On June 29th, 2021, PSI organized a virtual meeting in commemoration of World Refugee Day. Participants from PSI affiliates in the Arab countries and Sweden, in addition to activists and a representative from a Syrian civil society organization attended. The new PSI study that will be launched this year on the social impact of the Corona pandemic on male and female workers was introduced.
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While the year 2021 marks the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees, the Arab countries are still suffering from the repercussions of Covid-19 that have worsened the already fragile social, economic, and political situations in many parts of the region: war in Yemen and Libya led to additional forced migration, with Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon, and Jordan receiving those who have been displaced. Conflicts in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, escalation of violence in Palestine, popular movements in Algeria, attacks on civic spaces and freedom of expression in many Arab countries are accompanied with the highest average rate of unemployment worldwide, the increase of the size of the informal sector, inflation, depreciation of local currencies, and the reduced funding of public services, including health services. In the midst of all this, refugees, a majority of them finding themselves hosted in middle and low income countries of the region are severely suffering the consequences of pandemic, and with very little access to health services.
In the framework of the project on “Human Rights, Trade Unions and Quality Public Services for Refugees and Migrant Workers,” Public Services International – PSI - organized a virtual symposium in commemoration of World Refugee Day, on June 29th, 2021. The symposium brought together more than 45 participants, women and men, from PSI affiliates in the Arab countries and Sweden, in addition to activists and a representative from a Syrian civil society organization.
Genevieve Gencianos, PSI Migration Program Officer, opened the webinar with a message that highlighted three crucial points: 1) continued advocacy for well-funded quality public services, 2) universal and inclusive access to Covid-19 vaccines for refugees, migrants and internally displaced persons – supported by a TRIPS waiver to enable developing countries to produce their own vaccines 3) critical role of trade unions in promoting the human rights of refugees, migrants and IDPs. Gencianos raised alarm towards the policy undertaken by certain EU countries of externalizing their borders and making deals with poorer countries in North African in order to push back migrants and asylum seekers from seeking protection in the EU. She concluded by stressing that rich countries should not be allowed to renege their obligation to human rights and international humanitarian law.
Chahnaz El Zein, PSI MENA Project Coordinator, introduced the “Human Rights, Trade Unions and Quality Public Services for Refugees and Migrants Project” in the Middle East and North Africa, with an update of the activities that will be carried on in 2021. This includes awareness-raising workshops on Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) in time of Covid-19, monitoring the access to health services and vaccination for all workers including refugees and migrants, combating precarious conditions of work in the informal sector where the majority is of women and refugees, and defending the right of migrant workers and refugees to join unions.
Ghassan Slaiby, independent expert, introduced the new PSI study that will be launched this year in the framework of the project, which is a “Research on the social challenges in the time of Covid-19” which will be implemented in Jordan, Lebanon, Algeria and Tunisia. The study will examine the situation in terms of poverty, precarious work, and unemployment in these countries among local, migrant and refugee workers and among women. In addition to engaging trade unionists through a participatory research methodology, the study will also generate the scientific data to public service trade unions in the region to help them develop union policies in Covid response and recovery. Slaiby also noted that the study will also help inform PSI’s global policy as we head towards the PSI World Congress next year.
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Georges Talames, the executive director of the organization “Basmeh W Zaitouni”, introduced the Geneva Convention of 1951 and stressed that Lebanon did not ratify it. Lebanon has always been hosting Syrian workers mainly in the agriculture and construction sectors. The financial support provided by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is not enough. The work contracts of the Syrian refugees are mostly casual and in the informal sector. Throughout the pandemic, it is estimated that 80% of these workers lost their jobs. Protection of health and safety is very weak in the camps, with civil society organizations augmenting the support that is needed in the camps. except the help provided by some civil society organizations. He highlighted that about 10% of the 80 thousand people who have been vaccinated so far are refugees and migrants.
A plenary discussion session followed where participants expressed their interest in the PSI study, while also sharing the situation in their own countries in terms of vaccination. From the discussion, everyone agreed that there is the need for a new trade union strategy that builds on the lessons from Covid-19, while continuing to vigorously defend the human and labour rights of all workers, leaving no one behind, and amplifying struggle for quality well-funded public services worldwide.