UNHCR response to the UK International Development Committee inquiry into humanitarian crises monitoring: on longer term issues of the coronavirus, its implications and lessons to be learned



The COVID-19 pandemic is a global humanitarian crisis, with epidemiological models projecting an enormous public health impact that will continue to stress and overload health systems and result in higher morbidity and death rates.  Social distancing and other virus containment measures appear to have been successful in “flattening the curve” for now

Containment measures to date have also had a significant economic impact, with increased unemployment, loss of income and depletion of savings.  The World Food Programme estimates that approximately 265 million people in low- and middle-income countries will suffer from acute hunger by the end of 2020.  Half a billion people are expected to be newly poor, including in many countries where refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons and internally displaced people live.  The International Monetary Fund’s latest economic outlook projects a global economic contraction of as much as 3% GDP in 2020, with far more profound effects in some regions

COVID-19 is also occurring against the backdrop of numerous existing conflicts.  Despite some declarations of ceasefires, armed clashes between state forces and non-state armed groups have continued.  Ongoing conflicts and displacements, combined with restricted movements, continue to drive insecurity in certain states.

Economic fallout

The economic fallout resulting from COVID-19 is already having implications for global unemployment, with informal and agricultural workers more vulnerable to the shock.  For refugees and other displaced people who are disproportionately overrepresented in the informal economy and have limited or no social protections, the shock is likely to be even more acute.  The majority of refugees are hosted in low- or middle income countries (85%) and most are excluded from participating in the formal economy and related protections. Seventy percent of refugees live in countries with a restricted right to work (UNHCR Global Livelihoods Survey 2019)Of those who can work, about half are employed in daily or short-term roles.

Their vulnerability will be further exacerbated as a result of increasing unemployment and working poverty, heightening food insecurity and dependence on assistance (food, cash, water, fuel), and deepening gaps in social protection.  In many UNHCR operations, refugees and other persons of concern were unable to meet their basic needs before COVID-19; they were already dependent on food and cash assistance.  Approximately 4 million very vulnerable households currently receive cash assistance and others are likely to become more vulnerable

Recent data, where available, suggests that poor households that were not included in social protection mechanisms prior to the crisis are more likely to experience economic shocks, especially in areas with acute pre-existing development challenges and high food insecurity.  Here, COVID-19 could contribute to lowering life expectancy, lowering standards of living and more limited education opportunities.  This may make it even more challenging for populations to lead dignified lives. 

Overall, recessions tend to push labour participation rates lower. Countries with low labour force participation rates are at a higher risk of increased unemployment due to the crisis.  Many countries where there are high numbers of refugees and other displaced people have a younger population.  Low labour participation in countries with younger populations will likely mean a further diminution of opportunities for employment and may cause social tensions if displaced populations compete with hosts.


When children attend school they are less likely to be involved in child labour or criminal activity, or to come under the influence of gangs and militias. Girls are less likely to be coerced into early marriage and pregnancy, and can study and socialize in safe spaces.

Due to the various COVID-related restriction measures, more than 1.2 billion learners have already been impacted by school closures globally (or 72% of the global school population) (UNESCO). Refugee children already had poor access to education, with 63% enrolled in primary school versus 91% globally, and 24% in secondary school versus 84% globally.  Moreover, refugees are 50% less likely than the general population to have an internet-enabled phone, and 29% of refugee households have no phone at all thus limiting the opportunities for remote learning (UNHCR 2018)

The spill-over effects of COVID-19 on education will impact displaced children’s schooling for a prolonged period, their access to nutrition, exposure to protection risks, and potential for increased dropout rates. The longer children are out of school, the less likely they are to re-enroll. Losses in learning will have consequences for skills growth and labour force participation, and malnutrition will increase as a result of children missing school meal programmes.

Furthermore, these impacts are likely to be particularly disadvantageous for refugee and IDP girls (UNESCO), who often have fewer opportunities than boys to access education. In Kenya and Ethiopia, there are only seven refugee girls for every ten refugee boys enrolled in primary education (UNHCR, 2018). As the economic hardships caused by the crisis deepen, forcibly displaced families will increasingly consider the opportunity costs of education – including losses in terms of income and domestic duties (UNHCR 2018).

Moreover, when schools are closed there is less opportunity for children at risk to be identified and access to protection services. 


As governments and societies come under pressure due to the public health crisis and economic shock, there is an increased risk of intensified and new conflicts, and new forced displacements. COVID-19, and the resulting economic damage, could impact progress stemming from recent political progress and consensus around burden and responsibility-sharing, solidarity and possibilities for inclusion envisioned in the Global Compact on Refugees at global and local levels.  While political solidarity in combatting the virus is evident in many parts of the world, solidarity to foster equitable and balanced economic recovery in the medium to long-term might be difficult to sustain.  It might also have negative implications on the willingness of hosts to include refugees and others of concern in national systems like health and education and socio-economic activities.  Humanitarian assistance can mitigate the worst impacts in the short-term, but refugees are likely to face significant challenges if the economic contraction is as severe and unevenly spread as many current forecasts suggest. 

UNHCR’s ability to stay and deliver largely depends on the measures in place to support a significant proportion of the workforce, including their health and wellbeing, and being able to support and intervene during lockdowns and their aftermathsAs has already been seen throughout many sectors, supply chains may continue to be hampered by higher overall costs, particularly in more remote and hard to reach locations.  Even if the economic downturn can be mitigated somewhat, some disruption on delivery and transportation remains likely.  If supply chains are more significantly impacted, the effects could lead to major disruption and challenges in getting access to and transporting specialized items and even potentially basic commodities.  In a worst-case scenario, it may cost more to deliver less, with some core relief items not immediately available. That said, the initial response to UNHCR’s portion of the UN-wide COVID-19 appeal has been extremely positive, with generous contributions from traditional donors.

Humanitarian aid has been growing as a share of overall ODA in recent years and so it may be relatively well insulated.  Whilst the trend toward national stimulus spending (leveraging debt) to mitigate the impacts of recession may carry over to national ODA budgets in the near- to medium-term, the impacts of a global recession (GDP contraction) may affect ODA in 2021 and 2022. If this were to happen, the impact on developing countries and on refugees and IDPs would be devastating, and there is little doubt that this would reverberate in developed countries: in our interconnected world political and economic destabilization in one region has consequences for all others. The mass displacement of 2015 is proof of this. Private sector partnerships and fundraising might face new challenges as a result of restrictions with face-to-face fundraising, and significant corporate profit tightening could impact charitable giving.

Going forward

UNHCR is currently studying a number of potential initiatives that, if reinforced, scaled up or launched, might help mitigate some of the worst effects of a dramatic diminution of refugee livelihoods in a post-COVID world. These might include enhanced remote monitoring of protection and socio-economic impacts, and working more closely with states to adopt innovative measures to ensuring continued access to territory/asylum procedures. UNHCR also needs to enhance its support to national authorities to initiate, extend or expand projects to regularize stay arrangements for persons of concern and offer support to national asylum systems.

It will also be important to more closely track the inclusion of refugees in national strategies and stimulus packages to preserve important gains that have been made in recent years and to ensure that targeted interventions are possible where refugees are falling through social safety nets that were previously available.

It will be important to continually engage governments, UN country teams and development institutions to ensure that there is adequate provision made for preventative health planning; water and sanitation supplies; maintaining and supporting social protection mechanisms; and ensuring food security.

UNHCR will continue to engage with governments to find alternatives to enable continuity in education.  UNHCR has produced a compilation of some emerging practices from its operations that focus on efforts to ensure the continuation of learning during disruptions to education arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. The document outlines a variety of actions taken by UNHCR operations to this end, including community mobilisation and dissemination of information about available opportunities to refugee communities, supporting access to distance learning programmes, ensuring the continuity of support services such as cash grants and teacher incentives.

Providing refugees with cash enables them to fulfil their needs in a dignified manner and contributes to the local economy. UNHCR has been a leader in using cash-based interventions (CBI) to provide protection, assistance and services to the most vulnerable. Cash and vouchers help the displaced meet a variety of needs, including access to food, water, healthcare, shelter, that allow them to build and support livelihoods, and to facilitate voluntary repatriation. Expanding CBI can be an important and flexible tool to responding to COVID-induced aid limitations and restrictions, while ensuring that sustainability and dependency are carefully monitored.  Across its operations, UNHCR is working in partnership with governments and other relevant partners to pursue common cash approaches outlined in the UN Principals Common Cash Statement.

The COVID-related crisis might also open up new avenues and modalities for working with new partners (especially community groups) and suppliers, a process that had already started at UNHCR under the ‘Grand Bargain’ commitments to localization (2016), the Global Compact on Refugees (2018) and the Global Refugee Forum (2019), which brought in new actors to the refugee response planning including refugee groups, private companies, development institutions and civil society groups.

Indeed, the International Council of Voluntary Agencies, expressed last month appreciation for the ongoing dialogue with UNHCR since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis and the flexibility of measures being undertaken with respect to partnership arrangements.

Developing new means of communicating effectively with affected communities will become more important than ever in the years ahead. UNHCR will look to craft and disseminate through the most effective means compelling messages that promote solidarity and a rights-based approach and highlight the shared benefits of inclusion in host societies.

Strong messaging and sustained commitment will also be required to ensure that other ongoing emergencies are not forgotten, such as the Sahel, Syria or Venezuela crises. In these and other humanitarian contexts, the COVID-19 emergency is an emergency on top of an emergency, exacerbating existing protection and livelihood issues. Sustaining humanitarian support is vital to address urgent humanitarian needs eclipsed by the COVID-19 crisis to ensure no one is left behind and help stabilize fragile situations.

UNHCR’s budget of $8.6 billion for 2020 is currently 18% funded.  Over the medium and longer term, UNHCR is concerned that, should there be a tightening of donor support due to the impact of COVID-19 on the global economy, there might be an impact on the scope of our operational response. Humanitarian and development aid will be more important than ever after this crisis, and we need to prepare and plan for the long run together with key host and donor governments.