Amidst travel restrictions and other government responses to the growing COVID-19 pandemic, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as of March 17, 2020, temporarily suspended refugee resettlement departures—the actual travel of a refugee from their initial country of asylum to the country where they will be resettled. In addition to travel disruptions, the UNHCR cited concerns that refugees would be placed at a higher risk of contracting and transmitting the virus if they continued to travel as reasons behind their decision.
The U.S. continued to accept refugees for resettlement until the UNHCR suspended resettlement departures—according to data from the Refugee Processing Center, the U.S. admitted 1,584 refugees in February and 1,110 refugees in March. However, the U.S. introduced new travel restrictions on March 20th that allow border patrol agents to block asylum seekers from entering the country on the grounds of slowing the spread of COVID-19, an action prohibited by international law.
Officials from the UNHCR stress that refugees living in refugee camps are particularly vulnerable to outbreaks of COVID-19 due to the high population density and poorer medical infrastructure of those camps. Experiences from past epidemics, such as Ebola, are informing their current preparations for the possibility of a COVID-19 outbreak.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also affected the reunification of refugee families, causing those who were slated to join resettled family members to remain in refugee camps for the foreseeable future. Additionally, recently resettled refugees may face more difficulty accessing services and receiving volunteer assistance due to stay-at-home orders, and they may face greater challenges in finding employment during an economic downturn. Finally, many are concerned that the COVID-19 pandemic will prompt an increase in anti-refugee sentiment due to an unfounded fear that they are carriers of the virus, as we have unfortunately seen with the rise in attacks on Asian Americans.