The role of the Global Compact on Refugees in the international response to the COVID-19 pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has consequences for everyone, and responses to it should reach the most vulnerable. Asylum-seekers, refugees, people who are internally displaced (IDPs) or stateless, and other people on the move face risks to their health, protection, and resilience and challenges in accessing their rights. The pandemic is not only challenging global health systems, but also testing our common humanity. The worst may be yet to come, especially in the developing world and countries weakened by conflict and political instability. When considering the possible wider impacts of an outbreak of infection in host communities, support to a refugee camp or settlement and their hosts, or to refugees in urban settings, is not only a duty, but also in everyone’s interest. No one can be truly safe until everyone is safe. The Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) provides arrangements that support these communities both in this response and in preparation for the future. This note sets out ways that the GCR and the related commitments made at the Global Refugee Forum (GRF) can support refugees and other people of concern, as well as their host countries and communities, in the response to the pandemic.
Burden and responsibility sharing
The Secretary-General’s call for shared responsibility and global solidarity in response to the socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 resonates with the GCR principle of burden and responsibility sharing. The global challenges posed by the pandemic require international cooperation, through concrete, practical immediate and future measures to support low- and middle-income host countries whose health and social protection systems are already strained. It is also vital to keep regular programming on track in the current situation, so that funds are not diverted from critical protection interventions or other humanitarian and development programming to pay for short-term projects.
Burden and responsibility sharing requires the broadened and deepened engagement of all actors through a multi-stakeholder and partnership approach (GCR, section 3.2). The most effective response to the pandemic will be one where every actor plays their part. UNHCR promotes a whole-of-government and whole-of-society response to complement efforts in the health and other sectors, in line with the GCR (paras 20-21, 33-44). The deepened engagement of refugees themselves, civil society, development actors, the private sector, INGOs, NNGOs, community-led organizations, and faith-based groups is key to mitigating risks and localizing the response in all sectors across the humanitarian-development-peace nexus.
The GCR reaffirms the importance of the international refugee regime. International refugee law continues to apply, even – and especially – in times like these when countries may need adapt their asylum systems to admit those in need of protection while protecting the health of their own populations. “Adaptability” is one of the aspects of a quality asylum system recognized in the GCR (para 62). The GCR further notes that support through the Asylum Capacity Support Group (ACSG) can be activated at the request of a concerned State to assist its national authorities to strengthen or adapt aspects of their asylum systems (ibid). The GCR also provides for the international community to support and adapt ‘protection-sensitive arrangements for health assessments of new arrivals’ (para 57) and the identification and response to individuals with specific needs (sec 1.5), such as women and girls at risk of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), or people who are elderly, have disabilities or medical needs, or are in detention).
The protection of people is central to the response. In the context of COVID-19, the UN Secretary-General affirmed that people and their rights need to be at front and centre. By respecting human rights, we will build better responses for the emergency today and solutions for recovery in the longer term. This requires assessing needs and developing responses through an Age, Gender, and Diversity (AGD) lens to ensure that no one is left behind. For example, the GCR promotes gender equality, empowerment, and meaningful engagement of refugee women and girls and an end to SGBV. As the pandemic has gendered impacts, including an increased risk of SGBV, women need to be at the center of the response and SGBV services strengthened in both national and civil society programmes.
Inclusion in national systems
In some contexts, the economic strain, xenophobia, and discrimination resulting from the pandemic threaten to slow the momentum towards the inclusion of refugees, IDPs, stateless people in health and social protection systems and economies envisioned in the GCR. Yet in others, governments are stepping up inclusion efforts, in recognition that the response to a public health crisis can only be effective if it reaches everyone. Inclusion is vital for health, social protection, welfare, and solutions (e.g. education and planning for return to school). It also helps to contain the virus and mitigate its wider impacts. As the virus can affect people of any nationality or status, broad-based inclusion efforts are the only way to contain its spread effectively and protect the health of refugees and host communities. Several governments have already implemented policies in recognition of this.
This requires political will, financing, planning, monitoring, and accountability to strengthen the capacity of systems to cope and ensure continued progress towards inclusion. UNHCR is engaged with Ministries of Health, other government entities, and WHO on the inclusion efforts in regional, national, and local preparedness and response plans, and supports local authorities in preparing responses for their entire communities. Development actors, closely working with line ministries, also play an important role in supporting inclusion in the national and local responses. Civil society actors, particularly local and national actors, have been filling crucial gaps in ground-level responses and are keen to see inclusion become more firmly embedded in official policy approaches. This will help to relieve strain on their limited resources and enable them to support holistic, long-term solutions.
One of the primary objectives of the GCR is to facilitate access to durable solutions, including by planning for solutions from the outset of refugee situations (para 85). This priority remains paramount, even within the COVID-19 pandemic context. Alongside preparedness and emergency response, resettlement processes need to continue, and regular resettlement departures need to resume as soon as conditions allow. The international community needs to continue to support countries of origin to create conditions for voluntary repatriation and offer support to States who seek to take steps to integrate refugees locally. The pledges made at the GRF and the three Support Platforms (IGAD, MIRPS, SSAR) launched at GRF can help sustain the momentum for the achievement of solutions.
Support for the response
Prioritized follow-up on GRF pledges for health, WASH, social protection, education and livelihoods
Although the COVID-19 pandemic could delay the implementation of some pledges made at the GRF, it can accelerate others. Social safety nets inclusive of refugees, stateless persons and other persons in need of protection should be expanded where possible. This can be supported through leveraging partnerships and matching financial, technical, and material pledges to support pledges made by host countries at the GRF towards health and WASH, economic inclusion, and social protection. A sample list of such pledges is provided in the annex to this Note.
The GCR promotes strengthening inclusive health systems to avoid the need for parallel systems to cater to the needs of refugees. Parallel humanitarian health systems may have a significant role to play in acute emergencies and/or when national systems are under increased strain. In the medium to longer-term, the GCR envisions planning for socio-economic impact mitigation measures from the onset of a crisis. This can help to preserve trust, integration, and economic opportunities for refugees and people who are internally displaced or stateless. It will be key to support and invest in the implementation of pledges made by host countries at the GRF towards the inclusion of refugees in national programmes and development planning, education, livelihoods development, and access to public services.
The economic impact of COVID-19 and lockdowns has led to loss of livelihoods for refugees. Most cannot afford to be unemployed, do not have savings, cannot work from home, and must either expose themselves to risk of contracting COVID-19 or fall further into poverty. Minimizing the risk of losing livelihoods requires the inclusion of refugees in national public works, value chain development, and extension of grants/credits to businesses, as well as the provision of cash transfers and short-term jobs. The GRF pledges present an opportunity to support such efforts.
States are adapting their asylum systems to the realities of COVID-19 in order to continue to identify and protect persons in need of international protection and prevent the creation of unmanageable case backlogs. Some States are introducing measures for the automatic or remote renewal of asylum-seeker and refugee documentation, remote registration and interviews, and prioritization of certain cases. UNHCR has been encouraging States to take such measures and has been providing advice and support on these issues.
UNHCR could use the ACSG mechanism to make further support available to States wishing to adapt their systems. The ACSG mechanism foresees coordinating support to increase the adaptability of asylum systems to prepare for unexpected or novel circumstances. Lessons learned and good practices developed in the context of COVID-19 could be brought to the ACSG mechanism and expanded in the future.
Pledges and good practices related to supporting emergency response efforts, as well as for protection services and systems for people with specific needs (such as women and girls, children and youth, and people who are at risk of SGBV, people with disabilities, older persons, people with medical needs, and those who are in detention as per GCR para 60) could be supported and scaled in the context of the COVID-19 response. Pledges promoting gender equality or the meaningful participation of refugees also could be supported and accelerated.
Human rights mechanisms and systems could be engaged to ensure the protection of refugees and people who are internally displaced or stateless in the current context. For example, the Inter-American Human Rights System has advocated for the respect of the rights of refugees, migrants and displaced persons in a variety of statements, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights adopted resolution 77/20 in relation to COVID-19. Likewise, various UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies have commented on the urgency of respecting the human right of refugees, IDPs, and other vulnerable people on the move in any State responses to COVID-19. This includes the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT), the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), and the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
Multi-stakeholder and partnership approach
Involving all actors and agreeing on mechanisms for support to the most vulnerable are crucial in a united response to the pandemic. The GCR and GRF have enabled the broadened and deepened partnerships so important to responding to this crisis both now and over the longer term – from development actors to UN agencies, International Organizations, the private sector, faith-based actors, NGOs, academics, refugees, civil society and refugee-led organizations, cities, sports organizations, and others. Faith-based groups in particular often provide a social safety net for the most vulnerable. UNHCR has simplified its internal mechanisms to facilitate the response of NGOs and civil society actors.
The GCR aims to ease the pressures on host countries by strengthening the resilience of refugees and their host communities, particularly through greater development cooperation. The design and financing of inclusive social protection programmes are key to emergency responses. Many host countries have included refugees in their COVID-19 health response plans and healthcare systems and are encouraged to include them in their socio-economic recovery plans, as well. Such approaches by low and middle-income countries require the support and engagement of development actors in both the immediate response to the public health emergency and over the longer term to meet basic needs. Development actors, including multilateral development banks, bilateral development actors, and UN development agencies, are approving emergency financing and developing targeted programmes to support governments to meet the primary health and secondary socio-economic impacts of COVID-19:
- The World Bank Group (WBG) approved a Fast Track Facility (FTF) of USD 14 billion, which is already being disbursed, including to countries hosting large numbers of refugees. With the recent capital increase for IBRD and the 19th IDA replenishment, the WBG, including IFC and MIGA, anticipate deploying up to USD 160 billion over the next 15 months and USD 330 to 350 billion until the end of June 2023. The WBG strongly encourages the inclusion of refugees and IDPs in all efforts and encourages all critical stakeholders, including UNHCR, to participate in the country planning processes underpinning the health response.
- The Global Partnership for Education, Education Cannot Wait, and WBG committed to work together to increase and improve financial support and technical assistance to governments and country-level partners to coordinate and align the planning, financing, and delivery of education assistance to refugees and host communities. Accelerating implementation of this pledge during the pandemic could: (i) lead to a more holistic approach to funding education as a significantly affected sector; (ii) support efforts towards the inclusion refugees into national emergency sector plans; and (iii) inspire development partners to include this in their funding modalities.
- The African Development Bank announced a USD 10 billion response facility and a three-year USD 3 billion social bond aimed at assisting its regional member countries in responding to the pandemic.
- The Asian Development Bank prepared a USD 20 billion package to aid countries in Asia, stating that support will be provided in collaboration with IOs, including UN agencies. UNHCR advocated with both the AfDB and ADB to include people who are forcibly displaced and stateless in their programmes, with a focus on responding to the health and socio-economic impacts of the pandemic. The AfDB expressed an interest in the inclusion of refugees and IDPs, for example in the Sahel region, in its COVID-19 emergency interventions.
- The European Union developed a package of EUR 15.6 billion to help the most vulnerable countries in Africa and the Middle East, but also Asia and Latin America. It will focus on the people most at risk, including migrants, refugees, IDPs, and their host communities (see video conference of 8 April 2020).
- The German Development Cooperation released a comprehensive Emergency COVID-19 Support Programme with a focus on refugee and conflict situations. The Programme aims to address primary health and secondary socio-economic needs. Focus geographies are countries affected by the Syria crisis, northern Africa, the Sahel, Yemen and Southern Ethiopia. UNHCR is named as a key partner for collaboration.
- The Agence Française de Développement (AFD) launched the “COVID-19 – Health in Common” initiative amounting to EUR1.2 billion, targeting 19 countries mainly in Africa and the Middle East, starting in the summer of 2020. Of the total amount, EUR150 million will be in the form of donations and EUR1 billion in the form of loans to address short-term challenges facing partner countries and development banks.
The UN system is rallying to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, with three main areas of focus: the health response led by WHO, the Global Humanitarian Response Plan (GHRP) led by OCHA, and the recently-released global framework for the immediate socio-economic response. It was developed by the members of the UNSDG, under the co-lead of DCO and UNDP, with inputs from RCs. It follows the UN Secretary-General’s call in March for shared responsibility and global solidarity. It also highlights the needs of refugees, IDPs, and stateless people and the need to look at the response holistically, balance health and WASH needs with interventions in protection, shelter, and community engagement, and focus on the most vulnerable to ensure that no one is left behind. The framework will guide the efforts of the UN Country Teams.
UNHCR remains responsible for the refugee matters within the COVID-19 response, working closely with OCHA, WHO, and the Humanitarian Coordinators/Resident Coordinators (HC/RCs). UNHCR Representatives can work with RCs to facilitate country-level implementation of the global UN common pledge delivered at the GRF, to advocate for refugees and returnees to have access to national services in countries hosting refugees and countries of origin and transit. Now is a critical and strategic moment for UNHCR Representatives and UN RCs to engage proactively on the following:
- Inclusion in national response plans and health and social protection systems. This would be in line with the UN Secretary-General’s remarks at the GRF and the UN common pledge, recognizes the criticality of inclusion to broader public health, and supports job and income security and social inclusion for the most affected.
- Building social cohesion and countering xenophobia and scapegoating, learning from the Ebola crisis.
- Meaningful participation of refugees in the response;
- Following the DCO-led streamlined funding approach to maximize opportunities for the COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund described below.
A dedicated UN Secretary-General’s COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund was set up to catalyse joint action by UN Country Teams to implement the framework. Anchored in the 2030 Agenda, the fund will seek to support those countries least able to cope with – and recover from – the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic. The goal is to mobilize USD 1 billion dollars to support its first nine months of operation, and USD 2 billion dollars overall – leveraging several USD billion more for investing in countries. The first call for proposals was issued on 15 April, with the first funds disbursed since 1 May 2020. All UN agencies are asked to pursue simultaneously the humanitarian appeals and the new instruments for a multi-dimensional, integrated response. UNHCR is actively engaged in these processes.
In addition to the socio-economic response plan, the Global Humanitarian COVID-19 response plan includes, as one of its three priorities, advocacy for the rights and provision of assistance to migrants, refugees, IDPs, and their host communities. Within this strategic priority, there is a specific focus on the most vulnerable groups, including women and girls and people with mental or physical disabilities.
As part of broader fundraising efforts for the urgent appeal, UNHCR and its National Association Partners reached out to partners and prospects, including companies and foundations that participated in the GRF and/or made pledges. Opportunities include a “gift in-kind” opportunity package (with a list of the main items needed by UNHCR operations for COVID-19 emergency prevention and response), a cash appeal, and a toolkit for how companies and foundations can help. The toolkit includes donating and fundraising for refugees, using communication channels for advocacy, and engaging employees and stakeholders.
For example, H&M – which joined the TENT Partnership for Refugees at the GRF and pledged to create 2,000 jobs for refugees by 2025 – opened its social media channels to UNHCR to share important messages with its millions of followers around the world. Microsoft – which made an education pledge at the GRF – set up a campaign on Benevity (a giving platform) to raise awareness and ask for donations for UNHCR’s response, which it will match. In Ecuador, Corporacion Favorita (a supporter of the GRF via Fundela Fundacion) donated 2,000 food kits for vulnerable families. In Colombia, Oro Molida Coffee provided USD 12,000 in support of Venezuelan refugees and migrants in Antioquia region. UNHCR’s Private Sector Partnership Service (PSP) is also exploring opportunities for in-kind donations of health supplies, including from companies that participated in the GRF. Lastly, conversations are ongoing with platforms/networks such as the International Chamber of Commerce and World Economic Forum.
The private sector at large, especially in industries relevant to WASH and health, can be mobilized to amplify key messages, consider and provide innovative solutions, bolster health and WASH systems in affected countries, and support programmes that have taken on a new relevance. Private sector partners who made connected education pledges at GRF could consider how to support home-learning during the school closures related to COVID-19. These measures should be carried out in consideration of the dramatic impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the activity and prospects of many of the businesses and philanthropic foundations that made pledges at the GRF.
In partnership with the Mayor’s Migration Council (MMC), a Live Resource Guide for Municipal Migrant and Refugee Sensitive COVID-19 Responses is online. The guide embeds GCR principles; contains resources on city, city networks, and global responses; provides concrete examples of actions that cities can take to serve refugees and migrants during the COVID-19 crisis; and includes a checklist for city policy actions. UNHCR is prioritizing support for policy and technical guidance for umbrella city networks to ensure wider outreach to cities in the current context.
Refugees are contributing to the response to the pandemic, and support for their efforts in protection and outreach – especially for the most vulnerable in their communities – could be pursued. Several States in Europe have appealed for refugee health professionals to join national responses, and many are already contributing. Refugee and migrant health workers are also supporting the national health responses to COVID-19 in Peru, Mexico, Argentina, and Chile. UNHCR encourages the recognition of qualified workers, and there is a strong interest by both public and private health providers, such as Grupo Breca (a Peruvian holding company including la Clínica Internacional), to recruit refugee doctors, nurses, and medical technicians for their COVID-19 response.
The sports world is playing an important role in the response. Refugee athletes on the International Olympic Committee scholarship programme are producing social media content encouraging the public to stay fit at home and sharing messages of hope and solidarity. Professional footballers Alphonso Davies and Asmir Begovic have engaged in media and fundraising to highlight the challenges that the world’s refugees face during the pandemic. Sports partners, such as the Football Club Social Alliance and Coaches Across Continents, have adapted their programmes, using online tools and new approaches to provide structured activities for refugee children and youth.
The GCR provides for the establishment of situation-specific Support Platforms, which are designed to help concretize burden and responsibility sharing (GCR, III.A. 2.2) through the engagement of committed States and other stakeholders in support of host country leadership. UNHCR and partner States may consider how to leverage the three Support Platforms (IGAD, MIRPS, SSAR) launched at GRF, albeit in the very early stages of their operationalization. For example, they may consider dedicated meetings on the regional approach, inclusion in preparedness and response plans, longer-term socio-economic impacts and supports required, or issuing a statement of support at the regional level.
Three-Year Strategy (2019-2021) on Resettlement and Complementary Pathways
The three-year strategy remains a vital instrument, now supported through a multi-stakeholder Global Action Plan. Work on securing resettlement and access to complementary pathways for refugees continues on all levels in the face of the challenges and constraints presented by COVID-19. UNHCR remains committed to work with States and partners in both resettlement and host countries to ensure resettlement remains a vital protection tool. Although there is a temporary pause on resettlement departures, a limited number of departures have been possible for refugees facing urgent protection risks. UNHCR’s resettlement programming continues nonetheless: operations in the MENA region referred 1,200 persons in April and aim to keep referring between 1,200 to 1,500 refugees per month to resettlement States; several operations in East & Horn of Africa and Great Lakes region are piloting remote processing modalities; and work has commenced on developing an advocacy strategy to maintain and grow support to meet the goals of the Three-Year Strategy on Resettlement and Complementary Pathways.
Complementary pathways, such as humanitarian admission programmes, family reunification, and education opportunities, are highlighted in the GCR (para 95) and can still play an important role in combining emergency response, protection, and solutions. UNHCR continues to engage all stakeholders in developing and integrating complementary pathways for admission into refugee responses, as exemplified by ongoing consultations within the context of the ATCR, which is taking place as a series of virtual meetings.
Despite challenges, the joint UNHCR-IOM Sustainable Resettlement and Complementary Pathways Initiative (CRISP) continues to make progress. The CRISP website (resettle.org) was launched on 19 May 2020, and the global mapping of opportunities to grow resettlement and advance complementary pathways remains on track to be completed in 2020. If stakeholders are willing to think creatively, it is possible that the pursuit and attainment of third country solutions will be more innovative and responsive in the future.
Communications and Advocacy
Based on feedback received from States and partners, UNHCR communications (appeals and public statements) and the UN-wide communications (appeals and the global messages conveyed to the crisis management team and IASC) could systematically include punctual, sensible linkages with GCR principles and practices to highlight the GCR’s relevance to the current situation. Networks and constituencies of NGOs, development partners, the MDG Coordination Platform, and the private sector could also engage in strategic and joint advocacy.
The GCR Digital Platform highlights good practices and lessons learned related to the application of the GCR, and features GRF pledges and good practices of relevance to the COVID-19 response, such as the Global Fund pledge that committed to “ensuring that national strategic plans and proposals cover refugees needs” and health- and WASH-related as well as other good practices. Good practices also can be amplified in UNHCR and partners’ strategic communications. The GCR Digital Platform also includes links to other UNHCR communications and webpages related to COVID-19 such as the Operational Portal.