For 70 years, UNHCR and its partners have been on the frontlines of every displacement crisis – yet 2020 was a year unlike any other, with outbreaks of violence in Sudan’s West-Darfur, fighting escalating in North-West Syria, deepening of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, devastation in Lebanon and Lesbos, thousands fleeing Tigray seeking safety as well as the world’s fastest growing displacement crisis in the Sahel. Conflicts continue and safe return home is still not a viable option for many refugees. In the current context of growing forced displacement, resettlement continues to be a critical protection tool, providing protection and solutions for refugees who face specific or urgent protection risks. International standards of refugee protection were severely tested in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 situation.
At the height of the pandemic, large numbers of countries fully or partially closed their borders, with almost a hundred among them making no exception for people seeking asylum, seriously limiting access to international protection. Some also returned asylum-seekers to their country of origin during this period, risking refoulement of many in need of protection, while others increasingly resorted to the disproportionate use of immigration detention. In addition to health and protection challenges, the pandemic also threatened social and economic rights for those forcibly displaced, with many refugees losing their jobs or being evicted from their homes. Lockdowns and increased family tensions led to spikes in gender-based violence, forcing some refugees into survival sex and child marriages.
Globally, there was a significant increase of discrimination, stigmatization, and xenophobia against refugees and displaced people, further exacerbating tensions with local communities. As a result of the pandemic, border closures and travel restrictions necessitated the temporary hold on many resettlement movements during the year. Resettlement states had to cancel selection missions, while UNHCR staff and partners had to reduce resettlement activities significantly, and most staff and partners were required to work from home due to COVID restrictions. In order to maximize the use of resettlement places, UNHCR operations gradually reconfigured their resettlement processing modalities to facilitate remote interviews and processing, keeping in mind procedural integrity and safety of refugees, staff members, and receiving communities. Many resettlement States similarly stepped up by shifting to more flexible processing through remote virtual interviews and/or expanded dossier consideration of cases. These new tools created safer alternatives to ensure the continuance of resettlement activities and sent an important signal to host governments and refugees that the pursuit of durable solutions remained a priority throughout the pandemic.