Refugees forgotten as countries shut borders to keep Covid out, report claims

The global response to the Covid-19 pandemic fell short in protecting the rights of refugees, a major international report released has warned.

Refugees faced problems as countries closed their borders during the Covid pandemic.
Refugees faced problems as countries closed their borders during the Covid pandemic.

The study, by the United Nations refugee arm UNHCR and a consortium of international organisations, warned that public health measures taken by many countries which resulted in them shutting their borders had left refugees forced to return to situations of danger, in contravention of international law.

It assessed the extent to which refugee rights - from access to asylum, health care and vaccines, to child protection and protection from gender-based violence - were safeguarded during the pandemic.

Many countries restricted international travel, especially in the early days of the pandemic, making it impossible for refugees to leave their home countries, where they were in danger.

The report said the most serious consequences of the pandemic for asylum seekers and refugees were measures taken by dozens of states to deny rights to access territory and seek asylum. Taken to protect public health, they often resulted in forced returns to situations of danger, in contravention of international law.

It found responses were largely inadequate to mitigate rising risks to refugees, from gender-based violence to worsening educational inequalities, child protection issues, rising xenophobia and vaccine scarcity.

“We’ve been urging vigilance ever since the onset of the global health emergency, warning that it would test global commitment to protecting the forcibly displaced,” said UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Gillian Triggs. “This evaluation illustrates the extent of the damage. It shows clear evidence the pandemic was used to justify restrictive measures detrimental to the rights of refugees. More than two years on, some of these troubling policies and practices remain in place.”

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The report found that most countries extended coverage to refugees in national vaccination plans. However, it said that vaccine nationalism has impeded procurement and distribution in low- and middle-income countries, which hosted 84 per cent of refugees in 2021.

‘’The COVID-19 pandemic stretched to breaking point the capacity and willingness of states to live up to their international responsibilities and obligations to refugees,” said the OECD Development Assistance Committee chair, Susanna Moorehead. “DAC donors stepped up during the pandemic, increasing Official Development Assistance to record levels. Despite the additional resources, this timely evaluation shows that we need to work together better, across the unhelpful humanitarian-development divide. Development effectiveness, impact and accountability are needed more than ever in times of global crisis.’’

To prevent and address violations of refugee rights as a result of the pandemic, the report makes six recommendations to governments and other international organisations. These include strengthening preparedness efforts and ensuring continuity of essential protection services and training national authorities and border officials on international refugee law compliance for future pandemics.

However, it praised work around inclusion, international cooperation and sharing responsibility and highlighted the “extraordinary efforts” of local organisations and the international community in supporting refugees and asylum seekers. It also lauded innovations around remote delivery, which enabled the continuation of many critical refugee services despite lockdowns and movement restrictions.

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