UNHCR forum weighs lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown just how vital it is to include refugees and displaced people in plans and decisions that affect their lives, the UN refugee chief told the concluding session of an online forum today.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi was speaking at the final session of the High Commissioner’s Dialogue, an annual opportunity for a wide range of actors to exchange views on emerging challenges in humanitarian protection.
“Inclusion is key because the pandemic has taught us that unless everybody is covered by responses, and in the future by vaccines, it will continue to be a threat for all of us,” Grandi told the virtual forum.
During four sessions held online over seven weeks, refugees, governments, civil society, the private sector, academics and international organizations have shared some of their lessons learned, from the benefits of refugee inclusion to the need to combat misinformation and xenophobia.
Convened by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, the focus of this year’s dialogue was on different aspects of the response to the pandemic affecting displaced populations, from protection, to resilience and inclusion, to being prepared for the impacts of emerging crises, such as climate change.
The closing session on Wednesday drew on themes that emerged from the previous discussions to consider how the international community can be better prepared to help displaced populations caught up in future crises.
In a wide-ranging discussion, several participants emphasized the pandemic’s disproportionate social and economic impact on vulnerable people, particularly refugee women and girls. They talked about the need to help young refugees return to school or to access the technologies necessary for distance learning.
Jutta Urpilainen, the European Commissioner for International Partnerships, pointed out that at least 31 per cent of school children worldwide are not being reached by distance learning programmes, and that refugee children were among those most at risk of missing out on education due to the pandemic.
“Taking this [principle of] leave no one behind seriously means that we must focus our efforts and resources on those most at risk of education disruption, especially refugees and displaced learners,” she said.
Rwandan refugee Bahati Ernestine shared how training to become a nurse in Kenya had empowered her to help others.
“At nursing school, I was a student, not a refugee,” she said. “It occurred to me that I can make an equal contribution to society as my classmates.
"Many refugees would rather learn to fish and share that fish with others than receive the fish."
“I can say that many refugees would rather learn how to fish and share that fish with others than receive the fish and eat it all in a day,” she added. “We just need more spaces created for us.”
Jayathma Wickramanayake, the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, highlighted that refugee-led organizations, particularly those led by young refugees, have become first responders during the pandemic, filling a vacuum that was created when humanitarian workers were no longer able to visit communities.
“We have to remember that when we come out of the pandemic,” she said. “We have to respect their leadership and use the expertise of young refugees.”
As a number of promising vaccines offer the beginnings of a path out of the COVID-19 pandemic, Grandi called for the response to the crisis to be depoliticized.
“The response to the pandemic, what it has taught us going forward, is not to politicize refugees, forced displacement and humanitarian issues at large,” he said.
“If what we do to address the crisis is not grounded in a sense of humanity, we will fail.”