In a report published by the UNHCR on 18 June, it was revealed that the number of global refugees had reached an all time high of 79.5 million for the year 2019. Despite the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has on travelling across borders, this figure is still an almost nine million increase from 2018 and almost double the value from 2010. The uptick can be attributed to refugees from Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Sahel, Yemen and Venezuela. Among the countries taking in refugees, Canada ranked first out of 26 according to the UNHCR. While Canada has become a leader in refugee resettlement, the New York Times reports that the United States has ‘declined dramatically’.
Rema Jamous Imseis, the UNHCR Canada Representative stated: “These staggering levels of human displacement are unlike anything we have witnessed. Behind these dramatic numbers are a multitiude of individual crises, marked by immense heartbreak, desperation and sacrifice.” Regarding the impact of coronavirus on refugee resettlement, Grandi explains that “for the time being, most likely [the pandemic] has actually put brakes on movements because of the difficulties in moving. There has been basically no international travel; there has been little ability to cross borders.” Despite this, according to the UN High Comissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, the 2019 recording of 79.5 million people is “approximately 1 percent of the world population.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has occupied every country as they deal with their own internal health, social, and economic impacts of the virus. However, as assistance programs have stalled, humanitarian crises have raged on and the need for help is greater than ever. The UNHCR report highlighted a growing disparity between the number of refugees and the availability of solutions. With the global pandemic and the increase in populist nationalism, the world will likely see a decline in the willingness and ability of countries to put resources towards resettling refugees. However, for the sake of the 79.5 million refugees, including millions of children, countries must not turn inward but instead work towards the appeal from the UNHCR “to do more to find lasting solutions for displaced persons.” Canada, who resettled over 30,000 refugees and provided them with opportunities to put down roots in a new home, is an example to follow.
The conflicts in Syria and Yemen, ongoing for nine years and five years respectively, are producing millions of refugees. According to Amnesty International, Afghans have been fleeing their country for over forty years – today they are one of the longest lasting refugee populations. Until these conflicts are resolved, the number of refugees coming from these areas will continue to increase. Like the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, and the refugees fleeing the economic and political crisis in Venezuela, all are seeking safety, stability, and peace.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, it can seem like everything else in the world has stopped, but there is still conflict raging, forcing people to flee from their homes. The need for peace is greater than ever as the number of global refugees continues to rise. Members of the international community should resist temptations to dismiss it as a secondary issue not worthy of national attention because, as UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi says, “this continues to be a global issue, an issue for all states.”