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Maintain aid levels to save lives and protect the vulnerable, UN refugee chief

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During the pandemic, sustaining aid will mitigate marginalization that will be more costly to address later, Filippo Grandi tells high-level meeting.

By UNHCR staff | 05 October 2020

GENEVA – Maintaining levels of humanitarian aid is a comparatively inexpensive way to save lives and protect refugees and their host communities facing a “pandemic of poverty” resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said today.

The economic and financial consequences of the coronavirus are affecting all countries, including those whose contributions form the backbone of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency’s yearly income, Filippo Grandi told UNHCR’s annual Executive Committee gathering in Geneva.

But maintaining aid and especially humanitarian budgets will be a “relatively inexpensive way to save lives, protect the vulnerable, and help them live in dignity and security,” Grandi said.

“It will mitigate the instability likely to rise from growing pockets of marginalization, which will be much more costly to address later,” he added.

Despite the UN Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire early in the pandemic, Grandi said conflict, violence, discrimination, human rights violations and political crises have continued, pushing the total number of forcibly displaced people to almost 80 million – double the figure of 10 years ago.

Fresh displacement in the past year included 600,000 forced from their homes in the Central Sahel and more than 140,000 people uprooted in Yemen, where the threat of famine looms for 24 million people. In Central America, meanwhile, 100,000 Nicaraguans have sought safety abroad, most of them in Costa Rica.

While governments worldwide have taken tough measures to stop the spread of the virus, often closing borders, Grandi urged States to ensure such restrictions “remain temporary and non-discriminatory, and respect …. international human rights obligations.”

Over 110 States have found ways to keep asylum systems functioning while taking necessary public health precautions. Grandi cited the example of Uganda which, while already hosting more than 1.4 million refugees, nevertheless re-opened its borders to allow 3,000 people fleeing deadly militia violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo to cross and find refuge.

“Stopping the virus and offering protection is not – and must not be – a zero-sum equation. Both are possible and lives can be saved,” he said.

While human displacement continues predominantly to affect countries with few resources, some refugees have continued to move towards the global north; often alongside migrants seeking opportunities for a better life.

While not minimizing the challenges this presents, “the solution cannot be to close the door,” Grandi said. “We cannot allow xenophobic reactions, only meant to draw facile consensus and electoral votes, to shape responses to challenges that are complex, but manageable.”

He warned against “dangerous lines of thinking” that have emerged in some countries, including “externalising” asylum beyond a country’s borders – an approach that can “violate international law, put the lives of the most vulnerable in jeopardy and constitute precedents which threaten asylum globally,” he said.

Grandi gave as examples mothers and children fleeing gang violence in Northern Central America pushed back or even returned to countries of origin; boats loaded with Rohingya refugees wandering between ports in Southeast Asia without being allowed to disembark; and in the Mediterranean, the vessel “Maersk Etienne” being unable to land with 27 people it rescued for more than a month as States “failed to live up to their responsibilities.”

“People will continue to flee unless the root causes of their flight are solved,” the High Commissioner cautioned. “Reducing search and rescue capacity, or impeding those who engage to save others, or pushing back people without due process, will not stop people from moving, it will only lead to more deaths and the further erosion of refugee protection.”

Against the backdrop of rising displacement and COVID-19, Grandi stressed that humanitarian aid alone would not suffice. The inclusion of refugees, the internally displaced and stateless people in national responses is also needed.

Inclusion must also apply to social services, safety nets and measures to counter food insecurity, and support refugees and their hosts in regions with large displaced populations. Also vital, is the access to education and the right to work.

As climate change threats grow, Grandi urged the development of better forecasting and predictive analytics to enable targeted responses before displacement occurs.

“We know that climate-induced displacement is going to continue and worsen. The question is also how to prevent, mitigate, and prepare before it happens,” he said.

While most refugees prefer to return home, resettlement to third countries remains a vital alternative, at least for the most vulnerable. Grandi expressed “deep disappointment” with the overall levels of resettlement places available. In 2019, just over 100,000 refugees were resettled; less than one quarter of one per cent of the world’s refugees, in a constantly declining trend.

Amid COVID-related travel restrictions, some countries have managed to keep their doors open. Grandi commended Canada, the largest resettlement country last year, and a champion of innovative approaches.

“But it is not enough, and I appeal to governments to do more to help resettle the most urgent cases, and increase opportunities through complementary pathways,” he said.

Grandi said that the vulnerabilities highlighted by the pandemic must be an incentive to “pursue solutions to forced displacement, even if favourable circumstances are rare.”

He commended efforts by leaders in Sudan and South Sudan to end conflict, and – as part of the peace processes –to pursue comprehensive solutions for the displaced.

He also welcomed cross-border contacts that have taken place between Myanmar officials and refugees in Bangladesh so that refugees are aware of the conditions in their villages of origin.

Finally, he praised UNHCR staff who stayed and delivered vital assistance in difficult places as the pandemic took hold, and refugees, displaced and stateless people who came together with host communities to keep each other safe.

“As we grapple with the pandemic, the climate emergency, and unrelenting conflict, we draw from them much strength, and even in this bleak year - especially in this bleak year - they inspire hope … that together we can – in spite of everything – make a difference.”