Increase In Forced Displacement Raises Pandemic Fears About Vulnerable Refugee Populations
A refugee filling an application at the UNHCR registration center in Tripoli, Lebanon.

As the world hit a sober new milestone of reporting more than 150,000 new COVID-19 cases in one day, another slow burning crisis has also reached new heights.

There are now nearly 80 million refugees around the world, making more than 1% of the world’s population forcibly displaced by the end of 2019, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) annual report, released just days ahead of World Refugee Day on 20 June.

The number of new refugees shot up by nearly 10 million people from 2018 to 2019, compared to a 3 million rise in the number of refugees between 2017 to 2018. 

“We reported a dramatic increase in displacement figures last year compared to the year before,” said UNHCR Commissioner Filippo Grandi, speaking at the World Health Organization’s regular Friday COVID-19 press briefing. “This means that the opportunities for solving force displacement are receding. We are living in a world in which making peace is very difficult.”

“Refugees are particularly at risk of COVID-19 because they often have limited access to adequate shelter water, nutrition, sanitation and health services,” said WHO director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

The pandemic is exposing those forcibly displaced to even “more hardship,” added the DG, noting that in some places like Turkey, up to 70% of refugees have lost their jobs since the pandemic began.

“Contrary to the political rhetoric, almost 85% of refugees live in low- and middle- income countries,” said Grandi. “This means [they are in] countries that not only have fragile institutions and fragile economies, but also often fragile health systems.

“And remember, the majority of refugees and displaced are actually not in refugee camps, they live in communities. And those communities in some places have already been devastated by the pandemic.”

In those communities, it’s “extremely” important that the same services for refugees are being provided for the hosting community, said Grandi and WHO Health Emergencies Director Mike Ryan.

“We can’t create differentials because another risk that a pandemic might generate is further stigmatization of people that are not mainstream in that [host] community,” said Grandi.

Image Credits: Mohamed Azakir / World Bank.