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Five million Yemenis ‘one step away from famine’

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A two-month-old baby suffering from servere malnutrition is weighed and measured by a nurse in a hospital in Aden, Yemen. UNOCHA/Giles Clarke

Malnutrition rates in Yemen are at “record highs” as the country is “speeding towards the worst famine the world has seen in decades”, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator told the Security Council on Thursday, citing newly released data. 

 “We are running out of time”, said Mark Lowcock, who also heads UN humanitarian affairs, noting that across Yemen, more than 16 million people are going hungry, five million of whom are “just one step away from famine”. 

He painted a picture of children starving to death – with distended bellies, emaciated limbs and blank stares, pointing to some 400,000 under-age-five girls and boys who are so severely malnourished that they are in “their last weeks and months”. 

Important opportunity 

Over fears of the devastating impact it could have on Yemen’s food supply, last week the United States reversed its designation of Ansar Allah as a foreign terrorist organization.  

“US officials have made clear, and we agree, that the concerns around this issue are strictly humanitarian”, said Mr. Lowcock, adding that the US also reaffirmed its intention to prioritize diplomacy in ending the war and dealing with the humanitarian crisis.  

He warned that if Yemen “tips into a massive famine”, an opportunity towards lasting peace would be lost. 

Preventing famine 

To prevent a further catastrophe, the Humanitarian Coordinator called for urgent action on five points, beginning with the protection of civilians. 

As front lines reportedly move closer to civilian areas – with attacks sparking a dangerous escalation – Mr. Lowcock worried that “hundreds of thousands of people” may again be sent “running for their lives at a time when everyone should be doing everything possible to stop famine”. 

On his second point, humanitarian access, he reminded that international humanitarian law required “rapid, unimpeded humanitarian access” and emphasized that despite many challenges, aid operations are still delivering. 

Turning to funding, his third point, the Humanitarian chief said that in 2020, aid operation received half of what it had the previous year, which resulted in millions of people in need. 

“On 1 March, the Secretary-General will convene a virtual high-level pledging event for the Yemen crisis”, he said, calling for everyone to “show they are serious about seizing the opportunity for peace”.  

On the fourth issue, supporting the economy, he advised, among other things, to bring the exchange rate down “to more sustainable levels”.  

And on his final point, making progress towards peace, Mr. Lowcock stressed that “first, the violence must stop” and called for a mediated nationwide ceasefire and the resumption of the political process.  

“The only way to end the crisis in Yemen is to end the war”, concluded the UN Humanitarian Coordinator.  

Situation spiraling downward

While fresh violence and a worsening humanitarian situation continues to unfold, Special Envoy Martin Griffiths said the situation had taken “a sharp escalatory turn” with Ansar Allah’s most recent offensive on Marib Governorate.   

Reiterating calls that the attack on Marib must stop, because “it puts millions of civilians at risk…especially with the fighting reaching camps for internally displaced persons”, he upheld that forceful quests for territorial gain threaten peace prospects as looming famine, fuel shortages and other grave challenges prevail.  

Political moves  

Although the situation on the ground is deteriorating, Mr. Griffiths welcomed the US’ renewed focus on the conflict, saying the move offers a new opportunity to “reopen space for a negotiated solution” and that revived international momentum is “indispensable” to finding a peaceful resolution. 

He highlighted elements for a mutually acceptable end to the war and a path towards peace that included political participation, accountable governance, equal citizenship and economic justice.   

“The only way to realize these aspirations…is through a genuinely inclusive, Yemeni-led political process under United Nations auspices and supported by the international community”, the UN envoy spelled out.   

Back to the negotiating table 

Emphasizing what is at stake, Mr. Griffiths said that the military situation is “extremely tense” and underscored that civilians are bearing the brunt of “shocking violations of international humanitarian law”, worrying spikes of violence and continuing hostilities in Hudaydah and Taïz Governorates, as well as cross-border attacks.   

However, recalling that the parties had successfully negotiated a large-scale release of prisoners and detainees in 2020, he maintained that “the negotiating table can produce win-win results”. 

The UN official informed the Council that negotiations for more releases were underway. 

He also called for the “immediate and unconditional release of all sick, wounded, elderly and children detainees, as well as all arbitrarily detained civilians, including women and journalists”.  

“As a mediator, I seek common grounds for agreements”, he said.  “But there is nothing anybody can do to force the warring parties into peace unless they choose to put down the guns and talk to each other.  The responsibility to end the war, first and foremost, lies with the parties to the conflict.  I hope they will not miss this chance.” 

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Human Rights

Urgent action needed to protect Vietnamese workers trafficked to Serbia

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Urgent action is required to assist and protect some 400 Vietnamese migrant workers who were allegedly trafficked to Serbia, experts appointed by the UN Human Rights Council said on Friday. 

Eight companies, including Vietnamese labour recruitment agencies and Chinese construction firms registered in Serbia, have reportedly been implicated in serious human rights abuses, they said, citing information received.  

The experts have written to the businesses and are also in contact with authorities in the three countries.  

Appalling conditions 

“We are deeply concerned that these migrant workers may have been trafficked for purposes of forced labour, and have been living and working in appalling conditions in Serbia, at serious risk to their lives and health,” they said in a statement. 

They were also disturbed by allegations that civil society groups wanting to assist the workers have not been allowed access to them. 

The experts urged the Governments of Serbia, Viet Nam and China to ensure that businesses based in their territory, or operating under their jurisdiction, respect the human rights of all workers. 

“This includes not only the businesses who rely on migrant labour but also labour recruitment agencies,” they said. 

Duty to protect 

Regulation and monitoring of labour recruitment agencies is also critical to effectively prevent trafficking for the purposes of forced labour, they added. 

The experts reminded governments of their duty to protect against business-related human rights abuses. 

Countries must also take appropriate steps to ensure victims have access to justice and effective remedies, and to ensure ongoing assistance and protection, including against forced return. 

They also highlighted the obligations of businesses to exercise due diligence in ensuring that the rights of all workers are protected, without discrimination, recognising the particular needs and rights of migrant workers. 

Independent experts 

The eight human rights experts who issued the statement receive their mandates from the UN Human Rights Council, located in Geneva. 

They monitor and report on specific issues of global concern, which include trafficking in persons, contemporary forms of slavery, the human rights of migrants, and implementation of UN principles on business and human rights. 

The experts operate in their individual capacity and are neither UN staff nor are they paid for their work. 

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UNRWA condemns demolition of Palestinian home in East Jerusalem

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The Salhiyya family's personal belongings after the demolition of their home in East Jerusalem. © UNRWA

The UN agency that supports Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, on Thursday urged Israeli to immediately halt all evictions and demolitions in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, after an entire family was forced out of their long-term home the previous day.  

Israeli police evicted the Salhiyya family from their two adjacent houses, according to news reports, in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in East Jerusalem early on Wednesday, and later tore down the structures – a move which UNRWA’s West Bank field office has condemned. 

Staff who visited the scene on Thursday morning observed the total destruction of the property, with school bags, clothes and family photos still partially visible beneath the rubble. 

Against international law 

“Under international humanitarian law, the forcible transfer of protected persons, as well as the destruction of real or personal property belonging individually or collectively to private persons by Israel, as the occupying power, is strictly forbidden, except where such measures would be rendered absolutely necessary by imperative military reasons, or for the security of the population under occupation,” the agency said. 

The 15-member Salhiyya family, who include an older woman and young child, had been living in Sheikh Jarrah for nearly 40 years, according to UNRWA.   

The neigbourhood and tensions surrounding evictions, and attempted evictions, was at the heart of brutal fighting that erupted last year in Gaza, between Israel and the militant group, Hamas. 

Arrests and injuries 

Israeli forces raided the two Salhiyya houses on the property, at 3am on Wednesday, while the family was sleeping.   

In a matter of hours the homes, as well as their possessions, were destroyed, UNRWA said, adding that Israeli forces injured several family members during the eviction operations. 

The head of the family, Mahmoud Salhiyya, along with other relatives, was also arrested.  Mr. Salhiyya had threatened to set himself on fire two days ago after Israeli forces demolished his business, located next door. 

Other families at risk 

UNRWA stated that sadly, cases like the Salhiyya’s are not unique as scores of Palestine refugee families in different areas of Sheikh Jarrah alone – over 200 persons, many of them children – currently face imminent threat of eviction.  

Across East Jerusalem, an estimated 218 Palestinian households are at risk of displacement by the Israeli authorities, the agency said, citing 2020 data from the UN humanitarian affairs office, OCHA

These households comprise some 970 people, including 424 children. 

UNRWA called on the Israeli authorities to abide by international law and, as the occupying power, to ensure the protection of Palestine refugees and civilians in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.  

“All individuals have a right to safe and secure housing and to live in peace and dignity,” said the agency. 

Agencies call for release of seriously ill child 

In another development in the region, UNRWA and two other UN agencies are calling for the immediate release of a seriously ill Palestinian child detained in Israel. 

Amal Nakhleh, now 18, has been held without charge for more than a year, a measure known as administrative detention.  He has a rare neuromuscular disorder, according to media reports. 

Israel has extended his detention until 18 May, according to a statement issued on Thursday by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), UNRWA, and the UN human rights office, OHCHR

“Neither Amal nor his lawyers or family have been informed of the reasons for his arrest and detention. Amal suffers from a severe autoimmune disease that requires continuous medical treatment and monitoring,” they said. 

Not an isolated case 

The UN agencies called for his “immediate and unconditional release”, in line with international human rights law. 

This is not an isolated case, they added, as currently at least three Palestinians are in administrative detention who were under age 18 when they were first detained. 

“We echo the calls of the UN Secretary-General who in his Report on Children and Armed Conflict has, every year since 2015, urges Israel to end the administrative detention of children. This practice deprives children of their liberty and must immediately end.” 

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Human Rights

UNRWA seeks $1.6 billion to support Palestinian refugees in 2022

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A young girl takes part in UNRWA's Keeping Kids Cool summer activities in Gaza. © UNRWA 2021/Mohamed Hinnawi

The UN agency that supports Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, on Tuesday appealed for $1.6 billion to support its lifesaving work this year amid acute regional crises and chronic funding shortfalls. 

UNRWA provides services and programmes, including education, health and food assistance, to more than five million Palestinians across the Middle East. 

The 2022 budget proposal includes additional emergency funding to address humanitarian needs arising from crises in Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, and Lebanon. 

‘Indispensable’ to stability 

Philippe Lazzarini, the agency’s Commissioner-General, said budget shortfalls pose a serious threat to its ability to maintain operations. 

“The international community recognizes the lifesaving role of UNRWA and its indispensable contribution to stability in the Middle East. It also recognizes how cost-efficient and agile UNRWA is. In 2022, that recognition must be supported by the adequate level of funding to meet this critical moment for Palestine refugees,” he said

The budget proposal comes as UNRWA confronts chronic funding gaps as needs keep rising. 

Distress and despair 

It is estimated that 2.3 million Palestinian refugees are living in poverty, and the COVID-19 pandemic continues to threaten health and livelihoods. 

Distress and despair have become the norm among Palestinian refugees, according to UNRWA.  Many, particularly in Gaza, Syria and Lebanon, report that they are ready to use any means to try to migrate outside of the region. 

Breaking the cycle 

UNRWA has committed to investing in comprehensive programmatic reform and modernization to meet needs in an even more cost-effective and efficient manner.  

The agency said that being fully-funded across its full range of services, will assist its efforts towards breaking the cycle of despair among Palestinian refugees through measures such as providing some $31.2 million in microfinance loans and carrying out vital structural improvements to refugee camps. 

 “The amount that UNRWA is requesting for 2022 will directly contribute to the wellbeing of Palestine refugees, to efforts to combat and contain COVID-19 and to regional stability,” said Mr. Lazzarini. urging donors to step up. 

“The international community must give UNRWA sufficient and predictable funding so we may continue to provide Palestine refugees with a sense of security and normality they deserve.” 

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