Vaccine inequality is a scandal that must be urgently addressed, says UN refugee boss

A migrant speaks with a Health ministry official before receiving a shot of the vaccine against the coronavirus disease

Vaccine inequality is hitting refugees hard. Image: REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

Douglas Broom
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has attacked the “scandal” of vaccine inequality.
  • In an interview for the World Economic Forum he also urged rich nations not to cut aid.
  • Leaders need to remember that no one is safe until everyone is safe, he said.

To mark World Refugee Day on 20 June, the World Economic Forum spoke to Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), who had some strong words to say about the plight of the world’s displaced people in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Grandi attacked the “scandal” of vaccine inequality, which he said was hitting the poorest, and refugees in particular, hardest. And he urged governments not to cut aid budgets as they struggle to cope with massive pandemic borrowing.

In an exclusive interview, Grandi, who is a member of the Forum’s Humanitarian and Resilience Investing Initiative, also called on governments to help refugees get back into the labour market as the post-pandemic recovery gathers pace.

It’s World Refugee Day. Is there one thing, on a day like this, that you would hope people were aware of?

I think it is important to repeat … most of these 80-plus million people we’re talking about, refugees, displaced people, are in poor countries…[which have] fewer resources to deal with these massive problems. That’s one fundamental point that I’d like everybody to remember on this day.

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a picture of a jab going into a patients arm
Filippo Grandi called for extra funds to ensure COVID-19 vaccines can reach refugees and the displaced. Image: NIAID/Flickr

This is a day that happens every year to raise awareness. This time, I suppose the big change is the pandemic. How has it affected refugees?

Well, first of all, it has affected refugees [in the same way] as everybody else, from the health point of view, many got sick. Unfortunately, many died but that was not fundamentally different from what happened to everybody else, especially amongst the most vulnerable categories of people. Where I think the impact has been felt specifically for people on the move is in two areas. One: borders got more and more difficult to cross … for refugees in particular, crossing borders is a life-saving act.

The other area, of course, is what … refugees share with … the poorest of the poor in the world. The social and economic impact, livelihoods lost, jobs interrupted or finished because of lockdowns. Refugees depend on the type of economy that lockdowns have impacted the most.

And it’s not just the economy. It’s also the education system. We’ve struggled so much in the past … five to 10 years, trying to improve the enrolment figures for refugees in … education. They’re much lower than the non-refugee population. And unfortunately I think COVID, with schools closed for extended periods, with poverty rising, has been a blow to those efforts.

How has the pandemic impacted on the UNHCR’s work?

For an organization like ours, this is tough because fundamentally our work is field-based. We are out there where the refugees, the displaced, the stateless people are. And that has been very challenging. I think there’s been a lot of understanding on the part of governments that humanitarian workers, including UNHCR workers, had to be considered the same way as … health workers. So people … had to be able to continue to work and operate in person with all the due precautions taken because it was vital. The UN coined this slogan at the beginning, ‘We stay and deliver’. We definitely stayed and delivered throughout.

Let’s talk about vaccines. It’s clear that the big vaccination drives are happening mostly in much richer countries. Can you update us on how the vaccine drive is going in refugee populations?

I would say the problem is not refugees. The problem is poor countries. Most leaders I’ve met on my last trips in Africa, in the Middle East, in Latin America have told me: “Of course, there’s no problem. We will include refugees in our vaccination campaigns. But we don’t have vaccines for anybody. It’s not a matter of being a refugee or a national. We don’t have vaccines.”

So definitely I think the problem is not inequality in respect of refugees, it is inequality between countries. And I think that I am actually surprised that there is not even more outcry about what a scandal it is. I live in Switzerland. Here, now, kids are being vaccinated while old, fragile, vulnerable people out there will have to wait months, including refugees, for their first shot to come. This is the scandal that needs to be corrected.


I suppose there’s a risk as well, if refugee communities are not vaccinated, not only will the disease spread but new mutant variations will come back and haunt the rest of the world if it’s not addressed?

Yes. The fundamental point remains … vaccine equity … let’s try to restore whatever we can of that equity that we failed to achieve in the early phases of the vaccination drive. But it is also true … that refugees, displaced people, are often in very remote and disadvantaged areas of certain countries. So delivering the vaccination there will have additional cost. That’s why we do need additional funds, specific funds for refugee-related vaccination campaigns.

For example, in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya … both countries host large numbers of refugees [and they need help] to transport the vaccines to these remote areas. Likewise in Bangladesh ... almost a million Rohingya refugees live in a very remote area. We will need to help the government once that vaccination drive begins.

The risk of backfiring globally is very, very high. The slogan … that we will not be safe until everybody is safe ... is actually the most true slogan of the many that have been coined around the pandemic.

Have you come across any kind of vaccine resistance?

We do see a lot of that resistance. Yesterday, for example, I was on a call with a number of our regional people and they reported … that this is now increasingly one of the main issues that we have to tackle. This is not specific to refugees ... but it is in many parts of the world [and] we need to address this. One of the most important things that we have learnt through the pandemic … is that communication is key. And even more importantly, it is key to work with the communities themselves. And I think that this is one of the plusses that we can take out of this horrible period, learning to work more with the communities for which we exist.

[How do you see] the situation now and in the coming months? Is there light at the end of the tunnel yet?

We have to hope that the vaccination drive … expands. But we will have to deal with the consequences in the areas that I have mentioned. And those consequences for refugees [and] for many other vulnerable people will be long lasting.

We hear a lot about, you know, the economy picking up quickly … but I’m just worried that … the most vulnerable will be left even further behind.

The slogan of the [United Nations] Sustainable Development Goals is: ‘No one should be left behind’. The risk of that ... is much higher now than it was a year and a half ago. And this is where we need to focus in the next few years.


How is the World Economic Forum helping to improve humanitarian assistance?

And what can be done for millions of people [whose] work [has] gone because of COVID-19?

I think it is very important to do two things. One is short term, and it is, I would almost say, humanitarian. It’s relief. We … and many other organizations, have launched for all these disadvantaged groups, cash programmes. We need to make sure that … these people receive … cash so they can keep going during this transition phase.

But more importantly, because this is not sustainable in the very long term, we need to ensure that all these groups, including refugees … have access to the labour market. Because this is a very important point.

It was not such a huge problem convincing governments to include refugees and displaced [people] in the health response. I think there was a clear understanding that if you left them out, it would be a problem for everybody. But it will be politically much more difficult for governments under pressure from the economic point of view to say [they are going to encompass] refugees as well. We will have to work … with governments, of course, donor partners [and] international financial institutions to ensure that that inclusion at all levels happens.

What about richer countries who are important donor countries for the kind of work you’re doing? Is there a risk that will suffer now as they’re struggling to deal with the economic fallout of the pandemic?

Frankly, if you look at the type of money that has been mobilized to respond to COVID and you look at the aid budgets, the proportion is staggering. One is huge and one is very small, comparatively speaking. So I do hope that governments will have a better judgement than that and will not take it [from] aid budgets to compensate for the large expenditure. But the risk is there and we’ve already seen some countries reducing aid budgets.

If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it is that we’re really all in the same boat here and this is not just about the virus going from one to the other, but, you know, poverty, exclusion, vulnerabilities, they are also pandemics in a way. And they may not be transmitted ... through droplets … but if they are not addressed, the repercussions … can be pretty devastating … in terms of instability ... insecurity [and] unnecessary migration.

This year, we’re building up to the COP26 conference in November. Could you tell us something about what you see as the impact of climate change on the displacement of people?

There is ample evidence that the climate emergency displaces people, but it does this in many different ways. In the Sahel region, in Africa, West Africa or in the Horn of Africa, northern Mozambique, Central America, we see resources available to rural communities in particular, impacted by climate change becoming more scarce, generating community conflict, which often becomes ethnic … political … and sometimes religious. And it translates into devastating consequences for civilian populations.

This is a very important aspect of the climate discussion. And I do hope that, increasingly, states and other important actors take this into account.

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