they were left behind by Brazilian responses (or lack of them) to COVID-19 since the government was not acknowledging or addressing their needs in the pandemic. Most of the information translated/adapted for refugees and migrants on protection measures, how to access healthcare, and the federal emergency benefit was produced by civil society organizations and universities with programs geared to support this population (like the Universidade Federal do Paraná – UFPR). Refugees were at risk of believing in fake news since their primary source of information was social media like Facebook and Whatsapp. Recently arrived asylum-seekers that could not speak Portuguese faced the worst situation. There was much uncertainty if refugees and migrants had access to the emergency benefit package discussed by the government at the time. Some refugees had already received false links promising access to benefits (that were not in place yet at the time of the interviews) to steal people’s data.
Refugees were also afraid of facing discrimination when seeking out healthcare because they believed that if the medical personal were put in a situation to decide who should receive treatment, they would prefer Brazilian citizens over foreigners, that is, the refugees. Another challenge was the closure of essential refugee services such as the Federal Police responsible for naturalization and documentation appointments, the civil society organizations providing migrants and refugees with services and information online, and stores sending remittances to the home countries (like Western Union) and offering international phone calls. Many refugees were worried that they could not send vital remittances to their families abroad. Besides that, the Brazilian borders were closed, creating uncertainty if refugees’ relatives with family reunification visas could enter Brazil. The closure of borders also prevented asylum-seekers from entering Brazil and claiming asylum, especially Venezuelans.
A final challenge that appeared in the interviews was that refugees were “living the pandemic twice.” They were facing the COVID-19 pandemic in Brazil, and the Brazilian government was not doing a good job about it. However, at the same time, they worried about their loved ones that were facing the pandemic in the countries of origin that were less equipped than Brazil to fight the pandemic. Most refugees in Brazil come from Venezuela (near 65,49%), Syria (11,79%), and the Democratic Republic of Congo (3,79%), countries facing armed conflicts and humanitarian emergencies (CONARE, 2020).
In fact, refugees from Venezuela, Syria, and DRC felt that they were better prepared to stay at home and follow the WHO measures as compared with the local population because they had already faced war, other diseases (like the Ebola epidemic), and humanitarian emergencies in their home countries. They believed that these past experiences helped them to better understand and follow health recommendations without panic. This also allowed them to empathize more strongly with other groups affected by the pandemic, like recently arrived people, people living in abandoned buildings called occupations, elderly people, poor people, and homeless people. Many refugees depended for their livelihood on catering businesses, which were severely impacted by the canceling of events, fairs, and parties; they were unemployed or were in fear of losing their jobs due to the economic crisis. At the same time, they took action to assist those who were more vulnerable by sharing food with them, distributing food packages and hygiene kits, and offering information. Refugees were worried about the Brazilian population’s well-being and requested that the Brazilian government help everybody (including wealthy Brazilians) and not only refugees. They felt that, as everybody was being affected by the pandemic, everybody needed help.
The interview’s final questions invited the refugees to reflect on the future: the next three months and the future in general. Most refugees’ answers showed that they expected the pandemic to be over soon and that they could resume their previous mode of life after one month. I believe most of my interviewees feel disappointed considering that we are facing this pandemic for more than a year now and our lives are far from “normal.” Nevertheless, the refugees had an optimistic view of the future in general. They expected that humanity would be able to fight the COVID-19 pandemic in the same way as we have fought other pandemics that are now part of history books. They also expected that people would learn to take better care of themselves, their houses, and the planet in general. The refugees hoped that the pandemic would help people to improve, be less selfish and appreciate such vital values as health, family, and life. Actually, the refugees generally agreed that life itself was most essential. That is why they argued that the Brazilian government should save people’s lives first and put the economy in the second place.
The refugees in Brazil reflected on their problems, lessons, and expectations during the outbreak of the country’s COVID-19 pandemic. It is crucial to understand their perspectives to adopt responses to this crisis that take their particular needs into account and do not leave them behind. This essay briefly presented the main findings of the research entitled “Refugees and COVID-19” developed at the Núcleo de Pesquisas em Relações Internacionais (NUPRI) at the University of São Paulo (USP). More studies should consider refugees as experts for the impact of the pandemic on their lives, especially because we have been living the COVID-19 pandemic for more than one year now.
CONARE. (2020) Resumo Executivo - Refúgio em Números, 5th edition. Brasília: CONARE. https://www.justica.gov.br/seus-direitos/refugio/anexos/RESUMOEXECUTIVO_REFGIOEMNMEROS.pdf Accessed 07 Apr 2021.
International Association for the Study of Forced Migration. (2019). IASFM Code of Ethics: Critical reflections on research ethics in situations of forced migration. Forced Migration Review 61, 13-14.
Lowy Institute (2021) Covid Performance Index DECONSTRUCTING PANDEMIC RESPONSES. https://interactives.lowyinstitute.org/features/covid-performance/
Ponce, D. (2020). The impact of coronavirus in Brazil: politics and the pandemic. Nature Reviews Nephrology, 16, 483. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41581-020-0327-0
Raju, E., & Ayeb-Karlsson, S. (2020). COVID-19: How do you self-isolate in a refugee camp?. International Journal of Public Health, 65: 515–517. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00038-020-01381-8
Riggirozzi, P., Grugel J., Cintra, N. (2020, June 26). Protecting Migrants or Reversing Migration? COVID-19 and the risks of a protracted crisis in Latin America. Lancet Migration. https://socialprotection.org/sites/default/files/publications_files/188e74_543cbb0400824084abcea99479dfa124.pdf
Sandvik, K. B., Garnier, A. (2020, March 27). How Will the COVID-19 Pandemic Reshape Refugee and Migration Governance? PRIO Blogs. https://blogs.prio.org/2020/03/how-will-the-covid-19-pandemic-reshape-refugee-and-migration-governance
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (2020). Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2019. https://www.unhcr.org/5ee200e37.pdf
Ventura, D. (2015). Mobilidade humana e saúde global. Revista USP, (107), 55-64. https://doi.org/10.11606/issn.2316-9036.v0i107p55-64
World Health Organization. (2021). WHO Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Dashboard. Data last updated: 2021/04/06, 5:42pm CEST. https://covid19.who.int/?gclid=Cj0KCQjw6575BRCQARIsAMp-ksMsS4pwW8AXkGEwT7PN0DvyKCrbShCYW3NhkERbqy4LEoB8Xv7CjLcaAuNKEALw_wcB
 For further methodological discussions of this project, see Martuscelli, P. N. (2020). How are refugees affected by Brazilian responses to COVID-19?. Revista de Administração Pública, 54(5), 1446-1457. Epub November 02, 2020.https://doi.org/10.1590/0034-761220200516x
 See https://www.ufpr.br/portalufpr/noticias/projeto-disponibiliza-informacoes-sobre-auxilio-emergencial-em-cinco-idiomas/?fbclid=IwAR0vqVlDXsq89l1fQd0dac6tbnC7X2FSRLUMFhjUWVrdLbR-Xu7Mj_NwgJQ