With a record 79.5 million people around the world living in forced exile, the Security Council must overcome its differences and make real progress to resolve long-running conflicts and clear the way for refugees and internally displaced persons to return home, the Head of the United Nations refugee agency told the 15-member organ during a 18 June videoconference meeting*.
Filippo Grandi issued the appeal — two days before World Refugee Day — as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) published its annual Global Trends on Forced Displacement report. Among other details, it stated that the number of displaced people nearly doubled from 2010 to 2019. It also reported that the number of displaced rose by 8.7 million in 2019 alone.
Underscoring the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on humanitarian efforts, the High Commissioner acknowledged the complexity of international politics. “But we expect from you — the world expects from you — unity, at least where humanity is most wounded and trampled,” he said. “We expect from you — the world expects from you — decisive, clear and unanimous messages to end conflicts and pursue avenues for peace.” Resolving forced displacement is not only a moral or humanitarian imperative, but also deals with issues at the heart of the Council’s mandate to maintain international peace and security, he added.
The growing number of forced displacements worldwide shows what happens when multilateralism fails to live up to its promise, leaving refugees, internally displaced persons and host countries as pawns in “grotesque international squabbles”, he said. COVID-19 is a risk multiplier, interacting with other drivers of crises such as poor governance and climate change. If the consequences for the world’s most marginalized people are neglected, “they will come back and affect us all”.
Most worrying is perhaps the situation in the Sahel, where rising displacement numbers mirror the impact of armed conflict, climate change, food insecurity and, with COVID-19, the closure of all schools, he said. “Frankly, we need a much more strategic application of development aid that tackles the root causes (and) takes into account the growing displacement element of the crisis.” The pandemic is also prompting a resurgence of population flows not only between countries in the Sahel, but also towards the global North, with departures across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe from Libya picking up again. He urged the Council to aim for a permanent ceasefire in Libya and to redouble efforts to end the trafficking and arbitrary detention of refugees and migrants in the North African country.
“COVID-19 has stopped many things, but it doesn’t seem to have stopped war,” he said. Since the pandemic began, and since the Secretary-General called on 23 March for a global ceasefire, there have been new internal displacements in 19 countries. Meanwhile, the number of internally displaced persons worldwide grew by 700,000 in just two months. Eighty-five per cent of refugees are in poor or middle-income countries that are hard-pressed to accommodate them. Refugees are included in most countries’ health response to the coronavirus, but in some places, stigmatization, scapegoating and xenophobia vis-à-vis refugees are rising. Many of the 5 million people who fled Venezuela, facing economic uncertainty in neighbouring countries, are opting to return despite the ongoing political crisis, he said.
He went on to say that most Syrian refugees are telling UNHCR that they want to return, but that they remain concerned about security, human rights and access to work and education. The international community must keep working with the Government of Syria to build confidence for returnees, he said, urging Council members to “please depoliticize humanitarian issues”. He voiced concern about the impact of the economic downturn triggered by the pandemic on the ability of Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and other Middle East countries to host millions of Syrian refugees. He added that he is also worried about a growing sense of desperation among the nearly 1 million Rohingya currently in Bangladesh. They feel that solutions that would enable their return to Myanmar are not forthcoming. Concrete proposals have been put to the Government of Myanmar, but the Council must stay focused on the issues, as small steps can lead to solutions, he stated.
In the ensuing discussion, speakers paid tribute to UNHCR staff on the ground, particularly considering the COVID-19 pandemic, while also underscoring the plight of refugees and internally displaced persons in hotspots ranging from Syria and the Sahel to Myanmar and Venezuela.
The representative of the United States said that UNHCR faces a daunting task as it addresses multiple crises while also responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. But with sufficient burden-sharing from donors, refugee-hosting countries and the private sector, it can tackle the challenge. UNHCR is a key partner whose work complements United States humanitarian policy and assistance, she said, noting that its Government is the refugee agency’s largest single donor, providing nearly $1.7 billion in fiscal year 2019. UNHCR has pursued “serious and comprehensive reform efforts” in recent years and the United States expects those changes to make the agency more agile, accountable and innovative. Acknowledging UNHCR’s response to COVID-19, she said that with the virus unlikely to peak in many regions for many weeks or months to come, contingency plans must be put into place to support and protect the most vulnerable. She went on to ask the High Commissioner what her country and the Council can do to ensure principled, safe, voluntary, dignified and informed refugee returns.
China’s representative said that the refugee issue is a global challenge that requires a global response. Commitments made under the Global Compact on refugees must be implemented and the role of multilateral institutions such as the United Nations and UNHCR strengthened. Those with the capacity and responsibility to do so should scale up their support for the developing countries that host 85 per cent of the world’s refugees. The root causes of displacement must also be addressed, he said, noting that most refugees are the result of conflict situations on the Council’s agenda. Moreover, many civilians became refugees when their home countries were dragged into conflicts due to the use of force unauthorized by the Council. Such violations of the Charter of the United Nations should not happen again. He went on to say that in dealing with refugee matters, the international community and UNHCR must remain objective and neutral and avoid double standards and politicization. That is key for the credibility of the international refugee protection mechanism, which should not be used as a tool for interfering in the internal affairs of other countries, he added.
Indonesia’s representative agreed that humanitarian assistance must reach refugees in a safe and dignified manner, even as countries work to mitigate the impact of COVID-19. Voicing concern about the “perfect storm” created by refugees’ poor living conditions and limited access to health care, he said policies limiting movement — while necessary — can exacerbate such challenges. He welcomed the memorandum of understanding between UNHCR, the United Nations Development Programme and the Government of Myanmar to improve conditions in Rakhine State, as well as collaboration between UNHCR and other agencies to support Palestine refugees. Despite not being a party to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, Indonesia has taken a comprehensive, victims-centred approach to irregular migration through its Bali Process. He voiced his hope that countries will support refugees in the spirit of equitable burden-sharing and shared responsibility, based on national capacity.
Belgium’s delegate said the sobering numbers of displaced persons around the world “have become the barometer of our collective inability to prevent, contain and resolve conflicts”. Each one represents a human being whose rights must be fully respected, he said, noting that respect for humanitarian law from all conflict parties would reduce forced displacement and help manage internal displacement. Spotlighting the dramatic recent increase in displacement in the Sahel region — as well as increasing reports of violence — he drew attention to the compounding effects of COVID-19 on that already dire situation. “These elements […] are often an alarm signal or an early warning,” he stressed, asking the Council to analyse them as such to be able to prevent or react to conflict. Better and more purposeful cooperation is also needed between the United Nations, the African Union and the European Union, he added.
South Africa’s delegate, noting that COVID-19 has underscored the need for a more inclusive and equitable world, joined others in voicing concern about the risks the pandemic poses for already-vulnerable refugees. “The role of States in pursuing political solutions and preventive diplomacy remains paramount,” he said, spotlighting conflict as among the main drivers of displacement. Drawing attention to the situation in Africa v which hosts more than one-third of the world’s displaced people v he said the African Union has redoubled its efforts to address that phenomenon through the Common Africa Position on Humanitarian Effectiveness. Member countries also support the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. Additionally, South Africa made concrete pledges at the December 2019 Global Refugee Forum which will enhance protection for refugees at the national level and has made strides alongside the African Union towards preventing and ending conflicts on the continent.
The United Kingdom’s representative said that building and sustaining peace are key to resolving displacement. The COVID-19 crisis is therefore an opportunity for the Council to redouble its conflict prevention and peacebuilding efforts in support of the Secretary-General’s vision of “building back better”. In Syria, the failure to reach a political solution — or even a ceasefire — is preventing large-scale refugee returns, but the United Kingdom agrees with the United Nations that conditions now are not right for this. UNHCR must continue to uphold the principles and thresholds that must be met before facilitating returns. Turning to the situation in Myanmar, he said that more progress is needed to create conditions that would allow the repatriation of Rohingya refugees. That remains important and urgent, given the increasing desperation in the camps in Cox’s Bazaar, the threat posed by COVID-19 and the perilous boat journeys that refugees are still making in the Bay of Bengal, facilitated by ruthless traffickers.
The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines said protecting the most vulnerable from COVID-19 requires integrated, comprehensive plans that unify and mobilize the entire United Nations system to tackle the root causes and symptoms of insecurity. UNHCR is essential to the Organization’s efforts to promote lasting peace and security and safeguard the rights of refugees, internally displaced persons and those rendered stateless by forces over which they have little control. Describing the promotion of their political inclusion, social welfare and economic participation as a moral obligation enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, she added that the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of all States — including those affected by conflict — must be fully respected. She spotlighted the interconnected nature of today’s challenges, noting that all States must have the tools to confront them and to build peaceful, prosperous, sustainable and inclusive societies.
The Dominican Republic’s representative said that no-one was prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic, “and we are not prepared for its still-unknown long-term consequences”. Mitigating the impact of restrictions on movement on the most vulnerable, including refugees, is now more important than ever. He emphasized that half the world’s refugees are children whose future is compromised like never before. Women refugees are also highly vulnerable to all forms of violence. He went on to say that the Dominican Republic is very familiar with the exodus of more than 4 million people from Venezuela. The conditions that forced them to flee are sadly still present, compounded by the pandemic, he said, adding that their situation in host countries, resulting from measures to control the spread of the virus, is impacting them greatly and directly.
Estonia’s representative underscored the precarious situation of displaced persons in Ukraine, with women, children and elderly people in rural areas particularly vulnerable. “It is deplorable that due to the Russian aggression in Ukraine, that has lasted already 6 years, there are more than 1.4 million IDPs [internally displaced persons] across the country.” Humanitarian agencies recently sought $47 million, in addition to $158 million sought in January, to assist 2 million conflict-affected persons in eastern Ukraine and their fight to overcome the pandemic. He also noted Estonia’s support for UNHCR programmes in that area. He underscored the need for digital solutions to improve the international community’s ability to respond to crises. The COVID-19 pandemic has proven that digitalization can help secure business continuity and service delivery during a global health crises. Given the pandemic, there is an urgent need to identify and reach vulnerable people from a distance, during lockdowns and travel restrictions, while at the same time guaranteeing their security and privacy, he added.
Viet Nam’s representative said that the generosity of host countries should not be taken for granted. The international community must do more to share the burden. He underscored the importance of implementing the Global Compact on refugees, adding that efforts leading to their successful return and reintegration must be people-centred, non-politicized and in accordance with the principles of respect for sovereignty of countries concerned and non-interference in internal affairs. He also emphasized the need to ensure transparency in granting refugee status for asylum seekers, and for making a clear distinction between refugees and those who migrate for economic reasons.
The Russian Federation’s representative said that assistance to refugees, asylum seekers and stateless persons is an essential component of maintaining international peace, security and stability. Without a doubt, UNHCR’s work has never been easy, but this year, with COVID-19, has brought on an unprecedented level of difficulty. He welcomed UNHCR's focus on close cooperation with States aimed at including refugees in national COVID-19 programmes. He also shared concerns about the situation in the Middle East and Africa where camps and reception centres face an acute shortage of medicines and personal protective equipment. In many instances, the capacity of host countries to respond to the pandemic is impeded by unilateral illegal sanctions. “Humanitarian assistance to refugees and IDPs, as well as to the host countries, should not be subject to politization.” He went on to say that “despite barefaced efforts to set obstacles”, significant progress is being made in facilitating the voluntary return of Syrian refugees. He added that several thousand people who had left Venezuela are returning due to xenophobic attitudes in neighbouring countries instigated by the pandemic. Around 90 per cent of COVID-19 cases in Venezuela involve returnees who had been exposed to the virus in receiving countries where they were then denied health care, he stated.
Germany’s representative commended UNHCR staff for protecting the most vulnerable in the face of COVID-19 lockdowns and often at their own risk. Germany has provided €300 million in additional funding to the Global Humanitarian Response Plan and UNHCR’s COVID-19 appeal, giving the agency the flexibility needed to adapt its operations and respond to changing needs. Stressing that an effective response to the pandemic and respecting international refugee law are not mutually exclusive, he called on all Member States to ensure and protect the rights of refugees in their preventive measures, to safeguard humanitarian spaces and grant exemptions for humanitarian workers and goods. More equitable burden-sharing is also needed to support refugees and those who host them, he said, welcoming progress made towards implementing the pledges made at the Global Refugee Forum. He also expressed concern about the situation of refugees and migrants in Libya, particularly in detention centres; welcomed the Government of Bangladesh’s willingness to continue hosting Rohingya refugees; and called on Syria to provide credible and verifiable security guarantees that would allow for the voluntary, safe and dignified return of refugees.
The representative of France, Council President for June, speaking in his national capacity, said that hosting refugees is not only an international obligation, but also a moral duty. “Only a global and collective approach will allow to improve the overall care of refugees, lead to a better management of migration flows, and fight effectively against migrant smuggling and human trafficking.” For France, implementation of the Global Compact on refugees is a priority and all States must step up their efforts. He emphasized that refugees and displaced persons are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. They must therefore be a part of national and international strategies to combat the pandemic. For its part, he added, the Council must create the conditions for lasting solutions to crisis situations without compromising the ability of refugees to return voluntarily — and in safety and dignity — to their places of origin.
Also participating were representatives of Niger and Tunisia.
* Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.