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Protecting citizens from COVID while granting refugee access, can be done- UNHCR

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Refugees and migrants gather at the Pazarkule border crossing near Edirne, Turkey, hoping to travel into Greece. © UNICEF

It is possible for countries to both protect public health and “ensure access” for vulnerable people forced to flee their homes, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said on Wednesday.

Opening a virtual session of UNHCR’s annual Dialogue on Protection challenges, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Gillian Triggs, warned that “measures restricting access to asylum must not be allowed to become entrenched under the guise of public health”, 

Instead, she urged States to maintain access for asylum seekers and to safeguard the rights of refugees, together with displaced and Stateless people. 

Ms. Triggs also spoke of the deep and hard-hitting impact on refugees of the coronavirus, including restrictions impeding access to asylum, spiraling gender-based violence, risks of unsafe returns, and the loss of livelihoods.

Speaking out

Participants – consisting of displaced people, non-governmental organizations and Government speakers from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe – discussed how compassion and initiative could help ensure that asylum claims were considered during the pandemic, and protection services adapted to reach people in need during lockdowns.They also pointed to how the pandemic presented greater challenges for the protection of refugees, internally displaced and Stateless people, maintaining the need for solidarity and greater support.

“The pandemic has threatened the social and economic rights of the most vulnerable in society – among them refugees and those forcibly displaced who, all too often, depend on the informal economy”, said the UN official. “They are among the first to suffer the economic impacts of a lockdown”.

Moreover, UNHCR operations also report increasing incidents of discrimination, stigmatization and xenophobia against refugees and displaced people, “exacerbating tensions with local communities”, he added.

Stepping up

UNHCR has been advocating for the urgent inclusion of refugees, displaced and Stateless people in the full range of responses to the pandemic, from public health to national social safety nets.

“The virus does not distinguish between legal status or nationality”, Ms. Triggs reminded. “Access to health services should not depend on citizenship or restrictive visa conditions”. 

She upheld that “a realistic and practical opportunity for protection” lies in social inclusion and in non-discriminatory access to education, health and employment. 

To illustrate the difficulties that refugees and internally displaced people face in the context of the pandemic, UNHCR also launched an interactive report called Space, shelter and scarce resources – coping with COVID-19, which highlights how acutely vulnerable displaced populations must contend with the pandemic.

Backdrop

The High Commissioner’s Dialogue was established more than a decade ago for refugees, Governments, the private sector and international organizations to exchange views on global protection matters.

This year, discussions are being held through five virtual sessions spread over the last quarter of the year, with the closing session to take place on 9 December.

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Human Rights

Pandemic curbs trend towards ever-increasing migration

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photo © UNHCR/Hazim Elhag

Travel restrictions and other curbs to movement put in place in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, have put a significant dent in migration figures, but the overall trend shows 100 million more people living outside their countries of origin in 2020, compared to the year 2000, a new UN report revealed on Friday.

‘Migration is part of today’s world’

International Migration 2020 Highlights, published by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), shows that the pandemic may have slowed migration flows by around two million people last year, cutting the annual growth expected since mid-2019 by around 27 per cent.

Since the year 2000, however, there has been a major increase in migration. That year some 173 million people lived outside of their countries of origin. Twenty years later, that figure had risen to 281 million.

In a statement, Liu Zhenmin, UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, said “The report affirms that migration is a part of today’s globalized world and shows how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the livelihoods of millions of migrants and their families, and undermined progress in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.”

Less money sent home

The economic crisis that following in the wake of the pandemic has had a major impact on remittances, the money migrants send home to their countries of origin. The World Bank projects that remittances sent back to low- and middle-income countries may see a $78 billion dip, around 14 per cent of the total amount.

This will negatively affect the livelihoods of millions of migrants and their families, especially in those countries with a big diaspora. India, for example, has the largest diaspora in the world: 18 million people born in India live outside the country. Other nations with significant diasporas include Mexico, the Russian Federation (11 million each), China (10 million) and Syria (eight million).

US and Germany top destinations

Unsurprisingly, high income countries are the most coveted destinations for migrants. The US takes the top spot with 51 million migrants hosted in 2020.

Germany hosted the second largest number of migrants worldwide, at around 16 million, followed by Saudi Arabia (13 million), the Russian Federation (12 million) and the United Kingdom (nine million).

Many migrants do not travel far, however. Nearly half of them remain in the region from which they originated. For example, in Europe 70 per cent of migrants come from another European country. Similarly, some 63 per cent of migrants in sub-Saharan Africa come from a country in the same region.

Most refugees in lower income countries

Contrary to some perceptions, the vast majority of refugees, around 80 per cent, are hosted in low- and middle-income countries, and constitute some 12 per cent of all international migrants.

The number of refugees is rising faster than voluntary migration: the number of people forced to leave home due to conflict, crises, persecution, violence or human rights violations has doubled from 17 to 34 million since the beginning of the 21st Century.

In recognition of the need to better manage migration, the General Assembly has adopted several landmark agreements, including the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants and the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. DESA says that around 60 countries have begun to adopt measures to ensure safe, orderly and regular migration.

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UN officials fear US terrorist designation will hasten famine in Yemen

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© UNICEF

Senior UN officials have expressed concern over the potential impact of the decision by the United States to designate Yemen’s Ansar Allah, more commonly known as the Houthi movement, a terrorist group, the Security Council heard on Thursday. 

Briefing the online meeting, UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths said Yemen was going through dark times following a deadly attack last month on its newly-formed Cabinet, and with millions facing potential famine, but emphasized that peace is still possible. 

Mr. Griffiths condemned the 30 December attack at the airport in Aden, which targeted the Government officials who had just arrived from Saudi Arabia.  Dozens of civilians, aid workers and a journalist were also killed. 

“The attack cast a dark shadow over what should have been a moment of hope in the efforts to achieve peace in Yemen. The formation of the Cabinet and its return to Aden was a major milestone for the Riyadh Agreement and for the stability of state institutions, the economy, and the peace process”, he said

“The Government has launched an investigation into the Aden attack and has made its conclusions public earlier today that Ansar Allah was behind the attack.” 

‘Chilling effect’ on peace efforts 

For more than five years, Yemen has been mired in conflict between the internationally-recognized Government, which is backed by a Saudi-led coalition, and Houthi rebels. 

On Sunday, the United States announced it will designate the group a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) under domestic law.  Mr. Griffiths expressed serious concern over this prospect. 

“We fear in my mission that there will be inevitably a chilling effect on my efforts to bring the parties together. We all hope to have absolute clarity on far-reaching exemptions to be able to carry out our duties”, he said. 

Yemen remains the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Some 16 million people will go hungry this year, and 50,000 are already essentially starving to death, amid a shortfall in aid.  Preventing a massive famine is the most urgent priority, the UN Humanitarian Affairs chief and Emergency Coordinator told ambassadors. 

Yemenis stockpiling food 

Mark Lowcock called for the FTO designation to be reversed, which Mr. Griffiths also supported, outlining its potential impact on aid relief in a country that overwhelmingly relies on food imports.

He explained that humanitarian agencies provide food vouchers or cash to needy Yemenis so they can shop at markets. 

 “Aid agencies cannot, they simply cannot, replace the commercial import system,” he stressed.  “What this means is that what the commercial importers do is the single biggest determinant of life and death in Yemen.” 

Mr. Lowcock reported that Yemenis are already rushing to markets to stockpile food, while commercial traders fear the designation will affect their operations.   

“Some suppliers, banks, insurers and shippers are ringing up their Yemeni partners and saying they now plan to walk away from Yemen altogether”, he said.  “They say the risks are too high. They fear being accidentally or otherwise caught up in US regulatory action which would put them out of business or into jail.” 

Although the US plans to introduce licences so that some aid and imports can continue, the relief chief said further details will not be available until 19 January, the day the designation takes force. 

Reverse designation, or face catastrophe 

The head of the World Food Programme (WFP), David Beasley, gave a blunt assessment of the prospects, putting aside his prepared remarks to speak “heart-to-heart”. 

“We are struggling now without the designation. With the designation, it’s going to be catastrophic. It literally is going to be a death sentence to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of innocent people in Yemen,” he said. 

Mr. Beasley, an American, also removed his “UN hat” for a moment, to speak about his engagement with Washington, which allocated $3.75 billion to WFP last year.  

“I’m very grateful for that”, he said. “But this designation, it needs to be re-assessed, it needs to be re-evaluated, and, quite frankly, it needs to be reversed.” 

Mr. Beasley added that Yemen is among several countries facing famine, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these crises. 

The WFP chief called for Gulf States “to pick up the humanitarian financial tab for this problem in Yemen”, and urged the Council and world leaders to apply pressure on the warring parties to end their fighting. 

 “I can assure you that Mark Lowcock and I will be before you pretty soon talking about other countries,” he said.  “And if we can’t solve this one – this is man-made completely – shame on us.”

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UNICEF: Closing schools should be ‘measure of last resort’

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Teachers and students wear face masks and maintain physical distance at a school in Cambodia. © UNICEF/Chansereypich Seng

The head of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) underscored on Tuesday that “no effort should be spared” to keep children in school, as the coronavirus pandemic continues into a second year. 

“Despite overwhelming evidence of the impact of school closures on children, and despite increasing evidence that schools are not drivers of the pandemic, too many countries have opted to keep schools closed, some for nearly a year”, Henrietta Fore said in a statement

A high cost 

The UNICEF chief highlighted that the cost of closing schools has been devastating, with 90 per cent of students globally facing shutdowns at the peak of the COVID disruptions last year, leaving more than a third of schoolchildren with no access to remote education. 

“The number of out-of-school children is set to increase by 24 million, to a level we have not seen in years and have fought so hard to overcome”, she said. 

“Children’s ability to read, write and do basic math has suffered, and the skills they need to thrive in the 21st century economy have diminished”, Ms. Fore added. 

Closure a ‘last resort’ 

Keeping children at home puts their health, development, safety and well-being at risk – with the most vulnerable bearing the heaviest brunt, she said. 

She pointed out that without school meals, children are “left hungry and their nutrition is worsening”; without daily peer interactions and less mobility, they are “losing physical fitness and showing signs of mental distress”; and without the safety net that school often provides, they are “more vulnerable to abuse, child marriage and child labour”. 

“That’s why closing schools must be a measure of last resort, after all other options have been considered”, stressed the top UNICEF official. 

Evaluating local transmission 

Assessing transmission risks at the local level should be “a key determinant” in decisions on school operations, Ms. Fore said. 

She also flagged that nationwide school closures be avoided, whenever possible. 

“Where there are high levels of community transmission, where health systems are under extreme pressure and where closing schools is deemed inevitable, safeguarding measures must be put in place”, maintained the UNICEF chief. 

Moreover, it is important that children who are at risk of violence in their homes, who are reliant upon school meals and whose parents are essential workers, continue their education in classrooms. 

After lockdown restrictions are lifted, she said that schools must be among the first to reopen and catch-up classes should be prioritized to keep children who were unable to learn remotely from being left behind. 

“If children are faced with another year of school closures, the effects will be felt for generations to come”, said Ms. Fore.

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