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The COVID-19 blame game threatens us all

zard1_Diego CupoloNurPhoto via Getty Images_greeceturkeyrefugeescoronavirusDiego Cupolo/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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Despite the claims of nationalist politicians, refugees and forced migrants were not the source of COVID-19’s spread. Blaming these vulnerable groups damns them twice – and exposes everyone to even greater risks.

NEW YORK – As the new coronavirus, COVID-19, nears pandemic status, a second scourge has followed in its path: a virulent racism that scapegoats refugees, asylum seekers, and foreigners more generally as the cause of the outbreak. This is not only false and cruel, but also dangerous. Politicizing the crisis and stigmatizing whole populations risks turning fiction into fact by stoking fear and driving the disease underground, making it more difficult to manage. Have we forgotten the central lesson of the HIV/AIDS pandemic?

Italian far-right leader Matteo Salvini was among the first to target migrants in connection with the COVID-19 outbreak – and, as usual, without any evidence. Salvini called on Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to resign after the government allowed a boat with 276 Africans rescued at sea to dock in Sicily. Arguing for “armor-plated” borders, he said that Conte had failed to “defend Italy and Italians.”

Asylum seekers had nothing to do with the spread of the virus in Italy. In fact, an Italian visiting Algiers is believed to have been responsible for one of the first two African cases of COVID-19.

Unfortunately, Salvini is not alone. Nationalist leaders across Europe are using the crisis to close borders and even to call for an end to the European Union’s Schengen Area of border-free travel. This reactionary chorus includes Marine Le Pen in France, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and leaders of far-right parties in Germany, Spain, Switzerland, and Austria. And in the United States, President Donald Trump’s administration has said that it is “very strongly considering” closing the country’s southern border in a bid to control the spread of the disease.

READ  Eight African migrants drown,  several others injured off the Horn of Africa 

Even more cynically, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently opened his country’s borders and bused over 10,000 Syrian refugees to the frontiers of Greece and Bulgaria. Erdoğan aims to use the specter of a rerun of the 2015 refugee crisis – amplified by the COVID-19 threat – to wrest concessions from the EU.

The conservative Greek government responded by closing the country’s borders, suspending asylum processing, and summarily deporting arriving asylum seekers. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis invoked an EU directive allowing member states to elevate border security if public health is at risk. “We will do whatever it takes to prevent the appearance of the virus – particularly there [the Greek islands],” Mitsotakis said. Hungary also has blocked access to asylum in recent days. Predictably, the EU – which has failed either to craft an effective asylum policy of its own or to provide adequate support to frontline countries such as Turkey – now faces another political crisis.

But the real Achilles heel in Greece, as in other countries hosting refugees, are the abysmal conditions in which asylum seekers are forced to live. More than 40,000 migrants now languish in Greek island camps that are designed to house a small fraction of that number. The camps lack the most basic health care and sanitation, with one toilet for hundreds of people in some locations.

READ  Visa free policy: Nigerian ex lawmaker, former Minister disagree

These conditions exist five years after the Mediterranean refugee crisis, and in an EU member state. Conditions on the other side of the Mediterranean – in Libya and Lebanon –  are even direr.

Moreover, the crisis could become much worse. COVID-19 is spreading fast in Iran, which hosts a million Afghan refugees. The country’s health system is considered to be one of the best in the Middle East, and yet it is struggling to cope.

In Lebanon, by contrast, public-health provision is weak, and refugees face rampant discrimination. Iraq, Syria, and Yemen have fragmented, underfunded health-care systems that have been crippled by war. And millions of Syrians are now on the move again as a result of the horrific Russian aerial bombing of Idlib, fueling even more pressure on Turkey’s borders. It is these populations, already weakened by the effects of conflict, and now forced to flee and endure desperate conditions in the process, that have the most to fear and lose from COVID-19.

Meanwhile, the targeting of border-crossing migrants is morphing into broader attacks on diversity. In many countries, people of Asian descent are reporting racist attacks, and feel fearful living and working in communities that they used to think of as home. “The government is helping the spread of the virus,” asserted a recent headline in the right-wing Italian daily Libero. “For Conte and his scientists, racism is the disease, not coronavirus.” And in the US, Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson claimed that liberals would “let you die before they admitted that diversity is not our strength.”

READ  Forced back home by the pandemic, Venezuelan grandmother sees no choice but to flee once again

Under international law, governments addressing public-health threats can adopt only measures that are supported by science, proportionate to the risks involved, and anchored in human rights, including the right to seek asylum and the prohibition of discrimination. Responses that stigmatize whole populations and disproportionately affect the most vulnerable are not only wrong, but also will fail to control the spread of disease.

Faced with the growing COVID-19 crisis, the international community should ensure that cities and states with large refugee and migrant populations have the necessary resources to serve all their residents. All health-care facilities should be free of immigration enforcement, and COVID-19 responses should not trigger any immigration enforcement.

Refugees and forced migrants were not the source of COVID-19’s spread. Blaming these vulnerable groups damns them twice – and exposes everyone to even greater risks. The history of epidemics shows that how we treat our most vulnerable populations determines the fate of us all.

Source: project-syndicate.org

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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.

READ  Benue community where children are trafficked for money, sex

“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.

READ  Stranded Nigerians celebrate as government lifts suspension on evacuation

“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. 

READ  44 year-old arraigned for allegedly trafficking 12 girls to Libya

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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  Forced back home by the pandemic, Venezuelan grandmother sees no choice but to flee once again

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.

READ  Eight African migrants drown,  several others injured off the Horn of Africa 

“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  80 migrants risk their lives to cross English Channel during coronavirus lockdown

“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  Forced back home by the pandemic, Venezuelan grandmother sees no choice but to flee once again

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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