The East and Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes (EHAGL) region is host to some 4.75 million refugees and asylum-seekers, the majority from South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia, with significant numbers from Burundi, Sudan and Eritrea. The region hosts 67 per cent of the refugees on the African continent and 20 per cent of the global refugee population. The region also has approximately 8.7 million IDPs, mostly in Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and Burundi, as a result of both conflict and national disasters.
Since early 2020, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has continued to adversely affect the livelihoods, health and well being of Persons of Concern and host communities in the region, the majority of whom live in camp and settlement settings. The first cases of COVID-19 in the region were reported on 13 March 2020. A year later, as of 31 March 2021, there were 493,158 confirmed COVID-19 cases amongst the general population in the 11 countries in the EHAGL Region. While so far there has been no large-scale outbreak in the approximately 100 refugee camps and settlements in the region, refugees, IDPs and their host communities remain impacted by the effects of the pandemic and at risk of contracting the virus. New waves of COVID-19 have impacted most of the countries in the region and the need for preparedness remains urgent as a number of locations still lack adequate quarantine, testing and isolation/treatment facilities. Governments have put in place various measures to contain the spread of the virus and are periodically announcing changes to movement restrictions and otherpreventive measures.
UNHCR is working closely with governments, the World Bank, the World Health Organization (WHO) and UN Country Teams to promote the inclusion of refugees, IDPs, stateless people and others of concern in national preparedness and response measures – in particular in health, hygiene and sanitation programmes, as well as emergency social safety nets where possible. UNHCR also continues to advocate for inclusion of refugees in national COVID-19 vaccination plans, with the first refugees in the region already receiving their first vaccine doses in March according to national roll out criteria. UNHCR continues to assess the impact of travel and border restrictions on access to asylum and has appealed for special measures to be put in place, to allow for asylum-seekers to be screened, quarantined and admitted.
In the first quarter of 2021, a total of 37,629 new refugee arrivals were recorded in the EHAGL region, the majority of whom are Ethiopians who fled to Sudan.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the momentum of pledge implementation following the first Global Refugee Forum, progress is being made in a number of countries in the region. The principles of the Global Compact on Refugees and the commitments that many countries in the region have made to refugee inclusion have remained central.
Country Operations have also been working to strengthen UNHCR’s role in inter-agency IDP responses in line with UNHCR’s 2019 IDP policy and the High Commissioner’s Initiative on Internal Displacement, including in Burundi, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Sudan and Somalia.
On Mixed Movements, the Bureau supported the office of UNHCR’s Special Envoy for the Central Mediterranean’s study on “Mapping of Protection Services for People on the Move.
In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, the region is plagued by multiple crises. The region is facing critical levels of nutrition and food insecurity hosting three out of the ten worst food crises in the world for the past three years 2018-2020: South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Sudan. Dependency of the refugee population on humanitarian assistance for their basic needs is increasing. With limited livelihood and agricultural opportunities, in addition to food ration cuts, seven of the eleven country operations are experiencing climate (droughts, flooding) and economic shocks, compounded by COVID-19 related measures.
In a joint press release on 2 March, UNHCR and WFP appealed for US $266 million to end food ration cuts for over three million refugees in the region. Funding shortfalls have forced WFP to reduce its monthly assistance for refugees by up to 60 per cent in Rwanda, 40 per cent in Ugand a and Kenya, 30 per cent in South Sudan, 23 per cent in Djibouti and 16 per cent in Ethiopia. The food cuts have a direct impact on refugees’ lives and have led to growing protection concerns such as increased domestic violence and negative coping mechanisms by refugees. These include skipping or reducing meals, taking loans with high interest, selling assets and child labour.