Locked down: Global mobility and COVID-19

At Perry World House’s 2021 Global Shifts Colloquium, Filippo Grandi, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, addressed how limits on human movement during the pandemic have affected refugees and asylum seekers.

illegal immigration displaced persons camp concept of little boy in black and orange clothes holding fence with barbed wire in desert on state border
The pandemic has led to extreme limits on human movement,  turning borders into barriers for refugees and asylum seekers. The topic was the theme of Perry World House’s 2021 Global Shifts Colloquium.

The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic has led to some of the most extreme limits on human movement in recent history, with flights grounded, borders closed, and immigration processes stalled. How have these limitations affected refugees and asylum seekers, some of the world’s most vulnerable people? And how can the international community support and protect these groups as the pandemic persists, and how can it prepare to better respond to future crises?

Filippo Grandi, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, addressed those questions at the Perry World House (PWH) 2021 Global Shifts Colloquium, “Locked Down: Global Mobility and COVID-19.” In a conversation with National Public Radio international correspondent Deborah Amos, Grandi discussed the challenges his agency has faced during the pandemic, efforts to vaccinate refugees, and how to battle anti-immigrant narratives.

A zoom call features Penn president Amy Gutmann in the upper left screen, NPR's Deborah Amos in the upper right screen and Filippo Grandi of the UN at the bottom
President Amy Gutmann (top, left) introduced moderator Deborah Amos (top, right) and Filippo Grandi.

In introducing Grandi, Penn President Amy Gutmann talked about how when war, nationalism, or pandemics descend, borders can become barriers, and recounted her own family’s story that highlights how which side of a border people find themselves on can change their lives’ trajectories.

“My father fled Nazi Germany, and he helped his whole family do the same by crossing borders that were, at that time, still barely crossable,” said Gutmann. “I exist today because Kurt Gutmann, with equal parts great luck and great courage, made it to the right side of first one border, then another, and finally here to the States.”

But many haven’t been that fortunate, she said.

“Unlike the current coronavirus, the current global refugee crisis is not novel,” she said. “This high-stakes challenge grows only more so with the pandemic.”

Nearly 200 attendees logged in to the discussion, which was part of a three-day academic workshop. The virtual PWH colloquium brought 30 scholars and policymakers together to look at the issues of mobility during the pandemic.

Grandi said the most recent figures show that forced displacement affects about 80 million people worldwide, and when last year’s numbers are released in June he expects those figures to be much higher.

“We are all in the same sea with COVID-19, but we are in very different boats,” he said. “The most vulnerable among us have been impacted worse by the pandemic, including the people my organization deals with: refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced people, stateless people.”

The pandemic has stopped almost everything in the world except war and climate change, Grandi said. These continuing conflicts are creating new displacement and new needs for international protection, heightened by the constraints of the pandemic.

“For people in flight, movement is vital. If you cannot move, you can often not reach physical safety. In the pandemic, movement has had to be stopped because it risks bringing the virus to other places. This has been a major dilemma for us,” he said.

He described how his agency has worked with countries like Uganda to safely bring in refugees fleeing deadly clashes in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. They have set up testing areas and isolation wards on the border so they can let the refugees into the country with a lower risk of the virus coming along as well.

Similarly, with the large refugee camps of Rohingya in Bangladesh, his workers were extremely concerned that the crowded conditions would lead to a virus explosion. With donations, hard work, and coordination with the government, they managed to avoid the worst and keep the infections down, he said.

The next challenge is to ensure refugees are included in national vaccination campaigns, which is a massive logistical challenge, in addition to the complications of providing a vaccination passport to people who have no passports at all and serious difficulties accessing any sort of documentation, he said.

The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare key needs in the area of refugees: prevention, preparedness, fighting stigma of disease and status, the need for inclusion, and the importance of multilateralism.

“Amid COVID-19, the myth of ‘my country first’ has proven its extreme weakness,” said Grandi. “In Europe we are in a deep crisis in respect to vaccines, and part of that crisis is due to a vaccine nationalism that is the child of ‘my country first’, and it is now proving catastrophic for an entire continent. That proves a point that can be applied to many other global situations.”

He said he’s very happy with the Biden administration’s pledge to resettle 125,000 refugees, and thinks the gradual approach they are taking is wise, especially since they must rebuild a program that was completely dismantled during the Trump administration.

Asked how nations can combat xenophobia, he pointed to the work done by migrants and refugees during the pandemic as a narrative to highlight.

“In Europe, there was an enormous need for health workers in the pandemic. And of course, migrants and refugees contributed. That projected a very positive image because they were on the front line doing dangerous work,” Grandi said. “These are the kinds of stories we need to tell."

During the Q&A session, Grandi was asked what keeps him going amid such a disheartening crisis.

He cited the tireless work of his colleagues across the globe, who have remained on the front lines during the entire pandemic despite incredibly difficult conditions, and the support of nations around the world.

“But foremost, it’s the example of those people that are refugees and displaced and stateless. Their resilience, their strength is unbelievable,” he said. “It takes so much courage to make that difficult decision to go into exile. It is that strength that inspires us most."

A video recording of the entire discussion is available on Perry World House’s YouTube channel.