Resilience and Female Refugee Agency in the COVID-19 Pandemic

Refugee women’s vulnerability and agency are not mutually exclusive. Some refugee women in the Global South exhibit meaningful agency despite their vulnerable position in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Women and girls make up 50 percent of the global refugee, internally displaced, and stateless population. Since 1990, the protection and assistance of refugee women has been a priority, coinciding with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) issuing of the first Policy of Refugee Women. As well, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres highlighted five ways to support refugee women as priorities to help refugee women survive and thrive on International Women’s Day in 2018.

Refugee women are generally framed by humanitarian and development actors as vulnerable due to previous experiences of persecution, rights deprivation, and gender-based violence and discrimination. However, this logic of vulnerability, which entrenches refugee women’s main attribute as being beneficiaries of protection, might be counterproductive. Portraying refugee women as passive and helpless victims in need of external aid may neglect refugee women’s agency and undermine their resilience in coping with their precarious conditions.

Research shows that vulnerability and agency are not mutually exclusive. Some refugee women in the Global South managed to exhibit meaningful agency amidst conditions of deprivation in terms of basic rights. They managed to utilise social networks and create space for refugee protection and human rights advocacy.

Mozhgan Moarefizadeh is an Iranian refugee in Jakarta, Indonesia. Together with her friend Jafar Salemi, she established The Refugee and Asylum Seeker Information Centre (RAIC). RAIC works as an information hub for refugees living in Indonesia, where information for refugees is translated into five languages. The organisation also distributes monthly care packages for refugees. In addition to her leadership in RAIC, Mozhgan and her Australian journalist friend Nicole Curby produced The Wait. The Wait is a five-part narrative podcast combining in-depth interviews, field reporting, and audio diaries created over two years. Together, the two women bring us the lives of refugees in Indonesia.

As well, Mozhgan’s friend Nimo is a Somalian refugee woman and the co-founder of the Sisterhood Community Center. The Sisterhood Community Center is a community-based organisation in Jakarta possessing the ethos of being run by refugee women for refugee women. The organisation provides training programs for refugee women, and aims to restore refugee women’s sense of hope, dignity, and resilience.

The COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated refugee conditions in Indonesia. The International Organisation of Migration (IOM) 2020 Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan notes that 14,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Indonesia are at elevated risk due to the economic impact of the virus and lack of access to services. On the other hand, human rights activists have urged the Indonesian government to include refugees in the national COVID-19 response.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, both RAIC and the Sisterhood Community Center have been resilient and adaptive. The Sisterhood Center created online knitting classes and aerobic classes to address refugee boredom, promote mental health, and spread positive energy in the midst of pandemic challenges. RAIC, on the other hand, has been assisting refugees by providing urgent basic needs for refugees in Jakarta and surrounding areas.

As well, Sharifah Shakirah and Syaedah are Rohingya refugee women in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, functioning as female rights activists and leaders of the Rohingya Women Development Network (RDWN). RDWN is the first community-based refugee organisation working to empower Rohingya refugee women in Malaysia. While Sharifah is the co-founder of the organisation, she inspired Syaedah to join the initiative and learn about women’s rights and roles in community. RDWN has been passionate in conducting trainings for young women and girls on child marriage and domestic violence.

Since the declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, Malaysia has adopted several periods of partial and full lockdowns, with enforcement of interstate border closures and restrictions. These restrictions have severely impeded the provision of humanitarian assistance to the most vulnerable members of society, including refugees and asylum seekers. During the COVID-19 Movement Control Order in Malaysia, RDWN’s activities were ceased. Despite the conditions imposed, Syaedah continued her work by mobilising food aid and assisting refugees to medical facilities.

On top of the pandemic, the recent wave of hate speech, violent threats, and incitements directed at Rohingya refugees in Malaysia has worked to aggravate the situation for these populations. The hate speech was driven by insight among Malaysian public and politicians that the Rohingya community was demanding citizenship and legal rights in Malaysia. In April 2020, Malaysian social media users expressed outrage at a video post on Facebook falsely claiming that the Rohingya community demanded the Malaysian government grant them citizenship. In response to the false accusation, RDWN published a joint statement to confront vitriolic campaign against Rohingya community in Malaysia.

Refugee resilience has been a goal of humanitarian and aid organisations since the League of Nations era. An example can be seen in Same Skies, a humanitarian organisation which supports refugee-led initiatives in Malaysia and Indonesia. The organisation has been rooted in the belief that refugees have skills and capacities to create positive social change, and it has been committed to ensuring diversity and gender equality in its projects. Despite international travel restrictions due to the pandemic, Same Skies is continuously promoting agency for refugees through its virtual leadership program. The program provides capacity building for refugees and simultaneously develops networks between refugee and non-refugee participants from nine countries.

Refugee’s resilience should not be seen as merely “internal capacity,” as there is an external social world in which refugee agency is embedded. External factors such as the global refugee regime, hosting state refugee policy, the availability of space, and social networks are also behind refugee’s propensity for agency. While some refugee women have better opportunity structures to support their agency, others might live in more restrictive contexts. Given the interplay between internal and external factors in the performance of agency, refugee women’s resilience should be perceived as processes instead of traits.

In Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, the Thai-Burma border, and Cox’s Bazar, refugee women and girls have been first responders and key actors in assisting other women in facing the pandemic. There is much value in wearing a resilience lens to understand the experiences of refugee women. The COVID-19 pandemic has been an avenue for refugee women to testify that vulnerability and agency might go hand in hand.


Dennyza Gabiella is a PhD candidate in Department of International Relations at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, the Australian National University.

This article originally published in, 1 March 2021

Dennyza Gabiella