The Project as a response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has created even more significant challenges for refugees, who often have compromised their ability to access basic health and social care services, social participation and civic engagement. Brazil and Colombia are undergoing profound urban changes as a result of internal displacement and cross-border migration. Internal migration has been a key factor, but the flow of refugees, including those fleeing the recent crisis in Venezuela, has created challenges for urban areas in terms of providing the necessary physical, social and community infrastructure to support health and well-being. More than 5 million Venezuelans have fled their country since 2014, with 1,764 million living in Colombia and 264,617 in Brazil (R4V, August 2020). The United Nations migration agency, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), warned that Venezuela is heading for the same “crisis moment” of refugees seen in the Mediterranean in 2015. Brazil and Colombia already had fragile formal health supports and urban infrastructure even before the COVID-19 pandemic, compromising the wellbeing of refugees. Building resilient sites to support health and wellbeing has been identified as a potential protection strategy to enable communities to respond better to risk and vulnerability. To promote social inclusion, we need to understand resilience as “jumping forward” instead of “jumping backwards”. This alternative conceptualization is seen as more compatible with our perspective of study – attention is focused on the ability of communities to continue an upward development path, rather than simply returning to their original level of vulnerability before the pandemic.

Considering this context, the Project ‘Building Resilient Communities to Support the Health and Wellbeing of Venezuelan Refugees in Brazil and Colombia’ has begun exploratory research in July 2020 and seeks to propose technological tools and resources to inform the development of resilient communities for Venezuelan refugees in terms of accessing health and wellbeing support in Brazil and Colombia, considering the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. This project proposes a set of tools for integrated urban planning and management, which contribute to the development of effective public resilience policies and practices in response to COVID-19. These tools seek inclusive interventions, of a technological nature, that offer support to public agencies to assist and support the health and well-being of this vulnerable group. This project is a priority now, as the impact of COVID-19 is causing deleterious effects in low and middle-income countries (LMICs – Low and middle-income countries), such as Brazil and Colombia. 80% of refugees live in LMICs and these areas already have weak formal support for health and urban infrastructure, which further compromises the well-being of this population. Previous experiences with the Ebola virus and other outbreaks have shown that public policies need to include refugees and displaced people from their countries to combat the impact of pandemics and ensure that everyone has access to health and wellbeing. We recognize that public policies must include refugees in COVID-19 pandemic preparedness/response measures. We recognize that urgent support is needed to explore how communities can be resilient and be prepared to face pandemics, all the more immediately in the context of COVID-19 and in future scenarios.

We seek to answer the following question: How to build inclusive resilient communities, embracing Venezuelan refugees in Brazil and Colombia, that support health and well-being in response to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Our objectives are:

(i) develop a GIS Multi-National Platform, capable of mapping the health and wellbeing of Venezuelan refugees in Brazil and Colombia throughout the national territory of both countries, to understand the needs of this population in response to the COVID-19 pandemic;

(ii) map and understand the experiences of Venezuelan refugees in Brazil and Colombia using an innovative mobile application that can identify the barriers, challenges and opportunities that exist and/or that could be created to promote a healthy and resilient sustainable community planning approach during and after the COVID-19 pandemic;

(iii) develop technological capacity in addition to research, working closely with communities, humanitarian actors, public and professional policymakers and researchers in Brazil and Colombia.

The development of the GIS Platform will be concluded in a few months and quickly made available to the main stakeholders, financiers and beneficiaries. This GIS Platform will have the potential to be adapted and expanded to other countries and regions affected by the pandemic. The mobile application to be developed, BondCommunities app, will provide access to the platform data as well as other features for capturing interviews, photo diaries and public policy forums. It is important to note that the results will also support existing interventions, including the R4V Platform already developed by UNHCR so that health and well-being understandings can be linked in different settlements where Venezuelan refugees live in Brazil and Colombia.

Then, a Toolkit will be developed containing specific recommendations on how communities can be planned to face pandemic moments, such as COVID-19, in a resilient, panic-free and conscious way. The multidisciplinary work developed in close collaboration with academics from Brazil, Colombia, the United Kingdom and the USA, local communities, humanitarian actors, public and professional policymakers, is central to the achievement of objectives, successful application and improvement of applied methods. This teamwork will also allow the establishment of impact paths so that resources and toolkits are immediately available to interested institutions to support decision making.

The project is innovative both in the research design and in the multidisciplinary nature of the project team, driven by a structure that places the central communities in the investigation process. The population sample will be based on various age groups, mixed genders and domestic typologies (for example, living alone, families, couples).

Brazil & Colombia in the Migration Reception Process

Brazil plays an important leadership role in the international protection of migrants and refugees, being the first country in the Southern Cone to ratify the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees in 1960. There are 264,617 Venezuelans living in Brazil (UNHCR, 2020) and in between 150 and 200 Venezuelans spend a day at the Reception and Registration Centre in the city of Pacaraima in Roraima, one of the main points of entry on the border between Brazil and Venezuela. The Brazilian Federal Government has implemented an interiorization program – Operation ‘Acolhida’, aimed at Venezuelan refugees since 2018. Its main objective is to transfer refugees from areas where public services and economic opportunities are disproportionately scarce to destinations where local public services can be better developed to support integration initiatives. In addition to this planned and assisted program, there is a spontaneous movement of refugees in the national territory, mainly towards large cities such as Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. This combination of migration strategies – induced and spontaneous – raises the challenge of how to design long-term integration policies. As indicated by UNHCR (United Nations Refugee Agency) in the Executive Committee document “New approaches to solutions”, it is necessary to examine more permanent and comprehensive interventions that work for the development of healthy and sustainable communities, aimed at long-term resettlement deadline.

In Colombia, according to UNHCR, by August 2020, 1,764,883 Venezuelan refugees had settled in the country. The Colombian government’s response to this influx of refugees has focused on the granting of a Special Stay Permit (PEP), which allows refugees to access formal employment, as well as education and health services for up to two years (National Economic Policy Council and Social, 2018). Without a comprehensive immigration and relocation policy, Venezuelan refugees are permanently resettling in peripheral urban areas of large cities, such as Bogota, Barranquilla, Cúcuta, Medellín, Cartagena and Cali (Fedesarrollo and ACRIP, 2018), with Bogota as their main destination, receiving 238,758 permanent immigrants (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Colombia). In 2017, it was estimated that the metropolitan area of ​​Sabana de Bogota (Bogota and 11 neighbouring municipalities) had 158,000 of the total housing deficit, with 60,573 homeless families and 97,334 homes considered structurally vulnerable or located in neighbourhoods without public services (Secretaria de Planning, 2017). Given the current increase in migration of refugees from Venezuela, greater stress is expected on the city’s infrastructure for the provision of essential services. While the unemployment rate in Bogota is 11%, it reaches 18% for Venezuelan refugees (Fedesarrollo and ACRIP, 2018), which further limits access to essential public services – such as quality housing and services – for unemployed families and informally employed.

The Project’s long-term objective is to influence regional policy and practice through a ‘Resilient Cities for Refugees’ Agenda that addresses how to better plan and design communities to support health and well-being in the event of future pandemics. The results in terms of the GIS platform, tools and guidelines for resilient communities will provide a lasting legacy locally and nationally, providing practical support that could help regional and international humanitarian agencies in Latin America, Asia and Africa, for example. The GIS Platform and toolkit offer the opportunity to expand to map other countries where COVID-19 has had an impact on refugee communities. We will work with our project partners to identify the relevant regional and international stakeholders who would benefit from the research, as well as use existing networks to promote capacity and scalability of the project to other countries.