How Are Forcibly Displaced People Affected by the COVID-19 Pandemic Outbreak? Evidence From Brazil

Patrícia Nabuco Martuscelli

American Behavioral Scientist (2021)


This article examines how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected forcibly displaced people in Brazil, by considering their intersectional multiple identities.  Intersectionality refers to the multiple, overlapping social identities of an individual (such as gender, social class, sexual orientation, nationality, ethnicity etc.) that affects their vulnerability.

Brazil has 43,000 recognized refugees from more than 80 countries, including Syria, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Colombia, Palestine, Pakistan, Mali, Iraq, Angola, Afghanistan, and others. In 2019, Brazil recognized nearly 38,000 Venezuelans as refugees. While Brazil’s asylum law is generally recognized as progressive, refugees and asylum seekers face impediments to accessing their rights in Brazil. Brazil has no federal integration policy, no national program to teach Portuguese, nor culturally and linguistic adapted services for refugees and asylum seekers. These populations also face challenges accessing banking services and some public systems that require a Brazilian identification number that only Brazilians have. Refugees also struggle to access the labor market.

The analysis is based on 29 semi-structured phenomenological interviews (i.e. interviews that consider the ‘living experience’ of people) with refugees in the states of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in March and April 2020. Interviewees were mainly male and young; they came from DRC, Syria, Venezuela, Mali, Cameroon, Guinea, and Guyana.

Refugees reflected on their experiences during the first two weeks of the pandemic, when state governors adopted public health measures including quarantine, social distancing, and the closure of nonessential businesses and schools. An intersectionality approach aimed to understand how refugees experienced the COVID-19 pandemic by considering how their many identities (class, race, nationality) put them in a more vulnerable position. Refugees have specific vulnerabilities arising from their identities as non-nationals (without a vote), forcibly displaced, minorities, non-Portuguese native speakers, and perceived as different because of their race, nationality, religion or cultural traditions.

The results indicate that refugees face three challenges connected to the pandemic:

  • The same challenges faced by Brazilians related to the nature of their employment (vulnerable, employed, freelancing, self-employed). Vulnerable refugees and Brazilians working in the informal sector with no social protection were prevented from working; they depended on donations and feared not having money to pay bills. Employed refugees and Brazilians had social protection in Brazil but were worried about the future of the Brazilian economy and losing their job in the economic crisis precipitated by the pandemic. Some freelancing refugees and Brazilians could rely on savings but were worried about the length of the pandemic; but many freelancers had no savings and were worried about how to pay bills. Self-employed refugees and Brazilians were severely affected; some continued to operate businesses, but were worried about the duration of the pandemic because sales were slow, and they needed to pay bills. Additional anxieties common to refugees and Brazilians included: anxiety about paying rent and bills, affordability of hygiene products, closure of schools and consequently children consuming more meals at home. The closure of schools appeared more in the narratives of female refugees, indicating the gendered expectations of women as caregivers.
  • Challenges aggravated by the pandemic due to refugees’ identity as non-nationals. Refugees lack social network that could help them during the crisis. Refugees had a hard time accessing linguistically and culturally adapted information on COVID-19. They also feared discrimination and xenophobia when accessing the health care system.
  • New challenges due to their social identity as forcibly displaced non-nationals including the closure of migration services and borders and the feeling of “living the pandemic twice”. The closure of borders, migration services, organizations providing services to this population, agencies that send money abroad, and international phone companies seriously affected the lives of refugees. Refugees “lived the pandemic twice”: they experienced the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak (including governmental responses) in Brazil and worried about their health and wellbeing, while at the same time they worried about their families living through the pandemic in their countries of origin.


Overall, the interviewed refugees perceived that they were abandoned or neglected in the responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, which increased their feeling of uncertainty, hopelessness, and fear. The interviews indicated the importance of understanding how the pandemic affected refugees considering their multiple intersectional identities, which involve the same challenges faced by Brazilians, challenges aggravated by the pandemic and new challenges created by the pandemic.