A young Venezuelan migrant in Medellin, Colombia, waits for a bus to return to her home country because of the COVID-19 pandemic on May 14, 2020. (Joaquin Sarmiento/AFP via Getty Images)
Updated on May 21, 2020
As we all focus on the COVID-19 outbreak and the changes in our daily lives, the world’s refugees and asylum seekers still deserve our attention and support.
Because of instability, overcrowded living conditions, lack of access to clean water, and lack of access to healthcare, refugees are especially vulnerable to contracting COVID-19. Yet even as countries are sealing borders and as travel restrictions grow, HIAS continues to find ways to reach displaced populations in all of the 16 countries where we operate. We are equipping refugee communities with critical information about the virus, how to access their rights to medical care, and how to remain safe. We are also finding ways to remotely deliver our services, including providing information, assessing refugees' critical needs, and providing one-on-one counseling.
Here in the United States, we will continue speaking out against any attempts to blame migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers for the spread of coronavirus. This is a long-standing xenophobic trope that has continually been proven wrong. We will also help fight any attempts to use the healthcare needs of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers as a way to target them and work to ensure that healthcare facilities remain as immigration enforcement-free zones.
No matter how long these conditions last, however, the staff at HIAS will be on the job, providing critical services to refugees and asylum seekers and advocating for the rights of all who seek safety from persecution. We will continue to update this page as the outbreak continues.
- Refugees, asylees, asylum seekers, and others in the United States who need information during the COVID-19 pandemic can consult our new Client Resource page. In addition to HIAS' Know Your Rights documents, which are available in seven languages, the page has links to resources on the status of the U.S immigration system, health information, legal rights, and other topics.
- Even if we are not able to work and gather as usual, there are still many ways to learn about, advocate for, and help refugees and asylum seekers around the world. HIAS is offering calls and webinars with our experts and partners, refugee-related resources for book and film clubs, and other ways to stay engaged on refugee issues during the pandemic. Check out our HIAS@Home page to see the full list.
- Health officials have confirmed the presence of COVID-19 infections in all of the 16 countries where HIAS operates. Because of the need to protect both staff members and clients from the disease, HIAS is finding new and creative ways to deliver services. Those include:
- In the United States, HIAS’ legal programs are finding new ways to connect asylum seekers with the pro bono attorneys helping them.
- In Ecuador, HIAS is partnering with local supermarkets to help asylum seekers buy food, helping refugees on our hotline, and offering emergency rent payment, food and medicine to those most urgently in need.
- HIAS staff in Greece have attempted to help some HIV-positive refugees in camps get the medical attention they need. HIAS Greece is also continuing to work remotely with clients and lobby against laws that may curtail asylum or refugee protections.
- In Panama, HIAS teams are empowering refugees by sharing vital information through social media, providing phone- and Zoom-based mental health services, creating safety plans for survivors of domestic abuse, and offering emergency cash assistance to those who need it.
- HIAS Kenya has been able to continue to reach beneficiaries through phone calls, WhatsApp groups, and community workers. WhatsApp groups are being formed so that women, adolescent girls, and men’s groups can communicate and support one another.
- In Israel, HIAS is working hard to “unlock” some of the benefits currently only available to Israeli residents and citizens, such as unemployment benefits. Staff members also successfully pushed for asylum seekers to be able to remotely renew their residence permits, reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
- Many displaced people in Chad live in camps, where risk of COVID-19 transmission can be higher because of crowding and sanitation. HIAS Chad has organized a "caravan campaign" so workers can provide equipment like hand washing stations and teach residents about COVID-19 prevention measures without bringing them into large groups.
- In addition to providing services, HIAS is advocating for the safety and rights of refugees and asylum seekers during the outbreak. We have signed on to numerous statements and letters to public officials in support of those rights, some of which are listed below:
- Along with the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, HIAS sent a letter to members of Congress reminding elected officials to make sure resettled refugees, Special Immigrant Visa holders, asylum seekers, and others are covered under COVID-19 response legislation. "Any measures aimed at combating COVID-19 that exclude immigrants place the whole country at risk," wrote HIAS and the JCPA.
- HIAS, along with El Paso’s Catholic bishop and more than 15 other humanitarian organizations operating along the U.S.-Mexico border, to local health officials to support releasing migrants from federal immigration detention in El Paso, Texas. The groups signed a letter to the officials on April 6 and held a press conference on the issue the next day. The groups are concerned that COVID-19 will flourish in detention centers, overwhelming local health systems and risking the lives of both detainees and area residents.
- We have joined groups of dozens of organizations in addressing several letters to the Department of Homeland Security, demanding that the department stop illegally expelling asylum seekers from the United States, particularly unaccompanied children; end the "Remain in Mexico" policy under which asylum seekers are forced to stay in Mexico while their applications are processed — a process that is currently frozen; and protect those escaping domestic violence by allowing them into the country.
In accordance with stay-at-home directives issued in New York and Maryland, all HIAS employees at our offices in Silver Spring and New York are working remotely through at least June 8. HIAS Aruba and some HIAS Kenya facilities are fully open.