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The Refugee Brief – 18 June 2021

By Kristy Siegfried | 18 June, 2021


Global displacement hits new high, despite COVID crisis. The number of people forcibly displaced by conflict, violence and persecution reached a record 82.4 million in 2020, despite the impacts of COVID-19, according to the latest annual Global Trends report released today by UNHCR. Even during a year in which over 160 countries closed their borders at the peak of the pandemic, the world’s population of forcibly displaced people grew by nearly 3 million – a 4 per cent increase from 2019 and the ninth year in a row the figure has risen. While arrivals of new refugees and asylum-seekers were down in most regions due to border closures, an additional 2.3 million people became internally displaced within the borders of their own countries. The report highlights how drawn-out crises like those in Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen continue to force people to flee, while more recent eruptions of violence in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, northern Mozambique and the Sahel region caused significant displacement that has continued into 2021. The pandemic also contributed to a significant drop in the number of refugees and internally displaced people able to return home and a 20-year low in the number of refugees resettled to a third country. UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi called for “much greater political will to address conflicts and persecution that force people to flee” and urged global leaders to “end an egoistic approach to politics” and instead focus on solutions and respect for human rights.

US reverses rulings limiting asylum for gang and domestic violence survivors. United States Attorney General Merrick Garland on Wednesday reversed two immigration rulings that had made it almost impossible for people to seek asylum in the United States over fears of domestic or gang violence. During the previous administration, two former attorneys general had broken with precedent to overturn decisions by immigration appeals judges that would have allowed such asylum claims. UNHCR’s US representative Matt Reynolds welcomed the decision, which he described as “an important humanitarian step” that would bring the US asylum system in line with international standards. The New York Times reports that the reversals will affect tens of thousands of asylum-seekers, many of them Central Americans fleeing gang extortion and recruitment and women fleeing violent partners. “Today’s decisions will give survivors fleeing these types of violence a better chance of finding safety in the United States and being treated with the basic compassion and dignity that every single person deserves,” said Reynolds.

Migrants and refugees rescued and handed over to Libyan Coast Guard. Over 270 migrants and refugees were rescued by a commercial ship in international waters on Monday before being handed over to the Libyan Coast Guard. The group was then returned to Tripoli and taken to a detention centre. In a joint statement on Wednesday, UNHCR and IOM condemned the return of the rescued migrants and refugees to Libya, which the agencies said “cannot be considered a safe place”. Those returned to Libya often ended up in “appalling conditions” in detention centres where they may be exposed to exploitation and abuse, said the statement. Others go missing, raising fears they may have ended up in the hands of human traffickers. The Libyan Coast Guard has intercepted and returned to Libya more than 13,000 people this year, already surpassing the number it returned in all of 2020. Hundreds of others have perished at sea.


Donors pledge US$1.5 billion for Venezuelan refugees and migrants. More than 30 countries and two development banks on Thursday pledged some US$1.5 billion in grants and loans to provide humanitarian aid to Venezuelans refugees and migrants and the countries hosting them. Of more than 5.6 million Venezuelans who have left their country to date, over 80 per cent have been taken in by 17 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Thursday’s virtual conference raised significantly more in pledges than a similar event last year, but still falls short of the needs among Venezuelan refugees and migrants and host communities in countries hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic. UNHCR and IOM said the additional financial support would allow States and aid organizations to continue providing emergency assistance to those most in need while also increasing funding for integration efforts. At the conference, Ecuador announced it would begin a “normalization process” for the 430,000 Venezuelans living in the country.

Worsening violence and drought in Afghanistan drive new displacement. Violence has been rising in Afghanistan as foreign troops begin withdrawing and efforts to broker a peace settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban stall. The UN reports that heavy fighting continues in several provinces and that more than 148,000 people have been displaced by conflict so far this year. UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi told Reuters that UNHCR is doing contingency planning for further displacement both inside the country and in neighbouring countries. Grandi added that strong international support was needed for the peace talks to continue. Separately, the International Rescue Committee warned this week that Afghanistan is facing a worsening drought that is causing increasing conflict and displacement in five affected provinces. Families interviewed by the IRC said they were being pushed to sell off livestock, reduce meals and marry off their daughters.

Survey shows COVID-19 pandemic’s toll on refugees in Uganda. The findings of a survey released this week by UNHCR and the World Bank reveals the devastating impact of COVID-19 on the living conditions of refugees in Uganda. The survey found that refugees were faring far worse than their host community in terms of employment, food security and mental health. Uganda hosts the largest population of refugees in Africa, with some 1.5 million people mainly from South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Employment rates among the refugees surveyed had dropped to 32 per cent by March 2021, a 24-percentage point drop compared to pre-COVID times. Poverty and food insecurity also increased, with twice as many refugees having to borrow money to survive in comparison to the host community. A separate analysis by UNHCR revealed that suicides and attempted suicides by refugees increased by 129 per cent in 2020 compared to the previous year.


Textile artist and former Afghan refugee Hangama Amiri designed the Twitter emoji for this year’s World Refugee Day, which falls on Sunday, 20 June. The emoji features a blue heart cupped between two hands, “one coming from the East and the other coming from the West,” explained Hangama. “I wanted to make something very simple but also very powerful.” The emoji will be activated on any tweet that uses the hashtags #WorldRefugeeDay, #WithRefugees and #RefugeeDay, in any of 12 languages through 23 June.


Today, one per cent of humanity is displaced and there are twice as many forcibly displaced people as in 2011, when the total was just under 40 million.

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