Covid-19 exposes ‘huge information gap’ on displaced persons

In Kutupalong camp in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh the day after the camp’s first positive Covid-19 test result, 15 May, 2020. (Credit: Keystone/AP Photo/Suzauddin Rubel).

The Covid-19 pandemic has worsened conditions for forcibly displaced people, however, a lack of reliable data on these vulnerable populations is making their plight difficult to track, the World Bank and the UN refugee agency have warned.

A joint survey carried out in eight developing countries found that forcibly displaced people and the communities hosting them have been hit hard by social and economic fallout from the pandemic.  But displaced populations very often fare worse, in particular in accessing medical care, education and employment.

The World Bank-UNHCR Joint Data Centre on Forced Displacement conducted 90,000 phone interviews with refugees, internally displaced persons, and returning families in Bangladesh, Chad, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Iraq, Kenya, Uganda, and Yemen since March 2020.

Speaking at a press briefing on Thursday, Harriet Kasidi Mugera, senior data scientist at the Joint Data Centre said that the information gathered, while a promising start, was still sparse and not necessarily representative of displaced populations globally.

"The pandemic shed light on the fact that there is a huge information gap,” she said. The survey calls for better collaboration and inclusion of data on forcibly displaced households in national statistics. The continued collection of data will allow humanitarian agencies to support vulnerable groups and respond to their needs, it said.

What the findings show. Covid-19 has had a devastating effect on almost every aspect of the lives of refugees and other forcibly displaced people, from their freedom of movement to loss of jobs and income. The survey reveals that displaced populations suffered job losses “at rates at least as large if not greater than hosts”, and that they tend to be employed in sectors more vulnerable to economic shocks.

They also rely disproportionately on international assistance, especially since the onset of the Covid crisis.  “These households have two sources of income: what they earn, and what they receive through assistance,” Jeffery Tanner, senior economist at the Joint Data Center told reporters. “On what they earn, these household’s employment tends to be informal. So it’s more vulnerable than for hosts.”

In one example given, nine out of ten non-displaced persons in Ethiopia have held jobs during the pandemic. However, the same can be said of only two in ten refugees, two thirds of whom cited the pandemic as the reason for their unemployment.

“In a cascade of family crises, this loss of income, whether it be through wages or assistance, can lead to or exacerbate food insecurity, the ability to access medical care or the potential to continue one’s education,” said Tanner.

Children miss out on education. School attendance has also reached drastically low levels since the pandemic, with only one per cent of refugee children of secondary school age in Ethiopia found to be attending school compared with five per cent before the outbreak, according to the survey.

At the same time, there have been some hopeful trends, including in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, where the most populated community of refugees in the world is found. Of education there, Tanner says: “We actually see improvements for refugee teens’ educational engagement – though not necessarily their educational achievement – especially for girls.”

Medical care out of reach. The centre’s survey also reveals a significant difference in access to medical care between host populations and refugees in Chad, Djibouti, Iraq, and Kenya.

But displaced populations do not always fare worse than hosts. Refugees and hosts in Uganda had similar struggles in accessing healthcare.  Meanwhile, the share of internally displaced persons and hosts in Yemen with poor access to healthcare showed nearly identical increases during the pandemic.

Mugera and Tanner said access to healthcare remains one of the biggest challenges in vaccinating the majority of forcibly displaced persons – and not a lack of willingness to take the vaccine. Across the countries surveyed, displaced persons’ willingness is as high as 71 to 93 per cent, though for many the expense is a worry.

“The fact that very, very few are still able to get vaccines despite this really high level of receptivity – particularly among displaced people, saying ‘Yes, we would have this vaccine if it were offered to us’ – that disconnect is one that we should be concerned about at a global level,” said Tanner.

More to be done. The World Bank and UNHCR said the survey was a significant step towards closing the information gap on how the pandemic has affected forcibly displaced people, but that more data and analysis are needed.

Andrej Mahecic, acting head of the UNHCR News and Media Unit, highlighted the “benefit for the humanitarian agencies, including UNHCR, to learn from the data, to find more about the needs, to give some granularity to the issues and be able to better plan and respond to the needs on the ground.”

The need for more comprehensive and harmonised data is ever more pressing as the Delta variant spreads. “If we don’t pay attention to these populations, then we lose out on not just current welfare but future economic welfare for these families.”