The impact of coronavirus (COVID-19) on forcibly displaced persons in developing countries

OECD, June 2020


This brief identifies the steps that governments can take to address the consequences of COVID-19 in situations of forced displacement in developing countries with a view to ensuring that no one is left behind. The brief examines the exposure of forcibly displaced persons to health risks and the socio-economic consequences of the pandemic, in particular in fragile contexts. It further highlights key protection safeguards to be integrated in the effort to improve health systems and resilience of societies.

Main points:

  • The risk of COVID-19 transmission could be heightened in situations of fragility, high population density and camp settings.
  • With the majority of refugees living in low or middle-income countries with weaker health and social protection systems, and many experiencing pre-existing vulnerabilities, they may be disproportionately affected by the consequences of the pandemic. Their vulnerability may be compounded in fragile contexts.
  • Restrictive public health measures, in addition to health and livelihoods impacts, may have affected the rights of forcibly displaced persons, including the right to asylum, freedom of movement, right to education and work. Moreover, restrictive measures may have also influenced directly or indirectly patterns of displacement and potentially generated further displacement.
  • UN agencies, experts and NGOs have highlighted critical protection safeguards and minimum legal standards, and some have taken concrete measures to protect refugees and put in place preparedness measures as well as an emergency response.
  • Key options advanced by global plans and various organizations on the response to COVID-19 in forced displacement situations point to the need to address risks of violence, discrimination and xenophobia and to the importance of inclusion of the forcibly displaced into health sector response plans and social protection schemes. Immediate response should include decongestion, surveillance, testing, treatment and awareness raising. As countries across the world are increasing the coverage of social protection and jobs programs in response to COVID-19, there is an opportunity to include forcibly displaced persons and other vulnerable groups into social safety nets from the outset.
  • Official Development Assistance (ODA) will have an important role to play in the recovery phase where many developing countries may be faced with liquidity risks.


The brief identified a number of policy options to safeguard rights and protect health priorities. These include:

  • Include refugees systematically into donor country health sector strategies and programming;
  • Work with refugee-hosting and return countries to include refugees alongside host communities into national and local-level health response plans and social protection schemes;
  • Manage border restrictions in a manner which respects international human rights and refugee law, including the principle of non-refoulement;
  • Build the resilience of health systems with particular focus on fragile contexts and ensuring urgent support is allocated to those with weaker health systems; and
  • Preserve ongoing humanitarian and ODA to ensure they are not diverted from their initial goals.