COVID-19 exposes and amplifies the inequalities experienced by refugees and migrants globally

(18-12-2020) Three out of four refugees and migrants indicate that COVID-19 has had a significantly negative impact on their lives, according to a new report published by the WHO, in collaboration with Ghent University and the University of Copenhagen.

Never before have scientists looked into the impact of a pandemic on refugees and migrants. Some 30,000 refugees and migrants across the globe filled out the questionnaire.

“Our analysis shows that the COVID-19 pandemic significantly impacts all aspects of refugees’ and migrants’ lives, and particularly affects those people facing poor living conditions, e.g., refugees and migrants without a residency permit or those holding a temporary one, as well as the homeless or those residing in centres for asylum seekers. The fact that their mental health is negatively affected is especially alarming, in particular because, in general, these demographics deal with mental problems more often, and because they have little access to mental health care.” Ilse Derluyn, Ghent University

Over 70 percent of migrants and refugees living on the streets or dealing with unstable housing situations report a deterioration of their working conditions. Moreover, about 40 percent worry about where their next meal is coming from, and 50 percent experience more limited access to medical care.

Impact on mental health

According to the WHO report, both refugees and migrants noted a deterioration in their mental state, with at least 50 percent of respondents indicating that COVID‑19 brought about higher levels of depression, anxiety, anguish and loneliness. Respondents over the age of 65 reported an even more significant psychological impact. For over 1 in 4 respondents, said psychological issues have led to increased drugs and alcohol (ab)use.

Many participants report more instances of discrimination during the COVID-19 pandemic than before. Moreover, about half of all homeless refugees and migrants feel they are treated worse because of their country of origin than prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.

“To say that the rise in discrimination felt by refugees and migrants ever since the beginning of the pandemic is concerning would be an understatement. An astounding 1 out of 3 of those respondents living in particularly vulnerable circumstances, i.e., people living on the streets or in centres for asylum seekers, report being treated worse than before the COVID-19 outbreak because of their country of origin or religion. This once more underlines the importance of a policy supported by governments and NGOs in order to tackle discrimination against these group on a wider societal level.” An Verelst, Ghent University

Particularly vulnerable during COVID-19 crisis

The report identifies refugees and migrants who are undocumented or living on the streets as being particularly vulnerable. Adhering to the coronavirus measures, e.g., staying in and avoiding public transport, is generally quite challenging for this group. Moreover, they have much less access to COVID-19-related information. In addition, these groups indicate they are less likely to seek medical care if faced with suspected COVID-19 symptoms; 35 percent would not turn to a GP for financial reasons, and 22 percent because a fear of being deported.

“It is clear that the COVID-19 pandemic is hitting these vulnerable refugee and migrant communities exceptionally hard. Our survey identifies several ways in which the lives of refugees and migrants are affected. Each one of these ways would be sufficiently damaging on its own, but as they tend to present themselves simultaneously across a number of life domains, the end result is even worse. After uncovering all of the effects identified in this report, we are faced with a bleak picture of the hardship and inequality experienced by refugees and migrants.” Dr Morten, University of Copenhagen

Recommendations for an inclusive fight against the pandemic

Understanding exactly how refugees and migrants experience and cope with the COVID-19 pandemic is crucial when designing a sound policy. The ApartTogether research report aims to give refugees and migrants a voice and proves that this pandemic deteriorates their often-precarious living and working conditions. Therefore, measures need to be taken to better and continuously support (undocumented) refugees and migrants. These should include easy access to clear, multilingual language information and to healthcare, including much-needed psychological support.

Furthermore, governments should focus on improving the living conditions of the most vulnerable groups, and offer the continued support of social workers, especially during a pandemic. Targeted campaigns and initiatives are required to reduce both overt and coverts acts of discrimination against these groups, while enhancing their social support networks. As such, the results clearly stress the need to include refugees and migrants in policy responses to COVID19.

The research project

This study was conducted between April 2020 and 31 October 2020. The online survey was drawn up in 37 languages. Each of the 30 questions surveyed socio-demographic information and experiences with COVID-19 and the associated preventative measures. In addition, the respondents were also asked about daily stressors and stigma, psychological well-being and coping strategies.

The ApartTogether survey is the result of a collaboration between the WHO and a consortium of research centres led by Professor Ilse Derluyn and Dr An Verelst (Ghent University) and Dr Morten Skovdal (University of Copenhagen, Denmark). The researchers investigated how refugees and migrants have been affected by COVID-19. For the full list of collaboration partners, please go to

Further information

Ilse Derluyn, Department of Social Work and Social Pedagogy, Ghent University
H. Dunantlaan 2 , B-9000 Ghent
+32 472 92 04 09

Read the full report here

Watch press conference during which WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus will discuss the study