The U.N. announced Tuesday it is suspending refugee resettlement flights amid coronavirus fears, though it will still try to work out ways to still accommodate “critical emergency cases.”
Pointing to countries that have severely limited or shut down their borders, the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees and the International Organization for Migration said they’d watched as refugees were stranded in airports or separated from family because of the patchwork of rules imposed by various nations.
And the organizations said they feared the refugees themselves could be delivered to countries where they might catch COVID-19.
“As a result, IOM and UNHCR are taking steps to suspend resettlement departures for refugees. This is a temporary measure that will be in place only for as long as it remains essential,” the groups said in a statement. “The suspension will begin to take effect within the next few days as the two agencies attempt to bring those refugees who have already cleared all formalities to their intended destinations.”
The U.S. had already severely cut its refugee resettlement program in recent years, with a record low number expected in 2020.
It had accepted about 900 refugees so far in March.
The U.N. halt will likely dent those numbers even further since the U.S. system relies on the UNHCR to vet most refugees before the government will consider them.
American aid groups said they understood the reasons for the UNHCR’s move, but were still saddened.
“We pray that this action does not keep refugee children and families in harm’s way at this difficult time,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
Tuesday’s announcement was particularly devastating to refugee groups because it came on the 40th anniversary of the Refugee Act, which created the American refugee system.
In the four decades since that law, the US has resettled about 3 million refugees.
LIRS said Tuesday that it is worried about recent refugees amid coronavirus panic.
The group said the kinds of jobs that new refugees often take are drying up, and refugee children can’t attend schools that are shut down.