In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, an estimated 167 countries fully or partially closed their borders to contain the virus. At least 57 countries, including the United States,have made no exception for people seeking asylum– despite the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guidance that closing borders will not contain the spread of the virus. Instead, these policies lock people in areas where conflict still exists. As a result, they lack protections against the pandemic or persecution, with increasingly dire results, refugees and asylees are left stranded with even less access to assistance than usual but those designated as refugees may actually be more fortunate than those who are currently lacking international protections on our southern border.

On the U.S. border, thousands of people are trapped in legal purgatory under the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols  (MPP). This is a policy created by the Trump administration wherein individuals seeking admission to the U.S. through the southern border can be returned to Mexico for their immigration proceedings. This has created a crisis in cities like Matamoros, where shelters have been overwhelmed, and people are frequently forced to sleep on the street or in densely packed tent encampments. Aid such as food, water, shelter, and legal assistance are primarily provided by U.S. based NGOs whose volunteers are willing to cross the international bridge to provide care. 

The result has been the development of legally informal refugee camps, unable to secure the U.S. or Mexican government’s help.Without proper designation, the informality of the refugee camps also means that these individuals cannot access care otherwise provided to refugees by the UNHCR.  

Right now, the conditions in MPP camps fail to meet the UN High Commissioner for Refugees  (UNHCR) camp standards, which outline standards for housing, facilities, and supplies. The most basic precautionary measures for containing COVID-19, like handwashing and social distancing, are impossible when security depends on staying in groups. What’s more, for  many asylum seekers, the only reliable source of water is the Rio Grande.  

As part of the UN Global Humanitarian Response plan, UNHCR has received $255 million to curb the impact of coronavirus on refugees, internally displaced people, and the communities hosting them. The funds are for implementing handwashing stations in refugee camps, creating public information campaigns,and delivering laboratory equipment and medical supplies to test and treat people with COVID-19. These resources could help prevent and combat an outbreak at the U.S. border. 

But the UNHCR mandate alone is not enough to protect refugees. Governments need to provide logistical and financial support to aid workers. The largest refugee camp in the world–which is in Bangladesh–hosts around 1 million refugees, and is now on the verge of a devastating coronavirus outbreak. This is in large part due to the difficulty in implementing social distancing in a place with an average of 100,000 people per square mile. Bangladesh has limited aid workers in the camp which has reduced access to water, sanitation, security, and vaccination programs. Additionally, the government has cut off cellular data in the camp which limits dissemination of reliable information about COVID-19. As confirmed cases emerge from within the camp, it has become a model for the dangers of governments not cooperating with UNHCR guidance. 

Mark Lowcock, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that countries are rightly prioritizing the people in their communities. However, he added: “But the hard truth is they will be failing to protect their own people if they do not act now to help the poorest countries protect themselves.” While it seems as if the world has stopped in this time of social distancing, it is crucial to remember that forced migration and people fleeing persecution remain a reality. 

The U.S. and Mexico failing to mandate the camps under UNHCR has left vulnerable people in limbo. This is especially magnified during the current pandemic.  If the countries continue to refuse protection  for migrants at their borders, they should at least allow the UN to provide whatever aid is available to the vulnerable people left stranded.

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