The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) have been forced to temporarily suspend resettlement travel for refugees as a result of the travel disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Resettlement is the transfer of refugees from a country that has granted them asylum, to another State that has agreed to admit them and ultimately grant them permanent settlement. Both organisations have lauded resettlement as a “a life-saving tool for many refugees”
In 2019, UNHCR assisted in the resettlement of over 63,000 refugees a large portion of whom were from Syria.
However, the coronavirus has drastically reduced entry to and from most territories and with increasingly severe restrictions around international air travel, UNHCR and IOM were forced to take steps to suspend operations.
The organisations have appealed to States to continue to coordinate with them and “to ensure that movements can continue for the most critical emergency cases wherever possible” but this still leaves many refugees in the lurch.
There is also the threat that international travel could increase the exposure of refugees to the virus.
In a joint statement, UNHCR and IOM said:
“Resettlement provides a vital lifeline for particularly vulnerable refugees, and IOM and UNHCR will continue their work in refugee-hosting countries, in collaboration with all relevant partners, to ensure that the processing of cases for resettlement continues
We will also remain in close contact with refugees themselves and all of the agencies that work to support the use of resettlement as a critical protection measure”.
The suspension raises the concern that refugees will be left in displaced person’s camps and other temporary settlements – places that often present significant safety and health risks of their own.
Separately, the coronavirus also threatens to halt plans that would see the transfer of hundreds of children out of the “dire and dangerous” refugee camps in Greece.
Five European countries – Finland, France, Portugal and Luxembourg, and the German city of Berlin – had agreed in recent weeks to take unaccompanied minors from Greece after thousands of refugees and migrants arrived in the EU member state since Turkey opened the borders.
However, a number of EU member states have since started imposing checks at borders that are normally in a zone of control-free travel, and EU leaders have sealed the bloc’s external borders.
Speaking to Reuters, Afshan Khan, special coordinator for the refugee and migrant response in Europe said:
“The temporary shutdown of cross-border movement within the EU will inevitably impact when and how vulnerable children in Greece are relocated to Germany, Finland and other states,”
She went on to urge countries to explore “all possible measures to expedite the transfer of these children, so they can begin moving as soon as the borders reopen”.