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Child refugees have become pawns in a rightwing culture war

In striking down Alf Dubs’ House of Lords amendment, the government is feeding nativist narratives

“Who could be against children joining their families?” Few questions better capture the cruelty of the Conservative government’s approach to child refugees than that posed by Labour peer Alf Dubs this week. Dubs was protesting against the government’s decision to scrap a commitment from the Brexit withdrawal agreement that allows unaccompanied child refugees to reunite with their families in Britain. The House of Lords struck down the measure on Tuesday – only for the government to promptly overturn its changes. Dubs’ question pinpointed the confusing priorities of Boris Johnson’s hard-right government: why did it pick this fight?

The government’s position is riven with contradictions: it publicly supports protecting family reunification, but argues that including the commitment within the Brexit withdrawal bill ties its hands in EU negotiations. How can your hands be tied by something you’ve publicly supported? Vulnerable children should not be made bargaining chips, but the row over child refugees plays into a culture war that has proved a winning electoral formula for the right. Much like rightwing politicians’ tirades against international aid, which pit overseas donations against the needs of British pensioners waiting for beds in hospital corridors, the debate around child refugees fortifies a nativist narrative: (white) Britain comes first.

READ  UNHCR seeks support for refugees, hosts in Ethiopia

This message is finding a growing audience among a population that has experienced the economic hardships of austerity and absorbed its belt-tightening mantra. The populist right preys on this invented feeling of economic scarcity. While debating the issue of unaccompanied child refugees recently on Sky News, my fellow panellist, a Conservative supporter, argued the government’s priority should be housing the many deprived British children and families living in temporary accommodation.

Read Also: Millions of future climate refugees may need protection, U.N. committee warns

It was a perfect example of the racialised antagonism that pits groups against one another. Having helped to plunge a fifth of the population into poverty, the right now uses Britain’s straitened circumstances as justification to attack progressives for wanting to help refugee children. This deepens the divisive rhetoric of “us” and “them”; the latter category now includes not just migrants or foreigners, but also people who are anxious to defend them.

Across the world, progressives are consumed by the question of how to dismantle this dog-whistle racism. The communications expert Anat Shenker-Osorio works on political messaging designed to defeat far-right narratives. She has closely studied successful progressive campaigns, from New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s 2017 victory to Ireland’s 2018 referendum on abortion. During the 2018 US midterm elections, Shenker-Osorio worked with grassroots groups in Minnesota that were attempting to counter Republican race-baiting and immigrant-bashing. They found that messages focused only on economics weren’t cutting through. As JaNaé Bates, communications director for the Isaiah coalition of faith communities for racial and economic justice in Minnesota, has explained, some voters who wanted free healthcare, education and childcare would add: “If my Somali neighbour is going to get it [too], I don’t want it.”

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Progressive groups worked with Shenker-Osorio to develop a campaign message with an inclusive narrative capable of persuading swing voters. It focused on a relatable subject: long Minnesota winters. A campaign ad, which ran on radio and online, claimed that everyone knew how to dig their neighbours out of the snow – regardless of whether they had lived in Minnesota for one year or 50. The ad concluded with a rousing message that called out the divisive rhetoric of opposition candidates: “There are lots of ways to be Minnesotan and all of them are greater than fear”.

Minnesota, previously a marginal Democrat state, wound up with resounding Democrat victories for governor, attorney general and Senate races, taking control of the state house and elected the first Somali-American, Ilhan Omar, to Congress. Its story is a lesson for the challenges facing the UK left: how to build a more inclusive version of the collective “us” and share ideas with progressive movements in other countries – which is exactly how the populist right is organising. As Shenker-Osorio says when we talk on the phone: “The right uses the same talking points everywhere, all they do is run it through a localised spellcheck.”

READ  UNHCR supports release of 434 asylum-seekers from immigration detention  in Mexico

The alternative is to be dragged into a nativist narrative that incites division. And that’s where everyone loses, from desperate families forced to use food banks, to children living in camps far away from their families.

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Netherlands, IOM launch Global Migration Initiative to protect people on the move

COMPASS will provide vulnerable migrants including victims of trafficking and unaccompanied or separated children access to a broad range of protection and assistance services.

 The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands launched the Cooperation on Migration and Partnerships for Sustainable Solutions initiative (COMPASS) at the beginning of 2021. COMPASS is a global initiative, in partnership with 12 countries, designed to protect people on the move, combat human trafficking and smuggling, and support dignified return while promoting sustainable reintegration.

The initiative is centred on a whole-of-society approach which, in addition to assisting individuals, will work across all levels – households, communities, and the wider communities – and encompasses the following partner countries: Afghanistan, Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, and Tunisia.

“We want to mobilize families, peers and communities to encourage informed and safe migration decisions, protect migrants, and help those returning home reintegrate successfully,” said Monica Goracci, Director of the Department of Migration Management at IOM.

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“One key component is also undermining the trafficking and smuggling business models through the promotion of safe alternatives and information sharing to reduce the risks of exploitation and abuse by these criminal networks.” Vulnerable migrants, including victims of trafficking and unaccompanied or separated children, will have access to a broad range of protection and assistance services such as mental health and psychosocial support, while migrants in transit who wish to return home will be supported with dignified return and reintegration.

Community level interventions will focus on improving community-led efforts to address trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants, and support sustainable reintegration of returning migrants. COMPASS will work with national and local governments to enable a conducive environment for migrant protection, migration management and international cooperation on these issues.

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is pleased to launch the COMPASS programme in cooperation with IOM, an important and longstanding partner on migration cooperation,” said Marriët Schuurman, Director for Stability and Humanitarian Aid of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands.

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“The programme is a part of the Dutch comprehensive approach to migration with activities that contribute to protection and decreasing irregular migration. Research and data gathering are also important components, and we hope that the insights that will be gained under COMPASS will contribute to broader knowledge sharing on migration and better-informed migration policies.”, added Schuurman. The initiative has a strong learning component, designed to increase knowledge and the uptake of lessons learned, both within the programme and beyond its parameters. COMPASS will actively contribute to global knowledge that supports countries in managing migration flows and protecting vulnerable migrants such as victims of trafficking. The implementation of COMPASS is set to start soon.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, as the donor to the COMPASS initiative, pledges its active support to partner countries to improve migration cooperation mechanisms within its long-term vision. 

IOM, the leading inter-governmental organization in the field of migration, contributes its expertise as the technical implementation partner to the initiative. IOM works closely with governmental, intergovernmental and non-governmental partners in its dedication to promoting humane and orderly migration for the benefit of all. 

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A child, 40 others drown in shipwreck off Tunisia

Photo: Mediterranean Sea

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are deeply saddened by reports of a shipwreck off the coast of Sidi Mansour, in southeast Tunisia, yesterday evening. The bodies of 41 people, including at least one child, have so far been retrieved.

According to reports from local UNHCR and IOM teams, three survivors were rescued by the Tunisian National Coast Guard. The search effort was still underway on Friday. Based on initial information, all those who perished were from Sub-Saharan Africa.

This tragic loss of life underscores once again the need to enhance and expand State-led search and rescue operations across the Central Mediterranean, where some 290 people have lost their lives so far this year. Solidarity across the region and support to national authorities in their efforts to prevent loss of life and prosecute smugglers and traffickers should be a priority.

Prior to yesterday’s incident, 39 refugees and migrants had perished off the coast near the Tunisian city of Sfax in early March. So far this year, sea departures from Tunisia to Europe have more than tripled compared to the same period in 2020.

READ  Hungary urged to ensure access for asylum seekers

UNHCR and IOM continue to monitor developments closely. They continue to stand ready to work with the national authorities to assist and support the survivors, and the family members of those lost.

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Ethiopian migrants return home from Yemen with IOM support in wake of tragic boat sinking

Yemen: Stranded Ethiopian migrants prepare to board an IOM-facilitated flight from Aden, Yemen, to fly home to Addis Ababa. Photo: IOM/Majed Mohammed 2021

One hundred and sixty Ethiopian migrants have returned home safely from Yemen today with the assistance of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), just one day after a perilous journey across the Gulf of Aden claimed the lives of dozens of people, including at least 16 children.

More than 32,000 migrants, predominantly from Ethiopia, remain stranded across Yemen in dire, often deadly, circumstances.

“The conditions of migrants stranded in Yemen has become so tragic that many feel they have no option but to rely on smugglers to return home,” said Jeffrey Labovitz, IOM’s Director for Operations and Emergencies.

At least 42 people returning from Yemen are believed to have died on Monday when their vessel sank off the coast of Djibouti. Last month, at least 20 people had also drowned on the same route according to survivors. IOM believes that, since May 2020, over 11,000 migrants have returned to the Horn of Africa on dangerous boat journeys, aided by unscrupulous smugglers.

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“Our Voluntary Humanitarian Return (VHR) programme provides a lifeline for those stranded in a country now experiencing its seventh year of conflict and crisis. We call on all governments along the route to come together and support our efforts to allow migrants safe and dignified opportunities to travel home,” added Labovitz.

COVID-19 has had a major impact on global migration. The route from the Horn of Africa to Gulf countries has been particularly affected. Tens of thousands of migrants, hoping to work in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), now find themselves unable to complete their journeys, stranded across Djibouti, Somalia and Yemen.

While the pandemic has also caused the number of migrants arriving to Yemen to decrease from 138,000 in 2019 to just over 37,500 in 2020, the risks they face continue to rise. Many of these migrants are stranded in precarious situations, sleeping rough without shelter or access to services. Many others are in detention or being held by smugglers.

READ  Refugees are 60 percent more likely to be financially Impacted by COVID-19, new research finds

“We cannot find jobs or food here; Yemen is a problem for us,” said Gamal, a 22-year-old migrant returning on the VHR flight. “I used to sleep in the street on cardboard. I could only eat because of the charity people would give me and sometimes we were given leftovers from restaurants. I never had much to eat.”

Since October 2020, in Aden alone, IOM has registered over 6,000 migrants who need support to safely return home. Today’s flight to Addis Ababa was the second transporting an initial group of 1,100 Ethiopians who have been approved for VHR to Ethiopia. Thousands of other undocumented migrants are waiting for their nationality to be verified and travel documents to be provided.

Prior to departure on the VHR flight, IOM carried out medical and protection screenings to ensure that returnees are fit to travel and are voluntarily consenting to return. Those with special needs are identified and receive specialized counselling and support.

In Ethiopia, IOM supports government-run COVID-19 quarantine facilities to accommodate the returnees on arrival and provides cash assistance, essential items and onward transportation to their homes. The Organization also supports family tracing for unaccompanied migrant children.

READ  Human trafficking generates billions in profit at the expense of victims- A-TIPSOM

Across the Horn of Africa and Yemen, IOM provides life-saving support to migrants through health care, food, water and other vital assistance.

Today’s flight was funded by the US State Department’s Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM). Post-arrival assistance in Addis Ababa is supported by EU Humanitarian Aid and PRM.

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