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South Sudan refugee, athlete, Olympian is newest UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador

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Yiech Pur Biel has been named as a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador. © UNHCR/Tobin Jones

A track and field athlete from South Sudan who was forced to flee conflict as a child was on Tuesday named a Goodwill Ambassador for the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.

Yiech Pur Biel was a member of the first Refugee Olympic Team that competed at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Since then, he has travelled to 26 countries as an athlete and advocate for refugees, and has been actively involved efforts to bring peace to his homeland.

“It is a huge honour for me to be able to use my status as an athlete to help refugees and displaced people, to share my own story and those of other refugees like me and make sure that refugees all over the world have a voice,” he said.

“I want to be an ambassador for refugees everywhere and I am so happy to be able to continue my commitment to working with UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, helping refugees not only to survive but also to thrive. This work is incredible and vitally important to so many people all over the world.”

Always on the run

Following conflict in South Sudan in 2005, Mr. Pur journeyed alone to Kakuma refugee camp in neighbouring Kenya. He was only 10 years old at the time.

While at the camp, Mr. Pur devoted himself to athletics and trained at the Tegla Laroupe camp in Nairobi, established by the award-winning runner. He began running competitively in 2015 before being part of the historic Refugee Olympic Team a year later.

Mr. Pur has supported UNHCR since 2016, attending and speaking for campaigns in New York and Paris.

As the agency’s newest Goodwill Ambassador, he will continue to advocate for the rights of displaced people while continuing his training to be on the Refugee Olympic Team at the Tokyo Games in 2021.

Worldwide, nearly 80 million people are forcibly displaced, according to a recent UNHCR report. The study cited South Sudan’s long history of displacement, both before and after independence in July 2011, as a major crisis which has contributed to global displacement.

A voice for refugees

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees and head of UNHCR, Filippo Grandi, welcomed Mr. Pur as the agency’s newest Goodwill Ambassador.

“This new role will help formalise and amplify his advocacy even further. At a time when forced displacement has reached unprecedented levels, with one percent of humanity now uprooted by conflict, persecution and violence, his contribution is more critical than ever,” he said.

Mr. Pur’s contributions towards peace in South Sudan includes representing refugees at peace talks held in Addis Ababa and Khartoum in 2018, and at committee meetings at the African Union in 2019.

He worked with the International Olympic Committee following Rio, and joined the Board of the Olympic Refuge Foundation.

Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee characterized Mr. Pur’s “extraordinary journey” from the refugee camp to the Rio Games as an inspiration for all.

“Today, Pur is also a strong voice within the Olympic Refuge Foundation, providing access to safe sport for forcibly displaced young people across the world,” he said.

“I am sure that in his new role as UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, he will continue to act as a role model and demonstrate that sport can not only bring hope but change lives, empower young people and drive positive change in our society.”

Human Rights

Six reasons why a healthy environment should be a human right

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At least 155 states recognize their citizens have the right to live in a healthy environment, either through national legislation or international accords, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Despite those protections, the World Health Organization estimates that 23 per cent of all deaths are linked to “environmental risks” like air pollution, water contamination and chemical exposure.

Statistics like that are why the United Nations Human Rights Council recently passed a resolution reaffirming states’ obligations to protect human rights, including by taking stronger actions on environmental challenges.

Here are some of the ways that a compromised planet is now compromising the human right to health.

 1. The destruction of wild spaces facilitates the emergence of zoonotic diseases.

The alteration of land to create space for homes, farms and industries has put humans in increasing contact with wildlife and has created opportunities for pathogens to spill over from wild animals to people.

An estimated 60 per cent of human infections are of animal origin. And there are plenty of other viruses poised to jump from animals to humans. According to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, “as many as 1.7 million unidentified viruses of the type known to infect people are believed to still exist in mammals and waterfowl. Any one of these could be the next ‘Disease X’ – potentially even more disruptive and lethal than COVID-19.”

2. Air pollution reduces quality of health and lowers life expectancy.

Across the globe, nine in 10 people are breathing unclean air, harming their health and shortening their life span. Every year, about 7 million people die from diseases and infections related to air pollution, more than five times the number of people who perish in road traffic collisions.

Exposure to pollutants can also affect the brain, causing developmental delays, behavioural problems and even lower IQs in children. In older people, pollutants are associated with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

3. Biodiversity loss compromises the nutritional value of food.

In the last 50 years alone, human diets have become 37 per cent more similar, with just 12 crops and five animal species providing 75 per cent of the world’s energy intake. Today, nearly one in three people suffer from some form of malnutrition and much of the world’s population is affected by diet-related diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

 4. Biodiversity loss also reduces the scope and efficacy of medicines.

Natural products comprise a large portion of existing pharmaceuticals and have been particularly important in the area of cancer therapy. But estimates suggest that 15,000 medicinal plant species are at risk of extinction and that the Earth loses at least one potential major drug every two years.

 5. Pollution is threatening billions worldwide.

Many health issues spring from pollution and the idea that waste can be thrown “away” when, in fact, much of it remains in ecosystems, affecting both environmental and human health.

Water contaminated by waste, untreated sewage, agricultural runoff and industrial discharge puts 1.8 billion people at risk of contracting cholera, dysentery, typhoid and polio. Methylmercury – a substance found in everyday products that contaminate fish – can have toxic effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems when consumed by humans. And a growing body of evidence suggests that there is a cause for concern about the impact of microplastics on marine life and the food web.

As well, every year, 25 million people suffer from acute pesticide poisoning. And glyphosate – the world’s most widely-used herbicide– is associated with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and other cancers.

Even medicines can have a negative impact as they infiltrate ecosystems. A 2017 UNEP report found that antibiotics have become less effective as medicine because of their widespread use in promoting livestock growth. About 700,000 people die of resistant infections every year.

 6. Climate change introduces additional risks to health and safety.

The last decade was the hottest in human history and we are already experiencing the impacts of climate change, with wildfires, floods and hurricanes becoming regular events that threaten lives, livelihoods and food security. Climate change also affects the survival of microbes, facilitating the spread of viruses. According to an article published by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, “pandemics are likely to happen more frequently, spread more rapidly, have greater economic impact and kill more people.”

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Human Rights

Migrants left stranded and without assistance by COVID-19 lockdowns

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At least 30,000 migrants are stranded at borders in West Africa according to the UN. IOM/Monica Chiriac

Travel restrictions during the COVID pandemic have been particularly hard on refugees and migrants who move out of necessity, stranding millions from home, the UN migration agency, IOM, said on Thursday. 

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the first year of the pandemic saw more than 111,000 travel restrictions and border closures around the world at their peak in December.  

These measures “have thwarted many people’s ability to pursue migration as a tool to escape conflict, economic collapse, environmental disaster and other crises”, IOM maintained. 

In mid-July, nearly three million people were stranded, sometimes without access to consular assistance, nor the means to meet their basic needs.  

In Panama, the UN agency said that thousands were cut off in the jungle while attempting to travel north to the United States; in Lebanon, migrant workers were affected significantly by the August 2020 explosion in Beirut and the subsequent surge of COVID-19 cases. 

Business as usual 

Border closures also prevented displaced people from seeking refuge, IOM maintained, but not business travellers, who “have continued to move fairly freely”, including through agreed ‘green lanes’, such as the one between Singapore and Malaysia.  

By contrast, those who moved out of necessity – such as migrant workers and refugees – have had to absorb expensive quarantine and self-isolation costs, IOM said, noting that in the first half of 2020, asylum applications fell by one-third, compared to the same period a year earlier.  

Unequal restrictions 

As the COVID crisis continues, this distinction between those who can move and those who cannot, will likely become even more pronounced, IOM said, “between those with the resources and opportunities to move freely, and those whose movement is severely restricted by COVID-19-related or pre-existing travel and visa restrictions and limited resources”. 

This inequality is even more likely if travel is allowed for anyone who has been vaccinated or tested negative for COVID-19, or for those with access to digital health records – an impossibility for many migrants. 

Health risks 

Frontier lockdowns also reduced options for those living in overcrowded camps with high coronavirus infection rates in Bangladesh and Greece, IOM’s report indicated.  

In South America, meanwhile, many displaced Venezuelans in Colombia, Peru, Chile, Ecuador and Brazil, lost their livelihoods and some have sought to return home – including by enlisting the services of smugglers. 

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Human Rights

Clashes in Myanmar displace thousands

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As of the start of 2021, about one million people are in need of humanitarian aid and protection in Myanmar. Pictured here, an IDP camp in Myanmar’s Kachin province. (file photo) UNICEF/Minzayar Oo

Clashes between the Myanmar security forces and regional armed groups, which have involved military airstrikes, have reportedly claimed the lives of at least 17 civilians in several parts of the country, the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said on Wednesday. 

In a humanitarian update, issued on Tuesday, the Office also noted unconfirmed reports of several thousand people fleeing the hostilities in recent days in the Kayin and Bago regions, in central Myanmar, near Yangon. A medical clinic is also reported to have been damaged in gunfire in a township in Mon state, also in the central part of the country. 

An estimated 7,100 civilians are now internally displaced in the two regions due to indiscriminative attacks by the Myanmar Armed Forces (MAF), and the Karen National Union (KNU), as well as growing insecurity since December 2020, according to the update. 

UNHCR [the UN refugee agency] is engaging with partners on the ground to explore possibilities to deliver critical humanitarian assistance and support to the displaced. A further 3,848 people in Kayin State have crossed the border to Thailand since 27 March, due to fears of further hostilities in the area”, OCHA said. 

The majority are believed to have returned to Myanmar with Thai authorities saying that 1,167  remain in Thailand as of 1 April, the Office added. 

‘Deep concern’ over continued impact of the crisis 

Meanwhile, the wider political crisis across Myanmar continues to hit life hard across the southeast Asian nation. 

The UN human rights office (OHCHR) has received credible reports of at least 568 women, children and men, have been killed since the military coup on 1 February, though there are fears that total is likely much higher. 

Concerns have also been raised over the impact on Myanmar’s health and education systems, as well as the long-term effects of the violence on children

The longer the current situation of widespread violence continuous, the more it will contribute to a continuous state of distress and toxic stress for children, which can have a lifelong impact on their mental and physical health, senior UN officials warned last week. 

Since 1 February, there have been at least 28 attacks against hospitals and health personnel and seven attacks against schools and school personnel, UN spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric told reporters at a press briefing at the UN Headquarters, in New York, on Tuesday. 

“Attacks against health volunteers and against ambulances are preventing life-saving help from reaching civilians wounded by security forces,” he added. 

UN agencies have also reported reported sharp increases in food and fuel prices in many parts of Myanmar, on the back of supply chain and market disruptions. Humanitarians worry that if the price trends continue, they will “severely undermine” the ability of the poorest and most vulnerable to put enough food on the family table.

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