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2019: A deadly year for migrants crossing the Americas

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More than 800 people died last year crossing deserts, rivers and remote lands while migrating across the Americas, making 2019 one of deadliest years on record, the UN migration agency said on Tuesday.

Data from the Missing Migrants Project (MMP), collected at the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) Data Analysis Centre in Berlin, indicate that it was the highest number of deaths documented in this region since IOM began keeping records six years ago.

Since 2014, more than 3,800 deaths have been recorded across the continent. 

“These numbers are a sad reminder that the lack of options for safe and legal mobility pushes people onto more invisible and riskier paths, putting them at greater danger”, said Frank Laczko, Director of IOM’s Data Analysis Centre.  

“The loss of lives should never be normalized nor tolerated as an assumed risk of irregular migration.” 

Close to 2,500 deaths since 2014

The region surrounding the United States–Mexico border is one of the deadliest for migrants, with the number growing each year. The MMP has documented a total of 2,403 deaths since 2014, including 497 in 2019.

Most were recorded in the waters of the Río Bravo/Rio Grande river, which runs between the Texas border and the Mexican states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo León and Coahuila, where 109 people lost their lives last year.

This represents a 26 per cent increase from the 86 deaths recorded in 2018.  

Many people also attempt crossing through the remote rugged terrain of the vast Arizona desert region, where at least 171 people died in 2019 – a 29 per cent jump over the 133 deaths documented in this area in 2018. 

Missing Migrants Project data are compiled by IOM staff based at its Global Migration Data Analysis Centre but come from a variety of sources, some of which are unofficial.

Top destination: US

Back in November, IOM reported that 2019 saw an estimated 270 million migrants crossing international borders, and, at nearly 51 million, the United States was the most desirable destination.

News reports have painted pictures of desperate asylum-seekers giving up their children at the border, hoping that they may have a better life. Some migrant parents have sent their unaccompanied children across the border to surrender to US agents.

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COVID-19 stoking xenophobia, hate and exclusion, minority rights expert warns

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A woman wears a medical mask in China. (file photo) World Bank/Curt Carnemark

Combatting the COVID-19 pandemic must also include stamping out what one independent human rights expert has called the “darker sides” of the disease: verbal and physical attacks against Chinese and other minority communities, and excluding them from access to healthcare.

COVID-19 is not just a health issue; it can also be a virus that exacerbates xenophobia, hate and exclusion,” said Fernand de Varennes, the UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues, in a statement issued on Monday.

He reported that politicians and groups are exploiting fears surrounding the disease to scapegoat certain communities, leading to a rise in violence against them.

This has included physical attacks against Chinese and other Asians, hate speech blaming Roma and Hispanics for the spread of the virus, and calls by some political leaders for migrants to be denied access to medical services.

Safeguard human rights

Mr. de Varennes said countries need to show that the human rights of all people must be protected, particularly the most vulnerable and marginalized.

“Combatting the epidemic requires tackling its darker sides. Firm actions by States and all of us to safeguard the human rights of the most vulnerable and marginalised, including minorities, indigenous communities and migrants, are urgent and necessary”, he stressed.

More than 200 countries have reported cases of the new coronavirus disease, which first emerged in Wuhan, China, last December.

There were 638,146 cases globally as of Sunday, and more than 30,000 deaths, according to data from the World Health Organization (WHO).

“The coronavirus outbreak endangers the health of all of us, with no distinction as to language, religion or ethnicity. But some are more vulnerable than others”, said Mr. de Varennes.

He urged people everywhere to resist the rise in discriminatory and hate speech against Asian and other minorities by using the hashtag #IAmNotAVirus on social media.

Protect people in prisons, detention centres

Meanwhile, authorities are being urged to consider measures to mitigate COVID-19 risk in places such as prisons, immigration detention facilities, closed refugee camps and psychiatric institutions.

The UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture issued the advice on Monday, in a call to protect people deprived of their liberty during the pandemic.

“Governments have to take precautionary measures necessary to prevent the spread of infection, and to implement emergency measures to ensure detainees have access to appropriate levels of health care and to maintain contact with families and the outside world”, said Sir Malcolm Evans, the Committee Chairperson.

Measures include reducing prison populations by allowing early or temporary release of low-risk offenders, and extending the use of bail for all but the most serious cases.

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Coronavirus pandemic threatens to plunge millions in Arab region into poverty and food insecurity

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Food insecurity is on the rise in Gaza as the COVID-19 pandemic threatens a steep spike in poverty throughout the Arab region. WFP/Wissam Nassar

COVID-19 will be responsible for pushing a further 8.3 million people in the Arab region into poverty, according to a new policy brief issued on Wednesday by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA).

And the pandemic could also bump up the number of undernourished people there by some two million. 

Current estimates show that there are some 101.4 million in the region who already live in poverty, according to official criteria, and around 52 million undernourished.

“The consequences of this crisis will be particularly severe on vulnerable groups”, said ESCWA Executive Secretary, Rola Dashti, pointing especially to “women and young adults, and those working in the informal sector who have no access to social protection and unemployment insurance”. 

Because of a high dependence on food imports within the Arab world, a disruption in global medical supplies to deal with the pandemic, will also have a severe impact on food security there, says ESCWA. 

Meanwhile, in addition to food loss and waste, worth around $60 billion annually across the region, the brief highlighted other likely economic losses, due to knock-on effects of the virus.

What action can be taken to lessen the impact?

According to ESCWA, reducing food loss and waste by 50 per cent would not only increase household income by some $20 billion, but also significantly improve food availability, reduce food imports and improve the balance of trade throughout the region.

Ms. Dashti encouraged Arab Governments to ensure “a swift emergency response to protect their people from falling into poverty and food insecurity owing to the impact of COVID-19”. 

Last week, she called for the establishment of a regional social solidarity fund to care for vulnerable countries. 

“The regional emergency response must support national efforts and mobilize resources and expertise to protect the poor and vulnerable”, concluded the Executive Secretary. 

At the same time, Khalid Abu-Ismail, Senior Economist at ESCWA, highlighted four measures that can be taken to mitigate the crisis, beginning with extending credit to small businesses and enterprises.

He also stressed the importance of building on social networks and expanding on cash and other transfers to the poor and vulnerable and encouraged countries to give “more access to the food insecure population” through the existing voucher system.
Mr. Abu-Ismail also highlighted the importance of other initiatives such as Arab Food Security Emergency Funds. 

As one of five UN regional commissions, ESCWA supports inclusive and sustainable economic and social development in Arab States and works on enhancing regional integration. 

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Economic sanctions should be lifted to prevent hunger crises in countries hit by COVID-19

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As the world exhibits new bonds of solidarity in response to the coronavirus pandemic, it is a matter of “humanitarian and practical urgency to lift unilateral economic sanctions immediately,” to prevent hunger crises in pandemic-hit countries, a UN human rights expert, said on Tuesday.  

The continued imposition of such measures on Syria, Venezuela, Iran, Cuba and Zimbabwe in particular, severely undermines the fundamental right to sufficient and adequate food,Hilal Elver, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, stressed.

History has shown that unilateral economic sanctions generally have dramatic and detrimental impacts on economic, social and cultural rights, she recalled. “As a result, the wellbeing of the civilian populations becomes severely compromised.”

The Special Rapporteur also urged the international community to pay particular attention to the situation of civilians trapped in conflict settings, and notably those already experiencing acute violations of their rights to food, such as in Yemen, South Sudan, Gaza, Syria and in refugee camps worldwide.

“If the international community is serious about the fight against COVID-19 and the eradication of food and nutrition insecurity, States need to refrain at all times from direct and indirect interference with access to food,” she assured.

The Special Rapporteurs are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a specific human rights theme or a country situation. Their positions are honorary, and they are not paid for their work.

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