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World Bank can prevent a COVID-19 refugee disaster

World Bank can prevent a COVID-19 refugee disaster
© Anne Chaon/AFP via Getty Images

COVID-19 has caused the worst recession since the Great Depression. Nations around the world are scrambling to save their economies and protect their citizens. International financial institutions, like the World Bank, have moved quickly to support many of these efforts. Yet highly vulnerable people like refugees in developing nations continue to slip through the cracks. 

The World Bank has a critical role to play in ensuring that refugees are not left behind. The United States and other major shareholders should make sure that those forced to flee their homes are integrated into its pandemic response.

National efforts to rescue economies and protect communities from the worst of the virus must be inclusive to succeed. But refugees often lack access to key social services and welfare schemes in their host countries. These schemes are at the heart of most national COVID-19 response plans. In addition, refugees are 60 percent more likely than their hosts to work in sectors highly impacted by the pandemic. With its COVID-19 appeal, only 29 percent funded, aid agencies like the UN Refugee Agency are hard-pressed to fill the gap.

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The consequences are heartbreaking. Refugees tell us that they are skipping meals to feed their families. Refugees who defied great odds to set up small businesses have lost them. Those who can’t make rent have been forced onto the streets yet again. In Colombia, tens of thousands of Venezuelans have made the previously unthinkable decision to return home on foot, telling us that it is better to be hungry with a roof over your head than without.

The World Bank has mobilized an impressive operational response to help countries recover. In February, the Bank rolled out a COVID-19 financing plan to provide $160 billion in loans and grants over a 15-month period. So far, more than 100 developing nations have benefited from the Bank’s emergency COVID-19 operations. The list includes Turkey, Colombia, Uganda, and ten more of the largest refugee-hosting countries. Together, these nations host more than 50 percent of the world’s refugees. 

The challenge now is to ensure that this emergency financing reaches the most vulnerable, including refugees. The good news is that the World Bank has made significant progress in recent years toward promoting refugee inclusion — most notably through the IDA Window for Refugees and Host Communities (WHR). The WHR provides concessional loans and grants over a three-year period to strengthen governments' capacity to sustain refugees and their host communities. In July 2020, the Bank allocated $2.2 billion for the WHR to be disbursed by April 2023.

However, in response to the pandemic, the Bank set aside $1 billion of the WHR for COVID-relief. This was a smart decision. Unfortunately, this sum will fall short of what is required to protect refugees from the worst of the pandemic. And the move will inevitably pull resources away from other pre-existing needs of refugees and their host communities until the fund is replenished in June 2023.

So what can be done?

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First, the World Bank needs to continue working with refugee-hosting countries to ensure that those receiving COVID-financing explicitly include the displaced in their national response. It is critical that member states, particularly G-20 nations, use their influence to secure these commitments. Otherwise, some of the world’s most vulnerable populations will continue to be left behind.

Second, the United States and other major World Bank shareholders should approve at least $1 billion in new funding for the WHR to offset the amount earmarked for a pandemic. The new money will help keep that Bank on track to meet its 2023 goals for support to refugees and host communities. The challenges these communities faced before the pandemic are not going away. Indeed, the virus will only make them more acute.

The Bank’s Annual Meetings, which begin this week, are an important moment to make progress on these issues. The United States and other shareholders should seize the opportunity to give millions of refugees the support they need to make it through the pandemic. This is the right thing to do for the refugees themselves and the smart thing to do for the countries and communities that host them.

Hardin Lang is Refugees International’s vice president for programs and policy, and Martha Guerrero Ble is Refugees International’s Labor Market Access program assistant.