Pandemic Borders: Opinion

Is COVID-19 an opportunity to achieve the rights of refugees?

Let’s be sure to seize this opportunity that comes in the guise of a terrible pandemic.

James Milner
09 Feb 2021 - 12:00am
Asylum seekers wait to register and enter the new temporary refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece on 18 September 2020
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Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto/PA Images. All rights reserved
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December 2019 was a time for cautious optimism for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). They were celebrating the results of the first Global Refugee Forum, during which a wide range of states and other actors made pledges to enhance refugee support and share good practices.

Only a year later, on its 70th anniversary, the UNHCR issued a statement saying it was “in no mood to celebrate” given that conditions for refugees were getting markedly worse, not better.

What a difference a year makes.

What changed?

Part of the pessimism was due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In an effort to contain the spread of the virus, states, like Canada, introduced significant border restrictions. The result was a rapid and widespread deterioration of refugee protection standards along with a dramatic reduction in the number of refugees who were able to access solutions, especially through third-country resettlement. In many parts of the world, refugees were also excluded from national health systems, the pivot to online learning, and responses to ease the impact of shuttered economies.

Another part of the pessimism was due to recurring and systemic limitations in the governance of the global refugee regime: those norms and institutions created in the aftermath of World War II to ensure protection for refugees and finding a solution to their plight.

COVID-19 simply amplified the weaknesses that long pre-date the pandemic: the absence of mechanisms to ensure reliable international cooperation, a funding structure that gives disproportionate power to donor states over the states that host refugees, and the privileging of state interests over the needs of refugees.

Yet while the pandemic has highlighted the deep limitations of the refugee regime, it has also highlighted opportunities for an enhanced post-pandemic one.

In his 2020 report, for example, Bob Rae, Special Envoy of the Prime Minister of Canada on Humanitarian and Refugee issues, called for a new approach to refugees that leverages all elements of Canada’s foreign policy to promote protection and find solutions for refugees. This would be a game-changer, but it is a steep hill to climb.

Where to start?

Recent work by partners in the Local Engagement Refugee Research Network (LERRN) makes some encouraging suggestions on where we can start in the long and difficult process of building a more responsive and reliable global refugee regime.

The best place to start is making meaningful refugee participation a reality.

In 2018, the UN General Assembly affirmed the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR). The goal of the GCR is to reinvigorate the kind of international cooperation needed to make the refugee regime work. Critically, one of the innovations of the GCR is the recognition that “responses are most effective when they actively and meaningfully engage those they are intended to protect and assist.”

The significant role of refugee leadership was on display throughout 2020 as they were on the frontlines of responding to the pandemic in their communities. This experience demonstrates the critical role that refugee-led responses continue to play, especially when international actors are limited in their mobility and access.

We now need to move from anecdote to evidence on the factors that enable and constrain refugee-led responses. Tangible steps are also needed to ensure that refugees play a meaningful, substantive and sustained role at all levels in the planning, implementation and evaluation of policy and practice.

A potential model to follow is Canada, who made history in 2019 by including a Refugee Advisor, Mustafa Alio, in its delegation to the Global Refugee Forum. In June 2020, Canada made a standing commitment to include refugees in its delegations to meetings of the international refugee system and encouraged other states to do the same.

If ever there was a moment to recognize and reinforce the need for collective and inclusive action to address issues of shared concern, that time is now

Given the centrality of states in the decision-making structures of the global refugee regime, meaningful refugee participation within state delegations could help ensure that its outcomes are better informed by the daily realities of displacement and seen as more legitimate in the eyes of refugees.

The answer is local

Just as the regime needs to address the asymmetries of power that have historically excluded refugees, it must also deliver on commitments in the Grand Bargain to support and empower local actors.

For nearly two decades, we have known that the structures and approaches of international humanitarian responses tend to erode local capacity, while local actors remain best placed to navigate the everyday politics of refugee responses.

In fact, the combination of refugee perspectives and local actor expertise can, as argued by Asylum Access, create meaningful opportunities for change.

This was clearly on display during the onset of the pandemic as local actors demonstrated the ability to navigate the challenges of closed borders, exclusionary policies, and the disproportionate impact of shuttered economies on refugees forced to survive on the margins of societies.

While desirable, localization is neither easy nor uncontested. It goes well beyond directing additional resources to national non-governmental organizations to deliver services.

The results of collaborative research in Kenya and Tanzania, for example, illustrate the range of interests and factors that need to be overcome to address the power imbalances between local and international actors. In Kenya, localization has led to better training for humanitarian workers and an increase in the number of local staff working with international NGOs and sharing their nuanced understanding of local contexts.

But this did not translate into a transfer of power and decision making, as international NGOs remain the key partners of UNHCR, with national NGOs squarely on the periphery. The relationship between international and national NGOs remains profoundly imbalanced, and a missed opportunity to ensure that the expertise and experience of local NGOs are part of a collective response.

Localization means transferring the power to set agendas and make decisions from the exclusive domain of large, international humanitarian actors to include national and local organizations, many of whom have been on the frontlines of humanitarian responses for decades.

It is only through such a shift that the knowledge and expertise of local actors can fully contribute to better protection and solutions, especially in light of very complex and nuanced local and national political realities.

There is also a need to address the imbalance in refugee research, and to encourage the localization of knowledge production.

Better solutions will come from amplifying the perspectives of knowledge producers who work closest to the phenomenon of forced displacement, especially that 85% of the world’s refugees are in the low- and middle-income countries in the global South.

A rare opportunity

But meaningful refugee participation and the localization of research, policy and practice alone cannot address the limitations that have long constrained the global refugee regime. The current regime contains deep flaws: cooperation is discretionary, not reliable; its core institution, the UNHCR, has a non-political mandate, while the dynamics of displacement are deeply political; and the governance of displacement is weak, allowing states to use humanitarian responses as a substitute for addressing root causes.

The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the consequences of these limitations. But it has also highlighted where and how change may be realized, while clearly demonstrating how facile efforts at containment and isolationism really are.

If ever there was a moment to recognize and reinforce the need for collective and inclusive action to address issues of shared concern, that time is now.

Let’s be sure to seize this opportunity that comes in the guise of a terrible pandemic.

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