GENEVA – A record number of 79.5 million people around the world were forced to flee their homes in 2019, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Venezuelans are the second largest group of refugees, after Syrians, according to a UNHCR annual report published on Thursday to mark World Refugee Day on June 20.
Filippo Grandi, UN high commissioner for refugees, warns in an interview with EFE that the coronavirus pandemic will create even more challenges for displaced people this year.
The report shows a year-on-year increase of almost nine million displaced people. Why do you think this is and do you think this figure will continue to rise?
The main factor is more people fleeing their homes because of war, persecution, discrimination, violence of different types, crises of different types. And fewer and fewer people able to return to their homes when the crisis is over because the crises are never over and this is the reason why last year we reported the figure lower than 71 million people and this year the figure is close to 80 million, 79.5, one percent of humanity. I have to also stress, it is since 2012 that every year we have reported a larger number of refugees and displaced. You asked me what’s the prospect for the future, I don’t know but if the international community does not become more efficient, effective in solving these crises that figure will continue to grow in future years.
What will the COVID-19 outbreak mean for displaced Venezuelans in 2020?
The flight of Venezuelans continued during 2019 and has reached a big proportion. Out of the Venezuelan exodus, 4.5 million are in countries in the region, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Brazil, these are the countries hosting the largest numbers. But also countries in the Caribbean and in Central America are receiving Venezuelans. Of course, this is also the region that is now at the epicenter of the pandemic at this particular juncture so Venezuelans are vulnerable like all other people, they are also on the move, they are very dependent on daily wages, on temporary jobs, these are the jobs that disappear during lockdowns and these countries are all in lockdown, so the situation is very dire. We have seen that because of this a number of Venezuelans, we are not sure about the exact figure but it could be anywhere between 30,000 and 50,000, have actually decided to go back to their homes which poses some health hazard because unregulated movements are difficult to manage and can help the spread of the pandemic. But we are also helping those people if they go back to Venezuela they will deserve to be helped from the health point of view but also from all other humanitarian points of view.
Has discrimination against displaced Venezuelans increased during the pandemic?
To some extent but not much. Xenophobia has always been a problem in the region and we have been working very closely with Colombia, for example, we have a program, we have similar programs in Peru, in Ecuador, to try and contain that. We have not seen a major growth but we have seen episodes and I am worried once again, the concerns are always revolving around this issue that when the economic impact will hit hard especially poor communities in border areas then the competition for scarce resources, the negative sentiments that an economic downturn always generates may turn towards Venezuelans. But also in other parts of the world, unfortunately how we have seen in the last five or six years unscrupulous politicians everywhere exploiting these sentiments and inflating them, creating almost a problem they will have a very fertile terrain so we need to really pay attention to this side of the crisis.
The report also shows that most refugees flee to neighboring countries.
Exactly, 85 percent of the refugees being really in poor or middle-income countries, the 73 percent of refugees seeking refuge in the country next to theirs. Why? because they want to go back to their homes as soon as it is possible. All of this should finally put an end to this rhetoric of everybody wants to go to rich countries, steal jobs, bring insecurity and so forth. This is a false, a wrong rhetoric. Of course, some people do want to do that, some people do that, but it is a minority. The real problem is over there in the countries that need more help, these are also the countries that have less resources to deal with this population. This is why humanitarian aid but I would say also development aid will continue to be very crucial.
Refugees have been included in health programs against COVID-19 but will they be forgotten in the plans against the looming economic crisis?
This is a big concern because I think that all states understood clearly that all over the world that refugees, displaced people had to be included in the health response, if you leave any group on your territory uncovered then the pandemic can spread back once you have contained it. But it will be more difficult in the recovery plans because states will have to put a lot of resources and they may not have enough to cover refugees, they may not be willing to do that because they would not consider that as their responsibility. So we’re working on that, we’re working directly with this affected population by intensifying, increasing our cash transfers but we are also engaging bigger organizations, like the World Bank for example or the International Monetary Fund or the regional financial institutions, the Inter-American Development Bank for example.