With news headlines fixated on COVID-19’s impact on tourism and the inconvenience of quarantine rules on holidaymakers, it is easy to lose sight of the humanitarian impacts of the restrictions to international travel. But after months of standstill, the resumption of flights is potentially life-saving news for the more than 10,000 refugees whose resettlement to a country where they can rebuild lives previously shattered by conflict and persecution was cancelled due to the pandemic.
Resettlement is carefully planned and allows refugees to travel directly from outside the EU into an EU country. A UN-managed process, there are strict criteria for eligibility - including those who have survived violence or torture, people with acute medical needs, children, and the elderly. It is a vital tool that applies to just a small proportion of refugees - truly a lifeline for the most vulnerable.
It is one of the few safe and legal routes to protection that offers much-needed predictability and safety – particularly in times of upheaval like the present. Given the novel nature of the virus, restrictions on resettlement were right and necessary for a limited period. However, these critical programmes cannot be paused indefinitely.
The need for more EU resettlement is nothing new; however, the implications of this pandemic once again underline the urgent need for more global responsibility-sharing when it comes to welcoming refugees.
Leaders now have an opportunity to reflect on what the future of EU resettlement should look like. The long-awaited EU Pact on Migration and Asylum is set to be released this week, and government representatives will meet to discuss their ambitions for resettlement in October. They need to make it count because, right now, the numbers don’t add up.
In 2019, an average of 24,000 people were forced to flee their homes every day, and approximately 1 per cent of humanity is now displaced. Of these people, the UN Refugee Agency has identified 1.45 million refugees as particularly vulnerable and unable to stay in the country where they initially sought refuge. Their number is constantly on the rise: it has almost doubled since 2010.
At the same time, available resettlement places globally have drastically decreased. This is mainly due to restrictions imposed by the Trump administration in the US, a country with a long history as a global leader in resettlement efforts.
In this difficult context, the pandemic has presented a tragic new obstacle to seeking safety and had debilitating effects on refugee protection. As the annual presidential announcement of future resettlement commitments approaches, the US has met just over half of its current commitment of 18,000 places, itself a historic low. In the EU, only around 3,900 refugees were resettled in the first quarter of 2020 and resettlement has very slowly resumed since the lifting of travel restrictions in June.
Meanwhile, low- and middle-income countries who have hosted the majority of the world’s refugees for more than a decade continue to do so, despite facing a multitude of domestic challenges. Several recent studies show that the social and economic consequences of COVID-19 in these countries will make an already difficult situation worse for refugees and host communities alike.
Take Lebanon, where one in seven people is a refugee. Half the local population lives below the poverty line and a severe economic and financial crisis had already massively hampered the integration prospects of refugees. COVID-19 and the deadly explosion in Beirut harbour on August 4 have exacerbated this dire situation, crippling the health system and leaving 300,000 people homeless. These developments are devastating for all affected, and leave refugees particularly vulnerable due to their lack of local networks.
By taking responsibility for the protection of refugees, resettlement first and foremost protects vulnerable individuals and families but, done right, can also contribute to alleviating pressures on countries, like Lebanon, which are hosting large numbers of refugees. It should therefore be a core part of a strong, coordinated, and multilateral EU response to COVID-19 which is grounded in global solidarity.
Together with five other organisations actively engaged in refugee resettlement, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) is appealing to the EU to use this chance to firstly, do more. The EU’s commitment at the Global Refugee Forum in December 2019, to resettle more than 30,000 refugees this year, was encouraging. There is still a chance to at least approach this target: EU countries must allow those waiting for resettlement to enter EU countries according to COVID-19 measures as a matter of urgency.
To continue the upward trajectory of EU resettlement seen over the past five years, any refugees among this year’s quota who cannot arrive in time should be allowed to arrive in 2021, when the EU should also make a new pledge of at least 35,000 more places. Presidential candidate Joe Biden’s pledge to increase the US admissions target to 125,000 - in line with previous commitments by both Republicans and Democrats - should give rise for greater ambition among EU leaders.'
Secondly, do better. Resettlement only works in partnership with countries of asylum, civil society, welcoming communities, and refugees themselves. These partnerships have been neglected in recent discussions about the future of EU resettlement, with a focus being placed on the benefits for receiving states. EU countries and the Commission should invest in equal and open partnerships with other governments and civil society, including refugee-led organisations, the UNHCR and partners to allow for good resettlement and integration outcomes.
Thirdly, plan ahead. The upcoming Pact on Migration and Asylum is a golden opportunity for the Commission to frame resettlement and other safe and legal avenues to protection as a key priority for the EU, and to ensure that sufficient financial support is available for them. The EU has also long been close to adopting a long-term, predictable, and protection-oriented framework for EU resettlement, which should now be urgently finalised.
Any future vision of EU resettlement should be ambitious, but also realistic. In order to place resettlement on a solid and sustainable footing, EU countries should accept and explicitly acknowledge that it cannot replace the fundamental right to seek asylum in Europe by other means – especially as resettlement places are so limited in number.
This year has been unpredictable, chaotic, and at times downright frightening for everyone, everywhere. The EU now has a chance to improve the situation of a small number of people for whom these feelings have long become a daily reality by urgently restarting and significantly scaling up refugee resettlement.
- David Miliband is President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and a former UK foreign minister
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