U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi warns the coronavirus pandemic poses unparalleled challenges and threats to refugee protection at a time when conflicts are flaring up in many parts of the world. The high commissioner was speaking at the opening of the agency’s annual executive committee meeting in Geneva.
The conference is opening in the midst of a pandemic that has infected more than 35 million people and killed more than one million. UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi said so far, major outbreaks in large refugee settings have been prevented. But he notes the risk of contagion is huge.
He said everyone must remain vigilant, especially as the pandemic has not stopped wars, pushing the number of forcibly displaced to nearly 80 million. He said the Central Sahel region in Africa is one of the most worrying political and humanitarian crises in the world. But notes there are many others.
He cites new conflict-driven displacements in hot spots such as Mozambique, the recent clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, violence and human rights abuses in Nicaragua, and the situation in Yemen, where the fear of famine now looms large amidst the spread of COVID-19.
“Governments around the world have taken tough measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus, often closing borders. Obviously, some restrictions are needed. But stopping the virus and offering protection is not, must not be a zero-sum equation. Both are possible and lives can be saved,” he said.
Grandi said more than 110 states have found ways to make asylum systems work while taking necessary health precautions. He says the UNHCR has helped countries protect refugees when large influxes occur. For example, he said Uganda, which hosts more than 1.4 million refugees, reopened its borders to allow entry to 3,000 people fleeing deadly armed conflict in DR Congo.
He acknowledges the difficulties facing countries but says closing the door to people fleeing war and persecution is not a solution.
“People will continue to flee unless the root causes of their flight are solved. 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,” he said.
High Commissioner Grandi said the global uncertainty posed by COVID-19 should not deter nations from seeking solutions to forced displacement. On the contrary, he said the pandemic should spur them on to help the most vulnerable in this time of greatest need.
He said most refugees prefer to return home, but some simply cannot and will not. While they await solutions, he said refugees must be provided with educational, job and other opportunities to make the most of their potential in countries of asylum.