Our entire existence has been modified, in one way or another, by COVID-19. Whether we are talking about our work life, family life or leisure time, each and every one of them has been affected — for better or worse, depending on one's experience — by the pandemic. And yet, in the midst of this shock, no space has been so radically transformed as the circulation of disadvantaged people.
There is no room for half measures on this issue. For the free movement of human beings, especially in the case of the most vulnerable - economic migrants, forcibly displaced persons, refugees — the coronavirus has been an unprecedented punishment. The excuse to close doors to them. The condemnation that worsens the situation in their places of origin or reception. The trigger for a wave of xenophobia and intolerance that only makes their lives more difficult.
According to data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are currently more than 82 million forcibly displaced people, of whom more than 26 million are refugees. For all of them, the year 2020 and so far in 2021 has only worsened their already difficult existence.
On the one hand, because the number of forcibly displaced has increased due to the public health crisis that COVID-19 creates in developing countries. In mid-September of this year, while in Spain the vast majority of the population was already vaccinated, this luxury had only reached 3% of the population of Africa. And this, as we know, is not just a matter of public health. As we have already seen in Europe, this will also increase the political and economic fragility of any state.
Moreover, xenophobic media and politicians have inoculated society with a misconception: that most refugees live in rich, developed countries. This is a lie. A very large percentage of refugees live in neighboring developing countries. In countries that also have fragile economic and health systems. Hence, in these refugee camps, the outbreak of COVID-19 has had an even greater impact on the most vulnerable.
As UNRWA, the UN agency working with Palestine refugees, explains, COVID-19 has caused these forcibly displaced people to experience the pandemic in highly precarious situations. "In overcrowded refugee camps such as in Lebanon or Jordan where social distance is a luxury, with no drinking water in Gaza to wash their hands, with a lack of medical infrastructure in Syria because of nine years at war and with a lack of freedom of movement to access certain services in the West Bank."
A halt to resettlement: the case of the USA
On top of all this, the coronavirus pandemic brought to a grinding halt, for a few months, any resettlement work carried out by UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The work of these agencies returned. But what also returned (or perhaps simply increased) were xenophobic policies.
Let us look at the case of the United States, traditionally the largest recipient of resettled refugees. A country that, however, continuously reduced under the Trump administration its resettlement quotas starting in 2017. And the pinnacle of that reduction was the coronavirus, the perfect excuse to throttle refugee quotas to the maximum. In October 2020, the U.S. government announced a cap of 15,000 resettlement slots by 2021 (down from 110,000 under the Obama administration).
According to UNHCR, due to policies such as this, 2020 may have seen the lowest number of resettled refugees. Current rates indicate the lowest levels of resettlement in nearly two decades. Between January and September 2020, only 15,425 refugees were resettled, compared to more than 50,086 in the same period in 2019.
Many are hopeful that resettlement numbers will rise again in 2021. That, thanks to the new U.S. administration's commitment to increase annual quotas for refugees, this number will skyrocket. We will have to see.
Return to country of origin
Another problem that has arisen as a result of COVID-19 has been the return of many displaced persons to their countries of origin. Often to the difficult and precarious conditions from which they fled and in which they lacked basic necessities.
As of October 30, 2020, more than 136,000 Venezuelans had returned to their country of origin from other countries in the region. Also, between April 1 and November 3, 2020, IOM had assisted more than 37,600 migrants who had returned to Ethiopia from neighboring African states and Saudi Arabia.
The wheel keeps turning
In spite of everything, in spite of so many restrictions and so much precariousness, people continue to be displaced from their countries of origin. They are driven from their land by violence and political instability, poverty and lack of resources. That is why in 2020 and 2021 they have continued to embark on perilous journeys in the hope of a better life.
For now, responses to COVID-19 by receiving countries have only increased the risks and uncertainty involved in these journeys, placing many people in dangerous situations where humanitarian support and rescue may not be available. According to the IOM, as of November 21, more than 2,700 people had lost their lives during their migration in 2020.
It is possible that next year will see a resumption of travel around the world and a return to normal life. For displaced people and their families, normalcy will continue to be an unstoppable wheel of danger and anguish.
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