What's In Blue

Briefing by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees

Tomorrow (18 June), Security Council members will hold an open videoconference (VTC) meeting, followed by a closed VTC session, with UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi. The meeting 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. Council members are expected to deliver statements following Grandi’s briefing. Members are encouraged to ask questions of the High Commissioner during their interventions to which he will be able to respond.

Grandi is expected to describe the situation of refugees in several country-specific cases on the Council’s agenda.  He is also expected to address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on refugee populations and discuss the work of his agency in this context, with a view to highlight the potential role of the Council in addressing the complex problems faced by refugees due to the global spread of the virus. Possible country situations that Grandi may reference are Libya, Myanmar, Syria and Venezuela, among others.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is also expected to launch its annual report on global trends in forced displacement tomorrow. In his briefing,  Grandi is likely to provide an overview of these trends, while noting the unprecedented rise in refugee flows in the past decade due to the increasingly complex nature of security and humanitarian crises globally. He may also provide an assessment on the current and possible future effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on these global trends.

On 3 June, the Secretary-General issued a policy brief outlining the effects of COVID-19 on displaced populations  (refugees, internally displaced people and migrants). There are currently 71 million refugees, internally displaced people and asylum seekers around the world, the majority of whom are fleeing conflict situations. According to the brief, people on the move are vulnerable to three often interlocking risks posed by the pandemic: the primary health crisis caused by the virus, the secondary consequences of the pandemic, and the protection risks posed to people on the move because of border closures and restrictions on movement to curb the spread of the pandemic.

The virus poses significant direct health risks to displaced populations. To date, 134 refugee-hosting countries have reported local transmissions of COVID-19. Although there have been no major COVID-19 outbreaks among refugees and internally displaced people at the time of writing, the policy brief notes the heightened risk of exposure to the virus posed to these groups, who often live or work in crowded conditions and lack access to adequate water, sanitation systems and health facilities.

Among the secondary consequences of the pandemic are the socio-economic impacts of the steps taken to mitigate the disease. Refugees are at a heightened risk of loss of livelihoods because they rely on fragile sources of income, usually in the unofficial economy, which has been severely curtailed because of the restrictions imposed in many countries.

Restrictions on movement in response to COVID-19 have also heightened protection risks facing displaced persons.  Asylum seekers may be unable to cross borders to flee precarious circumstances, and refugees may be forced to return to dangerous situations in their respective countries of origin. In addition, the pandemic has exacerbated existing trends of xenophobia, racism and stigmatisation, while causing an increase in attacks against refugees and migrants. The report warns that these circumstances may further entrench restrictions on international movement and the rights of people on the move in the long-term.

At tomorrow’s briefing, Grandi may outline possible courses of action to address the long-term drivers of refugee crises globally, as well as the immediate and secondary impacts of the global pandemic. In this regard, he may describe measures to prevent the acceleration of forced displacement, such as the expansion of humanitarian and socio-economic responses to conflict—including through targeted humanitarian and development aid and the inclusion of vulnerable groups in COVID-19 health and socio-economic response plans. He may also note the need to reinforce protection to asylum seekers in the context of regional security operations and areas of emerging insecurity. Grandi might further emphasise that durable solutions to refugee crises ultimately lie in the political rather than humanitarian domain, highlighting the importance of an early Council role in helping to build and sustain peace and in working to remove obstacles to solutions to forced displacement, including through the safe and voluntary return of refugees to their home countries.

Grandi may highlight the increased importance of implementing the Global Compact on Refugees in light of current circumstances. The compact, which was affirmed by the General Assembly on 17 December 2018, provides guidance for states and international organisations about how to support refugees and meet their needs in ways that benefit them and their host communities. He could outline the ways in which the Global Compact can assist in addressing the growing risks to refugees during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, the principle of burden and responsibility sharing included in the compact echoes the Secretary-General’s call for global solidarity in response to the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19. Relevant guidance in that regard can include measures to support low and- middle- income refugee-hosting countries and the broad participation of different actors in a given country—including the government, civil society and refugees themselves—in taking steps to alleviate the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic.

Members of the Council are likely to express their support for UNHCR and the work of the High Commissioner. At the meeting, 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. As has been the case in the previous briefing by the High Commissioner, which took place on 9 April 2019, Council members might use the opportunity to ask Grandi for further information on country-specific situations, such as Syria and Venezuela.

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