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Deadly shipwreck off Venezuela underscores need for safe migration pathways, protection

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, expressed deep sadness over the deaths of two people after a boat capsized off the coast of Venezuela last Thursday while heading towards Trinidad and Tobago. 

At least 24 people were on board, according to local authorities.  While commercial Venezuelan vessels rescued seven people, operations are ongoing to find survivors among the 15 others who remain unaccounted for. 

Situation worsened by COVID-19 

“The waters of the Caribbean Sea continue to claim the lives of Venezuelans”, said Eduardo Stein, Joint Special Representative of UNHCR and IOM for Venezuelan Refugees and Migrants. “As the conditions in the country continue to deteriorate – all worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic – people continue to undertake life-threatening journeys.”   

There are over five million Venezuelan refugees and migrants around the world, and it is estimated that 200,000 are being hosted in the Caribbean. 

The tragedy is the latest of several incidents involving the capsizing of boats carrying Venezuelan refugees and migrants towards Caribbean islands.  The most recent was reported near the Venezuelan city of Guiria in December 2020.   

With land and maritime borders still closed to limit coronavirus transmission, the UN agencies said such journeys are taking place along irregular routes, thus heightening the danger as well as health and protection risks. 

Establish safe pathways 

“Shipwrecks, tragic deaths at border crossings and further suffering are avoidable, but only if immediate and concerted international action is mobilized to find pragmatic solutions that put saving lives and protecting human rights at the forefront of any response”, Mr Stein said.   

“The establishment of regular and safe pathways, including through humanitarian visas and family reunification, as well as the implementation of protection-sensitive entry systems and adequate reception mechanisms, can prevent the use of irregular routes, smuggling and trafficking.”  

Both UNHCR and IOM have underlined their readiness to provide support and technical expertise towards these measures. 

The UN agencies are co-leaders of a platform that coordinates the work of at least 24 partners and governments across the Caribbean to meet the needs of refugees and migrants from Venezuela in the sub-region.

Libya shipwreck claims 130 lives despite SOS calls, says UN migration agency 

The tragedy was confirmed late on Thursday by the volunteer rescue vessel Ocean Viking, which found dozens of bodies floating in the water northeast of Tripoli. 

It had been in distress since Wednesday morning, the NGO said in a statement. 

IOM spokesperson, Safa Msehli, told journalists in Geneva that the victims had been on board a rubber dinghy for two days before it sank in the central Mediterranean.  

“For two days, the NGO alarm phone, which is responsible for sending distress calls to the relevant maritime rescue centres in the region, has been calling on States to uphold their responsibilities towards these people and send rescue vessels. Unfortunately, that has not happened.”  

More than 500 people have drowned on the so-called Central Mediterranean sea route this year according to IOM – almost three times as many the same period last year. 

Others in peril 

Over the past three days, there have been reports of at least two other boats carrying migrants in the central Mediterranean, Ms. Msehli noted. 

One boat was intercepted by the Libyan coastguard and 103 or more people were returned to Libya “and detained”, while a mother and child were found dead on board. 

The third boat, which is believed to be carrying 40 people – has been at sea for three days and is still missing, the IOM spokesperson continued. 

“What we fear is that the worst has happened, given the status and the state of these boats, given the length and duration that people are spending in what remains the most dangerous sea crossing in the world”. 

According to IOM data, more than 16,700 people have crossed the Mediterranean route since the start of the year and some 750 have died, taking into account Thursday’s shipwreck. 

Climate change link to displacement of most vulnerable is clear: UNHCR

Coinciding with Earth Day on Thursday 22 April, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, published data showing how disasters linked to climate change likely worsen poverty, hunger and access to natural resources, stoking instability and violence.

“From Afghanistan to Central America, droughts, flooding, and other extreme weather events are hitting those least equipped to recover and adapt”, said the UN agency, which is calling for countries to work together to combat climate change and mitigate its impact on hundreds of millions of people.

Since 2010, weather emergencies have forced around 21.5 million people a year to move, on average.

Home countries worst hit

UNHCR said that roughly 90 per cent of refugees come from countries that are the most vulnerable and least ready to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

These countries also host around 70 per cent of people internally displaced by conflict or violence.

Citing the case of Afghanistan, UNHCR noted that it is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, as nearly all of its 34 provinces have been hit by at least one disaster in the past 30 years.

The country is also ranked the least peaceful globally, owing to longstanding conflict that has killed and injured thousands of people and displaced millions.

Chronic floods, droughts

Recurring floods and droughts – along with population growth – have compounded food insecurity and water scarcity and reduced the prospects of refugees and IDPs being able to return to their home areas, UNHCR said.

It pointed to indications that 16.9 million Afghans – nearly half of the country’s population – lacked enough food in the first quarter of 2021, including at least 5.5 million facing emergency levels of food deprivation.

As of mid-2020, more than 2.6 million Afghans were internally displaced and another 2.7 million were living as registered refugees in other countries, mainly Pakistan and Iran, according to UNHCR.

Mozambique is experiencing a similar confluence of conflict and multiple disasters, says the agency, with one cyclone after another battering the country’s central region while increasing violence and turmoil to the north displaces hundreds of thousands of people.

Hosts hit too

Many of the countries most exposed to the impacts of climate change are already host to large numbers of refugees and internally displaced.

In Bangladesh, more than 870,000 Rohingya refugees who fled violence in Myanmar are now exposed to increasingly frequent and intense cyclones and flooding. 

“We need to invest now in preparedness to mitigate future protection needs and prevent further climate caused displacement,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, earlier this year.

UNICEF reports sharp rise in migrant children in Mexico

Children comprise at least 30 per cent of migrants in Mexican shelters, who come from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and the country itself.  Half have travelled without their parents, which is among the highest proportions ever recorded in Mexico. 

Jean Gough, UNICEF Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean, wrapped up a five-day visit to Mexico, which included stops along the northern border with the United States. 

Overcrowded shelters 

The agency estimates that an average of 275 additional migrant children find themselves in Mexico every day after being detected by the authorities, waiting to cross into the US, or being returned. 

“I was heartbroken to see the suffering of so many young children, including babies, at the Mexican border with the US”, Ms Gough said.  

“Most of the shelter facilities I visited in Mexico are already overcrowded and cannot accommodate the increasing number of children and families migrating northward. We are deeply concerned that living conditions for migrant children and mothers in Mexico could soon deteriorate further.” 

Dangerous journeys, harrowing testimonies 

Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise in unaccompanied migrant children, and the arrival of entire families with children, has put significant strain on Mexican assistance centres. 

The journey from their homelands towards the US – often on the run from violence and destitution – is perilous, and can last up to two months, amid extremely harsh conditions.   

UNICEF has collected harrowing testimonies of sexual abuse, extortion, kidnapping and human trafficking, among other violations. Some migrant women tearfully told UNICEF they were deprived of food, had their belongings confiscated, or slept on the floor, covering their children with their own bodies to keep them warm at night. 

Abusive traffickers 

“Central American families aren’t migrating — they are fleeing,” said Ms Gough. “These children and their parents who are now in Mexico escaped gang criminality, domestic violence, poverty, devastating hurricanes, and job loss due to the pandemic in their countries of origin. So why would they return? Often, there is nothing they could go back to.” 

She added that traffickers are shamelessly taking advantage of their hopelessness and putting children’s lives at risk during this perilous journey.  

“The best way to give migrant families a good reason to stay in their communities is to invest in their children’s future at the local level. The real child crisis is not at the US border; it’s in the poorest communities of northern Central America and Mexico.” 

Invest in communities 

Last year, UNICEF welcomed Mexico’s decision to reform its migration and refugee laws, which ban immigration detention for children and prioritize the best interests of migrant children in the development of immigration policies affecting them.  It is critical that the international community support efforts towards the successful implementation of these reforms, the agency said.  

UNICEF has also called on the international community to place children and women at the heart of all investment plans across Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and southern Mexico, in efforts to create better living conditions and opportunities for communities. 

Last year, more than 7,160 “children on the move” benefited from UNICEF-supported assistance in Mexico, such as protection and psychological services, recreational and learning activities, and accommodation. 

UNICEF and partners have been scaling up humanitarian response across Central America and Mexico in recent months, including stepping up presence at the Mexico-US border.   

So far, over 2,100 migrant children have received assistance, and an additional 10,000 children and their parents will be reached this year. 

However, with needs on the rise, and expected to remain high in the coming months, UNICEF is seeking $23 million to fund operations in Mexico to provide vulnerable groups with access to education, improved water and sanitation facilities, life skills and vocational training, alternative care, and violence protection activities. 

Thousands flee fresh clashes in Central African Republic: UN agency

According to the agency, new arrivals in Chad reported having fled clashes, as well as pillaging, extortion and other acts of violence at the hands of rebel groups. Most of the displaced were from CAR’s Kaga-Bandoro, Batangafo and Kabo regions.

UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch said that to reach Chad, people had to wade shoulder-deep through the Grande Sido river, which flows along the Chad-CAR border, with the some carrying their few belongings on their heads.

“The refugees are now settled in Gandaza village and the bordering town of Sido, although some are having to resort to crossing back into CAR to find food or salvage what little is left from their properties”, he added.

Violence flared across CAR following last December’s contested elections, with armed elements allied with former president François Bozizé attacking several towns and villages. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced within the country as well as into neighbouring ones.

Chad currently hosts close to 11,000 of the total 117,000 Central African refugees who also fled to Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the Republic of the Congo (ROC) in the wake of the post-electoral violence.

Longstanding humanitarian crisis

The influx slowed considerably since mid-March after government forces and their allies reclaimed most of the rebel strongholds, UNHCR said. The lull allowed some 37,000 formerly internally displaced persons (IDPs) to return to their areas of origin, who now need help to rebuild their lives, it added.

Roughly the size of France, CAR has been plagued by conflict and insecurity for years. 

According to the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) about 2.8 million people in CAR – 57 per cent of the population – are in need of humanitarian assistance and protection. The situation has been further complicated by the coronavirus pandemic, with rising hunger, loss of livelihoods, closure of schools, and a reported increase in violence against women and children. 

Burundi refugees in Tanzania living in fear: UN rights experts

Burundi refugees have suffered violations such as arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances, allegedly carried out by the Tanzanian police and intelligence services in cooperation with counterparts in their homeland, they reported. 

“In addition to the strict encampment policy imposed on them by the Government of Tanzania, Burundian refugees and asylum-seekers now live in fear of being abducted in the middle of the night by Tanzanian security forces and taken to an unknown location or being forcefully returned to Burundi,” the experts said in a statement. 

Hundreds of thousands of people fled Burundi for neighbouring countries following deadly clashes surrounding the 2015 presidential election.  While the worst of the violence has eased, the situation remains fragile, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.  

Posing as refugees 

Nearly half of those who escaped, or around 150,000 people, are in Tanzania. The rights experts report that Burundian political opponents have allegedly been tracked among refugees and asylum-seekers there.  

Burundian intelligence agents, posing as refugees within the camps, are identifying specific individuals who are later arrested by Tanzanian security forces.  

“The Government of Burundi must stop its repression against its citizens including those seeking international protection in Tanzania,” they said. 

Forced disappearance, ‘voluntary return’ 

Burundian refugees have confirmed being taken by Tanzanian police and subjected to enforced disappearance and torture, before being forced to return home or to sign up for “voluntary return”.   

Some also were interrogated for their supposed affiliation with armed groups, or about their activities in the camps, and even asked for money in order to be released. 

“We are extremely alarmed by reports that some Burundian refugees have been killed after having been abducted by Tanzanian security forces”, the experts said, adding that fear has driven many refugees to return home. 

“It is extremely discouraging that since the Government announced in August 2020 that an investigation into the disappearances was underway no results have been made public yet,” the statement concluded. “The Government of Tanzania is aware of the situation and must take all necessary measures to immediately stop and remedy the violations.”  

UN experts’ role 

The 12 experts who issued the statement are mandated by the UN Human Rights Council to monitor specific thematic issues, including enforced or voluntary disappearances, arbitrary detention, and torture or other degrading punishment.   

They serve in their individual capacity and are neither UN staff, nor are they paid by the Organization.

Migrants left stranded and without assistance by COVID-19 lockdowns 

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the first year of the pandemic saw more than 111,000 travel restrictions and border closures around the world at their peak in December.  

These measures “have thwarted many people’s ability to pursue migration as a tool to escape conflict, economic collapse, environmental disaster and other crises”, IOM maintained. 

In mid-July, nearly three million people were stranded, sometimes without access to consular assistance, nor the means to meet their basic needs.  

In Panama, the UN agency said that thousands were cut off in the jungle while attempting to travel north to the United States; in Lebanon, migrant workers were affected significantly by the August 2020 explosion in Beirut and the subsequent surge of COVID-19 cases. 

Business as usual 

Border closures also prevented displaced people from seeking refuge, IOM maintained, but not business travellers, who “have continued to move fairly freely”, including through agreed ‘green lanes’, such as the one between Singapore and Malaysia.  

By contrast, those who moved out of necessity – such as migrant workers and refugees – have had to absorb expensive quarantine and self-isolation costs, IOM said, noting that in the first half of 2020, asylum applications fell by one-third, compared to the same period a year earlier.  

Unequal restrictions 

As the COVID crisis continues, this distinction between those who can move and those who cannot, will likely become even more pronounced, IOM said, “between those with the resources and opportunities to move freely, and those whose movement is severely restricted by COVID-19-related or pre-existing travel and visa restrictions and limited resources”. 

This inequality is even more likely if travel is allowed for anyone who has been vaccinated or tested negative for COVID-19, or for those with access to digital health records – an impossibility for many migrants. 

Health risks 

Frontier lockdowns also reduced options for those living in overcrowded camps with high coronavirus infection rates in Bangladesh and Greece, IOM’s report indicated.  

In South America, meanwhile, many displaced Venezuelans in Colombia, Peru, Chile, Ecuador and Brazil, lost their livelihoods and some have sought to return home – including by enlisting the services of smugglers. 

UNRWA chief reports on despair and hope among Palestinians, as US announces $150 million in aid

Philippe Lazzarini, Commissioner General of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, UNRWA, briefed Member States during an online meeting to mobilize political and financial support ahead of a donor conference later this year. 

His report came just hours before the United States Government announced that it was to restart economic, development and humanitarian assistance “to the Palestinian people”, including $150 million in assistance for UNRWA. 

The overall package includes $75 million for the West Bank and Gaza, and $10 million for peacebuilding programmes, via the US Agency for International Development, according to the announcement from the US State Department.

At the beginning of 2018, the previous Trump administration decided to cut back its funding for UNRWA by around $300 million – the largest reduction in funding, in the history of the UN relief agency, leading to a severe financial crisis. 

Spectre of death

“Last week, I was in Ein El Hilweh Camp in South Lebanon, and a young unemployed Palestinian refugee told me he constantly asks himself whether he would die from COVID, from hunger, or while trying to cross the Mediterranean on a dinghy,” Mr. Lazzarini told ambassadors. 

“People are struggling daily to ensure one meal for the family.  No one should be made to feel so desperate. No one should have to choose from these three deadly options.” 

An incredibly challenging year 

UNRWA supports some 5.5 million Palestinians in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, providing education and primary health care, as well as humanitarian and social services. 

Despite persistent funding shortfalls, staff have maintained all critical services, Mr. Lazzarini said, thus rendering the agency “a pillar of stability” for those who depend on its operations. 

Gwyn Lewis, Director of UNRWA Operations in the West Bank, said 2020 was incredibly challenging, with the looming threat of annexation, leading to a breakdown in coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority early in the year. And then the pandemic hit. 

“We have seen a quite dramatic impact on the economy”, she said, outlining some of the damage, such as a decline in household incomes and rising unemployment, which has reached 23 per cent in the West Bank and 49 per cent in Gaza. 

These dire socio-economic conditions are occurring in parallel with issues related to the ongoing occupation of Palestinian territory, and the more than decade-long blockade on Gaza.  

While challenges will continue into 2021, Mr. Lazzarini pointed to signs of optimism and opportunity, including the possibility of renewed funding from the United States, first reported on Wednesday. 

Reported US cash injection imminent 

Earlier in the meeting, the Palestinian Permanent Observer to the UN, Riyad Mansour, mentioned unconfirmed news reports indicating that the Biden administration was preparing to deliver $150 million in assistance.

“This would be a very needed significant amount of money to address the challenges that UNRWA is facing”, said Mr. Mansour “and perhaps it is a good omen that we are meeting today”.

Mr. Lazzarini, speaking before the official announcement, said that it would represent US re-engagement with UNRWA, and timely support for its programmes. 

© 2020 UNRWA Photo Kazem Abu-Khalaf
UNRWA Commissioner-General, Philippe Lazzarini, during a briefing on Shu’fat Refugee Camp discussing the challenges facing the camp.

“Another important opportunity I see is that the global pandemic has pushed all of us into accelerated digital transformation. And digitalization is not new to UNRWA and our staff,” he added.  

UNRWA switched to providing telemedicine “almost overnight”, and even developed a mobile app to assist pregnant women, and people suffering from diabetes and hypertension.  The agency also established an IT hub in Gaza which now serves all UN entities. 

“This has created new job opportunities in a place that sadly holds the world record for unemployment”, he said.  

Mr. Lazzarini is an advocate for digital learning.  Later this month, UNRWA will launch its first online learning platform so that students can continue their education while classrooms remain shuttered due to the pandemic or conflict. 

 “In the field of education, going digital means that Palestine refugees acquire the skills needed to remain competitive in a very rapidly evolving labour market”, he said.  “I believe that we should not miss the train of digitalization. We owe this to the half a million girls and boys in our schools.”

Why we should support refugee athletes’ Olympic medal hopes in Tokyo: UNHCR

That’s the message from the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, which on Tuesday called for support for more than 60 Refugee Olympic and Paralympic athletes currently dedicating their lives to training for the games.

To mark the UN’s International Day of Sport for Development and Peace, 6 April, UNHCR has released ‘The Journey,’ a social video depicting the extraordinary stories of refugee Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls.

It highlights how sport is more than just a leisure activity; it has the power to bring hope and change for all those forced to flee.

© Japan for UNHCR/Atsushi Shibu
Rose Nathike Lokonyen (right), a South Sudanese refugee, runs with her teammate at a high-altitude training camp in Iten, Kenya.

Winning barefoot

The story it tells, is similar to the life of track and field athlete, Rose Nathike Lokonyen, a South Sudanese refugee living in Kenya.

She grew up in the Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya after fleeing violence in South Sudan when she was just eight years old.

During a school competition in the camp, she ran a 10-kilometre race and finished second.

When trials for the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) Refugee Olympic Team training squad came to Kakuma Camp, Rose won her race barefoot.

Flag-bearer

She went on to train in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi for the Olympic 800-metre event and carried the flag for the first Refugee Olympic Team in history, at the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

Now she is training hard in the hope of getting to Tokyo. “I want to help people everywhere better understand the lives of refugees and the power sport can have to change lives”, said Ms. Lokonyen.

As an official High Profile Supporter for UNHCR, she was one of two IOC Refugee Athlete Scholarship-holders who collaborated on the video’s production.

‘The Journey’ tells the dramatised story of a refugee who is forced to flee her home on foot escaping conflict and persecution.

Podium dreams

Travelling over land and sea, she eventually reaches safety, reestablishes her life and starts running towards a new goal: a medal.

UNHCR works closely with the IOC and IPC to support the refugee athletes who continue to train despite the challenges of displacement and the Covid 19 pandemic.

“Against the odds, these extraordinary athletes have kept their dreams alive to represent millions of refugees around the world,” said Dominique Hyde, UNHCR’s Director of External Relations.

“Together with our partners the IOC and IPC we’re dedicated to a world in which all those who have been forced to flee – including those with disabilities – can access their right to sport and play at all levels,” he added.

With more than 80 million people now displaced worldwide, UNHCR is working with governments, the sporting world, civil society and refugees to enable access and participation in sport at all levels for every person forced to flee, including those with disabilities.

‘The Journey’ was created for UNHCR, in partnership with the IOC and International Paralympic Committee, by award-winning agency, Don’t Panic, and directed by Pantera through Anonymous Content.

UNHCR urges greater protection for Sahel communities after deadly attack

The UN refugee agency UNHCR reported on Thursday that six refugees from nearby Mali were among the 137 people who were killed on 21 March by assailants on motorbikes.

‘Shock and mourning’

Most of the victims had already fled violence in 2020, UNHCR said, adding that 1,400 survivors from the targeted villages are now on the move and many are “in shock and mourning”.

Highlighting the vulnerability of civilians in the region and the urgency of their situation, Gillian Triggs, UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, encouraged efforts to address the growing insecurity, noting that it was clear that the attacks on displaced people and the communities hosting them “were targeted and deliberate”.

In addition to the unjustifiable violence meted out against civilians, shelters and granaries were also burned to the ground and cattle stolen or killed. “Survivors have nothing left,” Ms. Triggs said.

Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali in the Sahel are at the centre of one of the world’s fastest-growing displacement and protection crises. The region now hosts nearly three million refugees and people displaced inside their own country.

Aid and counselling

She said UNHCR and partners would continue to gather information, and that UN teams and partners are monitoring the situation and providing humanitarian aid and counselling to survivors.

“We reiterate our call for greater protection of civilians and displaced communities”, the Assistant High Commissioner added. “We also call on the international community to seize the sense of urgency and continue supporting regional efforts to address the root causes of this crisis and help us respond to humanitarian needs arising from forced displacement.”

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