World Refugee Day Letter from Refugees International President Eric Schwartz

Dear Friends,

Today, the world is confronted with one of the greatest global health challenges of our time. As the COVID-19 pandemic brings new threats to already dire humanitarian crises, protecting the rights and safety of the world’s nearly 80 million refugees and other forcibly displaced people has never been a more urgent priority.

In Syria, a decade of civil war has displaced more than half of the three million civilians in Idlib province, of whom more than one million are living in overcrowded camps without access to clean water. Additionally, the region’s poor hospital infrastructure, which has been decimated by conflict, is ill-equipped to respond to the pandemic. While no cases of COVID-19 have yet been reported, it is— tragically—only a matter of time.

In Bangladesh, Refugees International and international aid groups have warned for many weeks of the additional suffering COVID-19 could bring to the nearly 900,000 Rohingya refugees living in Cox’s Bazar. These fears were only heightened in May when the first cases of the virus were reported in the camps.

While experts say frequent handwashing and social distancing are the best defense against COVID-19, these practices are often impossible for displaced people.

Even in countries that have taken greater measures to combat COVID-19, refugees and asylum seekers face daunting challenges. While Colombia has made efforts to include displaced Venezuelans in its pandemic response, the government’s resources and social service programs are stretched thin. Tens of thousands of Venezuelans are doing what would have been unthinkable before March: they are returning home despite the turmoil that forced them to flee in the first place.

In the United States, the Trump administration is using the virus as justification to turn away asylum seekers at the border. As Refugees International and public health experts have made clear, the administration’s actions are discriminatory and in conflict with U.S. law and international refugee law. They also lack a credible public health rationale and may make it more difficult to effectively fight COVID-19 in northern Mexico.

As we have reported, “In this time of uncertainty, at least one thing is clear – a virus does not respect borders. Nor does it discriminate. A truly effective response, not to mention a morally correct one, also must not discriminate.”

For as long as this crisis endures, Refugees International will continue our reporting and advocacy around COVID-19 and the displaced. We are sounding the alarm to policymakers, humanitarians, governments around the world, and multilateral organizations, and demanding that the world’s most vulnerable not be left behind in the global pandemic response.

In honor of World Refugee Day on June 20, I am asking you to support our advocacy on behalf of refugees and other forcibly displaced people around the world.


Eric Schwartz

Refugees International