Author: Aaron Skonnard
In 2019, 79.5 million people around the world were forced to flee their homes. Among them are nearly 25.9 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. From Syria to South Sudan, the global refugee crisis is growing at an alarming clip - year after year marks a new historic high to the displacement figures while at the same time the resources to address the crisis are diminishing. And today, the risks to refugees or displaced persons are even more severe due to COVID-19.
1 person is forcibly displaced roughly every two seconds as a result of conflict or persecution. - UNHCR
To mark World Refugee Day, I spoke with Jan Egeland , Secretary General of Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), about the global displacement crises, the impact of COVID-19 on those who are forced to flee, and the role of companies and technology in the response.
In March of this year, I had the opportunity to join Jan, in Colombia to meet their team and visit the programs that we are supporting through Pluralsight One. Colombia has the second largest internally displaced population (IDPs) in the world after Syria, and more than five million people depend fully on humanitarian aid. In addition, Colombia hosts over 1.4 million people who have fled from armed conflict and violence in neighboring Venezuela. The Venezuelan refugee crisis is set to become the largest and most underfunded in modern history - it is on track to surpass the scale of the Syrian crisis.
Visiting Venezuelan refugees with Jan Egeland to discuss NRC’s cash assistance and education programs. Photo by: NRC Colombia
“A six decade-long armed conflict has given Colombia the most prolonged and serious humanitarian crisis in the Americas.” - Norwegian Refugee Council
Working in Colombia since 1991, NRC is a leader in the region’s crisis response with a range of services including: shelter; education; information, counseling and legal assistance (ICLA); peace advocacy; and more. I traveled to Colombia with Jan to gain a deeper understanding of NRC’s operations and vision for tech-enabled aid in one of the hardest places to operate in the world.
Discussing a shared vision for tech-enabled aid while visiting Venezuelan families living in refugee settlements with Jan Egeland. Photo by: NRC Colombia
The fragile peace process in Venezuela and Colombia is fraught with challenges and uncertainty, worsened by border closures, increasing xenophobia, pressure on already overburdened systems, and constraints to humanitarian services due to COVID-19.
Armed conflict doesn’t stop during a pandemic. Those fleeing conflict must find refuge in a country that will grant them entry, create space for shelter and recognize their rights to healthcare and education. Already overcrowded and insufficient health and education systems simply cannot meet the volume of need this region faces. Here are 10 ways COVID-19 is increasing vulnerability and danger for those in already perilous situations.
“We have no soap. All I have is water to wash both myself and my doll,” says Shazia, 10.
The pandemic has fundamentally changed humanitarian services. Social distancing measures and restrictions to movement have altered the way NRC staff and other humanitarian workers operate in the field to meet the complex needs of those who are fleeing from harm and working to rebuild their lives. To do more with less, NRC is embracing technology through a multi-year partnership with Pluralsight One. This strategic alliance is built around a shared vision that technology can be a tool to create greater impact for refugees at scale.
The magnitude of this crisis is hard to grasp. While we were there, more than 30,000 people crossed the border between Venezuela and Colombia per day. Thousands came to seek shelter while thousands more passed back and forth daily for supplies, to see loved ones, and to seek healthcare and education for children and vulnerable family members. These are real people who have been compelled to flee their homes in search of safety and a better life. Each one is an individual with their own unique and complex needs, circumstances and dreams.
NRC meets people immediately on arrival where the bridge enters Colombia. They provide a range of services - from basic needs and urgent care, to hope and mental health support, to information and legal assistance, education continuity and livelihood opportunities. They have been working to scale their reach by implementing apps and kiosks designed to provide information, connect people to resources and enable self-sufficiency. They operate with excellence and compassion while balancing the need for effective personalized services with an immediate and massive need to scale. NRC is deeply committed to creating durable solutions that build agency. To do this, they must adapt to volatile situations constantly and engineer solutions that protect the lives, dignity and identities of those who are most vulnerable.
Aaron and Monica Skonnard with Jan Egeland and NRC colleagues at the Simón Bolívar bridge in early March. Photo by: NRC Colombia
Since COVID-19 hit, the government has restricted NGOs and humanitarian providers to halve their services. They have closed the bridges and borders to prevent movement and prevent the spread, a decision that further complicates the situation and intensifies the magnitude of need for humanitarian organizations operating in the region. Just a few short months after our visit, the reality and model of care has changed dramatically, forcing NRC to immediately pivot their country operations to a digitally-led, tech-enabled service provision model. This means training their staff in a new model of service delivery, constructing new infrastructure and systems to enable a different mode of client care and interaction, and a serious need to present information and services in a way that is accessible, relevant and scalable.
Security personnel stand guard at the Simón Bolívar bridge after Colombia closed the border to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Photo by: REUTERS / Ferley Ospina
The magnitude and complexity of need cannot be understated. NRC is operating a sophisticated, large-scale business that encompasses supply chains, infrastructure, protection, logistics, programs that are interconnected and long term in nature, monitoring and evaluation and more.
COVID-19 requires that they accelerate their digital innovation while building lean solutions that can sustain when funding is cut or the country-level policies change. It is imperative that they scale the reach that is possible through humans. Through their newly built app, NRC Colombia helps Venezuelan’s learn about and protect their rights to land, education and healthcare. They train teachers to evolve their teaching practices and support pupils during emergencies. The NRC team is learning tech skills so they can build new services for beneficiaries.
During the trip, I was humbled by the scale of impact that our partners at the NRC achieve daily. They are masters in their work and they operate with excellence despite constantly changing circumstances, overwhelming needs, resistance and gravely constrained resources. Their work is context specific. I learned that we have to actively fight to ensure that we as technologists, donors and problem-solvers do not impose our reality on others in an effort to rapidly solve a problem. We have to solve for durability and permanence and we have to solve together with those impacted by crisis and those on the ground working on the frontlines daily. Humility, adaptability, persistence and longevity are all essential to operating in this highly vulnerable context. We have to be committed to the humanitarian principle of “do no harm” and orient all of our activities and investments accordingly.
Pluralsight One’s partnership with NRC is focused on digital transformation and powering the development of tech-enabled humanitarians. By building the NRC team’s skills and capabilities needed to adapt humanitarian services to a digital context, we can help NRC reduce cost, scale to reach the tens of thousands more in need, and evolve their education and livelihoods programs to align with the future of work. Infrastructure and connectivity challenges in developing countries present huge barriers to equitable access.
Computer lab full of obsolete and broken machines at a primary school in Colombia. Photo by: Lindsey Kneuven, Pluralsight