The U.N. refugee agency warns of dire global consequences if millions of refugees and other forcibly displaced people fail to receive the support needed to protect them from COVID-19 and prevent the virus from spreading in host communities.
COVID-19 is the agency's most underfunded emergency. It tops the list of the 10 most forgotten refugee crises worldwide which include Iraq, Syria, South Sudan, and several other countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
The U.N. refugee agency reports it has received only one-third of the $924 million it needs for COVID relief. Most refugees live in developing countries with fragile health systems that have difficulty caring for their own people. Unlike the world's wealthier nations, the poorer countries have limited access to life-saving vaccines.
Chief of UNHCR's Public Health Section, Ann Burton, says that until now, most hosting states have been sharing their scant supplies with the refugees.
"However, we have seen that many barriers to vaccine access remain," she said. "UNHCR stands ready to support states to overcome some of these barriers, provided we have the means to do so. … The pandemic hurts forcibly displaced and stateless people in ways that reach far beyond the risk posed by the virus itself. And failure to adequately fund the response only deepens their plight."
UNHCR data show more than 100,000 refugees have been infected with COVID-19, including more than 1,850 deaths. However, Burton says this number is vastly underreported and does not reflect the severity of the pandemic in refugee communities.
She says the economic fallout of the pandemic is having a devastating impact on the lives and livelihoods of refugees. She says they cannot afford to pay rent and provide for other necessities such as food, health care, and education.
"UNHCR calls upon states to include refugees in national social safety nets and on donors to support us, in order to help fill that gap," Burton said. "Our COVID-19 response covers every region and encompasses the whole spectrum of needs — reflecting the wide-reaching ramifications of the pandemic on the lives of those forced to flee."
The UNHCR notes forcibly displaced people constitute 1 percent of the world's population. It warns that failing to integrate them into the global response would be reckless. This, it says, would risk the continued spread of the disease and prolong the pandemic.