UN: Venezuelans, other refugees face huge pandemic hardships

GENEVA — The head of the U.N. refugee agency expressed concerns Thursday about impact of the coronavirus pandemic from Africa’s Sahel region to Latin America and beyond, warning that millions fled upheaval at home and could face hardship abroad among lockdowns and other restrictive measures to fight the outbreak.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said 164 countries have either partially or totally closed their borders to fight COVID-19. Many people who flee abroad rely on the “informal economy” often involving day work with cash wages — economic activities that are at risk as governments ratchet up coronavirus lockdowns.

“Of course, it is good that countries are taking these measures of prudence” against the virus, Grandi told the Associated Press ahead of the release of UNCHR’s “Global Trends” report on Thursday. “Unfortunately, COVID-19, which has been able to cause the entire world to grind to a halt, has not been able to stop wars, conflicts, violence, discrimination.”

“People are still fleeing their countries to seek refuge, to seek protection. This needs to be considered,” he added.

Taking his appeal for government action to the U.N. Security Council by video conference on Thursday, Grandi said COVID-19 was becoming a “risk multiplier” on top of existing drivers like conflict, climate change, political upheaval and uprisings.

“Take, for example, the region that perhaps worries me most at the present time — the region of Sahel in West Africa,” he told the council. “This region is one of the leading regions in driving the displacement figures upwards, at least for the past couple of years, and it’s the theater of one of the most complex regional crises.”

Grandi suggested a U.N. call for a global cease-fire in conflict areas during the pandemic had gone unheeded, and urged the Security Council to work to resolve conflicts that often spur displacement.

“Since that call for a global cease-fire there’s been new internal displacement in 19 countries,” he said. “In the last two months, we have seen the growth of 700,000 internally displaced people globally.”

The impact could also be stark for 3.7 million Venezuelans abroad, the world’s second-largest refugee group after the 6.6 million Syrians displaced by their country’s war.

The Americas right now have become the world’s epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic.

“One region about which we’re very worried is, of course, Latin America and South America and in particular where countries host many millions of Venezuelans,” Grandi said in the interview. ly hit by COVID.”

In its “Global Trends” report, which found that the number of asylum-seekers, internally displaced people and refugees shot up by nearly 9 million people last year — the biggest rise in its records. That created a total of 79.5 million people, accounting for 1% of all humanity, seeking safety amid conflict, repression and upheaval.

UNHCR chalked up the surge to a new way of counting people displaced from Venezuela and a “worrying” new displacement in the persistent trouble spots of Congo, the Sahel region of Africa, Yemen and Syria, which alone accounted for more than 13 million people on the move.

While the total figure of people facing forced displacement rose from 70.8 million at the end of 2018, some 11 million people were “newly displaced” last year, with poorer countries among those most affected.

UNHCR says forced displacement has nearly doubled from 41 million people in 2010, and five countries — Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar — are the source of nearly two-thirds of people displaced abroad.

Grandi also noted about 30% to 40% of the world’s refugee population lives in camps. He said COVID-19 hasn’t affected “in dramatic numbers” camps like those in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh — a country that has taken in nearly a million Rohingya Muslims fleeing from Myanmar — or in Africa.

Amid the outbreak, UNHCR has stepped up its “cash transfer” programs that put money directly in the pockets of displaced people. Grandi says 65 countries now benefit from such programs “and we have added 40 countries in just the last few months.”

Canadian Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino said Canada is still trying to resettle refugees amid the pandemic and border closures and he expects the pace to pick up in the second half of the year. He said officials are resettling the most urgent cases by leveraging technology and processing claims electronically and remotely.

“COVID-19 has disrupted the entire process, not only for Canada but the entire world,” Mendicino told The Associated Press in an interview. “Our hope is by innovating that we will be able to cover up for some time lost,”

He declined to not say how many people that Canada has resettled this year. Canada settled 31,000 refugees last year, the highest resettlement globally and a third of the total of number that were resettled by the UNHCR. The United States took in 27,500.