On 28 April the Kemet Boutros-Ghali Foundation for Peace and Knowledge (KBG) posted its third virtual roundtable discussion on the repercussions of Covid-19. The webinar focused on the effects of the pandemic on refugees, asylum-seekers and displaced people, ie people on the move.
The discussion, moderated by Ambassador Moshira Khattab,executive president of KBG, started off with a brief on Egypt’s immigration law. The opening speech was given by professor Mahmoud Abbas, chairman of the board of trustees of KBG, who said 2018 saw the “highest number of displacement ever where 70.8 million refugees fled their homes.”
The roundtable is the third of the foundation’s series of webinars on the repercussions of Covid-19, said Khattab, adding that the focus today is on how to protect and uphold the rights of one of the most vulnerable groups affected by Covid-19.
“Covid-19 is a situation unlike anything we have faced before, and as UNICEF says it does not discriminate, nor should our response.” She stated that through collaborative efforts “we are able to truly leave no one behind.”
Maha El-Rabbat, special envoy to the director-general of the World Health Organisation (WHO) on Covid-19 Eastern Mediterranean Region (EMRO) shared at the roundtable alarming facts and figures. Due to wars, violence and political instabilities, forced displacement has reached an unprecedented level, she said.
According to UNHCR’s 2018estimates, more than 70.8 million people were forcibly displaced: about 41 million are internally displace; 25 million are refugees; and five million are asylum-seekers.
The Arab region hosts about half of the refugees worldwide, including 5.5 million Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA.
The massive numbers of “people on the move” reflect on the infrastructure of hosting countries, that are lower- or middle-income countries, El-Rabbat said, noting that the Covid-19 crisis has added to the burdens of both the hosting countries and the refugees who come with their own baggage of diseases and ailments.
The WHO is working on raising awareness and pushing for testing and isolation. However, social distancing can’t be applied in overcrowded camps.
“Other innovative methods should be applied to protect public health, and surveillance should be the essential part to adopt such measures,” she said.
From a political angle, Covid-19 might be the reason to stop the massive violence in the Arab region and, consequently, decrease the number of people on the move.
Ahmed Abul-Gheit, secretary-general of the Arab League, said “I launched an appeal against all kinds of hostility and conflict in the region. That region is haunted by military conflicts, whether in Syria, Libya, or Yemen, and maybe in other areas so that was our immediate and first step is to call upon all parties to end to these conflicts.”
Abul-Gheit said he addressed the foreign ministers of the five permanent member states of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on the matter, noting that Tunisia, the country representing the Arab world in the UNSC, is currently working closely with France on a draft resolution to end conflicts or at least stop fighting in the region.
Sameh Shoukry, Egypt’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, said “Egypt has not taken any step to repatriate migrants. It continues to ensure their inclusion in the healthcare system.”
He noted that Egypt is both a destination and transit country for five million refugees and asylum-seekers.
Egypt is following key strategies in global emergency and calling for the inclusion of refugees and support of national efforts, he said. “Raising awareness and cultivating a culture of empathy and integration during these exceptional circumstances among host communities and vulnerable groups is necessary.”
Maintaining Egypt’s commitment to meet the needs of refugees entails that Egypt insures and continues to receive the required international support from donors and international organisations in recognition of its efforts in this regard. “There should be international solidarity with refugees and other vulnerable groups by avoiding sudden and forced repatriation,” he insisted.
Amr Moussa, former secretary-general of the Arab League said Covid-19 has shown the drawbacks of the global multilateral system, raising questions about poverty, the gimmicks of influential powers, and the environment.
“Globalisation cannot go uncontrolled and unhindered with the very weak multilateral system. It is in our best interest as developing nations, and as people of the world that have seen a pandemic that has defeated systems, national systems in particular, to make the multilateral system stronger to meet future challenges,” Moussa said.
He noted that pandemics are closely associated with climate change and the demographic explosion. “Our way of dealing with nature and other creatures should be reconsidered. As we see, the environment is faring much better now. There are no planes, no cars, no factories, etc... but this will come to an end once the coronavirus is over.”
Moussa believes poverty is the primary reason people migrate, blaming it on industrial policies and rivalry between influential powers “as is the case in Syria, Libya, and Yemen.”
He emphasised the role of the private sector and civil society as exemplified in the new active attitude undertaken by the Kemet institution.“Finally, I wish to underline my appreciation to both UNRWA and UNHCR for their efforts.”
Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) said “I have been in the humanitarian business for about 30 years and I have been impressed by the capacity and agility of the 70-year-old UNHCR for being innovative even in the exceptional circumstances of confinement that have been imposed by Covid-19.
He explained that the coronavirus is yet another challenge to Palestinian refugees, the largest refugees in the world and the most vulnerable in the Middle East, because in most of the countries where the Palestinian refugees are hosted, poverty is twice higher than the average population.
Yet the UNHCR has succeeded to maintain all the basic services, healthcare centres, have remained opened, and shifted to delivering medicines to homes. The same applies to social economic support, with home deliveries, and education.
But this is taking place at a time when the agency is faced with unprecedented financial challenges, as the speakers noted the agency saw the worst financial year since 2012 in 2019.
According to Abul-Gheit, “after the US administration denied the Palestinians their share, the Arab league stepped in calling on Arab countries to help. This resulted in contributions of $250-300 million annually to UNRWA. And for the first time since 2012, the agency ended up with less than $1 billion, while its budget is $1.3 billion.
“What is important is that member states at the General Assembly support renewing the mandate. Political support translates into more resources for the agency to deliver its own mandate.
“There is no better investment in UNRWA and Palestinian refugees than in the education and well-being of the Palestinian refugees,” he added.
“There is no better investment than in UNRWA for the sake of peace and security in the Middle East and promoting the right of the Palestinian refugees.”
On a parallel note, Raouf Mazou, assistant high commissioner for operations at the UNHCR, said "One of the first questions we asked ourselves was would governments include refugees and internally displaced persons or exclude them? The other question was what would happen to congested camps, and we have so many of those camps around the world and very often in the developing world which is receiving the largest number of refugees?
“The positive thing is that in the MENA region, governments like Egypt and Kuwait have included refugees in their response to Covid-19. They did not discriminate. In the case of Lebanon, we partnered with the government to expand the capacity through the provision of above 285 additional hospital beds and 39 additional intensive care beds. This is what we did to ensure inclusion takes place.
“As for camps, we are trying to decongest wherever possible and to improve sanitation, control the movement, and isolate vulnerable groups,” Mazou said.
“The Mauritanian government requested the establishment of a quarantine and isolation unit and we answered its request, in addition to providing the country with additional shelters, kits, relief items to the refugees and we increased the people’s access to water, sanitation and hygienic materials. As for the marginalised in the informal sector living day to day, UNHCR has collaborated with the foreign ministry to list those threatened with eviction from their houses to enlist them in a cash-based assistance project.
Mazou said Egyptian foreign minister Shoukry was “very clear that people should not be expelled in situations like this.
“We are working with all governments to make sure that even if there are tighter controls, asylum-seekers – even if they have to be quarantined for some time – should be allowed to cross the borders.”
China’s Ambassador to Egypt Liao Liqiang said “Covid -19 is a global enemy, as he explained the collaboration and efforts China has been sharing with the world since the outbreak.
“We have the support of Egypt, Arab and African countries. And now we give back assistance in material and financial support to our friends in the region,” Liao said.
“Until April China had held 87 video conferences with 115 countries including west Asian and Arab countries, including Egypt. China signed more than 114 agreements with other countries to facilitate their procurements of medical supplies from China.
“With the Covid-19, the problem of refugees becomes more exacerbated,” he added.
“Covid-19 has added to the urgency of this timeless problem,” said Ambassador Khattab, adding that “in the absence of a vaccine, the pandemic continues to be a harsh reminder of our collective vulnerabilities, which are amplified for the internally displaced and impoverished host communities.
“While access to healthcare for people on the move will continue to be a priority for the global community, Covid-19 has added to the urgency of this timeless problem.”