COVID-19 crisis underlines need for refugee solidarity and inclusion
Global pandemic has curtailed access to asylum and threatened refugee rights, but has also shown the value of protecting displaced people, says UNHCR's Gillian Triggs.
GENEVA – While the COVID-19 pandemic has “profoundly tested” global commitment to protecting refugees and forcibly displaced people, it has also shown the value of including refugees in national responses and safety nets to the benefit of all, UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Gillian Triggs said today.
Many governments across the world closed their borders and restricted access to asylum in response to the spread of coronavirus, but the UN Refugee Agency has been clear throughout that it is possible to both protect against the pandemic and ensure access to fair and speedy asylum processes, Triggs told UNHCR’s annual Executive Committee meeting in Geneva.
“The pandemic has shown us the importance of working together, of shared responsibilities, and of the need to ensure that health and other social services meet the needs of us all, not just a few,” Triggs said. “The virus does not discriminate between legal status or nationality. Access to health services does not depend on citizenship or visa conditions.”
These values of inclusion and solidarity with refugees and the forcibly displaced were enshrined in the Global Compact on Refugees, agreed by 181 governments in 2018. It was translated into concrete action in December last year at the Global Refugee Forum in Geneva, where states, civil society, NGOs, refugees, businesses and other stakeholders came together and made 1,400 pledges to turn the Compact’s vision into reality.
“Just a few weeks later…the spirit and optimism built upon the Compact and Forum were to be profoundly tested by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Triggs said.
The pandemic has thrown up a number of challenges and led to setbacks for refugee protection. At the height of the crisis, 168 countries fully or partially closed their borders, with around 90 making no exception for those seeking asylum. Some have pushed asylum seekers, including children, back to their countries of origin.
“As the pandemic subsides – and it surely will in time – a priority continues to be to reinstate fully functioning asylum systems and access to territory for all asylum seekers. Measures restricting access to asylum must not be allowed to become entrenched under the guise of public health,” the Assistant High Commissioner said.
Aside from the threats to health and access to asylum, the pandemic has also undermined the social and economic rights of refugees and the displaced. With the most vulnerable populations often depending on the informal economy, they were among the first to suffer the economic impacts of lockdown, losing their jobs and being evicted from their homes.
Meanwhile, Save the Children estimates that refugees – many of them girls – account for around 40 per cent of the 9.7 million children who may never return to school having dropped out during the pandemic, reversing years of progress in ensuring girls receive an education.
The pandemic has also drastically reduced the availability of lasting solutions to long-term displacement.
The number of vulnerable refugees being safely resettled to new countries has plummeted during the pandemic. For the first time ever, UNHCR together with the International Organization for Migration had to suspend departures, and overall resettlement numbers – which currently stand at less than 12,000 compared with 107,800 last year – are expected to be at a record low in 2020.
“UNHCR colleagues are exploring every possibility to expand resettlement and other regular means of finding solutions,” Triggs pledges.
The preferred option for most refugees is to return to their home country when conditions allow. For many protracted crises due to conflict – including Afghanistan, Syria and Myanmar – this has proved difficult as returns are still not safe. But the pandemic has also thrown up new barriers to voluntary repatriation.
“In this time of COVID, some states have even been reluctant to receive back their own nationals despite the right of citizens to return to their country; a right that should be respected,” Triggs said.
With fewer opportunities for resettlement and voluntary repatriation, there must be an increased focus on the inclusion of refugees in the life of their host countries, including their social services, education systems and employment markets.
"The future must be one of inclusion."
“The inclusion of refugees in a host country, of course, means that they too – as hosts – must be supported by the international community, especially where returns of refugees are unsafe in protracted conflicts,” she added.
Despite the many difficulties posed by the pandemic, aspects of the global response have offered evidence for optimism and revealed new tools and solutions in tackling future global challenges such as climate change.
“COVID-19 has given us confidence in digital technologies. They have proved to be highly successful in promoting remote access to asylum systems and referral and counseling services,” Triggs said. “There will be no going back. At UNHCR we hope to develop these technologies, to scale them up and to provide wider coverage and more effective international protection.”
“Another lesson learned over these last few months is that we know the pandemic will affect all of us. We can no longer exclude people on the basis of their legal status,” she concluded. “The future must be one of inclusion and shared responsibility, where social and economic rights…can be enjoyed by all those forcibly displaced throughout the world.”
To access a data visualization storymap showing the impact of the pandemic on refugees' rights, click here.