Norwegian Refugee Council
Submission by the Norwegian Refugee Council to the International Development Committee’s Inquiry into the Impact of the Coronavirus on Developing Countries and the UK’s Response
17 April 2020
- At this very challenging time of genuine global crisis, which is also heavily impacting the United Kingdom, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) recognises the leadership role the Department for International Development (DFID) plays in supporting vulnerable refugees and Internally Displaced People (IDPs) around the world. Specifically, we welcome the release of £200 million in vital funding via the Rapid Response Mechanism (RRF) and £544 million to UN and other agencies fighting the pandemic, amongst the support provided by DFID and other UK ministries. The scale of this global emergency means that even more will no doubt be needed. The NRC also appreciates the ongoing opportunity to dialogue with senior DFID staff and their openness to work with us in addressing the constraints that we are facing in the field, including the need for flexible funding arrangements.
- The NRC is an independent humanitarian organisation helping people forced to flee violence and disasters. We work in crises in more than 30 countries, where we help save lives and rebuild futures. In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the NRC is working hard to scale up our programming. We are disseminating information on how to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and are providing hygiene kits, clean water and sanitation. We are exploring ways to continue to provide education and legal assistance in a safe and appropriate way. We are providing additional shelter to allow for quarantining and greater social distancing, wherever possible.
- But we need to do more. As Covid-19 spreads across the world, international humanitarian organisations like the NRC are gravely concerned for the lives and wellbeing of vulnerable displaced people living in fragile and conflict-affected states. The Covid-19 pandemic is now hitting countries already experiencing multiple layers of complex crises with very weak and already overwhelmed public services. Millions of displaced people are living in overcrowded conditions, in extreme poverty and with limited or non-existent access to health care. The situation is particularly acute for those living in camp or camp-like settings and in hard-to-reach areas. Refugees and IDPs are amongst the most vulnerable and least able to protect themselves from the direct and indirect consequences the pandemic. They are not only at risk of contracting the virus itself but will also be severely impacted by the consequences of policy decisions and restrictions for a long time after the number of cases has reduced.
- The pandemic is not only a health emergency but has far reaching protection, social and economic consequences for displaced people. The capacity of refugees and IDPs to access assistance and protection was challenging before the pandemic and is now exacerbated by sometimes discriminatory or unjustified measures imposed to curb the spread of the virus and the lack of social safety nets. Travel bans and movement restrictions on people and essential humanitarian inputs mean that it is also extremely challenging for aid agencies to reach those in need at a time when displaced people are even less likely to be able to protect themselves and secure enough income to survive. While the economic impacts of the pandemic are being felt globally, developing and fragile countries are likely to be hit hardest, contributing to even higher levels of long-term aid dependency.
- Evidence that Covid-19 is causing new displacement is slowly emerging as access to basic services and livelihoods become even more challenging and displaced populations face new levels of stigmatisation and discrimination. In many other cases border closures and movement restrictions have left vulnerable populations unable to flee to safety as wars and violence continue, despite the UN Secretary General’s recent call for a global ceasefire amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
- Early action is necessary to support the most vulnerable displaced people. Important and high-impact interventions should be made now to protect refugees and IDPs and other at-risk groups. We urge DFID to play a lead role in the global humanitarian architecture to prevent the spread of Covid-19, respond to its direct and indirect impacts and to be a strong and uncompromising advocate for the protection of refugees and IDPs at this critical time.
Q1: The impact of the outbreak on aid operations, including the impact of national or local public health regulations:
- In many countries where the Norwegian Refugee Council works, governments have imposed public health measures which are impacting on the delivery of humanitarian assistance and on the movement of aid workers. In many cases, these restrictions are compromising access to life- saving services such as water, sanitation and hygiene items, as well as livelihood and protection interventions. A survey in April 2020 by the humanitarian information provider ACAPs, a joint NRC and Save the Children project, reveals that approximately 7 percent of humanitarian operations have completely stopped worldwide, 74 percent of agencies are reporting an impact on operations, with approximately 13 percent concentrating on life-saving services only. Several countries such as Afghanistan have suspended issuing new visas making it very challenging for organisations to bring in surge capacity. It is incredibly important at this time, when so many vulnerable people are reliant on international aid organisations, that NGOs are able to stay and deliver appropriately adapted interventions that mitigate the humanitarian and protection impacts of this crisis, as well as to maintain other life-saving measures not related to Covid-19.
- As a result of advocacy interventions, there are encouraging signs that some governments, particularly in parts of Central and West Africa, are now willing to include humanitarians on national lists of critical workers, allowing aid agencies to continue to operate. However, DFID and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), and its partner aid organisations, need to work closely together to ensure these measures are applied consistently and responsibly in all fragile contexts to ensure vulnerable populations receive the assistance they need. In some countries, implementing decisions to allow agencies to provide aid is still challenging. For example, in Afghanistan the Ministry of Economy (MoE) published two letters specifying that humanitarian organisations working in the health sector could continue to move freely in order to avoid gaps in service provision. However, there continue to be challenges in implementation, with several NGOs reporting that they were not allowed to pass checkpoints despite showing their NGO identity cards/badges and presenting the printed MoE letter.
- DFID can also play an important role in negotiating humanitarian access by supporting organisations and governments to agree both on lists of critical goods and services and on how they should be delivered to minimises the risk of transmission and to gain the trust of populations. In addition to health services, other priority essential services could include, for example, water provision and solid waste disposal, emergency cash and/or food distribution, shelter support to meet quarantine and self-isolation requirements, distribution of hygiene items and urgent protection assistance particularly for survivors of gender-based violence.
- As DFID plays a strong humanitarian leadership role in many countries, the NRC urges DFID to support national level humanitarian Access Task-Forces in priority countries and engage with authorities and other donors to ensure that aid is implemented in line with humanitarian principles and do no harm approaches. DFID should also pay particular attention to areas that were already difficult to reach before the pandemic and are likely to be even more seriously isolated and vulnerable as a result of this crisis
- In the current emergency, governments around the world are calling on their armed forces to support local delivery of assistance. In situations of ongoing conflict and/or in fragile states, every effort should be made by national authorities and their international partners to maintain the civilian character of the Covid-19 response. Recent experience from the Ebola crisis in the North Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo shows that the use of security forces to support aid operations in conflict areas can lead to fear and mistrust. It can put aid workers at risk, limit humanitarian access and hamper public health efforts. The NRC asks DFID to work with other governments and the UN to ensure military assets and/or security personnel are only used in the Covid-19 response as a last resort with the sole objective to preserve life. If such resources need to be used, it is imperative to ensure that the well-established international guidelines on the use of military assets and on civil-military coordination are respected and that there are clear and strong safeguards to prevent and report any abuses against civilians. DFID can specifically support humanitarian access by reinforcing existing civil-military coordination mechanisms in conflict-affected states, while continuing to highlight the importance of humanitarian principles.
- These national-level access challenges are compounded by global constraints, including overstretched international and regional supply chains, the reduction in the availability of commercial flights as well as international travel restrictions, including via land borders. In several cases, cross-border movements of humanitarian goods and staff has become more vital than ever in the context of Covid-19. For example, cross-border aid delivery into Syria, already under threat well before the pandemic, remains the most viable option for ensuring continued delivery of life-saving multi-sector humanitarian aid into the northwest of the country. The UN Security Council has an opportunity to ensure this lifeline is maintained when it discusses the renewal of resolution 2504 for an additional 12 months before it expires on 10 July 2020. The re-insertion of Yaroubiya as a named border crossing in the resolution would also allow more essential medical and other aid items into north-eastern Syria, in light of a likely Covid-19 outbreak there.
- In addition to national restrictions which impact on humanitarian access, international sanctions are negatively affecting aid agencies’ ability to respond to Covid-19. The NRC is calling on governments, including the UK, to work to ensure international sanctions do not impede the delivery of humanitarian aid, including medical equipment and supplies, to countries trying to contain or prevent outbreaks of coronavirus.
- The ongoing negative impact of sanctions on vulnerable populations and on the ability of organisations to respond to humanitarian crises has been well documented by the NRC and by others. The failure of states to address these issues now, during an unprecedented and deadly global crisis, would seriously undermine efforts to curb the pandemic. While humanitarian exemptions are already in place for some sanctions regimes, in practice, we know that where these exist they are often not fit for purpose. Procedures are slow and bureaucratic, and many organisations, including banks, feel unable to offer services that allow us to continue to operate in affected countries. Efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 in some countries are crippled as a result. In this regard, the NRC welcomes recent reports that the UK has been pressing for a relief of sanctions in countries such as Iran in the context of Covid-19. We hope that DFID will continue to work with the FCO to press the US and other governments to issue exemptions or general licenses to enable the delivery of pharmaceutical, medical and other crucial supplies to vulnerable people.
- The NRC is also asking for dedicated banking channels to be created to ensure DFID aid funds (and those of other donors) can reach those most in need, and for guidance to be issued, clarifying how banks and aid agencies can quickly and legally respond to Covid-19 in countries under sanction without fear of falling foul of the law. DFID should also engage with colleagues in the Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation and other relevant government departments and ministries to ensure that the application of the UK’s own sanctions are not impeding the global Covid-19 response.
Q2: The impacts of the outbreak on countries with existing humanitarian crises and/or substantial displaced populations, and negative national or local measures arising from public health risks
- Governments around the world have closed their borders or introduced new measures aimed at preventing or reducing transnational transmissions of Covid-19. These same restrictions are already having a negative impact on vulnerable populations seeking safety, leaving them more exposed to serious violence, or forcing them to resort to dangerous trafficking routes. In Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya, formal border crossings are almost entirely closed resulting in the effective shutdown of refugee transit centres. The NRC strongly supports the UN refugee agency’s (UNHCR) call for States to continue to grant asylum whilst putting in place appropriate measures at border crossings to protect public health. This also extends to refugee status determination (RSD) processes. In Uganda, for example, RSD processes have been suspended affecting the ability of asylum seekers to access assistance. Whilst it is understandable that processes may need to be temporarily halted, alternative measures need to be put in place to ensure that asylum seekers can access essential services, particularly health care, pending the resumption of RSD.
- At the very time when borders are closing and movements are restricted, the direct and indirect impacts of the pandemic are also causing new displacement. It is likely that a lack of access to essential services and/or livelihoods as well as stigmatisation or discrimination will cause more new displacement than the virus itself, including secondary displacement and premature returns. The coronavirus crisis is for example forcing Venezuelan refugees and migrants to return home, as lockdown measures prevent them from earning a living in Columbia. More could follow if the international community does not increase its funding to support the Colombian government’s pandemic response. In Lagos Nigeria, where there are believed to be an estimated 100,000 IDPs, the NRC’s Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) reports that there is evidence that vulnerable groups living in unsafe shelters are being victimised and human rights groups are warning that the enforcement of stay-at-home orders is leading to violence that could result in secondary displacement. In Somalia, 57 percent of survey respondents stated that they do not have access to a health centre and over 15 percent said that they would consider leaving their current location on the basis of the situation created by Covid-19.
- Existing refugee and IDP populations face numerous challenges. The NRC has particular expertise in relation to evictions and is witnessing increasing concerns amongst displaced populations that they will not be able to pay their rent and utility bills due to a loss of income. For example, since the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in Israel on 21 February, the UN reported that the Israeli Civil Administration demolished 28 residential properties and seven water facilities in the West Bank, displacing 69 people and affecting 417 others. Displaced people all over the world are at risk of eviction at a time that having safe, secure and adequate housing is essential for the containment of the pandemic. The NRC has seen in many contexts an increase in requests for rental support at this critical time. Evictions and loss of water connections can exacerbate a health emergency, undermining measures to stop the spread of the virus such as self-isolation, social distancing and proper hygiene practices. Evicted families are likely to move in with others, which will exacerbate overcrowding and increase chances of transmission. Evictions are particularly dangerous for the elderly, children and people living with disabilities and underlying medical conditions. Women are especially vulnerable to forced eviction and sex in exchange for rent and utilities. In wealthy countries governments have enacted temporary measures to protect people from eviction. We call on DFID to work with national authorities around the world to monitor and suspend evictions, and to allocate funds for rental support for displaced people and other vulnerable groups.
- Another major challenge for displaced populations is access to health care. This is often caused or exacerbated by the absence of civil documentation such as birth certificates and identity cards. In many countries there is a risk of not being able to access health services without relevant documentation, which has often been lost, confiscated or was never issued as result of ongoing, pre-Covid-19 crises. Even where documentation is not a prerequisite for receiving treatment, many refugees and IDPs are at risk of arrest and detention. Refugees and asylum seekers are also at risk of refoulement if caught without documentation, even when travelling to hospitals, which results in many displaced people not seeking critical medical assistance. In many parts of the world, registries have closed and services suspended, including for birth registration and the renewals of identity documents, as part of public health measures to respond to Covid-19. In light of these challenges, DFID has a role to play in supporting refugees and IDPs without documentation to access to health and other essential services and to encourage national authorities to issue a moratorium on all arrests and detentions related to a lack of documentation in the context of the pandemic.
- As has been highlighted by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and UNHCR some governments have introduced measures that have been disproportionate and discriminatory and not based on reasonable medical criteria. For example, as of early April 2020, 21 local authorities in Lebanon have introduced curfews which are disproportionately more severe for refugees than the local populations without providing medical justification. These cause unnecessary additional hardship at an already difficult time, as well as stigmatisation of refugees. The NRC is also concerned that some authorities may misuse health measures, such as decongestion of camps, to meet other objectives of forced returns and this needs to be carefully monitored by the humanitarian community and donors. There are also reports that some governments and de-facto authorities may be setting up quarantine sites which could become militarised or are dangerous. For example, in Yemen some returnees from Saudi Arabia and migrants are reportedly being held in inappropriate sites, lacking adequate protection and assistance. DFID should continue to press relevant authorities to ensure quarantine sites are non-discriminatory, used only as a last resort and that movement restrictions are proportional, temporary and appropriate to ensure people are free to leave when their quarantine period is over. Quarantine areas should meet minimum standards, ensuring basic provisions and health services are provided and that sites are located a safe distance from hostilities.
- In relation to these critical protection issues, DFID ministers should follow the example of the Canadian Minister of International Development and other governments in calling out discrimination, excessive use of force and violations of fundamental rights and freedoms that have already occurred in some countries during the implementation of Covid-19-related measures.
Threats to Livelihoods
- Lockdowns and restrictions on freedom of movement as well as job losses are already impacting displaced people’s ability to sustain their families, pay for essential hygiene items and access medical care. The NRC knows from its field presence that refugees and IDPs are heavily reliant on daily wages and the informal sector to survive. This makes them particularly and acutely vulnerable to measures that limit freedom of movement and the collapse of the informal sector.
- The NRC carried out a series of surveys in Jordan after public health restrictions were imposed. 90 percent of respondents who reported working in Week 1 (15-20 March 2020) of the survey were no longer working by Week 3 (29 March-3 April 2020). 87 percent of respondents reported that they had lost all of their household income by Week 3. A higher proportion of these were Syrian refugees (98 percent of Syrian households as compared to 60 percent of Jordanian households). All respondents reported resorting to negative coping strategies to compensate for the loss of household income, including reducing the number of meals consumed per day. A survey in Lebanon in March 2020 revealed that 70 percent of respondents were not able to generate income even before the Covid-19 outbreak due to the economic crisis and 26 percent reported that their ability to generate income was further impacted by Covid-19. Increased needs for hygiene and cleaning products are being met through rising debt and by reducing food intake and other expenditure. The longer-term impact of the loss of livelihoods will be catastrophic unless there is a coordinated effort to address basic needs now and plan for recovery once the health risks are reduced. In Somalia, over one third of respondents to an NRC survey in April 2020, from 82 displacement sites, identified economic hardship as an anticipated impact of the virus, specifically referring to loss of casual labour opportunities, rising inflation and growing basic needs.
- In response to these major livelihood challenges and complex access constraints, the NRC urges DFID to take up its global leadership position on the use of humanitarian cash assistance in the context of Covid-19. DFID should call for dialogue between health and non-health actors and cash donors to find ways to scale up cash programming in a manner which is safe and accessible to the most vulnerable. This has the potential to improve health outcomes and reinforces existing social safety nets.
Q.3: The impact of the outbreak on funding
- Humanitarian NGOs appreciate DFID’s strong support to the UN Covid-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan. At the same time, the NRC cautions that 90 percent of the funding to this plan is set to be channelled via the UN, which will result in additional layers of bureaucracy before it reaches critical frontline implementing agencies, thereby slowing the response. The NRC asks that DFID continues to complement support to the UN with other funding mechanisms directly accessible to implementing NGOs.
- DFID supports flexible and quality funding principles as outlined in the Grand Bargain, including in relation to unearmarked funding. The NRC urges DFID to apply these principles to its current and new grants while also insisting that the UN passes these flexible policies onto their humanitarian implementing partners. We have already seen some encouraging signs with several UN agencies issuing guidelines on simplified procedures. The NRC asks DFID to encourage flexibility across all UN agencies, ensuring that improvements in meeting Grand Bargain commitments are not reversed once the immediate phase of Covid-19 emergency is over.
- Due diligence procedures, including reporting, auditing and budgeting requirements are critical for transparency, accountability and effectiveness of aid. At this time, when speed and scale is needed to respond to Covid-19 in the face of unprecedented challenges, we ask that DFID works with us to ensure due diligence procedures are simplified and fast-tracked to the absolute extent possible, in order to allow us to save more lives. For example, we ask that emergency procurement procedures be agreed quickly so that humanitarian organisations can adapt to the public health-related restrictions imposed by national authorities around the world and ensure the availability of essential humanitarian inputs. We believe that DFID can do more to publicly commit to project and budget flexibility, as US and other donors have done.
 Department for International Development (12 April 2020) UK leads global fight to prevent second wave of coronavirus: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-leads-global-fight-to-prevent-second-wave-of-coronavirus. Other funding sources have been (re)allocated but may not yet to be formally announced or have not been fully tallied.
 United Nations (3 April 2020) Secretary-General Reiterates Appeal for Global Ceasefire, Warns ‘Worst Is Yet to Come’ as COVID-19 Threatens Conflict Zones: https://www.un.org/press/en/2020/sgsm20032.doc.htm
ACAPS (April 2020) COVID-19 Impact on humanitarian operations: https://www.acaps.org/sites/acaps/files/products/files/20200407_acaps_quick_survey_humanitarian_impact_of_Covid-19.pdf
 Inter-Agency Standing Committee (November 2007) Guidelines On The Use of Foreign Military and Civil Defence Assets In Disaster Relief - “Oslo Guidelines”: https://interagencystandingcommittee.org/system/files/legacy_files/Guielines percent20on percent20The percent20Use percent20of percent20Foreign percent20Military percent20and percent20Civil percent20Defence percent20Assets percent20in percent20Disaster percent20Relief percent20- percent20Oslo percent20Guidelines percent2C percent20OCHA-Nov2006 percent2C percent20Revision percent20November percent202007.pdf
Norwegian Refugee Council (12 June 2018) Principles under Pressure: the impact of counterterrorism measures and preventing/countering violent extremism on principled humanitarian action https://www.nrc.no/resources/reports/principles-under-pressure/; International Peace Institute (19 December 2019) Making Sanctions Smarter: Safeguarding Humanitarian Action https://www.ipinst.org/2019/12/making-sanctions-smarter-safeguarding-humanitarian-action
The Guardian (18 March 2020) UK presses US to ease Iran sanctions to help fight coronavirus https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/18/uk-presses-us-to-ease-iran-sanctions-to-help-fight-coronavirus
UNHCR (19 March 2020) Statement by Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, on the COVID-19 crisis https://www.unhcr.org/uk/news/press/2020/3/5e7395f84/statement-filippo-grandi-un-high-commissioner-refugees-Covid-19-crisis.html
 Norwegian Refugee Council (7 April 2020) Covid-19 forces migrants and refugees back to crisis-ridden Venezuela https://www.nrc.no/news/2020/april/colombia-venezuela-press-release/
Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (April 2020) Displaced and Isolated: The Realities of Covid19 for International Placed People in Lagos, Nigeria https://www.internal-displacement.org/expert-opinion/displaced-and-isolated-the-realities-of-covid19-for-internally-displaced-people-in
Norwegian Refugee Council (April 2020) A cough that kills people: Views on Covid-19 from Somalia’s displacement-affected communities (unpublished briefing paper).
 Norwegian Refugee Council (15 April 2020) Israel’s destruction of Palestinian property undermines efforts to curb Covid-19: https://www.nrc.no/news/2020/april/israels-destruction-of-palestinian-property-undermines-efforts-to-curb-Covid-19/
 Norwegian Refugee Council (15 March 2014) Life Can Change: Securing housing, land and property rights for displaced women: https://www.nrc.no/resources/reports/life-can-change---securing-housing-land-and-property-rights-for-displaced-women/
Human Rights Watch (March 2020) Lebanon: Refugees at Risk in COVID-19 Response. Discrimination Risks Harming Syrians, Lebanese Alike: https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/04/02/lebanon-refugees-risk-Covid-19-response
 Government of Canada (8 April 2020) Human rights implications of COVID-19: https://www.canada.ca/en/global-affairs/news/2020/04/human-rights-implications-of-Covid-19.html
 Norwegian Refugee Council (March 2020) Covid 19 Labour Market Impact Monitoring in Jordan, bi-weekly update 15 to 27 March/Report #1, report No2 covering April (unpublished briefing).
 Camealeon (March 2020) Rapid field monitoring survey on the impact of Covid-19 on WFP multi-purpose cash recipients (unpublished briefing).
 Norwegian Refugee Council (April 2020) A cough that kills people: Views on Covid-19 from Somalia’s displacement-affected communities (unpublished briefing).
 UN OCHA (April 2020) Global Humanitarian Response Plan Covid-19 United Nations Coordinated Appeal (https://www.unocha.org/sites/unocha/files/Global-Humanitarian-Response-Plan-COVID-19.pdf Of the 2.01 billion USD appeal, only 100 million USD is unearmarked for country-specific NGO response.