The rapid global spread of the COVID-19 has demonstrated that no matter how successful America is at fighting this pandemic here at home, we will never stop this threat unless we’re also fighting it around the world. In this series of issue briefs, the USGLC takes an in depth look at the global response and COVID-19’s impacts on vulnerable populations, global development and diplomacy, and the future of U.S. global leadership. Read more from our series here.

Last updated August 30, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has limited efforts to provide assistance and mitigate conflict in ongoing crises, making countries in conflict among the most vulnerable to the virus. It has also allowed governments to limit citizens’ freedoms and violent extremist groups to advance their agendas. Alongside these challenges, refugee and displaced communities have grown by record numbers over the past year. While vaccines are being rolled out across the world, vaccine nationalism, challenges to distribution, and obstacles regarding access bring into question how quickly aid will reach these fragile states and vulnerable communities.

  • In 2020, political violence in nearly half the world’s countries according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED).
  • The global refugee population has more than doubled in the past decade, and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported that the number of people forcibly displaced increased 4% in 2020 and rose to a new record high of nearly 82.4 million people, more than 1% of the world’s population.
  • Abductions and forced disappearances increased from 2019 to 2020, with dramatic increases in Nigeria (by 169%), Yemen (114%), Syria (36%), and the Democratic Republic of Congo (21%).

Impact on Conflict

Although many hoped that the pandemic would ease international tensions and lead to ceasefires, data from ACLED reveals that conventional conflicts like Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, and Afghanistan continued to rage.

  • While civilian targeting and civilian fatalities decreased on the aggregate level from 2019 to 2020, civilian targeting events increased in half of all countries ACLED covers, with the greatest increases being recorded in Brazil, Nigeria, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Cameroon.
  • In Syria, only 64% of hospitals and 52% of primary health care centers are functioning, and an estimated 70% of the health workforce has fled the country. Of the remaining health workers, 81% know of patients or colleagues who were killed in attacks. Moreover, 59% of civilians in northwest Syria have been directly impacted by an attack on health care facilities.
  • In Yemen, only half of all health facilities remain functional. The pandemic has exacerbated the situation, with 15% of the functioning health system repurposed for COVID-19. There are only 10 health workers per 10,000 people, and 67 out of the 333 districts have no doctors.

Rising Extremism

The pandemic has also been accompanied by an increase in violent extremism, with U.N. counter-terrorism chief, Vladimir Voronkov, warning that terrorist groups are exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic and appealing to new “racially, ethnically, and politically motivated violent extremist groups.”

  • Militant Islamist group violence in Africa increased by 43% in 2020, representing a record level of violence, and reported fatalities linked to African militant Islamist groups rose by a third in 2020 in comparison to 2019.
  • Annual fatalities from conflict in Mozambique grew from 663 to 1,545 between 2019 and 2020. The fatalities were focused in the province of Cabo Delgado, which has experienced increased waves of violent insurgency.
  • A report from the UN’s Analytical Support and Sanction team found that threats posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Al-Qaida “continued to rise as the pandemic inhibited forces of law and order more than terrorists… The economic and political toll of the pandemic, its aggravation of underlying drivers of violent extremism and its expected impact on counter-terrorism efforts are likely to increase the long-term threat everywhere.”

Impact on Refugees

The COVID-19 pandemic has not had as deadly an impact on refugee communities thus far as anticipated. This is potentially due to the fact that refugee camps often have limited contact with the local population around them, half of the 26 million refugees around the world are under the age of 18, and there are lower levels of obesity in refugee populations.

However, the pandemic’s second and third order impacts have had a huge effect on the refugee community, increasing displacement and limiting opportunities for work and resettlement. In their 2021 Global Appeal, UNHCR wrote that, “Despite decades of experience, the coronavirus emergency has been unlike any seen throughout UNHCR’s 70-year history. Never has every UNHCR office and operation faced a crisis of this magnitude—all at the same time.”

  • UNHCR projects that there are 97.3 million people of concern worldwide who need their assistance in 2021, including over 26 million refugees and almost 50 million internationally displaced people.
  • The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) estimates that more than three quarters of displaced and conflict-affected people have lost income since the start of the pandemic.
  • 144 countries still have border closures in place, and more than 60 have not made any exceptions for refugees or asylum seekers.
  • Data from May 2021 suggests that in 99 out of 152 countries, migrants in regular situations have been included in national vaccination and deployment plans, compared to only 50 countries for migrants in irregular situations.
  • Approximately 86% of the world’s refugees are hosted in low- and middle-income countries, which face financial challenges and fragile heath systems.

Challenges Facing Refugee Communities and Conflict-Ridden States

While conflict-ridden states and refugee communities are in dire need of support, recent attacks on aid workers and shortages in funding complicate these efforts.

  • According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, over 848  incidents of violence, harassment, or stigmatization against health care workers, patients, and medical infrastructure related to the COVID-19 pandemic were recorded from  February to December last year.
  • The UC Berkley Human Rights Center and Insecurity Insight documented more than 1,100 attacks and threats of violence against health care in 2020, including medical personnel, patients, and health care facilities. The most instances occurred in conflict-ridden and fragile states like Syria, Yemen, Myanmar, Burkina Faso, and Libya. Approximately 400 instances appear specifically related to COVID-19.
  • Only $1.7 billion was pledged to address the humanitarian crisis and looming famine in Yemen during a donor conference that aimed to raise $3.85 billion.
  • The UN has appealed for $35 billion to help the world’s “most vulnerable and fragile” in 2021 in order to address COVID-19’s impact on people already struggling with conflict, record levels of displacement, climate shocks, and multiple impending famines.

Written by Jessica Ritchie

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