How has the pandemic impacted refugee aid in the Middle East? – Richard Albright Interview

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

The Middle East is currently facing increased population displacement due to a variety of conflicts, notably in Syria and Afghanistan. Richard Albright is acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary (PDAS) at the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) and has worked on humanitarian issues for over 15 years, including overseeing the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program for Iraqi employees of the US military from 2008-09. He now leads the State Department’s humanitarian assistance programs in the Middle East and Asia. With PDAS Albright, MEPC’s Gavin Moulton discusses the evolving crises in Afghanistan, Syria, and Palestine, the impact of the pandemic on the United States’ refugee aid, and implementation of supplemental funds from the American Relief and Protection Act (ARPA).

On July 13, 2021, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) warned of an “imminent humanitarian crisis” in Afghanistan. In response, Pakistan, which hosts millions of Afghan refugees, stated its intention to not take in refugees beyond border camps. What actions should the US take to mitigate this crisis and ensure the safe resettlement of refugees? 

We’re very concerned about the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan and the US is monitoring the situation and the evolving needs of the Afghan people. And we’re working closely with our partners to ensure protection and humanitarian assistance for vulnerable people in Afghanistan. The US has committed to providing protection to vulnerable Afghans through our SIV and refugee resettlement programs.

Afghan nationals who worked on behalf of the US government, including interpreters and translators, are facing ongoing threats because of their service to the United States. They may be eligible to immigrate to the US through a SIV program. On July 14, the White House announced Operation Allied Refuge to support relocation and flights for African nationals and their families who may be eligible for SIVs. On July 19th, the Department of State activated an Afghan coordination task force to coordinate US government efforts to take SIV applicants out of harm’s way and, if qualified, bring them to the United States once their security vetting is complete.

Afghanistan’s neighbors have hosted one of the largest and most protracted refugee populations in the world. We thank host countries for their ongoing commitment to the Afghan people and urge them to accept Afghans seeking international protection. We continue working with our partners to assist host countries in their efforts.

The United States is the largest single donor of humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan. On June 4, 2021, Secretary Blinken announced more than $266 million in new humanitarian assistance for Afghanistan, bringing total US humanitarian aid for the country to nearly $3.9 billion since 2002. This assistance from the American people helps our international partners provide support to some of the estimated 18.4 million people in need in Afghanistan, including Afghans who are internally displaced, as well as Afghan refugees in the region. This year alone, nearly 300,000 people have been displaced by conflict inside of Afghanistan, while more than 600,000 have returned to Afghanistan. 

This funding allows our partners to provide life saving food, nutrition, protection, shelter, livelihood opportunities, and essential healthcare, water, sanitation, and hygiene services to respond to the humanitarian needs generated by conflict, drought, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, this assistance helps address protection needs for the most vulnerable Afghans. This includes women and girls facing particular risks, including gender-based violence as a result of the pandemic and decades of conflict.

Shifting to Syria, access to the Bab Al-Hawa border passage—the single conduit for UN aid into Syria after Iraqi and Jordanian crossings closed last year—was renewed by the UN Security Council until January 2022, and conditionally for another six months, on July 9, 2021. Provisions for additional passages were vetoed by Russia and China. Are there opportunities for the US to find a diplomatic solution that does not include cross-line aid controlled by the Assad regime? Do you foresee the Yaroubia crossing in Iraq reopening?

The recently passed UN Security Council resolution reauthorizes the Bab Al-Hawa crossing for 12 months. As outlined in the text, the resolution will automatically extend in January until July 10, 2022, following the issuance of a report from the UN secretary general, no Security Council vote will be required.

UN interlocutors and NGO partners had consistently messaged that six months would not be tenable. Taking that into account, we were able to secure a 12-month lifeline to the Syrian people. While we clearly wanted to have three border crossings, the Security Council’s agreement on one crossing for a year is still a success.

The United States supports all modalities that bring much-needed aid to the Syrian people throughout the country, including both cross-line and cross-border deliveries. And we encourage all parties to engage constructively to find ways to enable cross-line deliveries. However, there’s simply no alternative that can match the scale and scope of the UN cross-border humanitarian mechanism.

This is why we pushed very hard for inclusion of Al-Yaroubia in the draft resolution. Russia unfortunately indicated it would not support reinstating this important crossing from Iraq. We will continue to identify ways to expand aid access to the northeast, including supporting the work undertaken by NGOs to bring essential supplies from Iraq, into northeast Syria.

In addition to the crises in Afghanistan and Syria, the Covid-19 pandemic has been a major focus for USAID and the State Department’s aid work. How has the pandemic impacted the United States’ ability to support refugees globally? What challenges remain for vaccine distribution? 

The COVID-19 pandemic is a historic global shock to the international humanitarian response system. In addition to direct health impacts, the pandemic has presented significant operational challenges to providing assistance such as such as supply chain bottlenecks, limited ability to move staff, and sheer scaling demand to meet rising humanitarian needs from the indirect pandemic impacts, such as employment and economic activity.

PRM has responded to meet these unprecedented global challenges by supporting a host of UN agencies—UNHCR, ICRC, IOM, UNICEF, and others—to surge pandemic response. During fiscal year 2020, PRM provided nearly $98 million in supplemental assistance for response to COVID-19 in the Middle East.

In 2021, we are continuing our pandemic response in the region. The pandemic has changed the way of work and business as usual, including how we support refugees. PRM and its partners are engaging in new strategies, such as virtual site visits to ensure support services are being optimized and remain refugee-centered in delivery, despite necessary modifications to prevent COVID-19 transmission.

The United States has committed to accelerate widespread and equitable access to and delivery of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccinations. Achieving high vaccination uptake is critical to reduce transmission and save lives. Equitable inclusion of refugees in national vaccination planning and delivery is needed to prevent avoidable disparities. I’m heartened to see that according to UNHCR, 123 of 126 countries surveyed have committed to refugee inclusion in their vaccine campaigns. However, we must ensure planning gains are translated into actual practice, as has been nicely demonstrated in Jordan, where Syrian refugees are provided access early in the vaccination campaign.

Beyond access, key policy challenges remain for COVID-19 vaccination among refugees worldwide. These include logistical requirements for reaching communities in remote settings, enabling a supporting environment for humanitarian agencies to access and deliver vaccines, especially in conflict zones, and ensuring vaccination delivery directly benefits individuals and communities

Last May, the Biden administration allotted $10 million in aid to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, in addition to the $100 million granted to Palestinians earlier this year. How can the US maximize the safety of the Palestinian people during this period of new Israeli leadership?  

I defer to my colleagues in the Near East Bureau at the State Department and to USAID with regard to assistance that they implement. PRM has provided humanitarian assistance through the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), including the aid they’re providing in the West Bank and Gaza. This includes funding for emergency shelter, food, clean water, education, and healthcare. In this year, we have contributed more than $318 million to UNRWA, including $90 million for its West Bank and Gaza emergency program. 

PRM’s funding for UNRWA also includes the COVID-19 response throughout the region, including primary healthcare, education about the disease, infection prevention, personal protective equipment, and vaccination campaigns. UNRWA is a capable, and in many cases indispensable, provider of education, health, social services, and emergency relief and contributes to stability in the region. We have expressed our support for UNRWA with the new Israeli government. We understand they have some concerns about the agency, we’re working with UNRWA and other donors to address some of those concerns.

How will the increased State Department funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) be used to support the health and safety of refugees? 

ARPA provided $500 million in migration and refugee assistance in fiscal year 2021. ARPA is being used to prevent, prepare for, and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic among refugees, conflict victims, stateless populations, and vulnerable migrants. This programming includes risk communication about how to prevent the spread of COVID-19; providing accurate information about vaccines; augmenting health surveillance and services support for teachers and students to enable children to safely continue their education; use of new technologies to provide protection services for those at risk of gender-based violence; counseling for those experiencing mental health crises; and support for those who’ve lost their livelihoods as a result of pandemic restrictions.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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