We Cannot Let COVID-19 Be a Death Sentence For Refugees

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

We Cannot Let COVID-19 Be a Death Sentence For Refugees
By: Becca Heller, Executive Director, International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP)

For those working in the fields of protecting the rights of refugees and asylum seekers, the last few years have been a persistent and mounting challenge. Few issues have been more embattled under the current U.S. administration, which has made it very clear that the ultimate goal is to keep as many foreigners as possible out of the country.

The coronavirus has given the administration a new pretext to close borders and further restrict travel, purportedly for the sake of public health, in effect halting all avenues to safety for those fleeing violence and persecution. Even though the pandemic affects every nation on this planet, refugees are among those who have the most to lose, by far. As a result, the situation is looking ever bleaker for the millions of displaced people in need of a safe home. 

The worst advocates could do in this environment is to throw their hands up in despair, when there’s so much that can be done to support refugees at this most crucial time. The key ingredients to alleviating the impact of this unprecedented crisis are a coordinated and collaborative approach to pressure all branches of the government, and the organizational flexibility to adapt to quickly changing environments.

For most of us, the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis meant figuring out how to still do our work. Many of us were fortunate to be able to settle into work-from-home situations, and IRAP’s unique model of remote representation of our clients allowed us to continue our work uninterrupted. However, it was clear right away that the majority of our clients were not this fortunate. Refugees who often work in the informal sector were losing their means to survival in droves. So the very first thing we had to ask ourselves was: what do the people we serve need the most right now and how can we help them?

For our clients, the answer was very clear: many of them lost their jobs and their livelihoods as well as access to medical care and other life-saving necessities. While our team continued to provide the most up-to-date legal information to our clients to ensure they were aware of any COVID-related changes, we also had to swiftly pivot towards providing emergency relief to our clients, and reached out to funders to support our Emergency Client Support Fund. This meant that clients in the most vulnerable situations retained access to food, medicine, and shelter, whilst waiting for their resettlement claims to process.

Once we could ensure that our clients’ immediate needs were met, we set out to remedy the other fallout from the pandemic: increasing travel restrictions and anti-immigrant policies that would further limit access to safety for refugees and asylum seekers. By focusing on two lines of attack, legislation and litigation, we were able to set the stage to ensure that any COVID-related measures aimed at limiting access to safety would only be temporary.

By advocating in the U.S. legislature to extend all immigrant visa validity periods and provide COVID-related benefits to refugees, advocates can ensure that refugees will not be forgotten during this unprecedented crisis. Meanwhile, the Trump administration introduced new and ever more damaging policies and regulations to curtail humanitarian protections and immigration. For proposed regulations, coordinated comment campaigns can be most effective in delaying harmful policies and reducing the damage they can do. In response to a new set of proposed regulations that would effectively change the definition of who can seek asylum in the United States, a coalition of refugee and immigration advocacy organizations facilitated the submission of over 80,000 comments that will have to be reviewed and taken into consideration before finalizing the rules.

But if these policies are implemented regardless, litigation is another tool to hold the government accountable and stop any unlawful and discriminatory policies, sometimes even before they can take effect. Almost all immigration and asylum related policies introduced since the start of the current administration have been challenged in court and many have resulted in relief for refugees and asylum seekers. Most recently, a new rule that would have eliminated the legal status of foreign students if their university didn’t hold in-person classes was challenged by dozens of universities and states, so that the government rescinded the rule rather than taking on the legal fight.

Both approaches require two key ingredients to be successful: flexibility and collaboration. Funders who wish to engage on this issue are well-advised to look for solutions that explicitly feature these ingredients, which represent readiness to respond to unprecedented crises and acknowledge that no single organization can go it alone.

The stakes have never been higher and the challenges never been more taxing, but as advocates of vulnerable migrants we have a number of tools at our disposal to stop this administration from exploiting this pandemic for its xenophobic mission. When we remain vigilant and flexible, when we center the immediate needs of the populations we serve, and when we take advantage of our strength in numbers, we can uphold the rights of refugees and immigrants in this country.


Becca Heller was a featured panelist in Part 1 of Philanthropy New York's Three-Part Humanizing Immigration Series this past May. Listen to Becca and other leaders in the field explore the forces that motivate human migration, from war to climate change to civil unrest.

Find More By

News type