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International standards of refugee protection severely tested in 2020-UNHCR’s Gillian Triggs

 
Greece. Refugees Arrive on Lesvos island

Refugees arrive on the Island of Lesvos, Greece, March 2 2020.  © Image Eurokinissi via ZUMA Wire),Image Eurokinissi via ZUMA Wire),Ritzau Scanpix,

International standards of refugee protection have been severely tested in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency’s, international protection chief said today.

In a key annual address to UNHCR’s annual Executive Committee meeting in Geneva, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Gillian Triggs, said measures enacted by governments in response to the pandemic ranged from some of the most humane through to blanket denials of access to asylum and forced returns to danger.

“At the height of the pandemic, 168 countries fully or partially closed their borders with about 90 making no exception for people seeking asylum, seriously limiting access to international protection,” Triggs said.

Some also returned asylum seekers to their country of origin during this period, risking refoulement of many in need of protection, while others increasingly resorted to the disproportionate use of immigration detention.

“Particularly shocking has been the denial of disembarkation of boats carrying asylum seekers adrift in the Mediterranean and Andaman Sea – contrary of course to that maritime tradition of rescues of those at peril,” said Triggs.

Triggs also cautioned against efforts by some countries to “externalize” their asylum processes to third countries.

“Externalization can amount to warehousing asylum seekers indefinitely in isolated places, ‘out of sight and out of mind’, exposing them to danger and chain refoulement. The abdication of responsibility in this way presents a threat to the global asylum system and should be challenged.”

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Other states, however, managed to ensure access to their territory despite the pandemic for refugees fleeing to safety.

“Today, 113 countries have shown that there are ways to resume their asylum systems,” said Triggs, adding that more than 100 countries have also been creative in enabling asylum claims by adopting remote technologies in the processing of claims.

“UNHCR has been clear: it is possible to protect against the pandemic and to ensure access to fair and speedy asylum processes. One does not exclude the other. While it is encouraging to see so many countries finding space for asylum seekers despite COVID-19, we urge that all states follow their lead and do so as well.”

In addition to health and protection challenges, the pandemic also threatened social and economic rights for those forcibly displaced, with many vulnerable to the “vagaries of the informal economy”.

“They have been among the first to feel the economic impact of lockdowns. Many have lost their jobs, been evicted from their homes and their children have been out of school for many months,” said Triggs.

Pressingly, refugees and those displaced have also been at heightened risk of gender-based violence during the pandemic, with some forced into survival sex or child marriages.

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“Lockdowns and increased family tensions have led to spikes in gender-based violence across the world, with some UNHCR offices receiving 10 times the usual number of calls for protection.” In a timely response to the shocking global spikes of this phenomena, Triggs advised the Executive Committee that UNHCR will shortly issue its first ever policy on Gender-Based Violence.

UNHCR offices also reported increasing incidents of discrimination, stigmatization or xenophobia against refugees and displaced people, further exacerbating tensions with local communities. The levels of desperation among those displaced as a result of the pandemic also led to unpredictable pendular movements with some leaving and returning to their countries of origin.

While the pandemic tested global commitment to protecting the forcibly displaced, Triggs said that the response to COVID-19 highlighted the importance of the values of solidarity and inclusion, enshrined in the Global Compact on Refugees, in meeting these challenges.

“The virus does not distinguish between legal status or nationality. Access to health services cannot depend on citizenship or visa conditions,” Triggs said. “Another lesson learned over these last few months is that we know the pandemic will affect all of us. We can no longer exclude people on the basis of their legal status. The future must be one of inclusion and shared responsibility,” said Triggs.

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“The Global Compact on Refugees has provided us with a vision and the strategies to meet these challenges.”

Agreed by 181 states in 2018, the Compact promotes the principle of solidarity sharing in the responsibility to protect refugees and those forcibly displaced. More than 1,400 pledges were made by states, civil society, NGOs, refugees, businesses and others at the Global Refugee Forum in December last year, to translate it into action.

With COVID-19 further impacting the already scarce number of refugee resettlement places, and with voluntary repatriation prospects limited, Triggs also urged more international support for social inclusion in refugee hosting countries, including in social services, education systems and employment markets.

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Frightened residents brace as Cyclone Eloise approaches Mozambique

IOM is assisting the Government of Mozambique’s preparations for the arrival of Cyclone Eloise, moving people to safety in accommodation centers in Buzi. Photo: IOM 2021

 

Roughly 160 International Organization for Migration (IOM) staff in central Mozambique are working to prepare local communities for the imminent arrival of Cyclone Eloise, which is currently packing winds of at least 150 km/h.

“The people are scared,” said Cesaltino Vilanculo, an IOM Mobile team leader in the provincial capital Beira, who helped hundreds of families evacuate from unsafe temporary settlements to two accommodation centers.

“The water is rising in their zones and people are frightened, bracing for yet another storm.”

Eloise is expected to make landfall in Beira late Friday or early Saturday. By mid-afternoon today shops across the city are closed and flooded streets, empty.

IOM personnel will be ready to respond immediately with specialists in camp coordination and management, shelter, the distribution of non-food items, health and protection services and data mapping under IOM’s Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM).

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The Port of Beira is set to close on Friday for a period of about 40 hours in expectation of dangerous winds and rain from the afternoon of 22 January through the morning of 24 January. Beira is the main entry point for goods bound for north coastal Mozambique.

A limited supply of emergency non-food items had been stockpiled in Beira, including tarps and water tanks. However, resources are stretched, as IOM is actively responding to the crisis across Northern Mozambique.

At the same time, over 900 people are already displaced in Beira City due to recent heavy rains and the impact of Tropical Storm Chalane, which hit nearby Sofala Province on 30 December.

“The government is working, identifying the safe places to bring the people who are most vulnerable,” explained Aida Temba, a protection project assistant with IOM Mozambique.

“The rain is coming, and the water is rising and it’s not easy to reach all the people who need assistance. But we do our best to respond.”

Hundreds of families were evacuated to two accommodation centres, sheltered in tents provided by Mozambique’s National Institute for Disaster Management and Risk Reduction (INGD). One accommodation center was today closed, in favor of moving families to schools, which provide more stable structure. Those families’ needs include food, potable water, hygiene kits and soap.

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IOM Mozambique also has reported that due to heavy rainfall and the discharge of water from the Chicamba dam and the Mavuzi reservoir—both in the Buzi District west of Beira—over 19,000 people have been affected and hundreds are being moved to accommodation centers. Their needs include food, hygiene kits, and COVID-19 prevention materials.

IOM staff are supporting the Government of Mozambique with the movements in both Beira and Buzi and actively working to improve drainage ways in resettlement sites in preparation for further rains.

IOM’s DTM, working jointly with Mozambique’s INGD, is poised to produce a report on displacement and damages within the first 72 hours of the cyclone’s arrival.

Tropical storms historically are common in these early months of rainy season. Cyclone Idai struck the country in March 2019. It is considered one of the worst tropical cyclones to hit Africa on record, claiming hundreds of lives, and affecting three million people across wide swaths of Mozambique, Madagascar, Malawi and Zimbabwe. A second powerful storm, Cyclone Kenneth, hit Mozambique just weeks later.

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Total property damages from Cyclone Idai have been estimated at some USD2.2 billion. Almost two years later, roughly 100,000 people remain in resettlement sites, which also have been battered by the recent rains.

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IOM commends United States’ inclusion of migrants in COVID-19 vaccine roll-out

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) welcomes the inclusion of migrants in the new US Administration’s national strategy for COVID-19 response and its commitment “to ensuring that safe, effective, cost-free vaccines are available to the entire U.S. public—regardless of their immigration status”.

In light of this announcement, IOM calls on all countries to adopt similar migrant-inclusive approaches, to ensure that as many lives as possible can be saved.

“COVID-19 vaccines provide the opportunity we have been waiting for, but only if we use them wisely and strategically, by protecting the most at-risk first, no matter their nationality and legal immigration status,” warned IOM Director General António Vitorino. “I applaud those Governments choosing the path of inclusion and solidarity for their vaccine roll-outs.”.

According to the COVAX Facility – the multilateral mechanism created to ensure equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines – immunization campaigns have already started in over 50 countries.

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Many countries have yet to release their prioritization strategies for the vaccine roll-outs, but the United States, Germany and Jordan, among others, have already announced various measures to provide access to the vaccine equitably, including to asylum seekers, migrants in irregular situations and forcibly displaced persons. Last year, similar migrant-inclusive approaches were adopted for COVID-19 testing, treatment and social services in Ireland, Malaysia, Portugal, Qatar and the United Kingdom.

To facilitate truly effective and equitable immunization campaigns, IOM is working closely with the COVAX Facility, Member States, the World Health Organization, and other partners, and recommending that national authorities adopt practices to account for all migrant, such as:

Ensuring an adequate number of vaccine doses is planned for and procured to include migrants in-country, and that delivery systems are fit-for-purpose;
Reducing the number of administrative hurdles for migrants to access health care and vaccines, including high costs and proof of residence or identity.
Actively reaching out to migrant communities through linguistically and culturally competent communication methods to build trust, inform and engage in programming;
Offering guarantees that vaccination will not lead to detention or deportation;
Strengthening health systems and setting up mobile vaccination mechanisms where needed to ensure last-mile distribution.

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“Migrants play an enormous part in our socioeconomic development and collective well-being.  Despite this, many migrants have remained disproportionately exposed to excessive health risks through their living and working conditions and have continued to face tremendous challenges in accessing COVID-19 and other essential health services,” said Director General Vitorino.

“If we are not careful and deliberate about including migrants in vaccination plans, we will all pay a higher price.”

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IOM assists border control on route linking Ethiopia, Kenya

IOM has helped to establish a new Border Control Post between Ethiopia and Kenya. Photo: Rahel Negussie/IOM

Addis Ababa – Ethiopia, Africa’s second largest country (by population) after Nigeria, is also one of the continent’s largest sources of international migrants.

Along its vast national circumference –some 5,311 kilometres, connecting Ethiopia to Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Kenya and Somalia– government control posts are limited. Lack of adequate staffing and modern technology impedes proper migration management, a matter of concern for national governments as well as for the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

At the start of this new year, IOM has helped open a new Border Control Post (BCP) between Ethiopia and Kenya. The post, at Neprumus in Ethiopia’s Dasenech district, straddles one of the 830-kilometer Ethiopia-Kenya frontier’s most frequented migratory routes, alongside a major route for Ethiopian migrants trying to reach South Africa. Ethiopians normally pass through Kenya into Tanzania, then travel further south.

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In March 2020, at least 60 Ethiopian irregular migrants were killed after being trapped in a lorry along this route. Hence, the urgent need for better and improved border control posts in the region.

“Supporting the establishment of modern and efficient BCPs will facilitate safe and orderly migration of citizens, enhance the relationship between bordering countries, provide protection, and increase the political and socio-economic stability between Ethiopia and Kenya,” explained Kederalah Idris, IOM’s Better Migration Management (BMM) Project Officer.

IOM is also supporting Ethiopia’s Immigration, Nationality, and Vital Events Agency (INVEA) with training to enhance the capacity of immigration officers, and at the same time supplying infrastructure and office equipment, computers, and generators to establish new border control posts.

“Strengthening BCP will play a great role in facilitating safe movement of community members to neighbouring Kenya and will create job opportunities for the community. In addition, it will have a big contribution in facilitating regular migration, while monitoring irregular movements,” said INVEA Director-General, Mujib Jemal, during his opening speech. He also recognized IOM and the zonal administration’s efforts in facilitating the opening of the BCP.

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At stake is more than improved border efficiency. IOM sees hope for improved trade benefiting the regional economy and raising livelihoods for some 48,000 people living in the Dasenech District.

Health checks are also being integrated into the BCP, which is a timely development given that COVID-19 continues to affect the nation. As of 18 January, there has been 131,546 confirmed cases in Ethiopia leading to 2,033 deaths. Against this COVID-19 backdrop, IOM looks forward to these new controls reducing mobility restrictions and facilitating movement of goods, services and skills. Beyond commerce, IOM also views BCPs as vital for protecting people from falling prey to human smugglers and traffickers.

Plans are to open more BCPs in the Pagag, Kurmuk, and Fefrer border towns in Gambella, Benishangul Gumuz, and Somali regions, bordering South Sudan, Sudan and Somalia respectively.

During the inauguration attended by representatives from IOM and senior officials from INVEA, IOM Ethiopia received a ‘Certificate of Recognition’ from the Ethiopian authorities for the support to strengthening Ethiopia’s border management and control efforts.

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The establishment of this important BCP is supported by the US State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.

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