UNHCR – UNHCR highlights great progress on refugee vaccine inclusion but inequities hamper rollout

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Kenya. COVID-19 Immunization in Kakuma Camp and Kalobeyei Settlement

Hassan Abdul, a 22-year-old Somali refugee, receives a COVID-19 vaccine in Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya.  © UNHCR/Pauline Omagwa

Most of the world’s countries now include refugees in their national COVID-19 vaccination plans, according to new data from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

While on paper refugees in 162 states are now included in national schemes, and there have been improvements in the supply of vaccines to countries, administrative barriers, capacity issues and logistical challenges have meant that many refugees are yet to receive their first dose.

Almost 8.3 million vaccine doses have now been received by refugees and other forcibly displaced people across 68 countries in Asia-Pacific, Europe, Africa and the Americas. An additional 82 countries have also confirmed that vaccines have been administered to refugees, forcibly displaced and stateless people, but the numbers have not been made available.

“Though we are seeing tremendous progress on vaccine inclusion – a key pillar of the pandemic response which we have been advocating for since the onset – the reality is that most refugees are hosted in developing countries facing critical vaccine inequity and implementation challenges,” said Sajjad Malik, Director of UNHCR’s Division of Resilience and Solutions.

“Vaccine inequity is taking the greatest toll on those most vulnerable. Not enough doses are making it into the arms of those who need them most.”

To address this issue, UNHCR has been advocating for greater support to host countries to help them overcome access barriers.  It is also calling for greater investment to strengthen national health systems across low- and middle-income refugee hosting countries, to support more effective pandemic preparedness and response capacities.

UNHCR is also urging countries to address specific constraints and impediments faced by refugees, that prevent them from receiving doses.

According to available UNHCR data, where doses are being administered, vaccination rates for refugees are lower than the average for national populations. This is largely due to logistical challenges and administrative requirements that refugees may not be able to meet.

To register for or receive vaccinations, some states require identity documents that refugees often lack. Other countries have established online registration systems that can deter or prevent people without access to the Internet, or who are not computer literate, from accessing vaccines. Elsewhere, vaccination sites are located far from where refugees live, or there are requirements that those seeking vaccines are reported to immigration authorities.

Great progress has been made across many refugee host countries and by refugees themselves, to help with access and uptake. In Angola, refugees play a key role in counselling and helping other refugees to overcome vaccine hesitancy and manage post-vaccination symptoms.

In Bangladesh, community health workers are conducting door-to-door awareness campaigns to discuss concerns about the vaccine, and facilitating transport for refugees unable to reach vaccination sites. In South Africa, UNHCR is piloting a chatbot to reinforce vaccine safety messaging and working with partners to enhance outreach and referrals for those without documents.

UNHCR reiterates its call to ensure full integration and accessibility for forcibly displaced and stateless people in COVID-19 response and recovery schemes. More information on its COVID-19 response is here: https://www.unhcr.org/coronavirus-covid-19.html                                                                                                                           

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