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Thousands suffer extreme rights abuses journeying to Africa’s Mediterranean coast

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Migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea are rescued by a Belgian ship. Frontex/Francesco Malavolta

Testimonies published by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, with the DRC’s Mixed Migration Centre (MMC), reveal random killings, torture, forced labour and beatings.

Other people on the move said they had been burnt with hot oil and melted plastic, while others faced electrocution and being tied in stress positions.

Officials complicit

Smugglers and traffickers were key abusers, but so too were State officials, to a surprising extent, Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR Special Envoy for the Central Mediterranean, told journalists at the UN in Geneva.

“In 47 per cent of the cases, the victims reported the perpetrators of violence are law enforcement authorities, whereas in the past we believed that it was mainly smugglers and traffickers”, he said. “Yes, they are key perpetrators of violence, but the primary perpetrators of violence are people who are supposed to protect.”

Although accurate data is extremely difficult to gather, data suggests that at least 1,750 people died leaving western or eastern African nations en route to countries including Libya, Egypt or Algeria in 2018 and 2019.

70-plus deaths each month

This represents more than 70 deaths a month, “making it one of the most deadly routes for refugees and migrants in the world”, UNHCR said in a statement.

Almost three in 10 people died as people attempted to cross the Sahara Desert, according to the UN agency. Other lethal hotspots included locations in southern Libya such as Sabha, Kufra and Qatrun, in addition to the “smuggling hub” of Bani Walid southeast of Tripoli and several places along the west African section of the migrant route, including Bamako in Mali and Agadez in Niger.

To date this year, at least 70 people are known to have died, including 30 killed in June by traffickers in Mizdah, southern Libya, whose victims came from Bangladesh and African countries.

In a note accompanying the report, UNHCR noted that overland deaths are in addition to the “thousands who have died or gone missing” in recent years trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe, usually in vessels unfit to make the crossing.

More than 70 per cent perish on land

“We can consider that an estimate of 72 per cent minimum died overland even before reaching Libya or Morocco or Egypt, their place of initial destination on their journey,” Mr. Cochetel said. “That’s a low estimate in our view, in the sense that the number of deaths on land is more or less the same than the number of deaths at sea for 2018/2019.”

Among the report’s findings is clear evidence that Libya is by no means the only place where migrants and refugees face life-threatening dangers.

Abuse begins early

“Abuse actually is along the route and even sometimes it starts within the country of origin and follows people as they move”, said Othman Belbeisi, IOM Senior Regional Advisor to the Director General on Middle East and North Africa.

“Especially as they are moving at the hands of those smugglers and traffickers. People do not know their locations and they do not have communications, so even if people die or go missing, it’s very difficult to verify or to know where those people get missed.”

Describing the report’s findings as “unacceptable” and calling for action to help vulnerable people on the move, Mr. Cochetel noted that internationally agreed measures to target business and individuals involved in people smuggling had shown limited success.

“We have had no new names of traffickers listed for the last two years, we have not had one single arrest of a UN-sanctioned trafficker over the last two years”, he said. “So why can’t States do like they do with trafficking of weapons, terrorism or drug trafficking; why don’t we follow the money-flows, why don’t we seriously go after those people and try to combat impunity.”

Most stay in first country of arrival

Around 85 per cent of refugees usually stay in the first country where they arrive, the UNHCR Special Envoy insisted, before underscoring the need for investment in countries of origin, to provide desperate people with an alternative to having to put their lives in the hands of traffickers.

“Access to education is difficult, socio-economic inclusion is inexistent in many countries,” Mr. Cochetel said. “Access to medical care is not available, we’ve seen it during COVID-19 in many of those transit countries for migrants or for refugees, so there is a lot to be done under this umbrella of inclusion.”

Highlighting the fact that Libya is not safe for refugees and migrants returned from dangerous sea crossing attempts by the Libyan coast guard, IOM’s Othman Belbeisi called for solutions beyond the war-ravaged nation.

“The situation is not only in one country, (the) other side of the Mediterranean has also a big responsibility”, he said.

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Human Rights

UN: Paraguay violated indigenous rights

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An indigenous community in Paraguay wait to receive their COVID-19 vaccination. WHO/PAHO

Paraguay’s failure to prevent the toxic contamination of indigenous people’s traditional lands by commercial farming violates their rights and their sense of “home”, the UN Human Rights Committee said in a landmark ruling on Wednesday. 

The Committee, which is made up of 18 independent experts from across the world, monitors countries’ adherence to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  

Lands represent ‘home’ 

The decision on Paraguay (in Spanish) marked the first time it has affirmed that for indigenous people, “home” should be understood in the context of their special relationship with their territories, including their livestock, crops and way of life.  

“For indigenous peoples, their lands represent their home, culture and community. Serious environmental damages have severe impacts on indigenous people’s family life, tradition, identity and even lead to the disappearance of their community. It dramatically harms the existence of the culture of the group as a whole,” said Committee member Hélène Tigroudja. 

The decision stems from a complaint filed more than a decade ago on behalf of some 201 Ava Guarani people of the Campo Agua’e indigenous community, located in Curuguaty district in eastern Paraguay. 

The area where they live is surrounded by large commercial farms which produce genetically modified soybeans through fumigation, a process which involves the use of banned pesticides. 

Traditional life affected 

Fumigation occurred continuously for more than 10 years and affected the indigenous community’s whole way of life, including killing livestock, contaminating waterways and harming people’s health. 

The damage also had severe intangible repercussions, according to the UN committee.  The disappearance of natural resources needed for hunting, fishing and foraging resulted in the loss of traditional knowledge.  For example, ceremonial baptisms no longer take place as necessary materials no longer exist. 

“By halting such ceremonies, children are denied a rite crucial to strengthening their cultural identity,” the Committee said.  “Most alarmingly, the indigenous community structure is being eroded and disintegrated as families are forced to leave their land.” 

Toxic exposure 

The indigenous community brought the case to the Human Rights Committee after a lengthy and unsatisfactory administrative and judicial process in Paraguay’s courts. 

“More than 12 years after the victims filed their criminal complaint regarding the fumigation with toxic agrochemicals, to which they have continued to be exposed throughout this period, the investigations have not progressed in any meaningful way and the State party has not justified the delay,” the Committee said in its decision. 

Recommendations, reparations 

Members found Paraguay did not adequately monitor the fumigation and failed to prevent contamination, adding “this failure in its duty to provide protection made it possible for the large-scale, illegal fumigation to continue for many years, destroying all components of the indigenous people’s family life and home.”  

The Committee recommended that Paraguay complete the criminal and administrative proceedings against all parties responsible and make full reparation to the victims. 

The authorities are also urged to take all necessary measures, in close consultation with the indigenous community, to repair the environmental damage, and to work to prevent similar violations from occurring in the future. 

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Human Rights

Girlpower from Tajikistan to Costa Rica, helps narrow gender gap online

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The UN says, globally, 17 percent more men and boys have access to the internet compared to women and girls. ITU/R. Farrell

A marked global gender gap in terms of internet use continues to grow, but from Syria to Costa Rica, girls are increasingly pushing back to try and narrow the gap. 

The gender gap for online users has widened from 11 per cent in 2013 to 17 per cent in 2019, and in the world’s least developed countries, it reaches 43 per cent.

This year, to mark International Day of the Girl Child, taking place on Monday, the UN is showing how the pandemic has accelerated the use of digital platforms, but also highlighting girls’ different realities when it comes to getting online.

Below, you can read stories from across the UN, featuring how five girls, from five different countries, are using technology to build a better future. 

‘Our responsibility’ 

In his message for the day, the UN Secretary-General noted that these girls and all the others “are part of a digital generation.” 

“It is our responsibility to join with them in all their diversity, amplify their power and solutions as digital change-makers, and address the obstacles they face in the digital space”, he said.

The path to girls’ digital equality is steep. In more than two thirds of all countries, girls make up only 15 per cent of graduates in science, technology, engineering and maths, known by the acronym, STEM. 

In middle and higher-income countries, only 14 per cent of girls who were top performers in science or mathematics expected to work in science and engineering, compared to 26 per cent of top-performing boys. 

“Girls have equal ability and immense potential in these fields, and when we empower them, everyone benefits,” Mr. Guterres said.  

He recalled seeing this long before he began his political career, when he was a teacher in Lisbon, Portugal, and “witnessed the power of education to uplift individuals and communities.” 

“That experience has guided my vision for gender equality in education ever since”, he explained. “Investments in closing the digital gender divide yield huge dividends for all.” 

Tied to this, the UN has a new platform, called Generation Equality Action Coalition on Technology and Innovation, where governments, civil society, the private sector and young leaders, are coming together to support girls’ digital access, skills and creativity.  

“The United Nations is committed to working with girls so that this generation, whoever they are and whatever their circumstances, can fulfil their potential”, Mr. Guterres assured. 

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Human Rights

Yemen’s future recovery hangs in balance

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An eighteen-month -baby, who has lost an eye due to disease, is treated at a hospital in Sana’a, Yemen. © UNICEF/Areej Alghabri

Ongoing conflict and violence across Yemen continue to impact heavily on the country’s people who desperately need the fighting to end, so that they can rebuild their lives, the UN’s senior humanitarian official in the country said on Monday. 

“I’ve seen the destruction of schools, of factories, of roads and bridges; I’ve seen the destruction of power systems so what made Yemen work seven years ago in many cases no longer exists”, said David Gressly, UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Yemen.  

Speaking in Geneva after a weekend that saw a car bomb at Aden airport reportedly leave 25 people dead and 110 injured, the veteran aid worker warned about arecent escalation of fighting in the oil-rich northern province of Marib.  

Fighting cuts access 

“This is now adding to additional displacement in that area, a place where we already have over a million people displaced”, he said. “And secondly, we have enclaves where fighting is continuing where we’re not able to provide support”. 

Longstanding concerns over potential famine in the country prompted a UN-led appeal for $3.6 billion in funding in March that has raised nearly $2.1 billion to date.  

An additional $500-$600 million was also pledged during the recent UN General Assembly, Mr. Gressly added, noting that although the international response has been higher than for other emergencies, “it’s been particularly focused – and we understand why – on the food security and nutrition side, for most immediate lifesaving response”. 

Fragile 

This has left the situation inside Yemen “very fragile and if that’s not sustained, if we’re not getting the new pledges on time…in 2022, we will revert back to where we were in March”, Mr. Gressly insisted. 

He explained that people needed more than emergency care: “Health, education, water, access and support to IDPs (internally displaced people) and livelihood support; those are almost all funded below 20 per cent, and so while the lifesaving is important, we can’t, we cannot afford to ignore the rest”. 

Civil service need support 

Critical to Yemen’s recovery is support for the country’s civil servants, many of whom have not been paid in many months, amid conflict between the internationally backed government of Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi and Houthi opposition forces, who occupy much of the north of the country.  

Mr. Gressly stressed the importance of finding ways to support these civil servants as they are key to the country’s recovery – and the UN’s aid programmes. Without them, “the whole humanitarian response” risks becoming more expensive”, he said. 

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