Briefing by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees
Expected Council Action
In June, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi will brief the Council via videoconference (VTC). He is expected to describe the situation of refugees in several country-specific cases on the Council’s agenda. In light of recent developments, he is also expected to address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on refugee populations and discuss the work his agency is doing in this context. The briefing will take place under the agenda item “Briefing by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees”, which allows for a general briefing by the High Commissioner without tying it to a specific situation on the Council agenda.
Background and Key Recent Developments
Since the 1990s, the Security Council has increasingly considered the links between the situation of refugees and threats to international peace and security. Over the years, the Council was briefed several times by the High Commissioner for Refugees about specific country situations on the Council’s agenda, such as briefings by then-High Commissioner António Guterres on the Sahel in 2012 under the agenda item “Peace and Security in Africa” and on Syria in December 2015.
The Council received its first briefing under the agenda item “Briefing by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees” on 10 November 2000 from then-High Commissioner Sadako Ogata, who provided updates on the refugee crises in several countries on the Council’s agenda and made recommendations on how peace operations and peacebuilding initiatives can further support the work of aid agencies in addressing issues relating to refugees. Since then, the Council has received four briefings under this agenda item, with the most recent one taking place under the April 2019 German presidency. At that meeting, Grandi described worrying trends in the global refugee crisis—which has reached unprecedented dimensions in the last few years—such as the stigmatisation of refugees, and outlined three areas in which the Council plays a critical role: solving peace and security crises, supporting countries hosting refugees, and working to remove obstacles to solutions to forced displacement, including through the safe and voluntary return of refugees to their home countries.
On 24 June 2019, Council members held an Arria-formula meeting on refugees, displaced persons and returnees. Joining Grandi in this briefing were Permanent Representative of the AU to the UN Fatima K. Mohammed; Special Adviser of the Secretary-General for African Affairs Bience Gawanas; and ICRC Vice-President Gilles Carbonnier. The meeting was organised by the three African members of the Security Council at the time (Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea and South Africa) to mark the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Organisation of African Unity Convention Governing Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa and the tenth anniversary of the adoption of the AU Convention for the Protection and Assistance for Internally Displaced Persons in Africa.
The June briefing can serve as a platform for Grandi to describe the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on refugee populations around the world with a view to highlight ways in which the Council can help alleviate the complex problems arising from the global spread of the virus and perhaps support the work of the UN refugee agency, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). At the time of writing, 134 refugee-hosting countries had reported local transmissions of COVID-19. There are currently 71 million refugees and forcibly displaced people around the world, the majority of whom are fleeing conflict situations.
According to UNHCR, there had been no major COVID-19 outbreaks among refugees and internally displaced people as of 26 May. However, UNHCR continues to warn about the heightened vulnerabilities these groups face and the potentially disastrous consequences if the virus spreads within the usually densely populated refugee camps. Since 80 percent of refugees are hosted in low- and middle-income countries, they face an added risk during an outbreak of COVID-19 because of an often-limited access to water, sanitation systems and health facilities. In addition, they are more vulnerable to secondary consequences of the pandemic, particularly the socio-economic impacts of steps taken to mitigate the disease. In many country situations, refugees rely on fragile sources of income, usually in the unofficial economy, which has been severely curtailed because of the restrictions imposed in many countries. They are therefore at jeopardy of losing their livelihood and of facing severe hunger, along with their susceptibility to increased protection risks, including sexual and gender-based violence, especially against women and girls.
Since March, Security Council briefings on country-specific situations have included updates on the impact of the pandemic on refugee populations. In a 14 May closed VTC meeting on the situation in Myanmar, Special Envoy Christine Schraner Burgener also addressed the situation of Rohingya refugees. It appears that concerns were raised at the meeting about the situation of Rohingya refugees who have been stranded at sea because of the reluctance of Bangladesh and neighbouring Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries to take them in during the pandemic. During a 20 May open VTC meeting on Venezuela, Under‑Secretary‑General for Political Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo also described in her briefing the impact of COVID-19 on the more than five million Venezuelan refugees who have mostly taken refuge in neighbouring countries. Many Venezuelan refugees, having lost their livelihoods in their host countries, have decided to return to their home country. According to UNHCR data, approximately 600 people are estimated to be coming back into Venezuela through the Colombia-Venezuela border each day, creating additional needs for humanitarian agencies to provide shelter and medical supplies to returnees.
UNHCR has launched a funding appeal aimed at mitigating the effects of the pandemic, seeking $745 million to help countries hosting large refugee populations. At the time of writing, 32 percent of the appeal ($235 million) had been funded.
Key Issues and Options
A key issue for the Council is how to adopt a broad-reaching approach to address the possible humanitarian and security impacts on refugees that could emerge from the pandemic. One possible theme for the High Commissioner’s briefing might be the importance of Council action at an early stage to address emerging problems and prevent such crises. Grandi might also emphasise that durable solutions to refugee crises ultimately lie in the political rather than humanitarian domain, highlighting the importance of an early Council role.
Council members may seek information from Grandi on how UNHCR’s work in supporting refugees is affected by COVID-related restrictions on movement, and on additional support that UNHCR and host countries may need to meet the new demands.
At the time of writing, the Council was negotiating a draft resolution on the COVID-19 pandemic that includes an expression of support for the Secretary-General’s 23 March appeal for a global ceasefire. The aim of the appeal is to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance and focus resources on fighting the global pandemic. If such a product is adopted, it may include language about the impact of the pandemic on refugees.
The Council is generally united in its support for UNHCR and the work of the High Commissioner. It appears that Council members agree on the need to hear updates about refugees in country-specific situations and to include language on issues relating to refugees in Council products. Draft language on refugees does not appear to have been a sticking-point in the ongoing negotiations over a resolution calling for a global ceasefire in light of the spread of COVID-19.
However, it appears that political sensitivities in the Council over issues such as Syria and Myanmar have also affected Council deliberations on the issue of refugee returns to these countries. While all Council members agree on the need to ensure a safe and voluntary return of refugees, there is a divergence of views on whether such conditions have already been met in these countries. During the April 2019 briefing by the High Commissioner, Russia suggested that some refugees from Syria are prevented from returning to their homes and that international assistance, which is focused on support for refugee camps outside of Syria, is “maintaining the status quo”. Other Council members, notably the P3, have voiced concerns about possible reprisals against returnees, while expressing the view that conditions have not been met in Syria for the safe return of refugees.
UN DOCUMENTS ON BRIEFINGS BY THE HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR REFUGEES
|Security Council Meeting Records|
|9 April 2019S/PV.8504||This was a briefing by the High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi.|
|2 November 2017S/PV.8083||This was a briefing by the High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi.|
|8 January 2009S/PV.6062||This was a briefing by High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres.|
|10 November 2000S/PV.4219||This was a briefing by High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata.|