The spread of COVID-19 has challenged all of us to question conventional wisdom, think differently and work together to find solutions to the defining crisis of our times. In Europe, COVID-19 has touched all parts of the continent without regard for nationality, legal or economic status, and has profoundly changed the way we live, work and interact with each other. It has appealed to our shared humanity and demonstrated the logic of inclusion.
The COVID-19 pandemic has adversely impacted the socioeconomic fabric of societies in every corner of Europe and underscored the paramount importance of access to social safety nets, particularly among the most vulnerable. The pandemic continues to threaten lives, disrupt livelihoods and limit social interaction.1 Refugees across Europe have been disproportionally impacted. They were among the first to lose their jobs and small enterprises, and often found themselves at greater risk of infection as a result of precarious living conditions, irregular employment and/or reliance on public transport. With integration processes interrupted, many found themselves unable to cover their basic needs or, in some cases, at risk of homelessness.2 In such circumstances, access to national social protection systems is vital, and the response by many states in Europe has been mixed. Unable to access national safety nets, previously self-reliant refugees across Europe had few options but to approach UNHCR, its partners and local charities for support, and as substitutes for the State.
The legal framework in Europe regarding the right of refugees to access social protection systems is generally conducive, more so than in many other parts of the world, yet practical barriers to inclusion remain. In the wake of the pandemic, UNHCR undertook a systematized mapping of the state of play in 45 countries in Europe to better understand how and why refugees are excluded, and to identify possible solutions. Everyone has a stake in this. Exclusion from social assistance not only adversely affects refugees through negative coping mechanisms and increased risk of exploitation, but impacts host communities and overall working conditions as well. In the context of the pandemic, the inclusion of refugees in public health measures and vaccination campaigns makes good policy sense and is well accepted within host communities. This same logic should be applied to the inclusion of refugees to help communities build back better. Refugees have much to offer their host communities as workers, employers, consumers, volunteers and tax payers.
They have a wealth of diverse skills, talents and experiences.
Support for refugee inclusion and responsibility-sharing among States has been steadily building in recent years. The “leave no one behind’’ principle is at the heart of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, while solidarity with refugees and asylum-seekers is the animating thread of the Global Compact on Refugees. More recently, the UN’s framework for the immediate socioeconomic response to COVID-19 underscores the imperative of inclusion.3 As evidenced in the ongoing debate over vaccine equity, the socio-economic recovery from COVID-19 will challenge political aspirations to build back differently—and better. The importance of doing this together has arguably never been greater. This policy brief examines the current state of play regarding refugees’ ability to access social protection systems in Europe and outlines a series of recommendations for policymakers and civil society at regional, national and local levels to overcome legal and practical impediments to inclusion.