Refugees in the MENA Remain Uniquely Vulnerable to the Effects of COVID-19 amid Political and Economic Constraints

The International Rescue Committee President David Miliband insists that “[…] refugees and displaced people around the world face a triple emergency: conflict and displacement, COVID-19 and the global economic crisis it has generated”.[2] And as the COVID-19 pandemic proceeds to make its way throughout the MENA region, refugees and asylum seekers already struggling to cope under severe living conditions, are now uniquely at risk of being exposed to protracted economic losses and health concerns. In Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Yemen and other states in the region, millions of refugees currently brawl to protect themselves against the virus as well as power through the worsening economic crisis it has created.[3] International organizations, United Nations agencies and governments alike have insisted the world is experiencing one of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, and the contractions in economic activity in response to COVID-19 are posing disproportionate impacts upon hunger in conflict-ridden states as well as in converging and developing communities.[4]

Amid clashes between rival forces and escalating concerns on all fronts, Yemen is currently coping with the displacement of over 100,000 individuals since January 2020.[5] With close to no health infrastructure, limited testing capabilities and overcrowded living conditions within close quarters, experts warn the country could be a ‘breeding ground’ for the virus if preventive measures are not set in place.[6] While Yemen has only confirmed less than 600 cases[7] thus far, medical officials insist the number is likely far higher as various rebels groups have been accused of playing down outbreaks in areas and vicinities under their control.[8] The severe acute domestic economic crisis overlapping with a sharp drop in remittances and major cuts to donor support for humanitarian aid amidst a devastating pandemic, will ultimately cause irreparable damage.

Refugees in Lebanon and Jordan, whose governments are currently strained by worsening economic crises, have also seen their situation escalate in recent months. Amid an unpegged currency and government debt, Lebanon has seen its citizens’ livelihoods decrease in quality substantially with no prospects for a swift recovery.[9] Currently stuck in the ongoing political and economic chaos are the country’s over 1.5 million refugees, who have proven to be very low on the government’s current list of priorities.[10]

In Syria, where over 6.5 million are internally displaced over 9 million do not have access to basic food needs, the UN has warned that the crisis may ignite another flow of mass migration if aid is not urgently delivered to the most vulnerable factions of the population.[11] Marking World Refugee Day this year amid record high levels of displacement, international organizations stressed the need to open the Iraq-Syria border to provide a lifeline to Syrians in need of humanitarian assistance.[12] The open letter addressed to the UN Security Council insists this is essential, as only 31% of the healthcare facilities in Northeast Syria have been supported, and NGOs are currently struggling to fill these gaps.[13] Without this cross-border mechanism to Syria, the letter insists, lives will be lost.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has highlighted growing concerns over migrants, refugees, and internally displaced people in the MENA. In its report published in June, the humanitarian organization highlights that displaced persons are ‘falling through the cracks’ and facing increased stigmatization as the Coronavirus crisis develops.[14] The IFRC further expressed their concern that stigma as well as misinformation may serve as a hindrance to potentially infected people seeking care, insisting this needs to be taken ‘as seriously as the virus itself’.[15]

Migrants, refugees and internally displaced persons remain among the most vulnerable populations in the region that are: (1) particularly at risk for health complications and violence, (2) confined to crowded temporary accommodation with inadequate sanitation and shelter and (3) have little-to-no access to medical care and good nutrition. International organizations and UN agencies have subsequently flexed their power in the region to raise awareness, provide translation of critical information, offer food donations, and share health and hygiene lessons in migrant centers.[16] Libya, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Tunisia are some the countries reported to be receiving significant support during the pandemic.[17]

Refugees, internally displaced persons as well as migrants depend heavily upon humanitarian assistance for survival. During this ongoing health crisis governments must continue to tap into alternate and innovative manners to deliver adequate assistance which protects the health of citizens, migrant populations as well as the informal medical staff and volunteers involved in bridging these gaps amid political and economic constraints.

The Global Health Institute at the American University of Beirut addresses an array of refugee health concerns through its Refugee Health Program. More information on this program is available, here: Refugee Health Program

Filters: Conflict, Political Economy, Refugees, MENA, COVID-19


[1] Research Associate on the Political Economy of Health in Conflict, Refugee Health Program, Global Health Institute, American University of Beirut, Lebanon and MENA Regional Focal Point on Migration, United Nations Major Group for Children and Youth, USA


[2] O’Brien, R. & Young, L. (2020), Triple Threat for Refugees: Conflict, COVID-19 and Cash, Says IRC’s Miliband, The New York Times, Retrieved at:

[3] Ibid

[4] Fridson, M. (2020), Four Major Reasons Why The Covid-19 Recession Isn’t Likely To Evolve Into A Repeat Of The Great Depression, Forbes, Retrieved at:

[5] Karapan, O. (2020), Yemen’s civilians: Besieged on all sides, Brookings, Retrieved at:,1%20percent%20of%20the%20population.

[6] Ibid

[7] Al-Monitor Staff (2020), Yemen’s health care system collapses as virus spreads, Al-Monitor, Retrieved at:

[8] Bellis, C. (2020), Yemen COVID-19: Fears cases and deaths are being underreported, Al-Jazeera English, Retrieved at:

[9] Halabi, S. (2020), Lebanon: Government Recovery Plan Asks Too Much of Ordinary Lebanese, and Not Enough from Elites, Arab Reform Initiative, Retrieved at:

[10] UNHCR (2020), UNHCR Lebanon’s prevention and response to COVID-19, Retrieved at:

[11] UN Migration Agency (IOM) (2020), Access and Funding for Displaced Syrians Remains a Top Humanitarian Concern Amid COVID-19 Crisis, Retrieved at:

[12] CARE, Handicap International, InterAction, et. al. (2020), Open Letter to the United Nations Security Council on the Syria cross-border resolution, Retrieved at:

[13] Ibid

[14] IFRC (2020), COVID-19: Red Cross and Red Crescent urge more support for refugees in the Middle East North Africa region, Retrieved at:

[15] Ibid

[16] Ibid

[17] Ibid