The emergence of COVID-19 has underscored the critical importance of reliable data in managing global humanitarian and development challenges, especially when addressing the needs of vulnerable populations, such as forcibly displaced people (FDPs).
It is clear that we need more and better socioeconomic data—as well as a thorough analyses of that data—to better inform the design of policies and interventions. Data deficiencies are particularly acute for vulnerable populations confronting challenges emerging after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, in interrelated areas such as health care, employment/income, education, and freedom of movement.
This paper takes stock of what is known about the experience of FDPs during the pandemic; we summarize projections of the expected socioeconomic impact of the pandemic on those affected by forced displacement, using data from simulations and scenarios developed by other researchers; and we highlight results from highfrequency phone surveys covering eight country-level data collection exercises in Bangladesh, Chad, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Iraq, Kenya, Uganda, and Yemen.
Pre-existing evidence indicates that COVID-19 has resulted in a drastic reduction in the movement across borders and resettlements. For example, as of May 2020, nearly 100 countries had temporarily denied access to their territory; by May 2021 almost 60 countries still denied access. Modeling and simulation analyses conducted in specific areas estimate an increase in poverty among the forcibly displaced and their host communities as a result of the simultaneous effects of COVID-19 and other aggravating socioeconomic factors. In Lebanon, due to the occurrence of COVID-19 during a deep economic and social crisis, the number of Syrian refugees below the national poverty line is expected to increase by 430,000 in 2021 compared to the period just prior to the pandemic.
The results from the eight countries surveyed suggest that, in line with the hypotheses in the JDC’s first paper on this topic, the socioeconomic wellbeing of both forcibly displaced and host populations have deteriorated during COVID-19, negatively impacting wages and employment, non-labor income, food security, and access to health and education.
• Displaced populations in the surveyed countries tend to be employed in sectors more vulnerable to economic shocks. These displaced populations experienced employment losses at rates at least as large if not greater than hosts. Work among female and camped laborers seem particularly negatively affected. Labor market recovery, when observed, appears slow.
• Forcibly displaced persons rely disproportionately on international assistance, especially during crises such as the current economic downturn. In Djibouti, 88 percent of village-based refugees and 62 percent of urban refugee households rely on humanitarian aid compared to only 4 percent for their host counterparts.
• COVID-19 has negatively affected access to health care for many households, including those in FDP households. Displaced populations typically faced greater challenges accessing medical care than national households in Djibouti, Chad, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Iraq.
• Food insecurity for the displaced is pervasive across most countries surveyed. Nearly 90 percent of refugees in Chad are now severely food insecure—more than 25 percentage points higher than for Chadian hosts’ households. For the displaced, financial constraints were often the most frequently cited barrier to accessing health services and food resources.
• School closures at the onset of the pandemic inhibited learning opportunities for children from forcibly displaced households. The closures often removed protective measures, exposing them to greater risks and reducing their chances of returning to school when they reopen. In Ethiopia, only 20 percent of refugee children were attending primary school and 5 percent attended secondary school before the pandemic; while schools were closed during the pandemic, only 5 percent of primary school refugee children and 1 percent of secondary school children had any education engagement.
• The surveys in Chad, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Iraq showed that FDPs are extremely willing to be vaccinated against the spread of the virus. However, receptivity is likely to be severely inhibited if there are personal financial costs of the vaccine.
• Displaced populations very often fare worse than hosts, but not always. Refugees and hosts in Uganda had similar struggles in accessing needed medical care over the course of the pandemic; the share of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and hosts in Yemen with poor access to health care showed nearly identical increases during the pandemic; in Iraq, host respondents’ unemployment was more volatile and averaged slightly higher than IDPs or returning IDPs; and in Bangladesh, teen educational engagement (though not necessarily attainment) was higher among refugee households compared to the hosts after the onset of the pandemic.
These data sources, although instructive and a promising start, are not necessarily representative of displaced populations globally. Furthermore, because this is an interim report, the data from the high-frequency phone surveys have not yet been harmonized, so direct ordinal comparisons between countries cannot be made. Going forward, we recommend bolstering and establishing tools that collect regular and robust data on representative samples of both displaced and non-displaced populations in line with international standards to facilitate ex ante standardization and ex post harmonization. Ideally done in collaboration with national statistical offices to build sustainable capacity, these tools could include a continuation of the existing highfrequency phone surveys, paired with face-to-face surveys when possible. Inclusion of the forcibly displaced in national data collection exercises allow for these populations’ integration into policy responses as well as humanitarian and development interventions.