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UN chief underlines need to protect refugees and migrants in COVID-19 pandemic

Refugees and migrants gather at the Pazarkule border crossing near Edirne, Turkey, hoping to travel into Greece.
Refugees and migrants gather at the Pazarkule border crossing near Edirne, Turkey, hoping to travel into Greece.

UN chief underlines need to protect refugees and migrants in COVID-19 pandemic

Migrants and Refugees

The UN Secretary-General has expressed hope that the COVID-19 crisis will lead to a rethinking of how the world supports refugees, migrants and internally displaced people.

António Guterres on Wednesday launched the latest UN policy briefing on the pandemic, which reminds countries of their obligation to protect people on the move, who number more than 70 million globally, according to data from the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.

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“No country can fight the pandemic or manage migration alone. But together, we can contain the spread of the virus, buffer its impact on the most vulnerable and recover better for the benefit of all”, he said in a video message accompanying the launch.

Three crises in one

While the pandemic continues to shatter lives and livelihoods across the globe, it is the most vulnerable who are being hit the hardest.

This population includes refugees, internally displaced people and migrants in precarious situations, who are facing three crises rolled into one, according to the Secretary-General.

COVID-19 is at first a health crisis, and people on the move can be exposed to the virus in crowded conditions where health care, water and sanitation are often hard to find, and physical distancing is “an impossible luxury”.

They are also confronting a socio-economic crisis, especially those working in the informal sector who have no access to protection schemes.

“In addition, the loss of income from COVID-19 is likely to lead to a colossal $109 billion drop in remittances”, said Mr. Guterres.

“That’s the equivalent of nearly three-quarters of all official development assistance that is no longer being sent back home to the 800 million people who depend on it.”

Migrants cross from Venezuela into Cucuta, Colombia.
© UNICEF/Santiago Arcos
Migrants cross from Venezuela into Cucuta, Colombia.

The final crisis surrounds protection, with more than 150 countries imposing border restrictions to contain the spread of the virus. The majority make no exceptions for people seeking asylum.

“At the same time, fear of COVID-19 has led to skyrocketing xenophobia, racism and stigmatization”, he added.

“And the already precarious situation of women and girls is ever more dire, as they face higher risks of exposure to gender-based violence, abuse and exploitation.”

Inclusivity, dignity, safety

For the UN Secretary-General, the pandemic provides an opportunity to “reimagine human mobility”.

However, that will mean taking four key understandings into consideration, starting with acknowledging that exclusion is expensive.

“An inclusive public health and socio-economic response will help suppress the virus, restart our economies and advance the Sustainable Development Goals”, Mr. Guterres explained.

The UN chief also called for upholding human dignity in the face of the crisis, suggesting that lessons can be learned from those countries which have implemented travel restrictions and border controls while respecting international principles on refugee protection.

He also repeated a core message of the crisis: no one is safe until everyone is safe, and that medicines to diagnose and treat COVID-19 must be accessible to all people.

Finally, he underlined that “people on the move” are part of the solution, and called for countries to explore pathways that would regularize migration and reduce remittance transaction costs.

“We all have a vested interest to ensure that the responsibility of protecting the world’s refugees is equitably shared and that human mobility remains safe, inclusive, and respects international human rights and refugee law”, said Mr. Guterres.