How Covid-19 Has Affected Refugees

Joanna Psaros

6 May 2021

Originally published at Green Left

Photo by Asia News

Take some of the world’s most persecuted individuals. Add an immigration detention policy so hostile it has been condemned by the United Nations as a breach of human rights. Then throw in a worldwide pandemic of unprecedented scale. Was this the impetus for our government to finally take its duty of care toward refugees and asylum seekers seriously and recognise the arbitrariness of borders and citizenship? If you’ve been paying any attention over the last, oh, eighteen years, it won’t surprise you to hear that no, it was not. But just how has the Coronavirus pandemic affected refugees and asylum seekers? And as we look forward to a future, what will this new normal look like for the current and future refugees to arrive on Australia’s shores?   

It would be an understatement to say that even pre-2020, refugees in immigration detention (both in Australia and offshore) did not enjoy the most comfortable or healthy accommodation. Ongoing findings of violence, poor mental health, and inadequate facilities have been directed at Australia’s detention centres almost since their establishment,

with conditions described as unhygienic and cramped. Cramped, of course, being the key word, when it comes to the age of social distancing. 

Making the threat of an outbreak even more serious was the fact that a disproportionate number of detainees were considered by the Commonwealth Department of Health to be at risk of serious infection from COVID-19. “Serious infection,” to clarify, can include anything from ongoing respiratory illness, to organ failure, to death. 

These dangers (on top of the “ordinary” inhumane living conditions, which refugees are often subject to for year upon year with no indication of when they’ll be released) led refugee and asylum seeker advocate groups to call on the Federal Government to release detainees into the community (either in community detention or on community bridging visas) where they could safely- and humanely- isolate with the rest of us. 

We all remember how rapidly the state and federal governments moved to enact public health measures at the height of Covid. In NSW, the March 2020 total lockdown of non-essential businesses was announced the day before the regulations came into effect. But despite the obvious urgency of these refugees’ situation, the Federal Government entirely ignored their duty to protect the lives of people who they had unlawfully forced into this dangerous situation, and who had no option of leaving. 

But isn’t there any good news? Well, in August 2020 an Australian Federal Court found that the Minister of Home Affairs had a duty to protect the life of a man who, due to his old age and diabetes, had a high risk of death from Covid-19. So of course, the government was forced to transfer him out of his current lodgings at Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation centre… to another detention centre away from his son and grandchildren.  Another feel-good immigration detention story!

As we’ve learnt the hard way, the spread of Covid affected more than just peoples’ health. The devastating effects of Australia’s (first) lockdown and international border closures rocked the economy on a micro and macro level. By September 2020, Australia had entered its first recession in three decades. Unemployment reached 7.4%; the highest in two decades. There was a reduction in wages across the board, and in response to an April 2020 ABS survey, one third of participants reported a deterioration in personal finances. 

Despite these depressing statistics, it’s widely agreed that without the introduction of a range of safety net measures- chief among them JobKeeper- we would have been far worse off. Just like refugees, who were not eligible for JobKeeper payments. 

This is of course on top of refugees’ existing financial disadvantages; one example of which is having to pay the full cost of medical expenses (refugees do not receive Medicare benefits). Additionally, the majority of refugees obviously don’t have a great deal of financial resources upon arrival in Australia, making two financial safety nets that they have had to do without.

If you’ve ever experienced it, you’ll know that financial instability is an awful thing. Not knowing how you’ll pay rent or buy groceries has a serious impact on a person’s self-esteem, heightens stress levels, and can result in depression. But what’s worse than being worried about money? Being worried about money and the possibility of being deported. This was (and for some, still is) the reality of refugees residing in Australia on Safe Haven Entrypass visas. 

This class of visa provides a pathway to obtaining a permanent visa- if certain conditions are complied with. SHE visa holders are required to work or study in a regional area for three and a half years without receiving government assistance. To join the dots, Covid has seen a drastic increase in unemployment, and decrease in (for refugees, already disproportionately low) personal finances. Study- without HELP loans, which refugees are, again, not eligible for- is expensive, leaving the only option work (which to reiterate, is more unstable than it’s been in decades.) Imagine the anxiety that would be experienced by a person needing to accumulate those three and a half years, with no knowledge or control over when they’ll next work.  

Photo by Ahmed akacha on

But there are charities that help with these kinds of things, right? There absolutely are. And in another twist in the tale of Covid’s economic and social disruption, many of these organisations were either forced to stop operating at the height of Covid due to financial considerations or social distancing regulations, or were simply run off their feet with the increased need. Dedicated refugee organisations provide a lot of essential services for Australia’s refugee community, and these support systems would all have been sorely missed during such a difficult time. But perhaps none so much as the services that assisted refugees with filling out forms and understanding vital for their visa or residency applications. This isn’t just another of the inconveniences we all put up with during lockdown. The implications of a non-English speaker filling out information incorrectly or submitting a late application could mean deportation or indefinite detention.

It sure puts having to wear face masks in perspective. 

Covid-19 has affected refugees in both detention and the community in devastating ways. But in Australia, we’re starting to feel cautiously optimistic about the future. In early March of this year, NSW reached the milestone of a record breaking 50 days without community transmission, and despite recent outbreaks in Perth and Sydney, Australia has still managed a smattering of “donut” days and even weeks in recent times. The vaccine rollout is (slowly) gaining momentum, and there is even talk of international borders re-opening. 

So what will the “end” of Covid mean for Australia’s refugee community? For new arrivals in particular, post-covid may not be the relief that it will be for the rest of us. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, there are likely to be a greater number of asylum seekers arriving. And secondly, those new arrivals may actually find the visa application process more difficult- something hard to believe possible given Australia’s prohibitively strict requirements as it is.

The Covid pandemic did not hit pause on the war in Syria, or civil unrest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. However, Covid-19 did pause nations’ international obligations to resettle asylum seekers. (Yes, despite the protestations of the government, Australia is legally obligated to accept genuine refugees). Understandably, at the height of Covid countries were excused for barring entry to all international arrivals. But because of this, there is now what might be considered a “backlog” of people seeking asylum, meaning that when borders do reopen there is likely to be far more asylum seekers than usual. Knowing Australia’s track record, this is not good news for any refugees attempting to enter the country in the foreseeable future.

Despite the inevitable hiccups, the development of an effective vaccine was a long-awaited triumph in the worldwide fight against Covid. But its varying accessibility, particularly in poorer nations, has the potential to exacerbate existing inequalities.

It’s looking likely that Australia will implement a system in which “vaccine passports” are a prerequisite to entry. And of course, refugees are less likely to have received the vaccine than other international arrivals given they are leaving poor or unstable countries. Even of those who are vaccinated, many may have left their homes at short notice or under dangerous circumstances, and therefore not have all of their documentation. While a good idea in theory, in practice vaccine passports may end up representing the very thing refugees don’t need more of; a barrier to reaching safety and justification for being kept in limbo.

Covid has impacted us all in one way or another and no-one, regardless of where they live or how much money they earn, should have their pain, fear, or insecurity minimised. But it’s a reminder that it’s always the same groups- the poor, the displaced, ethnic and racial minorities- that bear the brunt of suffering when things get tough. And in times of crisis, we cannot rely on our government to take care of everyone as long as existing power structures are in place.  

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