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IOHR launches Remember Refugees: How the pandemic is affecting the world’s most vulnerable

Opening remarks

This Saturday (20 June 2020) is the international observance of World Refugee Day, it is an opportunity for individuals and governments to raise awareness of the 79.5 million people around the world who have been forced to flee their homes for fear of conflict or persecution.

This year, with the coronavirus affecting nations the world over and domestic governments increasingly focusing their efforts on keeping the virus at bay at home, taking this opportunity to remember and raise awareness for the plight of refugees has never been so important.

Not least because, as UN Secretary-General António Guterres so rightly said:

“None of us is safe until we all are”

That is why, in honour of World Refugee Day, the International Observatory of Rights is launching its Remember Refugees campaign.

First and foremost, the Remember Refugee campaign is about ensuring the problems faced by refugees are not forgotten in all the noise. Refugees and the problems they face have not become any less real because of coronavirus. In fact, it is now more important that refugees are remembered at an individual, national and international level because they are the population most at risk by this virus.

Refugees are typically more susceptible to infection because of the conditions they live in and their lack of access to basic healthcare and sanitation. Many are also heavily reliant on aid, the provision of which has been drastically affected by the pandemic.

At an international level, the Remember Refugees campaign strives to ensure that organisations such as the United Nations and humanitarian aid charities are properly funded to respond to the increased threat the virus poses to refugees.

At a national level, we want governments to Remember Refugees that they are hosting, considering their needs in any response plans. But also, we want governments to reaffirm their commitment to humanitarian aid and keeping organisations such as the UN properly funded.

At an individual level, we want you to shout. Shout about the needs of the world’s most vulnerable. Force those who have the power to make a difference to use that power to do exactly that. If nothing else this pandemic has shown it only when we work collectively can we overcome the biggest challenges.

So, Remember Refugees; not just today or tomorrow, but everyday.

The global picture (a glimpse before COVID)

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) figures state that there are currently 79.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. This can be broken down into  four groups; 26 million refugees, 45.2 million internally displaced people, 4.6 million asylum seekers and 3.6 million Venezuelans displaced abroad. For convenience, I will sometimes use the term “refugee” interchangeably to reference any or all four of these groups, though, legally speaking, IDPs and asylum seekers do not fit into this definition.

The proportion of the world’s displaced population has been steadily increasing over the past decade. Now, around 9.1 people per 1000 are displaced – up from 6.2 per 1000 in 2009.

In fact, every day, 37,000 people are forced to flee their homes due to conflict of persecution.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has consistently found that refugees are at increased risk of falling sick whilst in transition or whilst in their receiving countries due to poor living conditions or adjustments in their lifestyle. Refugees often face challenges in accessing healthcare for reasons including legal status, language barriers and discrimination.

These problems are particularly prominent for the 2.6 million refugees – one tenth of the total refugee population – living in camps. Refugee camps are, in theory, temporary facilities built to provide immediate protection and assistance to refugees.

However, these camps often become institutionalised. For example, some of the Palestinian camps in Lebanon have existed since 1948.

These camps often provide refugees with limited access to their basic rights. Access to education, health care and social services are all restricted. The camps tend to be overcrowded – there are nearly one million refugees in the southern Bangladesh camps alone – with poor sanitary conditions.

Because of all this, camps are often heavily dependent on aid to keep refugees healthy, fed and overall, alive.

The impact of the pandemic

Health

As alluded to above, refugees typically face challenges in accessing healthcare and are at increased risk of falling ill or being able to fight against a disease. Authors of an article published by the reputable medical journal The Lancet have noted that:

“Refugees and migrants are potentially at increased risk of contracting diseases, including COVID-19, because they typically live in overcrowded conditions without access to basic sanitation”

Suddenly, all the risks associated with refugee camps are tenfold. The overcrowded living arrangements make basic measures of countering the virus such as social distancing or isolating what Antonio Gutteres, the Secretary-General of the UN, called “an impossible luxury”. The lack of clean running water and soap limits the ability to practice proper hand hygiene. Compounding all of this, the lack of medical personnel and health information available in these camps means that once the virus is in, it’s likely to spread like wildfire amongst a population that was already weakened.

Even outside of the camps, 80% of refugees are sheltered in low and middle-income countries with weak health systems.

Some countries have actively labelled refugees as a threat, at risk of bringing the virus into their country. This is despite the WHO finding that refugees have a “lower risk of transmitting communicable diseases to host nations in general” and a higher risk of contracting diseases.

The WHO as an organisation has been keen to ensure that countries consider the needs of refugees when developing their COVID-19 responses. Their report Interim guidance: scaling-up COVID-19 outbreak readiness and response operations in humanitarian situations, including camps and camp-like settings stated:

Public health responses must consider health risks associated with movement, displacement, overcrowding, poor nutritional and health status, and physical and mental stress and deprivation due to lack of housing, food and clean water among refugees and migrants.

It seems as though this message is largely falling short and many countries continue to pursue an isolationist, often nationalistic agenda in response to the threat of the coronavirus. Dr Santino Severoni, Special Adviser on Health and Migration for WHO Europe, concluded:

“If during this pandemic we leave behind the most vulnerable, we fail not only them, but all of us. COVID-19 is challenging us as a community, and we must answer as one”

Food insecurity

Often, humanitarian aid is all that stands between refugees and starvation. Sadly, the ability of countries and organisations to provide this aid has been severely inhibited by the virus.

The problem has become so acute that a report by Amnesty International found that “Thousands of refugees and migrants around the world are at risk of starving to death during the coronavirus pandemic”.

Ian Byrne, Head of Amnesty International’s Refugee and Migrant Rights team said:

“In many camps, death by starvation is now reported to be a bigger threat than the virus itself…At a time when we need compassion and cooperation more than ever, some governments have instead doubled down on discrimination and abuse – preventing deliveries of food and water, locking people up, or sending them back to war and persecution.”

In the Calais camps, lockdown has meant that the deliveries of food and water vital to the inhabitants’ livelihoods have ceased. The restriction on the refugees’ movement has meant that – even if they had the funds to pay for it – they have no ability to shop for themselves.

Similarly, in Jordan’s Zaatari camp, lockdown has prevented people from working – meaning people have no food or income pay for basic necessities.

Perhaps even worse is the intentional stopping of provisions seen in some camps. For example, in Bosnia’s Vucjuk camp, the water supplies have been deliberately cut off by the local authorities in an attempt to force the relocation of its inhabitants.

Actions like that of the Bosnian authorities are not isolated, leading Ian Byrne to say:

“Any government which allows refugees to die of starvation or thirst during lockdowns has failed dismally at tackling this crisis.”

Aid

The outbreak of the virus has caused almost every country to close its borders and impose severe restrictions on what comes in and out. The lockdown and movement restrictions have created severe challenges in ensuring that humanitarian aid reaches refugees.

All of a sudden, every step of providing aid has become more difficult; more expensive, more time consuming, greater bureaucratic hurdles.

The problem is perhaps best illustrated by the rapidly increasing appeals made by the UN to keep pace with the problem. In March 2020, the UN launched a $2bn appeal to address the humanitarian crisis posed by COVID. By May, in light of the skyrocketing price of providing humanitarian aid, the UN increased their ask by $4.7 bn dollars, to their current appeal of $6.7bn.

This is on top of the estimated $28bn they planned to spend on humanitarian responses prior to the pandemic. Of these pre-corona responses, only 13% had been funded as of early May 2020. Most if not all of these crises have become worse as a result of the coronavirus.

The UN estimates that the total humanitarian impact of COVID-19 could reach $90bn. This all comes when traditional sources of UN funding, such as the USA, appear to be becoming more sceptical about the provision of aid.

The UK government announced on 16th June 2020 that the Department for International Development, which is responsible for overseas humanitarian assistance, will be merged with the Foreign Office. A move which has been condemned by three ex-Prime Ministers and is almost universally viewed as an indication that the government is prioritising trade and diplomacy over the provision of aid to those most in need.

It has to be said that institutions such as the UN and the European Union should be applauded as they have consistently upheld that the needs of refugees and the continuation of humanitarian aid should form part of any response plans. These commitments have taken the form of various guidances and reports, as well as vocal commitments from high ranking officials in both institutions.

The European Commission’s guidance on the provision of humanitarian aid during COVID-19 in the environment of EU restrictive measures states:

EU sanctions are not meant to stand in the way nor impede the supply of humanitarian aid….EU sanctions contain exceptions which enable otherwise restricted actions to be carried out in order to provide humanitarian aid. In the context of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, restricted activities may be exceptionally allowed even in the absence of explicit exceptions, if there is no other means to ensure the provision of humanitarian aid.

However, despite the EU having the best intentions, the reality is still such that these restrictions have created barriers to the provision of humanitarian aid.

This is illustrated by the fact that it took Care4Calais one month to organise the provision of just 1,000 hand sanitation supplies to the Calais camps. Since the lockdown of borders, they’ve had to stop the provision of clothes, sleeping bags and toiletries and focus on providing what little food they can because of how heavily dependent they were on donations coming across from the UK.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) has also struggled to procure goods. Elinor Raikes, their Head of Program Delivery, said:

“This is an unprecedented moment for us—we have never had to deal with an emergency response that has hit every single one of our country programs at the same time and has also impacted our global headquarters,”

Suspension of operations

In some capacity, humanitarian aid has managed to continue, albeit with significant barriers. Other crucial operations relating to refugees have had to cease operations entirely since the outbreak of the coronavirus.

On 17 March 2020 the UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) announced that they were temporarily suspending resettlement travel. Resettlement is the process of transferring a refugee from an asylum country to another country which has agreed to grant them permanent settlement.

UNHCR and IOM said at the time that “Resettlement provides a vital lifeline for particularly vulnerable refugees” but the spread of the virus had seen countries “drastically reduce entry into their territories, while international air travel has been restricted in some regions” making the practical implementation of resettlement problematic at best.

Similarly, logistical difficulties created by lockdowns and the closing of borders saw search and rescue operations cease in the central Mediterranean, where more than 16,000 asylum seekers and migrants have died since 2015. The few operations that were conducted immediately prior to the lockdowns have resulted in the immediate quarantine of migrants in reception centres. This is despite the fact that, at the time, Africa had no confirmed cases of the virus.

Fortunately, these rescue operations are now slowly starting to return. On the night of Tuesday 9 June, two charity boats headed back out to the Mediterranean after a two-month hiatus.

The Italian NGO Mediterranea Saving Humans tweeted:

“Mediterranea is finally back at sea to monitor and denounce the human rights violations that are constantly taking place in the central Mediterranean”

In other situations, operations and procedures may continue but to a significantly reduced extent. This illustrated by the impact that the closed borders of Europe has had on asylum applications in the continent. In April, asylum applications fell to the lowest level in over a decade with the number declining to 8,730 applications, down 86% from the 61,421 received in February, according to the European Asylum Support Office (EASO).

The EASO figures also show a 44% drop in asylum applications from February to March, when states began imposing lockdowns.

Speaking to Reuters, Nina Gregori, EASO executive director, said:

“It is clear the access that potential asylum applicants had was severely restricted over the past few months, especially initially…The situation for those in need of asylum has undoubtedly been very challenging. Already fleeing violence and persecution, the COVID-19 crisis has certainly compounded their situations.”

Refoulement

Refoulement is the forcible return of refugees or asylum seekers to a country where they face prosecution. It is illegal under international law, protected by the 1951 Refugee Convention, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which is non-derogable, meaning it cannot be overridden by any circumstance.

Despite that fact that the coronavirus does not provide countries with an excuse to renege on its international commitments to refugees, many are using it as such and are forcing refugees back into danger.

Even the supposed bastion of the free world, the USA, sent 10,000 asylum seekers back across the Mexican border within two hours of their arrival between 20 March and 8 April 2020. In April alone, 600 minors were expelled from the US under the guise of protecting public health.

In Malaysia, the authorities have used the coronavirus as an excuse to turn away boats filled with Rohingya refugees trying to reach their shores. In one case, 28 Rohingya refugees died of hunger from being stranded at sea after being turned away from Malaysia. Others have been saved at sea only to then be forced onto Bhasan Char island by the Bangladesh authorities, an island previously deemed uninhabitable by the UN.

The Malaysian government is accused of using the pandemic as an excuse to keep the Rohingya out of their country, in light of an increasingly racist public sentiment towards the groups among the Malaysian public.

This led Ariane Jeffrey and Thomas Daniel, analysts from the think tank the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia, to say:

“This pandemic has brought out the worst in some with open displays of xenophobia against outsiders who are perceived to be the cause of the virus.”

Conflict zones

Conflict is often a prime source of displacement. It is logical to try to leave an area where your life is at risk. Now, however, the movement of refugees and IDPs around conflict zones threatens the quick spread of the virus among countries whose health systems are already shattered by conflicts.

This has particularly been raised in relation to conflicts across the Middle East.

In Libya, there are currently 200,000 IDPs. The country is already highly vulnerable owing to the fact that their civilian infrastructure has effectively been nullified through years of conflict. The first case was confirmed in the country on 24 March 2020. Official figures suggest that there are fewer than 100 cases in the country, however the lack of testing means that the real figure is likely to be much higher.

Similar problems are reflected in Yemen, long known as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The UN has warned of an imminent explosion of COVID-19 cases in the country and calls for a ceasefire seem to be falling on deaf ears. The USA has also signified it will be cutting aid flowing to Yemen over fears the Houthi rebels are stopping it being distributed to the population.

Because of rising costs and shortfalls in UN funding, by some estimates that the UN might be forced to halt three quarters of its aid programs in Yemen.

Of the $2.4bn requested, only $1.35bn was pledged, of which only 47% of which has been received. Representatives of the United Nations are now calling on donor countries to make good on their pledges or they will need to cease 30 of their 41 assistance programs in Yemen.

In Syria, aid has always been a tool of the conflict. Agencies rely on negotiations with Kurdish authorities as well as Turkey and the Syrian government to distribute this aid. The lockdown has made these negotiations more complex, and the flow of aid has suffered as a result. That being said, over time the picture has begun to improve for aid provision in general and on June 10 2020, the EU announced a €55 million support package for Syrian refugees and local communities in Jordan and Lebanon to mitigate the coronavirus pandemic.

What is of interest in Syria is how the ceasefire has affected the pandemic. The ceasefire was announced on 5 March 2020, and the following month the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights recorded the lowest number of civilian fatalities since the conflict began.

Because of a fall in violence many refugees are returning from the Turkish border to the city of Idlib. This mass movement is presenting a huge contagion risk and the infrastructure in the city will be unable to match the needs of any outbreak. The London School of Economics predicted that Syria’s health service could cope with 6,500 cases of the virus before it completely collapsed.

Statelessness

Stateless people are often referred to as the world’s invisible people. They are those who, for one reason or another, are not citizens of any nation state – many are also refugees.

Stateless refugees face all the same problems as other refugees except their problems are often compounded by a number of factors. They can slip through the cracks in government responses or are victims of government persecution, they may face heightened risks of detention and often experience a protection gap as lines are blurred about who is responsible for their care.

It is estimated that there are currently over 10 million stateless people in the world. Concerns have been raised that governments’ responses to the pandemic are ignoring the heightened risk placed on stateless populations.

A joint urgent call to action put forward by 84 civil society organisations stated:

We have observed that in democratic states, measures including border closures and movement restrictions, health assistance, emergency relief and economic stimulus packages, privilege citizens and their concerns. Migrants, refugees, populations at risk of statelessness and the stateless themselves are left behind.

Adding that:

“On all continents, minorities and those deprived of documentation and citizenship…now face additional threats to their livelihoods and health, with many enduring heightened hate-speech, police violence and discrimination”.

As mentioned earlier, the Rohingya are now enduring new waves of hate speech in Malaysia as they’re viewed as a risk of contagion in the country. In many countries the suspension of documentation services has left stateless people in limbo and a lack of information is leading to these populations having limited awareness around current migration measures.

Worryingly, as is so often the way, the stateless refugees have been left particularly vulnerable by the virus.

Closing remarks

I would hope that very little needs to be said at this point to convince you it’s crucial we remember refugees at this moment in time. So instead I would like to leave you with some ways you can help us ensure that the problems I’ve outlined do not go unnoticed.

    • Tweet the #RememberRefugee hashtag. Help amplify the message that the world’s most vulnerable people should not be forgotten. Stay up to date with the campaign through our twitter or website.
    • Write to your MP (or equivalent local politician outside of the UK) letting them know you support the Remember Refugee campaign and ask them what they’re doing to safeguard refugees in your area.
    • Go to the Refugee Week website and complete one of their ‘simple acts’. You can find them HERE.
    • Help continue humanitarian aid:

This is a time of momentous change the world over. If we all succeed in making governments and individuals Remember Refugees now, we can have a lasting impact on the rest of their lives.

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