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Source: United Nations

The COVID-19 pandemic is having an unprecedented social and economic impact globally. Economies are grinding to a halt, jobs and livelihoods are lost on scales never seen before. Entire societies are affected by this public health crisis. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is alarmed at the increasingly desperate situation of those forcibly displaced by conflicts and violence, particularly in low and middle-income countries, which currently shelter more than 85 per cent of the world’s refugees.

The evidence of deep and hard-hitting economic impact of the crisis on refugees is overwhelming.  Across the Middle East and North Africa alone, UNHCR and its partners have received over 350,000 calls from refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) since lockdowns and other public health measures came into force in many countries in March. The majority asked for urgent financial assistance to cover their daily existential needs.

Countries neighbouring Syria host more than 5.6 million Syrian refugees and there are over 6 million IDPs in Syria. Many need urgent support. In Lebanon, which faced an economic downturn prior to the pandemic, over half of the refugees surveyed by UNHCR in late April reported having lost livelihoods such as daily labour. Among the refugees consulted, 70% reported that they had to skip meals. In other countries in the region, such as Egypt, Iraq and Jordan, large number of refugees have also reported having lost their main source of income. In Jordan, the impact on refugee women is profound, with almost all who were working saying they had seen their income source disrupted.

Groups at a particular risk of poverty and exploitation include female heads of households, unaccompanied and separated children, elderly persons, and LGBTI persons. Their situation can be improved through emergency assistance, notably through cash grants.

Across this region many are at risk losing their shelters as they are running out of means to support themselves. There has been a reported increase in evictions or threats of evictions in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania and Tunisia.

UNHCR is worried that the loss of jobs can result in psycho-social hardship.  In Jordan, UNHCR partners report a significant rise in mental health and psycho-social consultations by over 50 per cent.

In the neighboring South West Asia region, Afghan refugees and vulnerable members amongst the host communities, who were already struggling to make ends meet due to economic pressures, are finding it harder and harder to cope. In Iran, the nearly one million Afghan refugees, the majority of whom live and work side by side with their hosts, find themselves under immense economic hardships.

Children were already particularly at risk, with every fourth Afghan refugee reporting being compelled to take children out of school and every fifth having to send children to work due to increased economic precarity. The impact on the future of Afghan refugee children is already being acutely felt and will likely worsen without much-needed further international support and responsibility-sharing, despite commendable and enhanced efforts by the Government of Iran, UNHCR and other humanitarian actors on the ground.

The overwhelming majority of Afghans in Iran, which also includes some 1.5-2 million undocumented individuals, rely on precarious and unstable sources for their main income, making them highly vulnerable to economic downturns. According to local reports, some two million people in Iran have lost their jobs because of COVID-19. Our helplines are receiving more and more calls as more refugees are losing their jobs and incomes. Whilst resilience remains a distinct feature of the refugee community during this challenging phase, most report being unable to afford enough food for their families. Others ask for help to pay rent, medical treatments and internet services to allow their children to continue learning remotely.

In Pakistan – the second largest refugee-hosting country in the world – Afghans have lost their only source of income as daily wage earners due to the general lockdown. Tens of thousands of refugees are also particularly vulnerable given the challenges that they face as older people at risk, individuals with disabilities, individuals with serious medical conditions, single parents, and women and children at risk. Pakistan not only hosts 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees but is also home to 880,000 registered Afghan migrants and an estimated 500,000 undocumented Afghan nationals.

Due to the spread of COVID-19, Afghanistan faces the prospect of overwhelmed medical and social services, with an increase in Afghans returning home, hundreds of thousands of people living in displacement sites and rising poverty levels

Meanwhile, Latin America faces several of the world’s largest displacement crises. More than five million Venezuelans have fled their country. There are close to eight million internally displaced Colombians, 340,000 internally displaced people in the North of Central America, and more than 100,000 Nicaraguan refugees and asylum-seekers.

Most refugees and asylum-seekers in Latin America live in urban areas or along borders. Many work in the informal sector, often without social safety nets. Confinement measures have left them with a sudden loss of income. According to our 2019 data, 80 per cent of Venezuelan refugees and migrants interviewed at the time said they were working without any contractual arrangements, with many depending on the informal economy for survival.

Now unable to pay rent and buy food or medicine, many are at risk of homelessness or are already being evicted from their shelters. The numbers of homeless and destitute Venezuelans are increasing by the day in Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Argentina. Some are now resorting to survival sex, begging or hawking on the streets. Others are at risk of being prey to smugglers and illegal armed groups.

With growing fear and social unrest, xenophobia and discrimination across the region are also on the rise. Refugees who are trying to make ends meet on the streets or in the informal sector are often unable to comply with quarantine measures and are being scapegoated, stigmatized or at risk of detention.

In the past few weeks, we have also seen a number of Venezuelans attempting to return to their country, as they cannot cover basic needs such as shelter, food and health care. UNHCR is scaling up the response to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on this population, providing additional cash support, increasing the capacity of shelters, and working with governments and partners on the inclusion of refugees and migrants in social protection programmes.

In the North of Central America, the consequences of the lockdown coupled with increased violence and extortion from armed gangs are bearing heavily on internally displaced people and at-risk communities, many who survive on informal work and day jobs. In Mexico, where 7,588 refugees participate in an integration programme that helps them find jobs in the formal economy, mass layoffs have put them at risk of slipping into poverty.

Across all major refugee operations and despite challenges, UNHCR is working to provide emergency assistance including cash-based assistance, secure shelter spaces and to ensure the inclusion of refugees in national public health responses, in social safety nets and any assistance plans. Urgent action is required to help the most vulnerable refugees and internally displaced persons, especially where they have no access to state-run social protection schemes. The coronavirus crisis has exacerbated already dire humanitarian needs globally. Timely and flexible support from governments, private sector and individuals for ongoing humanitarian operations remains critical.

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MIL OSI United Nations News