Opinion: 3 ways to ensure refugees get the COVID-19 vaccine

A medical worker administers a dose of COVID-19 vaccine at the Irbid vaccination clinic in Jordan. Photo by: Jose Cendon / UNHCR

For the past year, health has been front and center for all of us as we have battled with COVID-19 and the subsequent tragedy it has brought. With nearly 3 million COVID-19 deaths and a devastated global economy, feelings of anxiety, fear, and loneliness continue to run high.

We are thankful that on this World Health Day — just over one year since the pandemic was declared — there are signs of hope. We know how to protect ourselves from the virus, and multiple vaccines, produced in record time, are being rolled out. Never before have so many lives, livelihoods, and economies depend on a single health intervention. If we fully return to the way people used to live, work, and travel in a pre-pandemic world without widespread administration of a vaccine, we will quite possibly see an unrelenting progression of COVID-19.

Importance of vaccine equity

One of the first groups of people to get left behind when it comes to protection and opportunity are those who have been forced to flee their homes due to war, violence, or persecution. The most vulnerable — those affected by conflict and insecurity — are at particular risk of being left behind in the COVID-19 recovery. Today, there are almost 80 million refugees and displaced people worldwide.

We hear the call for equity in our communities. This is also an imperative on a global scale: No one is safe until everyone is safe, and we will only bring the pandemic under control when vaccines are available equally to all people. It is our moral obligation — as well as public health and economic imperative — to ensure that refugees and forcibly displaced people are afforded equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. Excluding refugees, displaced people, or any other group from vaccination plans runs the risk of ongoing transmission of the virus within all populations.

Fortunately, the World Health Organization, GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations established COVAX, a global effort of governments and manufacturers to promote the equitable procurement and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines throughout the world, especially in low-income countries. As of March 31, COVAX has shipped over 33 million vaccines to 74 countries, and its goal is to distribute 2 billion doses by the end of 2021. COVAX is a much-needed mechanism, and we applaud its work, but we need to do more at the same time.  

There are three things we must do if we are to ensure equitable vaccine access for refugees and other vulnerable populations:

1. Include refugees in national vaccination plans

It’s in every country’s interest to ensure that no one within their borders is unprotected and exposed, thus hampering progress made in stopping the pandemic. To date, 153 countries have publicly said that they will include refugees as part of national vaccine plans. The aim is not to give preference to refugees but rather to include them in national priority categories following public health guidelines, with others following as rollouts are scaled up.

In Jordan, anyone — including refugees and asylum seekers — is eligible to receive the vaccine free of charge. The country began vaccinating refugees on January 14 as part of its national COVID-19 vaccination plan and opened a first-of-its-kind vaccination center in Za’atari refugee camp.

In Colombia, the government announced it would be offering a 10-year temporary protection status to Venezuelans in the country, a move that will help facilitate access to the COVID-19 vaccine for migrants and refugees.

2. Fully fund COVAX

The 85% of the world’s refugees are hosted by low- and middle-income countries, including fragile states, which often have limited public health systems and resources. Half of the 2 billion vaccine doses which COVAX aims to distribute in the next 10 months will go to people in lower-income countries through donor contributions to COVAX. The 92 countries that will benefit — including Uganda and Sudan — host some of the world’s largest refugee populations. While more than 190 countries have agreed to participate in COVAX, it faces a $3.2 billion funding gap.

In the United States, President Joe Biden has committed the country to join COVAX and pledged $4 billion for GAVI, making the U.S. the largest country donor to date. A diplomat with a lead role in COVAX said Biden’s decision to join the COVAX vaccine facility could make a “huge difference” to the financing of the scheme.

3. Empower local health care workers and systems, including refugee community leaders

Speaking at the Dialogue on Protection Challenges last October, UNHCR High Commissioner Filippo Grandi said the pandemic has given the world an “accelerated lesson” on the benefits of inclusion. Most countries, he said, immediately realized the importance of including refugees and other vulnerable populations in their response to the pandemic.

Having lived in and visited refugee camps around the world, we know that community health workers — both refugees and host community representatives — are the first line of defense against COVID-19. Local health workers are best positioned to identify barriers and behavioral factors determining vaccination uptake among refugees and develop tailored approaches, including communication strategies.

In Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp, many refugees feared health care services would disappear as lockdowns set in. However, community health workers stepped up their role to provide routine care and COVID-19 testing and treatment. A free hotline in Kakuma also combats misinformation, allowing people to report COVID-19 “rumors” that are then subjected to fact checking.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres described the goal of providing vaccines to all as “the biggest moral test before the global community.” For refugees and those forcibly displaced, who have had to draw on their strength and resilience again and again under unimaginable circumstances, this is a test we can’t afford to fail.

Stand up for including refugees in national vaccination plans and supporting health, safety, and recovery for all. Join USA for UNHCR by adding your name here.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Anne-Marie Grey

    Anne-Marie Grey joined USA for UNHCR as executive director and CEO in 2014. A national partner of the U.N. Refugee Agency, USA for UNHCR is a non-profit that protects refugees and empowers them with hope and opportunity. With more than 30 years of global fundraising and marketing experience, Grey builds strategic partnerships and alliances to help address the critical needs of refugees and forcibly displaced people around the world.
  • Mary Maker

    Mary Maker fled the war in South Sudan as a child. She found security and hope in attending school in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya and has gone on to become a teacher of other young refugees in her community. Maker is currently pursuing further studies as part of a scholarship program at university in the United States and continues to advocate on behalf of the forcibly displaced through her role as a UNHCR high profile supporter.