Social protection responses to COVID-19 for forcibly displaced persons

The UNHCR Headquarters  in Geneva, Switzerland. The UNHCR Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. © Photo by diegograndi on iStock

This article is a brief presentation of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Division of Resilience and Solutions’ Report.

Through the present report, UNHCR has investigated the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 had on particularly vulnerable categories, e.g. refugees and other persons of concern  (PoCs) - which include: asylum-seekers, returnees, stateless persons and internally displaced persons (IDPs). Indeed, most of them rely on the informal sector for income and the recent lockdown measures have resulted in  the loss of jobs without the possibility to access government income support. In addition to this socio-economic impact, forcibly displaced persons often lack access to health services. Some countries, however, have recently decided to include refugees and other PoCs into government social protection programmes. The inclusion of refugees in social protection systems involves: access to cash transfers, public work schemes and training and a range of economic and social services. 

The report identifies 4 modalities for forcibly displaced persons to benefit from government social protection responses to COVID-19. The first concerns flexible administrative and enrolment processes for refugees and asylum seekers to access government support. The adaptation of national asylum systems constituted a big step forward for the European countries hit by COVID-19 towards the inclusion of refugees. This is the case of Portugal, whose Government decided to extend the validity of all documents until at least 30 October, thus ensuring access to social protection services (national health services and social security benefits).

The second modality consists in non-contributory social assistance to meet basic needs and reduce protection risks: governments are extending COVID-19 cash and in-kind transfer packages. For instance, in South Africa, the Government has provided a new form of support for refugees, the COVID-19 Social Relief of Distress (SRD) Grant unemployment benefits (USD 21/month). In other cases, UNHCR has aligned cash transfer projects with government social assistance programmes. This happened in Pakistan, where the UNHCR’s cash assistance Programme  mirrors the targeting strategy and grant size of the Government’s Ehsaas Emergency Cash Programme. 

In the third case, refugees and asylum seekers can benefit from the access to labour market support. In order to boost refugee workers’ incomes, some governments have provided wage subsidies to formal workers (Ireland, Portugal, New Zealand, Canada, Germany, Italy); while others  have recognized foreign health professional qualifications (across the Americas and in France, the UK, the USA, Australia, Austria, Denmark). In particular, the Brazilian Government  has introduced a monthly Emergency Basic Income Benefit for unemployed informal and formal workers of BRL 600 (USD 120) until December 2020.  

Finally, there is the added flexibility to social health insurance and workplace benefits for those already registered and/or contributing to national social security systems. Some governments are assuring or reinforcing social insurance benefits (Estonia, Belgium, Iceland, Italy, Moldova, Sweden and Brazil), while others are increasing the temporary access to health insurance contingent on registration (Greece and Peru).

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that, where possible and when there is the political willingness, governments enact social protection programmes for the inclusion of refugees and asylum seekers. This is not always the case, however, since many countries with limited resources are unable or unwilling to support and to include these vulnerable categories. In this context, UNHCR plays a fundamental role in assisting governments in the inclusion of forcibly displaced persons into national programmes. For instance, it supports the continuation and opening up of new job opportunities for refugees during COVID-19. 

This particular historical period of widespread uncertainty requires emergency and timely  measures to address specific protection needs in the shorter term. But, as highlighted by the High Commissioner, it is also important to apply a medium and longer-term perspective aimed at building resilience, through more inclusive national services and social protection policies. 

To know more, please read: 


Author: Laura De Pascale; Editor: Catherine Meunier 

Read 624 times