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Somali migrants return from Iran, after several months of being stranded

Mogadishu – Eleven Somali nationals and Muhammed Hussein Abukar, Somalia’s ambassador to West Africa and Special Envoy to Iran, safely returned to Somalia after nearly six months of being stranded in the Islamic Republic of Iran due to COVID-19 global movement  restrictions.

Their return, completed on Saturday (1 August) was facilitated by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), in coordination with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Office of the Special Envoy on Migrant’s and Children’s rights in Somalia.

Mohammed, a 20-year-old from Mogadishu had been in detention for over a year by the time his family reached out to IOM for support in February. Like others in the same predicament, the young Somali could not communicate regularly with his family since he left the country.

Mohammed could not contain his excitement as the plane bringing him home landed just days ago. “I would like to spend time with my family especially my mother whom I have missed so much,” he said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated governments to take various containment measures, designed to limit the spread of the virus. These extraordinary measures, including travel and mobility restrictions, are having an impact on all people, but some are exacerbating the precarious situations and vulnerabilities of migrant populations and in particular, leading to a large number of migrants being stranded. Loss of jobs and income, lack of employment, loss of residence permits and lack of resources to return home have all impacted mobility

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

This is unprecedented historically. Migrants are stranded for various reasons beyond restrictions on travel and the related drop in international flights.

As visas and permits expire migrants are also facing deportation. This increases the possibility of further limiting access to health care and social support, stigmatization and xenophobia. This also raises risks of detention in already overcrowded facilities, as well as homelessness

The 11 migrants and the Ambassador had been under lockdown for several months in a hotel in Tehran, as they eagerly waited to be reunited with their loved ones in Somalia.

Two of the returnees were studying at a university in Tehran when the country went into lockdown for physical distancing in an attempt to stop further transmission of the virus in the country. All of a sudden, the Somali students could not attend classes, nor return home.

The rest of the group had been intercepted by the Iranian authorities and detained whilst trying to reach Europe. While in detention, migrants and the family members contacted and sought help from IOM.  To facilitate their return, the Ambassador flew into Iran right before the COVID-19 pandemic erupted. As a result, their return flights were cancelled unexpectedly.

READ  Greece begins deporting refugees to ‘isolated camps’

Thanks to the efforts of IOM and the Somali Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the migrants were able to depart the Islamic Republic of Iran and finally arrived at Aden Adde International Airport in Mogadishu.

Mohammad Safari, Officer in Charge and Program Development Officer, IOM Mission in the Islamic Republic of Iran, described some of the obstacles the returnees faced.  “We tried to arrange return flights from Tehran several times with different airlines when the opportunity arose, but all the flights were cancelled as the COVID-19 situation and movement restrictions took place around the world,” he explained. ”I am really thankful for the support of Iranian authorities to issue exit permit six times over the weekend and holidays.”

There were also COVID-19 positive cases in the facility where the migrants stayed, which further delayed their return.

Besides the final flight home, IOM also coordinated officials in with Ankara, Turkey, and Doha, Qatar, for Laissez-Passer for the migrants, to ensure that all carried appropriate travel documents.

While waiting to return, IOM provided the migrants and the Ambassador with accommodation, meals, and other basic items, as well as regular health check-ups prior to their travel to ensure the safety of the group, including four COVID-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and fit-to-fly tests.

READ  IOM, Greece assist 134 Iraqi  migrants with voluntary return

Now in Somalia, IOM will assist the returnees to reach their final destinations across the country and will be ready to offer basic healthcare support and psychosocial assistance to those that need it.

“Many migrants continue to be stranded all over the world unable to be with their friends and families during this difficult time due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. IOM will continue to support Somali nationals stranded across the world to safely return home and calls for all governments to help stranded migrants,” said Richard Danziger, Chief of Mission, IOM Somalia.

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Risking it all crossing the Darien Gap, a treacherous trek no one should tackle

 In the notorious Darien Gap spanning the Colombia-Panama border, a young pregnant woman and her husband from Haiti were left alone to face the unforgiving jungle along one of the world’s most dangerous irregular migration routes.

No roads, poisonous snakes, steep mountain ranges, raging rivers and groups of armed robbers had  deterred Jean Horima, 25, and his wife Rose from risking their lives as thousands of desperate people from countries such as Haiti, Cuba, Bangladesh or Somalia do every year trying to reach the United States, Canada or Mexico.

More than 42,000 Haitians, including thousands of children, have tackled the perilous journey so far this year, hoping to gain refugee status and better futures. Many have not made it and Jean and Rose know they are lucky to have survived, especially as the baby came early.

“The jungle is brutal; it’s really, really tough. The hardest thing for me was to climb the mountains and cross the water,” says Jean. ”There are also people in the forest who will rob or kill you. I know some who got killed. Yes, people who left before me and when I arrived, I found them dead in the woods.”

The couple had started the week-long slog from the Colombia side with 50 others, but when the first hill loomed, the group abandoned them. After several days tackling the dense rainforest, Rose went into labour in the middle of nowhere.

“I was with my wife, and she told me what to do to help and save her,” says Jean. She gave birth and told her husband to cut the umbilical cord with a pair of scissors. “I also had a black string, so I told him to use it to tie the baby’s umbilical cord. Then, we used a t-shirt to make a bag to put the baby in,” says Rose.

READ  Dozens of migrants die in 30 days 

Jean Michelet hugs Alejandro, who has not wanted to eat since their arrival at the station three days ago, while his other children play. Photo: IOM/José Espinosa Bilgray

Wesley and Michelanda, the middle children, play on the playground slide. Photo: IOM/José Espinosa Bilgray

The birth of a healthy baby boy gave them the courage and strength to continue and three days later, the exhausted but relieved family emerged at the Migrant Reception Station (ERM* by its Spanish acronym) in San Vicente, Panama, which is managed by the Panamanian Government with support from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency.

Vertulo Renonce and Guerline Mettelus from Haiti have also survived the Darien trek. They had travelled from Chile with their three-year-old son Louvertir, and crossed Colombia’s border with Panama in February. The couple has five other children and hope to join their two eldest in Guatemala. The other three are still in Haiti.

The parents have had difficulty communicating with their children since they arrived at the migrant reception centre in Lajas Blancas, but life there is not just an emotional drain.

Jean François and his childhood best friend travelled from Brazil with their families. They cook rice and beans in front of their tents in Lajas Blancas. Photo: IOM/José Espinosa Bilgray

“The can of milk Louvertir drinks costs USD 4.50 and about every two days I have to buy a new one,” says Guerline. The room in the Guatemala hostel where her children are staying is USD 20 a night, and her children in Haiti have missed school for more than a month because their fees have not been paid.

They arrived in Panama with USD 400 they had hidden from three armed attackers who had robbed their group of 14 people along the way and have only USD 3 left.

READ  Only 189 migrants returned to Turkey despite EU refugee pact

Lajas Blancas looks like a small neighbourhood where up to 500 people can be sheltered. Near the only entrance is a small kiosk where people gather to buy refreshments and biscuits and to charge their mobile phones. Off to the right are tents, showers and toilets. Down by the river is the quarantine and care area for people with COVID-19, where access is restricted.

Outside his tent, Jean François, who left Haiti in 2015, is grateful for the respite in his journey from Brazil with his four children. He greets a childhood friend who dumps firewood collected from the riverbank to prepare rice and beans.

A member of the National Border Service walks to IOM’s tent in San Vicente. Photo: IOM/José Espinosa Bilgray

“The food they give us here is not bad, but it is not made with love. That’s what we need,” says Jean François. They had survived a week in the jungle with very little food and travelled from Necoclí, Colombia. “Among the 230 people who crossed the jungle, there were around 100 children. It hurts to see them; the children don’t deserve this,” he says.

In the San Vicente ERM, Jean Paul, his wife and their four children are taking a breather on their way to the United States. After the perils of the Darien Gap, they must still travel through Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico.

They travelled by boat to the border of Colombia and Panama, where they paid a “coyote”, or migrant smuggler, to walk them through the jungle in groups of hundreds of migrants, most of them Haitian nationals.

Jean Kerens, Rose, and baby David are standing inside their tent at the ERM in San Vicente. They travelled from Chile and arrived in Panama in the middle of July. Photo: IOM Panama

On the swings and slide in San Vicente, three of Jean’s young children play.

READ  NIgeria frowns as Libyans set citizen ablaze in Tripoli

It’s noon. The officers of the National Border Service are handing out the food and people are crowding at the entrance waiting for their turn. Jean Michelet is sitting with a plate of food in one hand and, lying in his arms, is one-year-old Alejandro, who has not wanted to eat since they arrived at the station three days earlier.

Jean Michelet made sure the three eldest children had eaten and took them to play, giving his wife who sleeps in one of the houses a break. Unsuccessfully, he keeps trying to get his baby to eat. In his face you can see anguish – concern for the future and the pain of remembering the nightmare of the merciless Darien Gap.

*The ERM was built by the Government of Panama with support from international cooperation, intergovernmental organizations, civil society and private enterprise to reduce overcrowding in La Peñita, another ERM. San Vicente provides dignified conditions in which physical separation and other biosecurity measures can be maintained to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. 

Story written by José Espinosa Bilgray, IOM Panama.

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Stitching hope: Empowering women in South Sudan towards self-reliance

It is only the first day of training in hand-sewing and the women already have big plans about how they are going to use their newly acquired skills to support their families to gain independence.

“Once I get the hang of hand-sewing, I will learn how to sew with a machine. From there, I will make bedsheets, curtains and tablecloths to sell and use the money to provide for my children,” says 50-year-old Adut Akwar.

Adut and 14 other women from the Hai Masna Collective Centre, an internally displaced persons (IDPs) camp in South Sudan’s Western Bahr el Ghazal state, are part of the selected group to be trained by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in an array of techniques including sewing, business and entrepreneurship as well as leadership skills. The group comprises women living with disabilities, young mothers and female-headed households.

Fifty-year-old Adut Akwar, a member of IOM CCCM’s Women Participation Project. Photo: IOM 2021/Liatile Putsoa

Adut lives in Masna with her six children. They fled their home in 2017 when renewed fighting rocked their village in Jur River, forcing thousands of people, including women, children and the elderly to flee to save their lives. Many found refuge in Hai Masna (hosting 3,850 IDPs) and other collective centres around Wau, while the majority of the displaced sheltered at Naivasha IDP camp, formerly known as the UN Protection of Civilians (PoC) site in Wau.

READ  Only 189 migrants returned to Turkey despite EU refugee pact

She is among the 40 women from Hai Masna and Naivasha who have benefited from the training workshops through the Women Participation Project (WPP).  Through this project, IOM’s Camp Coordination and Camp Management (CCCM) team facilitates women’s access to income-generating activities through vocational and leadership skills training to support them to become self-reliant, encourage them to raise their concerns when they have them and take up leadership roles within the IDP camp and within their communities.

Members of IOM CCCM’s Women Participation Project trained in hand-sewing. Photo: IOM 2021/Liatile Putsoa

“I am very impressed by the enthusiasm that the women have shown in learning these skills which will help them in rebuilding their lives,” says Titus Muniri, IOM CCCM’s Community Participation Assistant.

“Some women who participated in previous trainings have even gone up and taken leading roles in the camp’s governance structures. We have four women who completed our training who were elected as members of the Community Leadership Committee (CLC) in Naivasha camp,” says Titus.

READ  Nigerian girl held captive in Lebanon cries for help

Adut Akwar says that she “has a plan.”

“When I return home, I will go back to ploughing my fields to grow food for my children,” she says.

“That’s not it though,” she adds with a renewed sense of excitement. “I will also use my time to sew bedsheets that I can sell to make an income.”

Adut says that she hopes that as peace holds in Western Bahr el Ghazal, more women will choose to leave the camps and return to their villages.

“When we leave, we can come together and form women-led cooperatives putting to use the business management and craft-making skills we learnt. We can make some real changes in our lives,” says Adut.

Adut was born with congenital upper limb reduction. Photo: IOM 2021/Liatile Putsoa

Adut, who was born with congenital upper limb reduction, says that she has never been one to depend on others to do things for her because of her disability.

“I guess, being born with a disability, you are also born with an inherent sense that you have to push harder to show the world that you can,” says Adut. “That is why when I was selected for the workshop, I did not think twice about joining.”

READ  Secure release of Nigerians illegally detained in prisons abroad- Reps ask FG

The women support each other. IOM 2021/Liatile Putsoa

“Sure, I may need help putting the thread through the needle, but the rest I can learn and do by myself,” says Adut.

The Women Participation Project (WPP) is supported by the US State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) under the global “Safe from the Start Initiative” through which IOM’s CCCM team facilitates women’s access to income-generating activities.

To find out more about the Women’s Participation Project, visit https://womenindisplacement.org/

Written by Liatile Putsoa, Media and Communications Officer.

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Observatory on smuggling of migrants

The Observatory on Smuggling of Migrants is a research initiative funded by the Governments of Denmark, Canada, Japan and Italy, and is being implemented by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime since 2019.  The website of the Observatory was launched in May 2021.

Smuggling of migrants is a complex crime involving the facilitation of the irregularly entry of people into a country for profit. Migrants are smuggled across borders with the financial or material gain. In establishing an Observatory on Smuggling of Migrants, UNODC seeks to gather information, collect, analyze and disseminate data to enhance the knowledge on this crime and inform evidence-based policy and law enforcement responses.

The UNODC Observatory on Smuggling of Migrants gathers data on key areas including migrants’ plans and preparations for the journey – particularly in relation to contact with smugglers, key smuggling routes and experiences on the journey, profiles of migrant smugglers and networks of organized crime, prices for smuggling services and mode of payment, and the types of abuses suffered in the context of smuggling.

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

Building on data collected in Nigeria and other countries in West and North Africa as well as in Europe, the Observatory has already published findings on smuggling of migrants along the Central Mediterranean Route. Upcoming findings will cover the use of migrant smugglers by Nigerians on the move.

See: Key Findings on the Characteristics of Migrant Smuggling in West Africa, North Africa and the Central Mediterranean

Moreover, UNODC is partnering with the Mixed Migration Centre to collect data in transit and destination countries in West and North Africa to gain specific data on Nigerian use of smugglers in the region. MMC has produced a snapshot of emerging findings based on this research partnership.

Support Voice for African Migrants


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Good journalism costs a lot of money. Yet only good journalism can ensure the possibility of a good society, an accountable democracy, and a transparent government.

For continued free access to the best and latest migration, trafficking, displacement and humanitarian reports including thorough investigative reports in these areas, we ask you to consider making a modest support to this noble endeavour.

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