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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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Human Rights

COVID-19 crisis putting human trafficking victims at risk of further exploitation

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Lockdowns, travel restrictions, resource cutbacks and other measures to curb the spread of the new coronavirus are putting victims of human trafficking at risk of further exploitation, while organized crime networks could further profit from the pandemic, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

New analysis from the agency shows that the crisis is having an impact on the lives of trafficking victims before, during and even after their ordeal.

“With COVID-19 restricting movement, diverting law enforcement resources, and reducing social and public services, human trafficking victims have even less chance of escape and finding help”, said Ghada Fathi Waly, the UNODC Executive Director.

As countries have closed their borders due to the pandemic, some victims are unable to return home. Others face delays in legal proceedings, as well as a reduction in the support and protection they rely on. Some are also in danger of further abuse or neglect by their captors.

“Human trafficking is the result of the failure of our societies and economies to protect the most vulnerable”, said Ilias Chatzis, chief of the UNODC section that works to combat this crime.

“They should not be additionally ‘punished’ during times of crisis.”

Children in danger of new forms of abuse

UNODC said its partners report that due to the pandemic, more children are being forced onto the streets to search for food and money, thus increasing their risk of exploitation.

School closures have not only blocked access to education but also a source of shelter and food for millions of children. The UN recently reported that some 370 million students worldwide are now missing out on school meals, often their only reliable source of nutrition.

Meanwhile, a UN independent human rights expert has underlined the urgent need for child protection services during the pandemic.

Mama Fatima Singhateh, fears the reported surge in violence against children, coupled with new forms of sexual exploitation and abuse, will have “devastating” lifelong implications for millions of youngsters worldwide.

Even before the crisis, as many as 66 million children were already living in “a precarious socio-economic situation”, according to Ms. Singhateh, who is the Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, appointed by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

‘Drive-thru’ services for child sexual exploitation

Ms. Singhateh said travel restrictions have spawned new ways to sexually exploit and abuse children, such as attempts to establish “delivery” or “drive-thru” services. There has also been a spike in people trying to access illegal websites featuring child pornography.

“Producing and accessing child sexual abuse material and live-stream child sexual abuse online has now become an easy alternative to groom and lure children into sexual activities and to trade images in online communities”, said Ms. Singhateh. In common with all the UN’s independent rights experts, she is not a UN staff member nor does she receive a salary from the Organization.

Organized crime could benefit

UNODC warned that the pandemic has also created new opportunities for organized crime to profit.

“Traffickers may become more active and prey on people who are even more vulnerable than before, because they have lost their source of income due to measures to control the virus”, said Mr. Chatzis, chief of the agency’s Human Trafficking Section.

Some countries have diverted resources meant for fighting crime to the battle to defeat COVID-19. At the same time, services to assist trafficking victims are being reduced or even shut down.

“We know that people in a vulnerable situation are more exposed to contracting the virus, and they have less access to healthcare if they get sick,” said Mr. Chatzis.

“So it’s alarming to hear that, in some places, trafficking victims no longer have access to shelters, some refuges have even closed down due to the virus and others lack protective equipment – putting both victims and staff at risk.”

UNODC steps up support

As the pandemic deepens, UNODC is constantly monitoring the situation through its network of field offices and global partners.

It is also ramping up support, such as helping anti-trafficking units to get protective equipment, and assisting countries in evaluating the impact of the crisis on resources for victims, law enforcement and justice systems.

“As we work together to overcome the global pandemic, countries need to keep shelters and hotlines open, safeguard access to justice and prevent more vulnerable people from falling into the hands of organized crime”, said Ms. Waly, the agency’s chief.

UNODC further recommends that governments act to ensure that while current restrictions on travel and freedom of movement are respected, access to essential services for victims of human trafficking is guaranteed without discrimination.

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Human Rights

Food insecurity in West Africa could leave 43 million at risk as coronavirus hits

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Well over 40 million people across West Africa face desperate food shortages in coming months, with COVID-19 restrictions a new factor adding to people’s vulnerability, the World Food Programme (WFP) said on Tuesday.

Appealing for continued support from the international community for the agency’s global aid effort, WFP spokesperson Elisabeth Byrs, warned that the new coronavirus risked exposing populations that had fled armed conflict and endured climate change emergencies.

“We must sustain our assistance across the region”, Ms. Byrs said. “Especially in places such as Central Sahel, Central African Republic, Nigeria and Cameroon.”

An estimated 12 million children under five years old could be acutely malnourished in the lean season from June to August, up from 8.2 million in the same period last year.

The alert follows a similar warning from the UN agency about a potentially massive spike in global food insecurity in East Africa, as a direct result of the pandemic.

During the lean season in June and August, more than 21 million people across West Africa “will struggle to feed themselves”, she explained, adding Gambia and Benin to the list of countries in need.

“An additional 20 million people could struggle to feed themselves due to the socio-economic impact of COVID-19 in the next six months, doubling the number of food-insecure to 43 million in this region”, the WFP official added.

Highest forced displacement in Africa

Highlighting people’s vulnerabilities, Babar Baloch from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), described West and central Africa as “one of largest displacement situations in Africa…we are talking about 5.6 million internally displaced people, more than 1.3 million refugees and 1.6 million stateless.”

The UN refugee agency has repeatedly called for greater support for increasing numbers of people forced to flee for their lives amid renewed conflict in West Africa’s turbulent Sahel and Lake Chad region.

Burkina Faso has also witnessed massive displacement – of more than 838,000 people since January 2019 – a figure which keeps climbing with each passing day.

In recent weeks, the agency said that armed groups had targeted thousands of Malian refugees sheltering in camps near the border of Burkina Faso and Mali.

On Monday, the agency condemned attacks on 2 May on Malian refugees in Burkina Faso – “reportedly by the country’s security forces”, in Mentao refugee camp in which at least 32 people were injured.

The camp is located in Burkina Faso’s volatile Sahel region close to the border with Mali and hosts some 6,500 refugees, UNHCR said in a statement.

For WFP the priority continues to be the most vulnerable individuals.

Hand-to-mouth existence

They include “the urban poor – who live hand-to-mouth – (who) are most at risk”, Ms. Byrs said, highlighting how COVID-19 travel restrictions had compromised the transport of supplies and the functioning of open-air markets that serve most people, resulting in price increases in some countries.

Movement restrictions could also affect farmers as the planting season approaches, WFP said in a statement, warning that “an inadequate response” to current needs “would put the future well-being of millions of people in the region at stake, particularly women and young children”.

It could also lead to civil unrest in parts of a region already challenged by insecurity and violent extremism, the agency said, before adding that it was seeking to overcome challenges in partnership with the authorities.

A significant problem is the halt in school meal distribution, which has affected 18 million pupils supported through Government-led programmes and 2.2 million schoolchildren in WFP-supported schools.

“When Governments have had to close schools and stop (serving) school meals, we have worked with them,” said Ms. Byrs. “We are working with them, to organize distribution points for the most vulnerable families who can take food rations so that they aren’t penalized, as schools have been forced to shut, in line with confinement measures.”

She added: “We have put in place monitoring and evaluation systems to help us to target the most at-risk populations, and we do that with partners, with Governments of course, and the international humanitarian community, in the largest sense of the term.”

WFP urgently requires an additional $574 million to provide crucial assistance for the next six months in West Africa. These requirements are likely to increase in the coming weeks as the impact of COVID-19 is fully analysed.

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Human Rights

Record child displacement figures due to conflict and violence in 2019

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A young boy plays while his mother lines up at a water point in a camp for displaced people in Aden, southern Yemen. © UNICEF/Moohialdin Fuad

A new UN report finds that some 19 million children were displaced within their own countries due to conflict and violence in 2019, more than in any other year, making them among the most vulnerable to the global spread of COVID-19. 

According to the “Lost at Home” report, published on Tuesday by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), there were 12 million new displacements of children in 2019:  around 3.8 million of them caused by conflict and violence, and 8.2 million, due to disasters linked mostly to weather-related events. 

Coronavirus intensifying suffering 

The COVID-19 pandemic is only making a critical situation worse, the agency says.  Camps or informal settlements are often overcrowded, and lack adequate hygiene and health services.  Physical distancing is often not possible, creating conditions that are highly conducive to the spread of disease. 

“When new crises emerge, like the COVID-19 pandemic, these children are especially vulnerable,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore.  “It is essential that Governments and humanitarian partners work together to keep them safe, healthy, learning and protected.” 

The report looks at the risks internally displaced children face –- child labour, child marriage, trafficking among them — and the actions urgently needed to protect them.  It calls for strategic investments and a united effort by Governments, civil society, companies, humanitarian actors and children themselves to address the child-specific drivers of displacement, in particular, violence, exploitation and abuse. 

Government investment key 

It also calls on Governments convening under the High-Level Panel on Internal Displacement, established by Secretary-General António Guterres, to invest in actions that will provide protection and equitable access to services for all internally displaced children and their families. 

Better, timely and accessible data — disaggregated by age and gender — is also critical to delivering on this agenda, the report says.  “Internally displaced children and youth themselves must have a seat at the table,” it emphasizes, and offered the opportunity to be part of the solution. 

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