The danger for refugees and the most vulnerable during COVID-19

June 18, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has left no one unscathed, least of all the world’s already vulnerable refugees and internally displaced persons. World Refugee Day should prompt us to reflect on how countries around the globe can step up to alleviate this new layer of suffering among refugee populations.  

The United Nations Refugee Agency reports that 2019 witnessed the highest level of individuals fleeing violence since World War II. The onset of a pandemic in 2020 made a bad situation even worse by increasing vulnerabilities for already-displaced persons and likely set the stage for further displacement of other communities.   

In Asia, refugee crises come in all shapes and sizes. From displaced Burmese Muslim Rohingya in Bangladesh, to North Koreans fleeing to freedom, to the potential for new refugee populations emanating from China, the needs are great, and the demands for assistance are high. The U.S. should continue to lead.  

Rohingya refugees  

The world braced itself for news of the first case of COVID-19 to be reported at the world’s largest refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. It arrived on May 15. The camp is home to more than 900,000 Rohingya refugees where social distancing is a physical impossibility. Compounded with a lack of access to medical care and the Bangladeshi government’s decision to limit access to information, the conditions create a perfect storm for a potentially massive outbreak of the novel coronavirus.  

Rohingya have already endured so much. In August 2017, the Burmese military drove them from their homes. The UN believes that the Burmese military went further than that, perpetrating genocide and crimes against humanity among this oppressed Muslim minority.   

The U.S. has yet to issue an atrocity determination—a decision the secretary of state has the authority to make at any point in time. Now is a particularly auspicious moment. Should the U.S. decide to take this step, it would go a long way toward galvanizing aid from around the globe to alleviate the plight of Rohingya, particularly in the midst of vast and ever-increasing humanitarian needs during COVID-19.But Rohingya are far from the only refugees suffering during the pandemic.   

The people of North Korea  

Many worry about the effects of COVID-19 on the people of North Korea. An oft-overlooked population are refugees who had dared crossing the 38th parallel to seek freedom. According to Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), an organization devoted to smuggling North Korean refugees to freedom, they have had to suspend rescue operations. LiNK anticipates that few, if any, of those wishing to flee the regime will make it out of North Korea this year due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.   

And what of the North Korean refugees who managed to get out of the country but had not yet made it to freedom when the outbreak began? They may now be stuck in third countries like China or other parts of Southeast Asia. Due to COVID-19 regulations in those countries, their movement is also likely to be restricted. In fact, one report indicated that jails in Thailand, usually full of North Korean refugees waiting for their refugee claims to be processed in South Korea, now sit empty.  

While North Korean authorities claim there have been zero cases of COVID-19, policy changes in Pyongyang suggest otherwise. Increased border controls and reductions in trade between North Korea and China are likely to have dire impacts on food security and economic stability inside the country.   

Should North Koreans’ lives get even harder due to the COVID-19 restrictions, we may well see a spike in the number of refugees fleeing once those restrictions are relaxed. The U.S. should watch closely to see whether the rate of resettlement in South Korea begins to increase as restrictions in North Korea are eased and maintain contact with on-the-ground groups involved in smuggling North Koreans to freedom.  

Other critical conditions  

The pandemic also facilitated conditions that may lead to additional displacement elsewhere. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in China has seized on the moment of distraction to undermine political liberties in Hong Kong. The CCP’s steady erosion of freedom in the special administrative region may, in fact, create more refugees, particularly if the Chinese government opts for a military intervention.  

The United Kingdom has already offered visas to approximately 300,000 Hong Kong citizens. And Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen has said she will offer safe haven to Hong Kongers fearing persecution at the hands of Beijing. In the U.S., Congress is considering legislation that would extend Priority 2 refugee status to the people of Hong Kong. It has been heartening to see the world come together to support Hong Kongers who are witnessing an historic loss of freedom.  

The situations in Burma, North Korea, and China are emblematic of the various forms of suffering refugees face. Though vastly different from each other, each presents an opportunity for the U.S. and its allies to lead in promoting freedom.  

Prioritizing refugees is often the most practical thing the U.S. can offer to hurting populations suffering at the hands of their own governments. When governments abrogate their duty to protect and defend their citizen’s rights, other freedom-loving nations must step in to fill the gap. Sometimes it involves resettling refugees within our own borders; other times it means providing aid and assistance to frontline states. Both promote the national interests of the U.S.  

COVID-19 added insult to injury for many refugee populations. Their suffering, already so great, was only amplified by the global pandemic. While other countries may be tempted to turn inward as they combat their own novel coronavirus outbreaks, the U.S. should lead in assistance and encourage others to do the same.  

Olivia Enos

Olivia Enos is a senior policy analyst in The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24