World Refugee Day: Everyone Counts

In light of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the UNHCR calls for global solidarity from the entire international community between and towards each other to protect in this time of need.

“As the pandemic and the jobs crisis evolve, the need to protect the most vulnerable becomes even more urgent” – Guy Ryder, ILO Director-General

World Refugee Day

This year, World Refugee Day (20 June) focuses on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) across the world. This vulnerable population has been made even more so by a health crisis that is unprecedented in recent history. In addition to the threat to public health, the rapid spread of the virus has engendered major economic and social disruption, which threatens the livelihoods and wellbeing of millions of people, including refugees and their host communities. In a forthcoming policy brief entitled “Protecting the rights at work of refugees and other forcibly displaced persons during the COVID-19 pandemic”, the ILO highlights the socioeconomic challenges facing refugees at this time and provides policy responses to address them.

Refugees and other forcibly displaced persons encounter many of the same challenges as host communities in providing for themselves and their families. They also experience additional difficulties linked to their precarious legal, social and economic status, the associated restrictions on their mobility, and the physical and mental distress stemming from forced displacement. These factors exacerbate the effects of the pandemic on them, while reducing their access to the coping strategies that may be available to others, such as social protection, COVID-19-related subsidies and other support services.

An estimated 86 per cent of refugees worldwide are hosted by low- and middle-income countries, where the ILO has reported some of the greatest losses in employment and working time. Workers employed in the informal economy, a major source of jobs in these countries, particularly for women, are expected to suffer the greatest income losses due to the interlocking effects of the pandemic and lockdown and containment measures.

Despite a growing global consensus on the importance of facilitating refugees’ access to labour markets, a combination of legal and regulatory restrictions, together with practical constraints, such as language barriers and administrative hurdles, continue to severely limit refugees’ entry to the formal labour market and learning opportunities in most refugee-hosting countries. In addition, while women refugees face many of the same barriers as men, they are at greater risk of discrimination in terms of pay and access to employment and livelihood opportunities, vocational training, and services. COVID-19 has further exacerbated these constraints and inequalities.

Related to the issue of inequality, particular attention should be placed on meeting the health, education and labour-related needs of refugees with disabilities. Measures proposed by the ILO to assist persons with disabilities in the general population during the COVID-19 crisis are equally applicable to refugees with disabilities, including ensuring disability-inclusive OSH measures, accessible and inclusive working conditions, and social protection measures. Moreover, as all refugees can experience anxiety, depression and fatigue, it is crucial to attend to refugees’ mental health needs, whether related to a particular impairment, the current COVID-19 crisis or the challenges of the refugee experience itself.

Lockdown and other containment measures have also created difficulties for refugee entrepreneurs and for own-account refugee workers. Small businesses were already suffering from limited access to finance, land and property ownership. With low rates of savings and investment and limited cash reserves, they are more susceptible to economic shocks such as those now caused by COVID-19. The pandemic has also made it more difficult to access finance and to meet loan repayments.

Among other impacts affecting refugees are limited access to social protection, the erosion of working conditions and wages, and increased competition for jobs, which may ignite or worsen grievances, discrimination, mistrust and a sense of injustice over access to health services, decent jobs and livelihoods. These are potential conflict drivers that could undermine social cohesion, development and peace.

The key emerging policy responses to these challenges include:
  • Identifying, monitoring and responding to refugees’ specific need;
  • Ensuring that they have a fair wage, a voice and access to justice;
  • Providing the necessary means and accessible information to apply workplace health and safety measures;
  • Taking steps to counter discrimination, violence and harassment at work;
  • Ensuring that refugees have access to social protection mechanisms;
  • Including refugee workers and entrepreneurs in economic stimulus measures;
  • Encouraging social cohesion through inclusive employment programmes.
In its message to the world on this year’s World Refugee Day, UNHCR will once again shine a light on the plight and contributions of refugees, IDPs and stateless persons, in line with its core values of protection, solidarity and inclusion. This year, however, it is further calling for World Refugee Day to be commemorated in a more enlightened world, a world where “everyone counts”. Therefore, UNHCR is not making a case for solidarity uniquely with families forced to flee. During this historic period, when everyone is impacted in some way, the refugee agency’s message extends to all vulnerable people.

The ILO embraces and shares this call for global solidarity and will continue to support governments, social partners and the international community in ensuring that everyone counts in COVID-19 responses and the subsequent recovery, and to build back better, more inclusive and equitable economies and societies.

Our partners' websites:

World Bank:

Read the latest Global Trends Report: Forced Displacement in 2019

In the news