An emergency on top of an emergency

| January 20, 2021 | 0 Comments
Doctors administer COVID tests on refugee women at a shelter in Ecuador, one of Latin America’s most COVID-affected countries. (Photo: UNHCR)

Doctors administer COVID tests on refugee women at a shelter in Ecuador, one of Latin America’s most COVID-affected countries. (Photo: UNHCR)

I returned to Canada less than a year ago, after many years working for the United Nations abroad. At the time, I joked with my new colleagues that wherever I go, disaster seems to follow. Little did we know that a few months later, the world would be facing an unprecedented global health emergency.
COVID-19 will forever mark 2020 as a year like no other. For me and my colleagues, it was also a particularly important year for other reasons. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, marked its 70th anniversary. On Dec. 14, 1950, the agency was given its mandate to protect people displaced from their homes by war, conflict and persecution.
Seven decades later, forced displacement continues to grow, despite calls for a global ceasefire that resonated across the world in March as the world began battling COVID-19. In fact, our most recent report shows that more than 80 million people are now displaced, a number that has doubled since 2010. Resurging violence in Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Yemen all drove new displacements, along with complex and evolving situations in Venezuela, Central America and, most recently, Ethiopia.
It’s been a tough year for everyone. For refugees, however, COVID-19 is an emergency on top of an emergency. Millions already faced strenuous living conditions and limited access to essential health services and sanitation systems. COVID-19 has exacerbated these vulnerabilities, exposing them to even greater hardships and a heightened risk of poverty, homelessness and exploitation. Though the pandemic knows no borders, it is key to recognize the disproportionate impacts COVID-19 has had on the world’s most at-risk individuals.

Staying “home” isn’t an option
First, is health. We have been told time and again, including in Canada, that the best way to curb transmission and save lives is by staying at home. Unfortunately, sheltering in place is not an option for people forced to flee their homes.
In a gang-ravaged neighbourhood in El Salvador, for example, staying home was not an option for Óscar. In March, the 44-year-old happened to witness a crime, and the armed gang responsible for it went after him, threatening his family. He knew that, despite the pandemic, he had no choice but to flee for his life. He told UNHCR: “I thought about going to the police, but they [the gang members] told us that if I did, they would kill my family,” said Óscar, who has an adult son who is still in El Salvador.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, UNHCR has been working with governments and other partners to help minimize transmission rates among refugees. In Lebanon, for example, UNHCR funded expansions and additional ICU beds in several hospitals and provided ventilators and other advanced equipment, as well as medicine stocks. In Akkar, northern Lebanon, UNHCR supported a fully-equipped isolation centre to receive individuals from all nationalities who need to self-isolate and do not have the capacity to do so at home.
Yet, inclusion remains a big issue. Refugees are often excluded from national health systems, facing challenges such as a lack of inclusive policies, language barriers or prohibitive costs. This is particularly the case in low- and middle-income countries — where more than 85 per cent of the world’s refugees live, and where the majority of new internal displacement due to conflict is taking place. Often these countries are already struggling to meet the health needs of their own populations.
Loss of livelihoods is another area of major concern.
With many refugees relying on the informal economy, they were also among the first to suffer the economic impacts of lockdowns with little or no access to any support. In fact, UNHCR monitoring shows us that 74 per cent of refugees can only meet half or less of their basic needs.
Mariney, a Congolese refugee in Uganda, lost all of her income because of COVID-19 lockdowns. With no safety net, the 44-year-old single mother of three was surviving on food handouts from a community church when she told UNHCR that “the biggest worry for refugees is hunger. If we go out, we risk contracting coronavirus. If we stay home, hunger will kill us. This is worse than a war.”
With the World Bank predicting the worst recession since the Second World War, our fear is that things will get far worse before they get better.
Confinement and lockdowns mixed with increasing poverty have also unleashed a wave of violence against refugee and displaced women and girls.
A network of UN agencies and NGOs providing protection to people affected by humanitarian crises reported increases in gender-based violence in at least 27 countries. For example, in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, 42 per cent of Rohingya male and female refugees surveyed in a humanitarian assessment said it had become more unsafe for women and girls “inside the house” since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis. Respondents described an increase, in particular, of intimate partner violence resulting from tensions over containment measures, movement restrictions and financial difficulties.
Gender-based violence affecting Venezuelan refugees and migrants in Colombia has also increased by 40 per cent over the first three quarters of the year, compared to the same period last year.
And of course, young refugees have not been spared.

The virus has reversed gains
COVID-19 has had a significant impact on refugee education and even reversed important gains that had been made. Refugee children are now facing yet another obstacle to an education already torn apart by conflict and displacement, and 3.7 million are currently out of school. The Malala Fund estimates that half of refugee girls in secondary education risk never returning, even when classrooms reopen. This, in turn, increases their risk of child marriage, early pregnancy and other forms of exploitation or abuse.
This has been a worry for some time in the four primary schools in Jewi Camp, Ethiopia, where fewer girls go to school because of early marriage in the camp and sometimes a family situation that forces girls to stay at home to prepare food to sell in the market or run tea stalls. The schools are now deploying parent-teacher association teams into the community to persuade parents, especially mothers, to send their children to school.
I could go on, but I want to conclude with a little hope on the horizon. Despite these and other grave challenges caused or exacerbated by COVID-19, the pandemic has also shown us that solidarity and generosity continue to beat in hearts across the world.
Countless examples of refugees and displaced persons working on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response have emerged. For example, 24-year-old Iraqi refugee nurse Moheyman Alkhatavi is applying his skills to help fight the virus in Iran, or Saidul Karim, who spends his days moving from shelter to shelter along the muddy paths in Kutupalong Refugee Settlement in Bangladesh to refer suspected COVID-19 patients for testing and care. In Canada, we have numerous examples of refugees stepping up to assist in long-term care homes, leading the government to create a new pathway to permanent residency in recognition of their work.
Across the world, we have seen inspiring stories of neighbours helping each other and supporting refugee families despite their own hardships. In northern Lebanon, 35-year-old shopkeeper Kawkab Mustafa continues to extend credit to her customers, despite facing an increasingly dire financial situation and health issues herself. In South Africa, a community of Somali refugees has stood together with its neighbours to assist those struggling the most during the COVID-19 pandemic, seeing it as a way to repay the generosity they themselves were shown.
Canadians have continued to welcome refugees into their communities despite the difficulties of COVID-19, and Canada continues to lead the way in refugee resettlement globally.
UNHCR was supposed to exist for three years in the aftermath of the Second World War, to help the millions of Europeans who fled or lost their homes.
Our continued existence is not a cause for celebration, but our work is more pressing and complex than ever. Much has changed since 1950, but even in the midst of an emergency on top of an emergency, our mission has not.

Rema Jamous Imseis is the representative of UNHCR in Canada.

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Category: Diplomatica

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Rema Jamous Imseis is the representative of UNHCR in Canada.

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