AMMAN – An international aid group said Friday that about 661,000 people in 19 countries have been displaced by armed conflict in the two months since the U.N. secretary-general called for a global cease-fire to help fight the coronavirus pandemic.
The ongoing large-scale displacement hurts efforts to stem the outbreak and is a “damning verdict” for international diplomacy, said Jan Egeland, the head of the Norwegian Refugee Council which counted the newly displaced.
The U.N. Security Council "has not in any way supported the secretary general’s call for a global coronavirus cease-fire,” Egeland told The Associated Press, blaming what he said was squabbling among council members.
The way forward is for U.N. member states and the Security Council to exert greater pressure on armed groups, including by withholding support and weapons.
“In the 19 countries where we documented violence displacing people, there are armed actors that can be influenced,” he said. “They do not operate in a vacuum.”
Armed groups must also be made aware that ongoing displacement increases their risk of exposure to the coronavirus, he said.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for a global cease-fire appeal on March 23 and renewed his appeal Thursday, saying the pandemic is “the greatest test the world has faced” since the U.N. was established 75 years ago.
The bulk of new displacement since Guterres' first appeal was reported in the Democratic Republic of Congo where armed groups have been clashing with the military, the NRC said. Since March 23, some 480,000 people were uprooted from their homes in the African nation.
Even in countries such as Yemen, where warring parties expressed support for a cease-fire, fighting has not stopped. In Yemen, some 24,000 people were displaced between March 23 and May 15, the report said.
A total of 148,000 people were displaced in Yemen, Chad, Niger, Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, Syria, Somalia and Myanmar during that period.
Egeland said the pandemic has laid bare stark inequalities between fragile and developed countries regarding access to testing, health care and safe spaces.
"If we continue with this enormous injustice, the pandemic will have strongholds in the (global) south, for example, among migrants and displaced people who are infected now as the virus spreads from north to south,” he said.
“This again will come to haunt us because the virus will then come back in waves because it would survive in these places that do not get enough solidarity at the moment.”
In a separate report, Human Rights Watch warned Friday that 4 million people displaced in Yemen during five years of civil war are among the world’s most vulnerable to the virus.
The New York-based group said a recent surge in fighting in Yemen's central province of Marib between Houthi rebels and government forces backed by a Saudi-led coalition further endangers people packed into unsanitary displacement camps.
“Marib’s displaced people now face the double threat of renewed fighting and the uncontrolled spread of a dangerous virus,” said Afrah Nasser, HRW’s Yemen researcher.
The group also cited warnings by the U.N. refugee agency that funding shortfalls put 1 million displaced people in Yemen, weakened by hunger and exposed to disease, at risk of losing shelter and essential cash assistance for food and medicine.