On the eve of World Refuge Day, the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights released a bleak report on the situation of people in displacement. More than one per cent of the world population, a total of 80 million people, is now displaced.
Since the beginning of the year, protracted conflicts have intensified around the world, tensions simmered in the region, and a deluge of information about the novel coronavirus has overtaken news feeds, leaving the general public largely inured to calamity. But the new data from the UN is more than bad news affecting others in faraway lands. It is a sign of collective failure to care for those most vulnerable, even as they reel under multiple crises.
A total of 100 million people fled for their lives in the past decade, seeking refuge either inside safer areas of their own countries or abroad. But 10 years later, an overwhelming majority has remained in exile, as conflict continues at home and the international community fails to resettle them elsewhere.
Two thirds of all refugees are in long-term displacement. Afghanistan is a case in point. For more than five decades, conflicts have ravaged the country, leaving many of its people displaced and unable to return home. Syrians and Libyans face a similar fate, as war has been a fact of life in their home countries for the past decade. Instead of abating, conflict there has intensified in the past few months as the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage. There are now fourth generation Palestinians who cannot return to their homeland.
The international community must come together and exert pressure on warring parties to come to a political solution. It is the only means for displaced people to one day, be able to go back home, and for those unable to return to live a dignified life. Yet today, 80 per cent of the world’s displaced live in countries ravaged by “acute food insecurity and malnutrition” according to the UN. They must be resettled to a third country while they wait for the situation to improve at home.
This means that in 2020, most refugees have been living in the same difficult situation for a protracted period of time. And their prospect of being resettled or returning home diminishes by the year. In the 1990’s, 1.5 million refugees went back home annually.
But in the past decade, that number has nearly been divided by four, dwindling down to a mere 385,000 returnees. More people who fled from conflict and persecution are now likely to get stuck abroad suffering from poverty and food insecurity.
Traditional hurdles such as long waiting times, often years, for refugees to be resettled, are now compounded by restrictions on international movement in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. With countries imposing restrictions on who can enter their borders and airplanes grounded worldwide, refugees are the first to suffer from the setback.
The coronavirus has made life more difficult for refugees in a number of ways. Those trapped in refugee camps are more likely to be exposed to the virus and lack access to treatment should they become infected. And as more funding goes into the medical sector, and the global economy takes a hit from the pandemic, funding is increasingly diverted from aid to dealing with the downturn of the coronavirus crisis. Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, for instance, is $1 billion short of the amount needed to provide assistance to Yemenis. It is high time for the tide to turn. As each nation looks for ways to cope with the economic downturn resulting from a global health crisis within its borders, we must not abandon the world’s most vulnerable.