One of the United Nations’ leading human rights advocates has told Qatar Foundation’s Doha Debates that a “serious human crisis” will develop if countries keep their borders closed to refugees once the global Covid-19 pandemic passes.
Speaking during the latest edition of Doha Debates’ #DearWorld Live online series, Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, also voiced his fears that donations to agencies that support refugees and humanitarian aid to developing countries may start drying up over the coming years, as economies count the cost of the Covid-19 crisis.
The episode was described by Doha Debates correspondent and host Nelufar Hedayat – who was herself a refugee as a child – as an opportunity to “give a voice to a community that is often voiceless”, and also heard from a doctor and two aid workers currently based in refugee camps in Greece and Bangladesh.
“The reaction to the pandemic that we have seen everywhere is the closing of borders,” Grandi said during the #DearWorld Live online conversation, titled Seeking Shelter: Refugees and Coronavirus.
“It is understandable that these measures are in place, because the priority is to stop the pandemic spreading further. What we are telling states is to let these measures be temporary and go back to normal once the pandemic is over. If the restrictions to those seeking asylum and moving to safer places are not lifted, we will have a serious human crisis.
“Let us not allow the right to asylum, and the possibility for refugees to seek refuge from persecution and war, become victims of coronavirus as well. It is possible to keep the door open in a controlled and regulated manner that still safeguards the right of asylum.”
“Often, when you have a big emergency, the first response from the world is very generous, but I am worried about what will happen when the pandemic moves away from richer countries and stops affecting the daily lives of people there,” Grandi warned. 
“That is when it will become more challenging, because donor countries’ budgets will be focused on dealing with the effects of pandemic in their own nation. Another victim may be humanitarian aid, and we will only see the extent of this one or two years down the line. People need to campaign for their governments to keep it intact, because it will be all the more important in the years to come.
“I hope this crisis allows everyone to understand that there is no problem or challenge in the world that only affects a small number of people. The refugee crisis is not something that is far away from us, and Covid-19 has shown that if you don’t address crises together, they can come back to haunt all of us.”
Jamilah Sherally, a doctor working with the Boat Refugee Foundation at the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, said: “While we have not had any confirmed Covid-19 cases in the camp, the effect of coronavirus is still tangible. The number of healthcare workers able to come to the island has decreased substantially, so the level of care we can offer – which was never optimal – is even less now, and that is heartbreaking. 
“Measures like movement restrictions affect general morale and lead to tensions rising. The pandemic has highlighted the plight of refugees which has been present for decades, and, on the ground, the only solutions we can see is decongestion of the camp. 
“What the pandemic is teaching us is that, at the end of the day, we are all vulnerable. I hope that, in two years’ time, we will have a global health system that is more sustainable and more inclusive of the most marginalised and vulnerable members of society, including refugees.”
Speaking to #DearWorld Live from Cox’s Bazar, home to the world’s largest refugee settlement, aid worker Immad Ahmed said Covid-19 has led to vital resources being scaled back, and uncertainty among those living there.
“Messaging about coronavirus is not really contextualised for those in this camp, and internet facilities are limited,” he said. 
“The best way of communicating information in a camp of 840,000 people is via word of mouth, but Covid-19 has made that very difficult.
“The old practices may not work any more, and – as NGOs, development agencies, and aid workers – we have to change the way we work and focus on finding really innovative solutions.”
#DearWorld Live can be watched every Tuesday at 3pm Doha time on Doha Debates’ Twitter feed, Facebook page, and YouTube channel, with each episode focusing on how Covid-19’s impact on our lives and the world.
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