Hope for many as vaccines roll out in Europe, but refugees and asylum seekers are left in poor conditions and excluded from vaccine plans

dna testing machine
Elizabeth Quinn

29th March 2021


Refugees and asylum seekers have been exceptionally impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. It has been more difficult than usual to seek asylum due to the halting of international travel and strict border policies. 310,000 people applied for protection in the EU during the first three quarters of 2020, compared to more than 467,000 over the same period in 2019 (around a 30% drop), according to data from Eurostat. Easing of lockdown restrictions has meant a slight increase in applications, but numbers have not returned to even close to pre-COVID figures.


There has been a backlog of asylum cases and appeals cases, with long processing times throughout Europe. Many centres were acting at a near full capacity before the pandemic, and the lack of focus on migrant rights has meant that Government bodies have not invested in extra help for refugees and asylum seekers. This causes issues for social distancing guidelines, leaving many people extremely vulnerable. After the of Greek refugee camp of Moria was destroyed in a fire, and the new Kara Tepe camp was set up, more than 240 people tested positive for COVID-19. According to The Washington Post, “people living in crowded refugee camps on the Greek islands are three times more likely to contract COVID-19, compared with the general Greek population, and those in camps and accommodations on the mainland are 2.5 times more at risk.” In Italy, there were 239 cases in reception centres between February and June last year, and in France, migrants have been arrested and detained for refusing to take a COVID PCR test. This has been deemed “illegal” and a violation of “fundamental rights”.


Many NGOs and refugee rights campaigners have stressed the need to vaccinate refugees and asylum seekers as soon as possible. “Including refugees in the vaccine rollout is key to ending the pandemic” says Mike Woodman, Senior Public Health Officer at the UNHCR. The UNHCR has stated that of 133 countries, 81 have finalized their vaccination strategies and only 54 have included explicit provisions to cover populations of concern such as refugees, asylum seekers and stateless and internally displaced people. There are currently 80 million displaced people in the world. Not only is refugee immunisation important from a humanitarian perspective, but also from a safety perspective. Unfortunately, the rise in far-right nationalism in Europe and further afield has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and along with the virus has come a rhetoric of ‘support your own’, with many believing that citizens should be prioritised. Professor of Government and Global Studies, Jennifer Yoder predicted that the far-right would “use the coronavirus’ spread to stoke fears about foreigners bringing disease, government’s inability to protect the Nation, and shadowy global conspiracies.” This has emerged as anti-asian sentiment in many countries, and there has been evidence of xenophobia and anti-immigrant attitudes of all types across the globe. According to the Irish Network Against Racism, last year there were a record number of racist incidents reported to the Gardai, the majority of which were related to the pandemic.


“people living in crowded refugee camps on the Greek islands are three times more likely to contract COVID-19, compared with the general Greek population”


The Irish Government has included a plan to vaccinate those living in Direct Provision centres under group 9 of the provisional vaccine allocation groups plan. Group nine includes those “aged 18-64 years living working in crowded accommodation where self-isolation and social distancing is difficult to maintain”. Ireland has currently been working on vaccinating groups 1 – 4 of the plan, a total of 487,466 people in the Republic of Ireland had received their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, while 181,063 had received their second dose as of 19th March 2021. The temporary pausing of the Astra-Zeneca vaccine has meant an even slower rollout of the vaccine to the Irish population.


Last year, more than 30 residents of the Cahersiveen Direct Provision Centre went on hunger strike in protest at the conditions that they were forced to live in after a major outbreak of COVID-19 in the centre. Cahersiveen centre eventually closed, but there are still currently more than 7,000 people living in Direct Provision centres across Ireland. Although the Government has announced plans to introduce a new system that will replace direct provision, this will not be brought in until 2024. Leaving people living in conditions in which they are unable to social distance or isolate, and will not receive a vaccine until group 9 of the vaccine rollout will have untold effects on individual’s physical and mental health. Asylum seekers should not have to go on hunger strike for their basic safety needs to be met. Unfortunately, the situation with refugees and asylum seekers in Ireland is reflective of what is happening in the wider E.U. and globally. Research has shown that asylum seekers are “isolated, but without the possibility to self-isolate” and “will continue to live in unsuitable, overcrowded accommodation at high risk of contracting the virus.” The Irish Government have stressed the importance of ‘protecting our most vulnerable’, clearly demonstrating who is considered vulnerable, and who is considered part of ‘us’.


Children living in direct provision have always faced isolation from their peers and the wider society due to their living conditions. A report by the Ombudsman for Children revealed that this has been exacerbated by schools being closed, and lack of social contact. Most direct provision centres have not provided laptops and electronic resources to facilitate the children keeping up with their schoolwork or staying in contact with their teachers and classmates. Children who had already faced social isolation are now facing issues of educational poverty as a result of the government failing to recognise the specific needs of children living within the direct provision system. The Ombudsman report also found that children living in direct provision were “extremely worried” about returning to school as they were confused about their ability to social distance and remain safe. Many children and adults living in direct provision have experienced trauma in their lives and journey to Ireland, and the instability and lack of routine that lockdown in direct provision brings may have untold consequences for their wellbeing.


COVID-19 has desvastated people around the globe. However, the unique challenges faced by those seeking refuge during a pandemic that has inspired far-right xenophobic and anti-immigrant rhetoric cannot be understated. It is vital that we encourage Governments to facilitate their safety for the health of the global community.




Featured photo by Mortaza Shahed on Unsplash


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