People on the move

28 April 2020

People on the Move


The Kemet Boutros Ghali Foundation organized its third webinar series on “People on the Move”. The webinar hosted a wide range of diplomats and experts in international organizations concerned with issues of the displaced, the refugees and asylum seekers. 
Mr. Mamdouh Abbas, welcomed the veteran diplomats and experts taking part in the webinar. He said that several reports, especially those by OXFAM, showed that almost half a billion individuals will soon join the global club of the poor. In Egypt we have some 33 million people under the poverty line, adding to that number a huge army of the refugees and asylum seekers will add a heavy burden for the Egyptian government to shoulder. 

Legal immigration, which became part of human rights, has been organized in accordance with the international law of 1951. Egypt has been an active participant in combating human trafficking and illegal migration since the year 2000, Abbas said. This, in turn led to the establishment of the National Committee for illegal migration and human trafficking in 2017, he added.

However, by the year 2018, according to Abbas, the world has witnessed a drastic increase in the number of refugees and the internally displaced persons to reach 70.8 million, due to the ongoing conflicts and wars worldwide. There are some 30 million refugees, half of this number are under thirty years old, deprived of education, health services or a nationality, Abbas said.       

The KBBG Executive President, Ambassador Dr. Moushira Khattab, said that ever since the outbreak, Kemet Boutros Ghali Foundation for Peace and Knowledge, has devoted systematic and undivided attention to the repercussions of COVID- 19 pandemic. “I am really honored and humbled to moderate the third part of the Foundation’s series of Webinars with today’s discussion addressing the repercussions of COVID-19 on people on the move”. And by people on the move we mean the refugees, asylum seekers and displaced persons. 

 Ambassador Khattab raised several questions for the participants in the webinar, saying that the outbreak is a situation unlike any…the UNICEF said that the virus does not discriminate nor should our response. And that will be the focus of this webinar…we should not leave anyone behind…but will we be able to overcome such crisis of an unprecedented magnitude? Ambassador Khattab asked. 

Dr. Maha El Rabat, Former Minister of Health and currently the WHO Special Envoy on COVID- 19 to the Middle East, explained the impact of the virus on the ‘people on the move’. She said that the number of the displaced has reached unprecedented level in recent years because of ongoing wars, violence and conflicts as well as natural disasters that affected many regions in the world. In 2018, the UNHCR reported that more than 70.8 million people are forcibly displaced. More than half this number are internally displaced persons (IDPs) that is 41.3 million, 21.9 million refugees and the rest are asylum seekers. 

On the regional level, the Arab region hosts more than half of the refugees worldwide. There are 5 million Palestinians, 5.6 million Syrians, 3.6 million from Yemen, 1.85 million Libyans, 1.1 million Somalis, 2.25 million from Sudan and 2.3 million from Iraq. This situation, according to Dr. Rabat, had its toll on the health systems particularly that host countries are of low and middle income states. 
The huge number of refugees has impacted the delivery of health services to this vulnerable groups, leading to higher burden of communal and non- communal diseases among those affected and resulted in challenges related to food security, living conditions, poverty and sanitation issues, Rabart said.

Despite the assistance provided by the host countries and the international organizations, the refugees are becoming more vulnerable. So, governments are not only facing the challenges of the refugees, the asylum seekers and the internally displaced, but over stretched with the increased demands of leaving the most vulnerable behind, impacting the object of inclusion of all into the response of any emergency and non- emergency cases, Dr. Rabat said. 

The public health resources are definitely affected, unable to meet the shorter or longer term demands of these groups. Due to this protracted situation, the UNHCR coordinated efforts with the Arab League to develop a strategy of protection for the IDPs, asylum seekers, resulted in the Arab strategy which was initiated by the Cairo team in 2017. Rabat stressed the fact that in the face of this virus, we are all vulnerable. It has shown the strongest health systems falling apart, as if the virus is depicting the gaps in all systems and in all responses to spread the infection. In such situation people on the move are at high risk especially in East Mediterranean region where the virus hit 170.000 and 7.756 lost their lives… “Borders are closed, countries are under lockdown, aid agencies and humanitarian organizations are racing against time to contain the threat the virus might pose against the refugees, asylum seekers or the IDPs across the region.” 

According to Rabat, given the social and economic disruption that took place because of the outbreak, we have to consider what is really happening in Yemen and Syria, considered at high risk due to the already broken health systems there.

We should also take into consideration the humanitarian crisis for the displaced living in camps where precautionary measures for COVID- 19 are very low. They may also, as Rabat said, face difficulties in accessing health services that may otherwise be available to the general population due to lack of surveillance and early warning system. 

WHO worked on the fact that this virus is staying with us for sometimes and thus awareness which is part of the public health containment efforts, should be an integral part of the response. However, Rabat referred to an important issue that the virus has really affected the essentials provided to the general public, and the refugees. When this happens, she said, we find that direct mortality from the outbreak and the indirect mortality from preventable and treatable conditions increase… “We have to keep in mind that the IDPs, refugees and asylum seekers have their own burden of diseases due to the circumstances they are going through”. So, inclusive and well-coordinated approach that ensures equal access to health services should be in place, she added.

Here comes the role of the international organizations for securing the financial and technical needs of the host countries that might not be equipped to protect the whole population. In such case, cross border movements should be regulated and managed during the restrictions imposed to fight the spread of the virus. Critical health services should also be maintained and be part of the public response to support the short and medium term needs of the refugees should be available. Surveillance should also become the strongest part of the public health as a containment measure. It is also an opportunity to measure the needs of the asylum seekers to be incorporated into public health strategy. Therefore, Solidarity, Unity and Urgency should be the focus of response in dealing with people on the move, Dr. Rabat said.

Ambassador Khattab asked the Arab League, Secretary- General, Mohamed Abul- Gheit, on how we will detect the asymptomatic in the absence of proper and adequate testing. The Secretary- general of the Arab League had made an appeal for the fighting parties to hold their weapons especially in this region which is haunted by military conflicts. The impact of the virus, as he said, will ‘affect us all deeply’. Therefore, holding military activities should have been an immediate step to all parties involved, he added. 

Abul- Gheit wrote a letter to UN Secretary General on the need for international commission to supervise efforts to end or at least hold conflicts during the pandemic and to help the displaced Syrians and Yemenis. At the same time, the Palestinian Authority, according to Abul Gheit, complained that the Israeli government discriminates against the Palestinians at a time when the UNRWA lost a lot of its income when the United States terminated its aid to the UN Agency that has been helping the Palestinian refugees. 

Abul- Gheit said that when the US denied UNRWA its share of aid, the Arab League found out that the American administration offers the UN body a 50 million dollars out of $1.3 billion budget. So, Abul- Gheit called upon the Arab League member- states to step in and help funding the lost US share to UNRWA. According to him, the first two years of funding were covered. In 2020 and despite of the ongoing pandemic, the Secretary- General consulted with Arab foreign ministers on that issue and they responded favorably as all member states will contribute between $50- to-70 million annually.

However, we still have to collectively work to protect the refugees and the IDPs, especially those in Syria and Yemen because they are currently the most affected in the region, Abul- Gheit said.

Ambassador Khattab pointed out that Egypt has an admirable no- camp policy in dealing with the refugees. Thus, they are free to register if they so wish. The repercussions in light of this policy will be highlighted by Egypt’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sameh Shoukry. 

Shoukry, said that the outbreak exposed the unpreparedness of the world governments in responding to the early stages of the pandemic. Its economic repercussion has already put the whole world in a state of a shock. One of the most distinct feature of this pandemic is its indiscriminate nature geographically and our response should be equally indiscriminately especially when it comes to refugees, asylum seekers and IDPs. We should focus on health care for all. 

According to Minister Shoukry, Egypt has been a destination and a transit country for years. There are currently more than five million refugees residing in Egypt. Thus, the country made sure that the pandemic has no direct or indirect effect on the people on the move residing on its territories. “Egypt has taken steps to ensure their inclusion in the health care system. Moreover, specialized UN agencies working diligently with Egypt are working to ensure the delivery of basic services and emergency programs to beneficiaries and timely access to quality services to vulnerable migrants infected with COVID- 19 and other related illnesses.”

Shoukry pointed out that partnership with UN agencies to combat the virus are in place to benefit host- communities. Raising awareness and cultivating a culture of integration during this exceptional circumstances among host- community and vulnerable groups is a necessity calling for a comprehensive inclusive global strategy to combat the pandemic should be based on the principle of sharing responsibility among states, he added. 

Maintaining Egypt’s commitment to meeting the needs of refugees entails that… “Egypt continue to receive the required international support from donners and international solidarity with the refugees and other vulnerable groups by avoiding the temptation of lightning the burden on states, by suddenly applying enforced repatriation. We fully endorse key strategy appeals especially that on the Palestinian refugees and the inclusion of refugees in the national efforts to fight the pandemic in health response and social protection program.” 

Ambassador Khattab referred to the UN resolution to renew the UNRWA mandate with no mention of budget allocation but only voluntary contributions, saying that there is a need to amend the UN Charter. However, amending the charter is an important issue that should be dealt with in details.          
 Amr Mousa, former Arab- League Secretary- General, said the impact of the problems of the refugees on the health care system in developing nations should be highly considered. Yet, he referred to three major points, the first is multilateralism which is an element controlling globalization and thus should be reconsidered. “This system must be reconsidered, maintained and developed into decisive and active instrument in post- Corona world. According to Mousa, globalization cannot go uncontrolled or hindered by weak international system. It is in our best interest as developing nations and as people of the world to make this system stronger.

The second point discussed by Mousa was the climate change and the demographic explosion. Such issues are closely connected to the pandemic. “Our way of dealing with the climate change and the demographic explosion need to be reconsidered. The lockdown showed that we might have better climate, but that will come to an end. Therefore, we have to look for ways to change our behavior and how to move within the framework of globalization.”

The third issue was about identifying the real culprit behind the spread of the virus…Is it a political game? Are we creating situations pushing people to move from one place to the other? … Is poverty an elementary reason?  We have to identify the real culprit and then try to deal with it, he said, adding that the gimmicks played by big powers due to ongoing rivalry, leading to intensification of the problems of the refugees should be seen within the context of peoples’ interests. 

“I should also emphasize the role of the private sector and civil society as they should bring to the attention of our people the need for collective efforts especially in Africa which might be harshly affected by the virus,” Mousa said. Despite the shortage of funding most international organizations especially the UNRWA and UNHCR, their efforts are highly appreciated by Mousa. He regretted the financial situation of the UNRWA, though Arab countries contributed $300 million, but he believes that the amount might not be enough. He concluded by saying that the pandemic is a serious threat to international peace. This should be the domain of the UN Security Council, but big powers have to change their policies and act responsibly as far as the world peace is concerned.

Ambassador Khattab, referred to the fact that poverty is not only financial but it could also be poor health services, poor education facilities or poor measures of social protection to vulnerable groups and thus we have to focus on the reasons that force people leave their homes and become displaced persons. Therefore, Khattab asked Philippe Lazzarini, the newly appointed Commissioner General of UNRWA, on the impact of the pandemic on the Palestinian refugees and the legal obligations upon states to meet their needs which have become part of their human rights. 

Lazzarini pointed to some observations that he found significant. He said that the outbreak of the pandemic took place when the organization was facing multiple challenges. The Palestinian refugees, according to him, are the bigger protracted refugees in the world. They are one of the most vulnerable groups. In most countries where Palestinian refugees are hosted, poverty is twice as higher than the average population. So COVID- 19 added an extra stress to an already stressed situation. 
Lazzarini who has been in the humanitarian sector for thirty years, has been impressed by the activities of the UNRWA over the past seventy years which as he said were so innovative and managed to maintain all the basic services in the most exceptional circumstances. “During the outbreak of the pandemic, they offered health services in mobile centers to maintain social distancing. The same applies to social services, and education. Moreover, the institution turned some of its premises into isolation centers. The UNRWA is focusing on containment procedures because of the poor health system in most host countries because it will become an impossible challenge once the virus reaches a   highly populated refugee camp. The staff, according to Lazzarini, presented the best possible practices during emergencies, he added.

What is emerging now is the social and economic impact of the pandemic in an environment that already has social and economic hardships, the UNRWA Chief said. This comes at a time when the institution itself is going through a hard time as far as the cash flow is concerned. According to him, - 2018- 2019 were the worst as the United States denied the Agency of funding. Despite the fact that other countries came forward to fill that gap, the advent of the pandemic made it harder for the Agency as nations around the world were lockdown. 
According to Lazzarini, the agency has not been through such situation since 2012 when it received less than a billion dollar while its budget is usually $1.3-to- 1.4 billion… “The shortage means that the agency ended the year without paying the suppliers, vendors and started 2020 with $60 million debts,” he said. He believes that the agency has improved its efficiency in terms of savings without cutting down the services but that is not possible anymore. “At a time when we have to move from efficiency to effectiveness, it is beyond the agency’s means to keep the core of activities. Renewing the mandate of UNRWA last December by the UN General Assembly, but that as Lazzarini said, should be translated in matching resources for the agency to be able to deliver its mandate which should be shielded to bring the agenda of 2030 on fighting poverty to a reality. 

Ambassador Khattab hailed the UNRWA efforts in trying to increase its efficiency without cutting down the services, stressing the fact that such agency should be supported especially when people around the world are interested in fighting poverty and call for human rights. Therefore, the ambassador asked about the response of the UNHCR in facing the challenges imposed by the pandemic.

Raouf Mazou, Assistant High Commissioner for Operation, UNHCR, said there are 70.8 million people on the move around the world. With the breakout of the pandemic, the UNHCR raised several questions to host countries on the possibility of including those people in their medical services?... Would governments starting to close borders expel the refugees and what would happen to them? What would happen to a congested camp?... Has the capacity to respond to the crisis been effective or not, Mazou said. 

A number of countries, including Egypt, as Mazou said, have included the refugees in their national health services and thus the UN body managed to partner with them. Camps in the MENA region, according to him, showed difficulty to maintain social distancing. So, testing and prevention measures were conducted through various means to control the movement and isolate the infected, were high on the UNHCR agenda.

According to Mazou, the government of Mauritania requested the establishment of a quarantine and isolation units which the UNHCR provided, in addition to shelters, medical kits, relief items and boosted access to sanitation materials. “To mitigate the economic and social impact of the pandemic for people living day by day, we have mobilized funding for cash payment… not sufficient but was a necessary step,” Mazou said. Referring to what Minister Shoukry said that people on the move, should not be expelled in such dire situation, he said that there was no mass repatriation because “ensuring the heath safety of the population is not in contradiction with overall need to protect the refugees.” 

Mazou pointed out that they have to transform part of their social protective system to meet the challenges, therefore the inclusion of the refugees has become a strategy in the MENA region. Ambassador Khattab referred to the fact that there are some 57 countries that have not been able to process requests for asylum seekers because of COVID-19. But the idea of being able to examine the requests without violating the rules of social distancing, will certainly ease the trauma of those people. 
Such creative ideas that came up because of the current situation which compelled many around the world to come up with different processes in dealing with the virus, China was a clear example, as Ambassador Khattab said. China has been a model in dealing with the outbreak and in managing to keep away from- so far- from a second wave.  

Liao Liqiang, China’s Ambassador to Egypt, said that the virus is a global enemy that has no respect to anyone. China, according to him, made big strides in dealing with the outbreak and currently working on means to mitigate its social and economic negative impact. When his country was hard hit by the pandemic, Egypt and several Arab and African states offered a helping hand which China is now returning these favors, he said.

Moreover, Ambassador Liqiang said that China is working closely with the UN and WHO, donating $50 million to help the public health systems in developing countries confronting the virus. Beijing has already offered medical supplies to Egypt and some Arab countries, as well as making 1.14 agreements with different partners. The Chinese ambassador made few remarks on the refugees’ issue which he described as one of the most difficult especially during the pandemic.   He said that the UN principles concerning ‘People on the Move’ should be respected and honored, especially the multilateral mechanisms put in place to address the dilemma of the refugees. He pointed out that the issue of the refugees should not be politicized or used to interfere in other countries’ affairs. “China has always been supportive to the cause of the Palestinian refugees and opposed to politicizing their issue,” Ambassador Liqiang said.

Ambassador Khattab pointed to the dilemma of not only the refugees but the institutions working with them. According to her, the influx of humans across the borders during the pandemic is historically high. This situation has put enormous pressures on the national and international institutions which are in dire need of assistance. The whole world is in a state of alliance’s testing as it has been shifting to national priorities.

“For the first time, we saw some superpowers struggling to care for their citizens and governments split over the handling of the virus under the lockdown with at least 57 countries suspending the rights of the people seeking asylum,” ambassador Khattab said. She added that the as many countries started relaxing the lockdown process, attention is now shifting hopefully to the refugees, asylum seekers and displaced persons. The 70 million individuals have often been stigmatized in a world characterized by the ‘new normal’, it is likely that they will go through increasingly difficult situations.

 “The pandemic is a reminder of our vulnerabilities amplified for the impoverished communities whereas access to health care for the people on the move has and will continue to be a priority for the global community. COVID added to the urgency of this crisis but in our region it is the worst affected… in Syria alone 6.60 m, Iraq 3.9m, Yemen 3.6m, Sudan 1.8m, South Sudan 1.8m, Palestine is a case in itself.” Ambassador Khattab said. 

These refugees are hosted in low and middle income countries, UNRWA which has an appreciated role, is dealing with 1.5 Palestinian refugees living in camps. “In this webinar we tried through our guest speakers to highlight the issues concerning people on the move and we all agreed that since Covid does not discriminate so our response should not discriminate as well. We must adopt coordinated and well- integrated approach to this issue,” Ambassador Khattab said.