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For World’s 80 Million Displaced, International Aid ‘Life-Saving’, Head of Refugee Agency Tells Third Committee, as COVID-19 Presents Biggest Crisis in Its History

Third Committee, General Assembly, United Nations | 3 November 2020

Host Countries Call for Burden-Sharing, Others Spotlight Health Care, Social Protections to Assist Asylum Seekers

International collaboration and a sustained, adequately funded response are needed to ensure the world’s 80 million displaced persons are protected from the COVID‑19 pandemic and its lingering socioeconomic aftermath, Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) today, as delegates discussed tackling ever-proliferating humanitarian crises amid an unprecedented emergency.

Although the pandemic was unlike any the agency had experienced in the seven decades of its existence, it galvanized into action, he said, helping host countries step up their response, by strengthening access to water, sanitation and health, and addressing challenges related to mental health and gender-based violence.  As a result, “major outbreaks have been avoided in refugee settings”, he stressed.  However, many refugees live within communities, rather than camps, where they are additionally impacted by the pandemic of poverty, he said, adding, “This is why we will not relent in strengthening our preparedness.”

While donors have mobilized funds to assist the forcibly displaced, he expressed concern about countries which enforce travel restrictions that block channels for asylum seekers and urged States to not violate their international obligations relating to non-refoulement.  “International assistance is life-saving,” he emphasized.

Hailing the “extraordinary solidarity” that led to an influx of $4.5 billion in donations to the agency this year, he pointed out that such generous humanitarian assistance is outstripped by the escalating number of refugees set in motion by the world’s continuously multiplying conflicts.  He called on the Security Council to redouble its efforts to resolve political crises by reaching consensus on humanitarian issues.  While safe, orderly repatriation is the most desirable option, it can only take place when peace prevails.  He called on States to provide resettlement assistance, as Germany and Canada have done, adding, “I cannot hide my disappointment at the low levels of resettlement.”

In the ensuing dialogue, held virtually, several delegates spoke out to share their experiences with refugee settlement, with some, including from Syria, China and Ethiopia, noting that 85 per cent of the burden of supporting refugees falls upon developing countries.  Others, including the United States representative and the observer for the European Union, pointed out that a disproportionate share of contributions to UNCHR were borne by a limited number of donors, and encouraged the agency to seek out non-traditional sources to overcome its funding gap.

The Third Committee will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Friday, 13 November, to take action on proposals, in person.

Interactive Dialogue — United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

The Committee began its half-day morning session with a presentation by Fillipo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

FILLIPO GRANDI, presenting his report (document A/75/12/Add.1), said the COVID‑19 pandemic demonstrates that challenges of such scale — much like the climate emergency, poverty, inequality and forced displacement — require collaborative efforts to support the most vulnerable.  The magnitude of the present emergency is unlike any UNHCR has faced in seven decades of providing on-the-ground assistance.  Nonetheless, he said, the agency acted quickly, using an innovative approach to help host countries step up their response, including by strengthening access to water, sanitation and health, and by addressing issues related to mental health, stigma, and gender-based violence.  As a result, “major outbreaks have been avoided in refugee settings”, he stressed.

Many refugees live within communities, rather than camps, where they are additionally impacted by the “pandemic of poverty”, he said.  Many are informal workers, whose livelihoods have been thrown into disarray.  This has led to rising demands for assistance, even in countries that have offered refugees sanctuary for decades.  For example, as many as 100,000 Venezuelans have returned after lockdowns destroyed their livelihoods in countries that hosted them.  He expressed concern about the pandemic’s impact on women and girls, as illustrated by increasing reports of gender-based violence, adding that refugee girls cannot return to school without catch-up learning strategies, or water, sanitation and hygiene programmes. 

Turning to humanitarian assistance, he welcomed the prompt response by donors to funding needs specifically for the pandemic.  As much of 62 per cent of UNHCR’s $745 million appeal has already been funded, and more donations will be needed in 2021.  However, “humanitarian assistance alone is not enough,” he stressed.  Stronger social safety net programmes and vaccination campaigns must be undertaken to mitigate the plight of the forcibly displaced and to relieve pressure in societies where they live.  He welcomed the early involvement of the World Bank and the African Development Bank, which was “a core element” in the Global Compact on Refugees, affirmed by the General Assembly in 2018.  The mobilization of these resources is transforming the response to forced displacement, he assured.

At the Global Refugee Forum held in Geneva last December, as many as 1,400 pledges were made, he said.  However, the underlying causes of displacement, including conflict, remain unresolved.  He expressed concern about multiplying conflicts causing people to flee their homes, including in Mozambique, Côte d’Ivoire, Yemen, Nicaragua and the central Sahel, where a “complex” situation led to the displacement of 650,000 people in 2020 alone.  UNHCR is also deeply concerned by the escalating conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, which can displace thousands in a fragile region.

For the 80 million people forced to leave home, international assistance is life-saving, he stressed.   He called on States which tightened freedom of movement during the pandemic to uphold their international obligations and respect the principle of non-refoulement.  While States such as Uganda have found ways to take in refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and at the same time ensure precautionary measures are taken, as many as 67 States have not.  He reiterated UNHCR’s readiness to offer them assistance in tackling the complex challenges posed by mixed flows of refugees and migrants.  Addressing these problems by reducing humanitarian assistance to those undertaking dangerous journeys, including by sea, or by externalizing asylum response, is not appropriate.  Such measures, taken in reaction to xenophobic rhetoric, places refugees in unnecessary danger and threatens the global practice of “dramatically needed asylum”, he stressed.

While safe, voluntary and dignified repatriation is the “most desirable option”, he said it is available only when peace prevails.  He expressed disappointment at the low levels of integration and resettlement in third countries and hoped they would increase.  He welcomed Canada’s asylum policies as exemplary and encouraged other countries to follow its lead.  Highlighting measures taken by UNHCR to promote diversity within the agency, including the launch of a race equity review, he recalled a recent debate held with refugees who responded to the pandemic as doctors and community workers in their host communities, and said their “inspiring” example counters the toxic narrative that often depicts them as a threat and a burden.

In the ensuing dialogue, delegates shared national experiences and posed questions to the High Commissioner.  Many acknowledged the magnitude of the world’s displacement crisis, with several underscoring the importance of burden and responsibility sharing in addressing the needs of refugees and persons of concern.

Among them was the representative of Lebanon, who said her country hosts more than 1 million displaced Syrians, amounting to one third of the population; 88 per cent of them live below the extreme poverty line, compared to 50 per cent in 2019.  Lebanon now hosts the largest number of displaced persons per capita, offering a global public good.  Guided by a human rights-based approach, its health system is available to all, regardless of status or nationality.  But the country needs urgent help.  “Lebanon cannot bear the brunt of the displacement crisis”, she said, pointing to the sharp currency depreciation, the massive fallout from the financial crisis, COVID‑19 and the tragic events around the 4 August blast.

Meanwhile, the representative of Syria encouraged UNHCR to improve its efforts to guarantee the voluntary return of Syrian displaced persons, notably by providing more financial resources and “balanced” attention to Syria’s various regions in its humanitarian activities.  He also urged the agency to work with concerned countries to remove their unilateral coercive measures, warning against politicization of humanitarian aid and the return of refugees.  Syria intends to hold an international conference on refugees on 11 and 12 November, he added. 

Stressing that COVID‑19 has exacerbated the existing vulnerabilities of refugees, the representative of Turkey described the Global Compact on Refugees as an important tool for burden and responsibility sharing.  “Helping refugees is a moral responsibility,” she said.  Two-thirds of the world’s refugees and internally displaced persons live in urban areas and she asked about practical tools that municipalities can put in place, especially during the pandemic. 

Several delegates described efforts to support displaced persons, with the representative of Pakistan stressing that for 40 years, his country has hosted the world’s second-largest concentration of refugees.  Despite limited resources, it has maintained a compassionate approach towards all, even during the pandemic, including by providing equal and unhindered access to public health facilities.

The representative of Myanmar took issue with the report’s reference to 600,000 stateless Muslims and nearly 1 million refugees across the region.  Based on bilateral agreements with Bangladesh, Myanmar is committed to receive verified displaced persons who left the Rakhine State after events in 2016 and 2017.  The Government is providing health care to all communities without discrimination. 

The representative of Bangladesh asked about the status of quick impact projects designed for Rohingyas living in Myanmar, and how they could foster conditions conducive to the return of Rohingyas sheltered in camps in Bangladesh.  Welcoming the development of a joint database for Rohingyas living in Bangladesh, he asked about UNHCR activities in Myanmar to support the verification process, which is an important step for repatriation.

Voicing concern that half the world’s refugees are children, the representative of Azerbaijan said her country hosts one of the world’s largest internally displaced person populations.  “The 30-year-long illegal military occupation of the Nagorno-Karabakh and the adjacent regions of Azerbaijan by Armenia have continued to impede the return of Azerbaijani internally displaced persons to their lands,” she asserted.  Thousands of houses have been destroyed by the Armenian armed forces, many of which belonged to internally displaced persons, while 40,000 people in Azerbaijan have become temporarily displaced by the latest fighting.

The representative of Brazil said more than 264,000 Venezuelans living in his country have access to free health and education, as well as emergency income.  Last December, Brazil granted refugee status on a prima facie basis to Venezuelans, he said, underscoring that the share of international funding directed to the refugee crisis in Latin America is far from proportionate compared to the number of people the region hosts.  He asked Mr. Grandi for an assessment of cash-based interventions as a response to the socioeconomic fallout from the COVID‑19 pandemic.

The representative of Georgia voiced concern over the rising numbers of forcibly displaced persons.  Regarding the safe and dignified return of refugees, she emphasized the important role played by UNHCR in the Geneva International Discussions, which focus in part on the issue of the hundreds of thousands of refugees expelled from the Russian Federation-occupied regions of Georgia.

The representative of the Russian Federation welcomed UNHCR’s measures to tackle the COVID‑19 pandemic, underscoring the importance that access to vaccines be provided to all under UNHCR’s care, particularly in refugee camps.  The international community must not politicize the issue of the voluntary return of Syrian refugees, he added.

The representative of South Sudan said his country hosts over 1.3 million refugees, 87 per cent of whom live outside the camps and primarily rely on Government services provided in response to the COVID‑19 health crisis.

Several other delegates addressed the issue of funding, with the representative of the United States underlining that her country is not diverting funding from ongoing humanitarian needs.  She asked about UNHCR’s work with Governments to include persons of concern in national COVID‑19 preparedness and response plans.  Encouraging donors to keep and expand their pre-COVID‑19 commitments, she said the United States provides $9 billion in humanitarian assistance, including $1.7 billion to UNHCR.  She called on all to share this burden, welcoming UNHCR’s bolstered risk management and oversight system.

Along similar lines, an observer for the European Union expressed regret that contributions to UNHCR come from a limited number of donors and advocated for an expansion towards non-traditional donors, while the representative of Qatar said her country’s contribution to the agency has reached $24 million in 2020, ranking it as 20th among international donors and the largest among Arab countries.

Looking ahead, the representative of Norway, on behalf of the Nordic countries, asked about UNHCR’s outlook for 2021. Similarly, the representative of the Republic of Korea asked the High Commissioner about ways to encourage all stakeholders to ensure enough space for humanitarian activities and to reduce the risks faced by humanitarian workers on the frontlines of displacement.

Also speaking were representatives of Italy, Romania, Qatar, Morocco, Iran, Germany, Mali, El Salvador, Switzerland, Cameroon (on behalf of the African Group), Mexico, Iran, Canada, Ethiopia, Malaysia, China, Thailand, Mali, Afghanistan, Algeria and Venezuela.

Mr. GRANDI, responding, said UNHCR has developed a methodology that it is ready to share with States interested in reconciling pandemic restrictions with channels allowing those seeking asylum to present their claims.  It is coordinating its efforts with those of other organizations providing sanitation, health, and shelter, under the technical leadership of the World Health Organization.  On resettlement, he said more countries must increase their figures, following Canada and Germany’s examples.  He agreed with the comment by the representative of the United States, who said that more countries should also step up their financial contributions to address international humanitarian needs.  He underscored his concern about the unceasing escalation of hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and welcomed efforts by those trying to obtain ceasefires, including the Minsk Group. 

To questions on the biggest post-pandemic challenge, he said he is concerned about the crisis of poverty, and interlinked threats to livelihood and access to education.  The destitution of the displaced and the financial challenges of host countries have the overall effect of limiting education access and increasing sexual and gender-based violence, as well as the threat of exploitation by traffickers and other criminals, he said, stressing:  “We must deploy all tools to counter it.”  To delegates calling for the burdens of host countries to be recognized, he said that throughout his tenure he has stressed that the biggest contribution to the global good must be attributed to host countries, adding that the Global Compact on Refugees is built on this premise.  Moreover, as many as 1,400 pledges were made at the recently held Global Refugee Forum.  Of these, 400 have been implemented or are in the course of being implemented.  While the pandemic has inevitably caused delays, UNHCR is keeping close tabs on the rest of the pledges, which will be publicly updated on a dashboard.

He reiterated his support for voluntary repatriation, adding that he can work with countries of origin to foster conditions for refugees’ safe, voluntary and sustainable return, only if lasting peace prevails.  While refugees have been included in pandemic response in many countries, this needs to last, he said, adding that they must be given vaccinations, when available, and must also be included in the social safety net, “which is more difficult, financially and politically”.  This concern must be addressed by financial institutions, including the World Bank, and UNHCR has been in contact with them in this regard.  “The outlook for 2021 is not very positive, as the pandemic will have a lasting economic and social impact,” he said, adding that the stateless, refugees, and even returnees will require additional support.  In addition, conflicts seem to continuously multiply, leading to ever-escalating numbers of refugees.  In this regard, he called on the Security Council to redouble its efforts to reach consensus on humanitarian issues, which he has not seen it struggle to do in 30 years.  He said he counted on Norway, which will assume its seat on the Council in 2021, and hoped all States will find consensus when discussing the omnibus resolution on UNHCR’s work.  “Don’t remind me to be apolitical,” he said. “You manifest your apolitical character to approve it unanimously.”