By – Lirar Pulikkalakath
The international community and the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), the UN refugee agency, in particular, mark World Refugee Day 2020 against a backdrop of the COVID 19 pandemic. When the whole world is in the midst of dramatic social and economic change, protecting the displaced people is a highly challenging task. In such an unpredictable world order, “EVERYONE CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE….. EVERY ACTION COUNTS”, the heart of UNHCR’s World Refugee Day 2020 campaign is very significant.
Unattended issues of uprooted and unwanted people are one of the results of dramatic and rapid changes happening across the world. International displacement crisis is such an issue to be addressed by the global community urgently. International days are occasions meant to raise awareness among the communities about global problems, to remember and commemorate past humanitarian crises and mobilise resources to address them. When some days are ‘celebrated’ many occasions are ‘observed’ to show solidarity with the struggling people. Anyhow each international day offers many local, national and international actors the opportunity to educate the public on international issues, to invite political will to solve challenges to humanity, and to organise activities related to the theme of the day. On the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, the UN General Assembly decided in its 81st plenary meeting held on 4th December 2000 that, as from 2001, 20th June will be celebrated as World Refugee Day to focus on ways to improve the lives of displaced people.
According to the latest report published by the UNHCR 18 June 2020 titled Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2019, as a result of conflict, persecution, foreign intervention, human rights violations and violence, etc. at least 79.5 million people have been displaced globally. When the majority (45.7 million) of the forced migrants belong to the category of IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons), nearly 26 million or one-third of them are refugees. Among the registered refugees, 20.4million are under UNHCR’s mandate while 5.6million Palestine refugees live under UNRWA (The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East). Importantly, an estimated 30 – 34 million of the nearly 80 million global displaced persons are children below 18 years of age. The displaced people worldwide also include 14.2 million asylum-seekers and millions of stateless people. The report reveals that nearly 70 per cent of the total refugees are from just five countries; the Syrian Arab Republic, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar. Regarding the geographic characteristic of the global refugee crisis, it analyses that developing countries have hosted 85 per cent of the total world’s refugees and 73 per cent of them live in neighboring countries. Further, the least developed countries provide asylum to more than one-fourth of the total displaced.
Life of Refugees amid COVID 19 Pandemic
Though a large section of the international community has been touched by the COVID-19 pandemic in some way, its impacts have been unequal. The migrant community in general and the displaced in particular are some of the most vulnerable and disproportionately affected people by the pandemic. While I was writing the article, globally, the confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been nearing to 10 million, according to WHO (World Health Organisation). The case of nearly 80 million displace people- IDPs, asylum seekers, stateless, and refugees deserve much attention as they are uprooted from their home country and unwanted in the host country. Most of the refugees, including women, elderly, disabled and children, live in refugee camps and informal housing arrangements on streets. When a large number of the forced migrants or displaced are in detention centres, other hundreds of thousands are still in search of a safe haven. Most of them are already suffering from a lack of poor essential services. They do not have access to clean water, healthcare, sanitation, and more importantly lacking a legal/ secure status. The COVID 19 pandemic has revealed that refugees are the worst-hit section of society due to social distancing, lockdown, restricted movement and such measures introduced globally to prevent the pandemic.
Refugees are already vulnerable and struggling due to limited economic and employment opportunity, overcrowded living conditions and inability to pay rent. The COVID 19 situation added only fuel to the existing pathetic conditions and plight. It has led to the loss of income, lack of food, isolation from local people, poor access to health care and harassment from police. The COVID 19 pandemic made the 26 million refugees at highest risk when the majority of them live in developing countries. Marcus Skinner, a Senior Policy Advisor for the International Rescue Committee, said: “Refugees living in overcrowded camps lack access to adequate healthcare, shelter, water and sanitation, posing major challenges in efforts to protect them from the disease”. One of the critical challenges the refugees face in the camps is difficulty in physical distancing. How it is possible when the majority of the refugees live in overcrowded camps or similar dense urban settings. There are also high risks of contamination and spread of diseases while having to queue for drinking water, food and sanitation. It brings them a kind of insecurity of high possibility to be affected by COVID, may be stigmatised as ‘disease carriers’ thanks to xenophobia, and the possibility of abuse or arrest at any time. Altogether compel them to depend entirely on humanitarian aid. However, that too is not predictable amid the threat of COVID 19 and subsequent restrictive policies are taken by different governments.
The issue of COVID-19 context demonstrates how such unexpected pandemic can adversely affect vulnerable people like refugees. Many countries introduced new and additional restrictive measures to control the immigration flow of displaced people led to a halt or pause in the asylum seekers, and countries started closing borders. When the situation worsens day by day due to the rapid spread of COVID 19, many refugees feel cut off from support networks, isolated, hopeless, and fearful for the future. Though international institutions like UNHCR and other human rights agencies are trying their best to assist refugees by building isolation and treatment centres for refugees, they need urgent international financial support and political intervention with the principles of global burden- and responsibility-sharing.
The COVID-19 pandemic and its adverse impact on refugees make the theme of World Refugee Day 2020 “Every Action Counts” is very significant. It also argues that everyone can make a difference and contribute to change the world to a more equal and inclusive world where no one is left behind. So the responsibility of the international community in sharing the burden of the global refugee crisis has to be debated while 85 per cent of the total refugees in the world have been accommodated by developing countries with no adequate infrastructure or financial capacity. A pandemic has tested our strength and highlighted systematic inequalities. It has also connected us in new ways and renewed our motivation to act for equality. In the midst of COVID, “no matter who you are or where you come from, pandemic or not; every one of us can make a difference. Every action counts.”
The views and opinions expressed by the writer are personal and do not necessarily reflect the official position of VOM.
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