U.S. helps refugees, migrants during COVID-19 crisis

A volunteer shows equipment donated by UNHCR in a shelter in Ciudad Juárez. (© Pastor Ismael Martinez/Pan de Vida)
A volunteer uses U.S.-funded equipment donated by UNHCR to examine a girl in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. (© Pastor Ismael Martinez/Pan de Vida)

The U.S. Department of State has provided $350 million in migration and refugee assistance (MRA) funding for the international COVID-19 response in countries around the world since the onset of the pandemic.

U.S. funding provides protection and addresses increased vulnerability created by the pandemic for refugees, migrants and host communities through international organization partners, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and nongovernmental organization partners.

The programs strengthen “local health responses and provision of emergency relief items to vulnerable families,” according to the State Department.

A Guatemalan migrant father and his Mexican son arrive at the filter hotel operated by IOM in Tijuana. To date this space has hosted 165 migrants since it opened up in early July. Photo by IOM/Jessica Tapia/International Organization for Migration

Around the world, refugee coordinators and staff members work in the field to help ensure U.S. assistance is reaching refugees and migrants most in need, so that these vulnerable people can receive health services during the pandemic.

More than $2.1 million of the MRA funding has gone to Mexico to help refugees, asylum-seekers, vulnerable migrants and host communities mitigate the pandemic. From U.S.-Mexico border towns to Mexico City, U.S. refugee coordinators make sure funding and supplies are distributed to the refugees and migrants most in need.

As COVID-19 spread in Mexico, “we’ve really worked assiduously to mitigate the risk of infection in shelters and among migrants and asylum-seekers,” said Clayton Alderman, a refugee coordinator at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City.

A volunteer shows equipment donated by UNHCR in a shelter in Ciudad Juárez. (© Pastor Ismael Martinez/Pan de Vida)

Assisted by the State Department’s MRA funding, UNHCR since late March has distributed the following items in migrant and refugee shelters across Mexico:

  • 34,900 masks.
  • 8,010 pairs of surgical gloves.
  • 1,480 medical gowns.
  • 3,930 surgical caps.

UNHCR also reserved 1,119 rooms throughout the country to isolate any high-risk or infected migrants and refugees, keeping them and host communities safe from further spread of the virus.

IOM established two quarantine locations for those in need of shelter in U.S.-Mexico border towns Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana. There, migrants and asylum-seekers can quarantine for 14 days before transferring to established shelters.

Since the onset of the pandemic, existing shelters have been reluctant to admit new arrivals for fear of introducing infection. Transitional quarantine facilities provide migrants and asylum-seekers safe accommodations and mitigate the spread of infection in existing shelters.

Since its start of operations in May, the Ciudad Juárez hotel has housed 290 people, and the Tijuana hotel, which opened in late June, has housed 121.

A medical team visits migrant families at a quarantine hotel set up by the IOM in Ciudad Juárez. (© Rosa Mani Arias/World Organization for Peace)

Implementing partners help migrants in ways that extend beyond physical aid. For example, Dr. Rosemary Vieras was able to find employment in Mexico City through the State Department’s contacts with UNHCR after she fled Venezuela with her 4-year-old child in December 2019.

“I was so happy because I was enjoying my freedom, which was the only thing I had at the moment,” she said through an interpreter. “Since then, opportunities have been very good to me.”

Dr. Vieras, a general practitioner, needed not only to recertify her medical license but also to acquire a professional license to work in Mexico and an additional medical certification to work as a doctor.

She applied for her license and certification, but as COVID-19 affected life across Mexico, government offices closed.

She reached out to UNHCR, which quickly helped her to expedite her certifications and get a job to support herself and her child.

Now, Dr. Vieras works on the front lines, saving lives, at a general hospital treating only patients with COVID-19. Her work, like the broader U.S.-funded COVID response, directly serves her patients battling the disease and contributes to the efforts of containing the infection globally.

“I am here as the voice of many refugees that face the same situations,” she said. “Opportunities here are good for people like me, and thank God for having this type of life that I have now.”