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Covid-19 Exacerbates Vulnerability of the Forcibly Displaced



Lorraine Charles is a Research Associate at the Centre for Busines Research at the University of Cambridge.

After a year that will be remembered in history as transformational, when the ways in which we live and work were altered, perhaps the biggest change has been in the movement of people. With border restrictions expected to extend well into 2021 and the ongoing political instability in many countries, mobility of the most vulnerable will continue to be impeded — a situation that could lead to loss of life, not only from Covid-19, but also due to an inability to access basic necessities.

International and domestic travel were drastically restricted, with the majority of the world’s population locked indoors. For millions of forcibly displaced individuals and families, 2020 compounded their already challenging existence. Looking ahead to 2021, the numbers of forcibly displaced and those in need of urgent humanitarian assistance are likely to increase considering the current public health crises caused by Covid-19 as well as the political and economic fragility in many parts of the world.

According to UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) data, there are over 79 million forcibly displaced people, of which 26 million are refugees. Contrary to some media portrayals of refugees, 84% live in developing countries, and seven out of the top ten developing countries that host refugees are considered fragile according to the OECD. Moreover, refugees often settle into host communities that are among the poorest in their countries, with inadequate public services. It stands to reason then that with already fragile economic and health systems, the outbreak of Covid- 19 has had an even greater impact on the most vulnerable.

...there are over 79 million forcibly displaced people, of which 26 million are refugees.

Yet, while much of the developing world swiftly instituted lock-down measures, preventing the huge losses of life and transmissions experienced by the US and Europe at the beginning of 2020, in the latter half of 2020 high population densities in both urban areas and refugee camps saw many communities experiencing increasing local transmissions of Covid-19. Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan reported its first death from Covid-19 on 11 November 2020, and the first local transmission in Gaza was reported in August 2020.

Perhaps the most significant impact Covid-19 has had on the forcibly displaced has been on mobility. UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) temporarily suspended their resettlement on 17 March 2020 due to travel restrictions and to reduce refugees’ exposure to the virus. The US — traditionally the largest recipient country for resettled refugees — under the outgoing Trump administration continuously reduced its resettlement quotas starting in 2017. In October 2020, the US Government announced a cap of 15,000 resettlement spaces for the upcoming year (compared to 110,000 under the Obama administration). According to UNHCR, 2020 may well record the lowest number of refugees resettled. As well as a significantly reduced global refugee quota of 50,000, current rates indicate the lowest levels of resettlement in almost two decades. Between January and September 2020, only 15,425 refugees were resettled compared to over 50,086 in the same period in 2019, increasing vulnerability and putting many at risk of falling further into poverty. Many are hopeful that resettlement numbers will rise again in 2021 given the new US administration’s commitment to increasing annual refugee resettlement quotas as well as the growing number of complementary pathways for regular migration, such as those offered by the UK, which has opened more channels for skilled refugee migration.

Covid-19 has also caused many displaced individuals to return to their home countries, often back to the difficult and precarious conditions they fled from and where they lacked basic necessities. By 30 October 2020, more than 136,000 Venezuelans had returned from other countries in the region. At its peak, an average of 600 Venezuelans returned from Colombia and 88 from Brazil daily. Between 1 April and 3 November 2020, IOM had assisted more than 37,600 migrants who had returned to Ethiopia from neighboring African countries and Saudi Arabia. Despite the constraints on global movement, many individuals displaced by violence and political instability continued to embark on dangerous journeys in the hope of safety and a better life. The Covid-19 responses of destination countries have increased the risks and uncertainty of these journeys, putting many people in dangerous situations where humanitarian support and rescue may be unavailable. According to IOM, by 21 November more than 2,700 people had lost their lives during migration in 2020.

A safe and effective vaccine may see a resumption of global travel and a return to ‘life as normal’ in the year ahead, but for displaced individuals and their families, ‘normality’ will continue to be fraught with danger and distress.


International Organization for Migration, IOM. “IOM, UNHCR Announce Temporary Suspension of Resettlement Travel for Refugees.” IOM. March 17, 2020.

International Organization for Migration, IOM. “Monitoring of Voluntary Returns of Venezuelan Refugees and Migrants – August 2020 [EN/PT].” Reliefweb. October 21, 2020.

IOM Missing Migrants Project. 2020. “Missing Migrants: Tracking Deaths along Migratory Routes.” Missing Migrants. November 20, 2020.

Narea, Nicole. ‘The Trump Administration Already Made Huge Refugee Cuts. It’s Making More’. VOX, October 1, 2020.

OECD. 2019. ‘Financing for Refugee Situations’. OECD Development Policy Papers, No. 24, OECD Publishing, Paris.

Siegfried, Kristy. ‘The Refugee Brief – 20 November 2020’. UNHCR, November 20, 2020.

UNHCRJordan. Twitter Post. November 11, 2020, 4:49 PM.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR. ‘Figures at a Glance’. UNHCR, 2020.

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