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Global evaluation: International COVID-19 response fell short in upholding refugee rights

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Global evaluation: International COVID-19 response fell short in upholding refugee rights

8 July 2022
Iran. Afghan Refugees during COVID19 times
Responses to the COVID-19 pandemic failed to mitigate risks for refugees, including the worsening of educational inequalities for refugee children.

GENEVA - The collective global response to the COVID-19 pandemic fell short in protecting the rights of refugees despite extraordinary efforts by local actors and the international community, according to a major international report released today.

The international evaluation, a first of its kind,  was conducted by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and other actors as a part of the COVID-19 Global Evaluation Coalition.

It assessed the extent to which refugee rights -- from access to asylum, health care and vaccines, to child protection and protection from gender-based violence -- were safeguarded during the pandemic.

The most serious consequences of the pandemic for asylum seekers and refugees were measures taken by dozens of states to deny rights to access territory and seek asylum. Taken to protect public health, they often resulted in forced returns to situations of danger, in contravention of international law.

Responses were largely inadequate to mitigate rising risks to refugees, from gender-based violence to worsening educational inequalities, child protection issues, rising xenophobia and vaccine scarcity.

“We’ve been urging vigilance ever since the onset of the global health emergency, warning that it would test global commitment to protecting the forcibly displaced,” said UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Gillian Triggs. “This evaluation illustrates the extent of the damage. It shows clear evidence the pandemic was used to justify restrictive measures detrimental to the rights of refugees. More than two years on, some of these troubling policies and practices remain in place.”

The evaluation did, however, find some positive evidence, especially about inclusion, international cooperation and sharing responsibility. These are the core principles that underpin the Global Compact on Refugees, affirmed by the United Nations General Assembly in 2018.

The evaluation highlighted the extraordinary efforts of local actors and the international community in supporting refugees and asylum seekers. It praised innovations around remote delivery, which enabled the continuation of many critical refugee services despite lockdowns and movement restrictions.

Health inclusion was critical to stem transmission.  Most countries extended coverage to refugees in national vaccination plans. But vaccine nationalism has impeded procurement and distribution in low- and middle-income countries, which hosted 84 per cent of refugees in 2021.

‘’The COVID-19 pandemic stretched to breaking point the capacity and willingness of states to live up to their international responsibilities and obligations to refugees,” said the OECD DAC Chair, Susanna Moorehead. “DAC donors stepped up during the pandemic, increasing Official Development Assistance to record levels.  Despite the additional resources, this timely evaluation shows that we need to work together better, across the unhelpful humanitarian-development divide.   Development effectiveness, impact and accountability are needed more than ever in times of global crisis.’’

To prevent and address violations of refugee rights as a result of the pandemic, the report makes six recommendations to governments, international protection actors and UN organizations. These include strengthening preparedness efforts and ensuring continuity of essential protection services and training national authorities and border officials on international refugee law compliance for future pandemics.

The report will be launched at a global virtual event “Refugee rights and protection during COVID-19: hard lessons & concrete actions” on 8th July, at 14.00 CET. Register to participate.

Notes to editors:

The COVID-19 Global Evaluation Coalition is an independent collaboration of evaluation units from bilateral development co-operation providers, multilateral institutions, United Nations agencies and partner countries. The management group of the evaluation includes UNHCR, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland, the Governments of Colombia and Uganda, and the humanitarian system network ALNAP.

The Evaluation Brief is available here.

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