Government Targeting of Refugees in the Midst of Epidemics

Government Targeting of Refugees in the Midst of Epidemics

By Alex Braithwaite, University of Arizona, Michael Frith, University of Oslo, Burcu Savun,  University of Pittsburgh, and Faten Ghosn, University of Arizona

We investigate how the outbreak of epidemics can affect host governments’ targeting of refugees and violation of their physical integrity rights. We argue that governments target repression against refugees for two reasons. First, refugees are easily scapegoated for the arrival of epidemics at a time when governments are looking to shift the blame for their own poor performance. Second, crises provide circumstances for governments to engage in opportunistic repression to further their goal of coercing existing refugees to depart and deterring new refugees from arriving. Drawing upon a global dataset of countries for the years 1996 to 2015, we demonstrate that epidemic outbreaks do indeed increase the likelihood and scale of government repression targeting refugee populations. These effects are especially pronounced in countries with higher proportions of refugees hosted and in less democratic countries. Identification of this potential for government repression of refugees during epidemics is important in light of the grave scale of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Our findings suggest the international community should be vigilant for signs of governments’ mistreatment of vulnerable refugee populations to shift focus away from their own poor handling of crises such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and opportunistically advance their goal of reducing the numbers of refugees hosted locally.


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