The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has warned that the numbers of refugees being safely resettled globally is on course to hit a record low in 2020.
The agency’s latest global data shows that between January and the end of September the agency has processed 31,008 cases for resettlement this year, however just 15,425 refugees have actually been resettled.
That figure is down from the 63,726 people who were resettled in 2019, and compares to 55,680 in 2018, 65,108 in 2017, and 126,291 in 2016.
COVID-19 has taken its toll on the process of resettlement, with safe countries temporarily suspending schemes that normally provide pathways for refugees to move and rebuild their lives in a safe place. For example, the UK suspended all resettlement flights on March 12, in response to the pandemic, and is not due to restart until March 2021.
Resettlements in the UK have previously taken place under a scheme known as the “vulnerable persons resettlement scheme” (VPRS), which is due to wind down because a replacement in the form of a new global resettlement scheme, announced in 2019, was expected to start.
“The VPRS scheme was a real success but is almost complete,” Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor, UNHCR’s representative in the UK, told the Guardian.
“The needs are huge and growing due to the pandemic,” she added. “We urge the government to provide clarity and confirm when its new, global programme will start.”
The agency has urged all safe countries with refugee schemes to resettle as many people as possible in the remainder of 2020 and maintain resettlement quotas for 2021.
According to the data, refugees from Syria make up the largest percentage of the total who have been resettled in 2020 (41%), followed by refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo (16%). But refugees from 47 other countries also make up the list, including Iraq, Afghanistan, and Myanmar.
Most had legal and physical protection needs, were survivors of violence or torture, or were women and children at risk, a UNHCR statement said.
The UNHCR’s assistant high commissioner for protection, Gillian Triggs, said that quotas around the world were “disappointingly low” to begin with — there was a quota of less than 50,000 for the entire year of 2020.
“This was further impacted by COVID-19 delaying departures and pausing some states’ resettlement programmes,” Triggs continued.
“Current rates point to one of the lowest levels of resettlement witnessed in almost two decades. This is a blow for refugee protection and for the ability to save lives and protect those most at risk,” she continued.
Triggs added that legal schemes save lives and mitigate the chances of refugees attempting to make dangerous journeys across land and sea to find a safe place to settle.
A UK Home Office spokesperson said: “The UK’s world-leading resettlement programme is resuming following a temporary pause as a result of the pandemic.”
They added: “Resuming will mean we are able to deliver our commitment to bring 20,000 refugees who have fled the conflict in Syria to rebuild their lives safely in the UK, and we will roll out a new global resettlement scheme as soon as coronavirus circumstances allow. We have to help more people directly from the affected regions and that is exactly what we are planning with the new firm and fair asylum system, which will welcome people through safe and legal routes.”