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UNHCR called for equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines for refugees

On World Health Day, the UNHCR called for equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines for refugees.  Policy action to ensure availability of vaccines for refugees and migrants throughout the EU has been inconsistent. Many countries have already adopted vaccination plans that include refugees, but implementation remains a challenge. Meanwhile other countries fail to prioritize or explicitly exclude refugees and people seeking asylum even as they experience high-infection-risk settings. 

The European Commission’s list of groups to be vaccinated early includes those who state health makes them vulnerable, as well as those who cannot socially distance and who are socioeconomically disadvantaged. Health workers and humanitarian groups say asylum seekers in camps and communal living facilities fit all these categories and are up to three times more susceptible to COVID-19. The UNHCR also maintains that vaccination for refugees should be high priority as many live in high-density occupancies where virus mitigation strategies remain a challenge. The concern of many international organizations and charities is that, rather than being prioritized, many refugees and migrants face challenges as a result of not being included in the strategies of national vaccination strategies throughout Europe. 

During the first few months of the COVID-19 vaccination programme in Slovakia, certain migrants experienced denied vaccine access because of their type of health insurance. As a result, the Slovakian government has proposed a new law that explicitly grans access to COVID-19 vaccines for all persons without public health insurance – including migrants and refugees of all types of legal status. This legislation was approved by the government on 17 March 2021, has been presented on a fast-track to parliament, and is likely to be approved in the coming weeks. 

Poland has passed similar legislation, guaranteeing all foreigners residing in Poland (including refugees and persons who have applied for international protection) the legally-recognized right to be vaccinated against COVID-19 free of charge. But the ‘right’ only applies to those who can provide evidence for their legal residence in Poland, which explicitly excludes migrants or refugees who have struggled to secure sufficient documentation or temporary residence cards from vaccination. Nonetheless, asylum seekers who stay in reception facilities receive vaccination based on age group and occupation, according to the national plan. 

The Netherlands, Spain, Italy, and France have also included refugees and even undocumented people in their vaccination programs, but the effectiveness of this in application remains to be seen.

Germany is an exceptional instance where refugees and migrants have been highly prioritized in the national vaccination strategy. Berlin authorities have begun vaccinating residents in the asylum seeker centers. Given the nature of high degrees of social contact in these communal living facilities, refugees and migrants experience high risk for contracting COVID-19 and thus are considered high priority for the vaccine. Centers in other parts of Germany are also adopting the same initiative.

By contrast, in Greece migrants and refugees are not a priority for receiving COVID-19 vaccination. Official statements from the Migration Minister estimate asylum seekers in camps will only begin to be vaccinated in May, and Greek authorities see “no reason” to begin earlier. Migrants and refugees, even those in close-quarter camps, face exclusion because many do not fall into the elderly age bracket targeted for vaccines. Numerous calls have already been made for the Greek government to guarantee that migrants receive immediate access to vaccination.

Overall, equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines for refugees and migrants throughout the European Union is a persistent challenge. Some national vaccination strategies that include refuges and migrants often fail to take into account the increased risk and susceptibility to COVID-19 they face, that should prioritize these groups. How available COVID-19 vaccines will really be for refugee and migrant communities in the future remains to be seen. 











Teresa Pian

Research Intern 
Institute of Public Affairs
MA Candidate at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto