UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency and hundreds of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), today called on global leaders to ensure that refugees are included in social safety nets and support services for COVID-19 and stressed the need for stronger integration of refugees and refugee-led organisations, their skills and knowledge, in humanitarian responses.
The call came as part of the annual consultations between UNHCR and NGOs, co-hosted by UNHCR and the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA), that were held from 28 to 30 September. This year's theme, Responding to Pandemics, focused on how UNHCR and partners respond and can strengthen partnerships in responses to COVID-19 and other pandemics. The event was attended by participants representing some 100 NGOs, as well as refugee themselves, academia, faith-based organisations and international agencies. For the first time, these NGO consultations were held online in four different languages and across seven time zones.
"Thanks also to preparedness measures, we have not yet seen any major outbreaks amongst refugees," said Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees. "The greatest challenge now will be to shield refugees from the economic impacts of the pandemic, which have hit the most marginalized, including refugees, the hardest. We need to focus on livelihoods and access to work for refugees to avoid them being pushed further into poverty. Only this will allow refugee families to survive."
The event started with a panel discussion with Grandi, ICVA Executive Director Ignacio Packer and Najeeba Wazefadost, an Afghan refugee in Australia, co-founder or the Global Independent Refugee Women Leaders and the Executive Director of Asia Pacific Network of Refugees.
Further sessions focused on three key sub-themes around protection challenges, resilience and inclusion of refugees and climate action, particularly how to identify entry points for partnership and community engagement.
"The pandemic has highlighted the need for us to work in close partnership so that we are able to stay and deliver," said Packer. "For NGOs, the ability to stay and deliver rests on four key enablers: field presence and operational footprint, adaptation, access to timely, predictable, flexible funding as well as the ability to procure and deliver the most needed items".
Wazefadost warned that refugee women and girls are particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, including debt bondage, modern slavery and human trafficking, as they are often excluded from social safety nets.
"What we have learned during this pandemic is the importance of prioritizing the needs of women and girls, we need to look for allies," said Wazefadost. "In responding to COVID19, we need to create a firewall between immigration policies and health measures so that everyone can access health care without fear of detention, deportation or stigmatization."
Participants also acknowledged the need to develop innovative new ways of working that better leverage the capabilities of refugee-led organisations and more deeply integrates them with the refugee response.
The consultations also included cultural events, such as UNHCR's first digital 3 D refugee art exhibition, "A world where kindness defeats Covid-19", which featured 35 winning drawings created by young artists aged from 12-25 that participated in UNHCR's Youth with Refugees Art Contest.
Sudanese refugee and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Emi Mahmoud, read out her poem called The Seven Stages of Grief During Coronavirus. With powerful words, Emi described how refugees felt and struggled during the pandemic, "Some things that haven't been stopped by COVID-19: wars, domestic violence, famine, pestilence, displacement -- our will to live."
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