The principles under-pinning the Global Compact on Refugees provide the tools we need to respond to the impacts of the coronavirus on refugees and the communities that host them.
Just over a year before the novel coronavirus emerged, countries around the world came together to adopt the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) — a new framework for managing large movements of refugees more equitably among States.
It represented a political commitment of unprecedented force and a model for better international cooperation. The Compact paved the way for the first Global Refugee Forum last December, where governments and a wide range of actors convened to translate many of its aims into concrete commitments.
The GCR was envisaged as a collective response to the plight of millions of people living in long-term forced displacement as refugees, but it also offers a blueprint for responding to the impacts of COVID-19 on refugees and the communities that host them. It provides the tools to respond both to the emergency phase of the pandemic, and to its longer-term consequences, while also offering solutions to forced displacement challenges that have been amplified by this global health crisis.
Now, more than ever, is the time to put the following five principles that underpin the Compact into practice.
The principles of responsibility-sharing and global solidarity at the heart of the GCR are urgently needed to respond to a global pandemic that knows no borders. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has stressed that in an interconnected world, “none of us is safe until all of us are safe”. While the impact of the pandemic has been devastating for the entire global economy, low- and middle-income countries have been particularly hard hit and will need the support of the international community to recover and bolster their health, economic and social protection systems. Many countries with the least capacity to cope with COVID-19 outbreaks are also those that continue to host large numbers of refugees and internally displaced people. We have a collective responsibility to ensure they are supported to adapt to post-COVID realities.
I have just returned from Malta, a small island-nation that has been on the front-line of the Central Mediterranean migration route over the last few years. Malta’s assistance to refugees has been life-saving, but a recent increase in arrivals, combined with the public health threat posed by COVID-19, have created challenges for its reception and asylum system. Under the Compact, regional or global solidarity should go hand-in-hand with national reforms to ease such pressures and help countries to continue fulfilling their international obligations.
The inclusion of refugees in national health and social protection systems and economies was envisioned by the GCR. The pandemic should be a reason to step up those efforts rather than delay them as discrimination and other barriers to inclusion will create an environment where cases go undetected and the virus spreads.
Public health responses will only be effective if they reach everyone, regardless of their nationality or legal status. Governments from Portugal to Peru have recognized this and implemented policies to ensure that refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants can access health care and other services. Such approaches should be extended beyond the emergency phase of the pandemic to protect the wellbeing of people who are refugees, internally displaced, or stateless and their host communities.
The GCR affirms the importance of international refugee law, including in exceptional times when countries may need to adapt their asylum systems. States must ensure their actions are in line with international law and that during the current pandemic, vulnerable refugees are not being placed at unnecessary risk. Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, has noted that “securing public health and protecting refugees are not mutually exclusive… We have to do both”.
States have already demonstrated that it is possible to continue admitting and registering people in need of international protection while protecting the health of their own populations. Currently, 68 countries that fully or partially closed their borders as a result of COVID-19 have made exceptions for people seeking asylum. By adapting their facilities and procedures, over 100 States have managed to keep their asylum systems fully or partially operational.
Of some 1,400 pledges made at the Global Refugee Forum held in Geneva last December, many are directly relevant to the current crisis. Those relating to healthcare, water and sanitation, and hygiene services can aid the emergency response, while those on the provision of education, livelihoods and economic safety nets will be vital to the longer-term response. Although the pandemic could delay the implementation of some pledges, others should be accelerated to help prevention efforts and support recovery.
Many State and non-state actors are leading the way, implementing their commitments, and taking action to reduce the vulnerabilities of refugees and internally displaced people to COVID-19. For example, the Poverty Alleviation Coalition, which includes UNHCR, the World Bank and 13 NGOs, pledged to increase the income of 160,000 refugee and host-community households by the next GRF in 2023. Recognizing the economic impacts of COVID-19 on displaced populations, the Coalition has continued to deliver economic recovery and self-reliance programmes during lock-downs. In another example, the Government of Malawi pledged to include refugees in its National Development Agenda. With support from UNHCR and a US$10 million grant from the Global Partnership for Education, it is now including refugees in its COVID-19 education response.
Many refugees are finding ways to play a part in the fight against the coronavirus as frontline health workers, carers, educators, volunteers and awareness-raisers. They are a reminder that socio-economic inclusion and support for self-reliance — both central to the GCR — can help refugees to thrive and contribute to their countries of asylum.
Several European countries have appealed for refugee health professionals to join national responses while Peru, Chile, Argentina and a number of US States have eased or accelerated residency and licensing requirements to allow foreign-trained refugee doctors and nurses to join COVID-19 responses. In Turkey, Syrian health professionals already employed at migrant health centres have been included in contact tracing teams. Many more refugees could contribute to national responses to the pandemic if their qualifications were recognized and they had the right to work and study.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown, as almost no other emergency could have, that the Global Compact on Refugees has an enduring relevance. Let us use these five principles to work together for a re-imagined world of responsibility sharing.
Gillian Triggs is Assistant High Commissioner for Protection at UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is a global organization dedicated to saving lives, protecting rights and building a better future for refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people.