The number of people forcibly displaced around the world has doubled in the past decade and is estimated to have passed 80 million in mid-2020, as few could go home and more were uprooted, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said in a report published on Wednesday.
That total, roughly equivalent to the population of Germany or Turkey, includes people displaced within their own country, refugees, asylum seekers and others who have been forced out of their own country.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said the numbers had risen as the international community had failed to safeguard peace.
Global ceasefire now
“We are now surpassing another bleak milestone that will continue to grow unless world leaders stop wars”, Mr. Grandi said in a statement, resonating with the UN Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire amidst the collective struggle to turn the COVID tide.
The year saw a continuation of the conflicts and humanitarian crises in Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mozambique, Somalia, and Yemen that have driven people from their homes in previous years, as well as significant new displacement resulting from brutal violence, including rape and executions, across Africa’s Central Sahel region.
But 2020 also added a new factor: the COVID-19 pandemic.
“While COVID-19 has temporarily led to a reduction in the number of new asylum-seekers due to movement restrictions and border closures, including when no exceptions are made for admission to territory, the underlying factors leading to conflict in situations globally remain unaddressed”, the UNHCR report said.
“At the same time, resettlement countries are accepting smaller numbers of refugees, and host countries are struggling to integrate displaced populations. Restrictions on movement and concerns about transmission of the virus have resulted in some solutions programmes being almost entirely suspended.”
Syrians and Venezuelans
As the first wave of the pandemic was in progress during April, 168 countries had fully or partially closed their borders, with 90 countries making no exception for people seeking asylum; although 111 countries have since found pragmatic ways to keep their asylum system fully or partially operational, UNHCR said.
The mid-year figure of 80 million includes 26.4 million refugees, including 5.7 million under the mandate of the UN Palestinian relief agency UNRWA, plus 4.2 million asylum-seekers and 3.6 million Venezuelans displaced abroad.
Those figures come on top of the 45.7 million people who were displaced around the world at the start of 2020 – a number that was not updated in UNHCR’s latest calculation.
The biggest group of refugees are victims of almost a decade of war in Syria, totalling 6.6 million. Neighbouring Turkey, with 3.6 million refugees, remains the world’s biggest host nation for refugees, followed by Colombia, Pakistan and Uganda.
Germany – another major destination for Syrians fleeing the conflict – hosts 1.1 million refugees, the fifth biggest population globally.
Only one per cent made it home
During the first half of 2020, only around one per cent of the overall displaced population is thought to have gone home, a much lower rate than in the same period of 2019.
The number of internally displaced people returning fell by almost three-quarters to 635,000, with Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, and South Sudan accounting for the bulk of returns. The number of refugees returning fell by one-fifth to 102,600, and 85,000 Venezuelans also returned from neighbouring countries.
COVID crises highlight strengths of democratic systems
The UN Secretary-General, on Wednesday, urged the world to “learn from the lessons of the past 18 months, to strengthen democratic resilience in the face of future crises.”
In his message for the International Day of Democracy, António Guterres explained in the wake of COVID-19, this meant identifying good governance practices that can counter all kinds of emergencies, whether public health, environmental or financial.
“It means addressing the egregious global injustices laid bare by the crisis, from pervasive gender inequalities and inadequate health systems to unequal access to vaccines, education, the internet and online services,” he said.
For the UN chief, along with the human toll carried by those most deprived, “these persistent historical inequalities are themselves threats to democracy.”
Participation of all
The Secretary-General argues that strengthening democracy also means embracing participation in decision-making, including peaceful protests, and giving a voice to people and communities that have traditionally been excluded.
“The silencing of women, religious and ethnic minorities, indigenous communities, people with disabilities, human rights defenders and journalists is an impediment to creating healthy societies,” Mr. Guterres said.
For him, “democracy simply cannot survive, let alone flourish, in the absence of civic space.”
In his message, António Guterres also stresses the importance of phasing out emergency powers and legal measures by governments, which in some cases have become repressive and contravene human rights law.
He explains that some States and security sector institutions rely on emergency powers because they offer shortcuts, but cautions that, with time, “such powers can seep into legal frameworks and become permanent, undermining the rule of law and consuming the fundamental freedoms and human rights that serve as a bedrock for democracy.”
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Secretary-General warned that “every crisis poses a threat to democracy, because the rights of the people, in particular those most vulnerable, are all too quickly ignored.”
It is for that reason that protection of rights in times of crisis is a key element of his Call to Action for Human Rights, issued in February of last year.
As the world starts to look beyond the pandemic, Mr. Guterres called on the international community to “commit to safeguarding the principles of equality, participation and solidarity”, so that it can better weather the storm of future crises.
Gender equality ‘champion’ Sima Sami Bahous to lead UN Women
Secretary-General António Guterres described Sima Sami Bahous of Jordan, as “a champion for women and girls”, announcing on Monday her appointment to lead the UN’s gender equality and empowerment entity, UN Women.
The UN chief said she would also champion gender equality and youth empowerment, as well as being a “keen advocate for quality education, poverty alleviation and inclusive governance”.
Ms. Bahous brings to the job more than 35 years of leadership experience at the grassroots, national, regional and international level.
She has expertise in advancing women’s empowerment and rights, addressing discrimination and violence, and promoting sustainable socio-economic development, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) the UN chief said in a statement.
The news came following consultations with Member States and the Executive Board of UN Women.
Most recently, Ms. Bahous served as Jordan’s UN ambassador in New York.
Prior to that, she was the Assistant Administrator and Director of the Regional Bureau for Arab States at the UN Development Programme (UNDP) from 2012 to 2016 and Assistant Secretary-General and Head of the Social Development Sector at the League of Arab States, from 2008 to 2012.
The new UN Women chief has also served in two ministerial posts in Jordan as President of the Higher Media Council from 2005 to 2008 and as Adviser to King Abdullah II from 2003 to 2005.
She has also worked for UN Children’s Fund UNICEF, and with a number of UN and civil society organizations, as well as teaching development and communication studies at different universities in her native Jordan.
She is fluent in Arabic and English, and proficient in French.
Tribute to outgoing head
The UN chief said he was “deeply grateful” to outgoing Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka of South Africa, for the “commitment and dedicated service” she exhibited as head of UN Women.
He also extended his appreciation to the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Pramila Patten, who will continue to serve as Acting Executive Director until Ms. Bahous is in post.
An illustration of resilience and hope, in the face anti-Asian hate
The rise in hate crimes against people of Asian and Pacific Island heritage in the United States since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, inspired artist Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya to produce vibrant artworks featuring people of Asian heritage. Displayed in public spaces around New York City, the images, and the messages they convey, have made headlines around the world.
Brightly coloured posters, murals and displays appeared at bus stops, in subway stations and on landmark buildings across New York City in the Spring of 2021, part of a project commissioned by the City’s Commission on Human Rights called “I Still Believe In This City”, featuring works by Ms. Phingbodhipakkiya, the Commission’s artist-in-residence.
‘They lift us up as guardians’
Ms. Phingbodhipakkiya, an American neuroscientist turned artist, born in Atlanta to Thai and Indonesian immigrants, has long had a high profile in the art world, and her explorations of feminism, science, and community have often gone beyond galleries and media outlets, to protests and rallies, as well as on buildings and highway tunnels.
But her artistic response to the rise in anti-Asian hate since the COVID-19 pandemic has brought her a much wider audience: “I Still Believe In This City” has been covered by a host of major media outlets, including the cover of the renowned Time magazine, reflecting a new awareness of anger and violence directed towards Asian-Americans.
Whilst the works, which feature images of people of Asian and Pacific Island heritage, communicate positivity and an upbeat outlook, the accompanying text gives the viewer a different perspective, containing information about the darker context that inspired these pieces, such as “This is our home too”, “I am not your scapegoat”, and “I did not make you sick”, the latter slogan reflecting the targeting of people of Asian heritage, on the unfounded basis that they are primarily responsible for spreading COVID-19.
Ms. Phingbodhipakkiya says that the figures portrayed in the posters and murals represent “resilient, hopeful guardians, in the face of these horrible attacks against our community. They lift us up as guardians, keeping us safe, encouraging us to stand up for our rights”.
Art and human rights
The public art exhibition has been praised by UN Human Rights Minority fellow, Derrick León Washington, a New York-based cultural anthropologist, dancer and curator, who believes that art is crucial to promoting human rights: “art like Amanda’s is an important way to start difficult conversations. It is connected to lived experiences, and helps us to reach and touch different communities.”
The artworks, says Mr. Washington, “speak to the defiance of Asian-Americans in the face of anti-Asian violence. However, this is not just a New York or US story, and the UN Secretary General has expressed “profound concern” over the rise in similar attacks worldwide.”
“Racism against Asians and Pacific Islanders is not a new phenomenon”, says Carmelyn Malalis, chairperson of the New York City Commission on Human Rights. “We all have stories from our youth, but it’s true that last year was particularly bad, because of the pandemic.”
Ms. Malalis points out that increased levels of anti-Asian hate took place in the context of a rise in all forms of racism, in New York and beyond. “In the past year the Black Lives Matter movement has been fighting against anti-black, and now anti-asian, antisemitic and other forms of xenophobia. This is a highly diverse city, and we want to see solidarity between all of our different communities”.
May we know our own strength
At the same time as the “I Still Believe in This City” artworks were being displayed in New York City, Ms. Phingbodhipakkiya launched another, more sombre piece, also in collaboration with the NYC Commission on Human Rights, entitled “May we know our own strength”. It grew out her reaction to a mass shooting in March 2021, which resulted in the death of eight people, six of whom were women of Asian descent.
“This installation slowly developed from shared stories of violence against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI), but was open to anyone going through something difficult; it was a space for them to lay down their burden”.
Survivors of assault and other forms of abuse anonymously posted their stories, often deeply personal and harrowing, to an online submission form. Each submission activated a printer in the storefront, which relayed the stories onto ribbons of paper, whilst activating an incandescent lightbulb. Ms. Phingbodhipakkiya then weaved the stories into intricate hanging sculptures.
The artist says that she hopes the exhibition helped to transform the pain and loss of each story into “a new pathway for peace and gentleness, and a new way forward.
“So often”, she adds “when we see atrocious acts, we turn away. But, by shutting the door on others, we shut the door on our own humanity. Art can bring it back.”
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