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The Refugee Brief – 22 January 2021

By Kristy Siegfried | 22 January, 2021

THIS WEEK’S TOP STORIES

Biden administration begins overhaul of US immigration policies. Hours after being sworn in as president on Wednesday, Joe Biden signed executive orders reversing a number of his predecessors’ immigration and asylum policies, including ending a travel ban from 13 mostly Muslim-majority countries and a programme that returned more than 65,000 asylum-seekers to Mexico to await US court hearings. The Department of Homeland Security said it would suspend all new enrolments in the Migrant Protection Protocols programme, although current COVID-19 travel restrictions will remain in place. Another executive order halted construction of the US-Mexico border wall. In a call with reporters on Tuesday, the incoming administration emphasized plans to address the root causes of migration, particularly from Central America where several migrant caravans have been on the move in recent weeks. President Biden has also stated his intention to raise the annual ceiling for refugee admissions to 125,000 from the current cap of 15,000 for this year. UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi welcomed the commitment “to rebuilding the US refugee resettlement programme and ensuring that the US asylum system is effective, just and humane”.

Resurgence of violence in Sudan’s Darfur displaces over 100,000. Clashes that began in a camp for internally displaced people in Western Darfur a week ago, quickly escalated and had spread to South Darfur by the next day, claiming the lives of 250 people, including three humanitarian workers. In a statement today, UNHCR said over 100,000 people have now fled their homes seeking safety, including 3,500 who fled across the border into eastern Chad. The violence came just weeks after peacekeepers with the UN and the African Union began a phased withdrawal after 13 years in the region. UNHCR said Chadian authorities were directing the new arrivals to a transit site where they will quarantine before being moved to an existing refugee camp away from the border. In Sudan, the UN Human Rights Office said many shelters at an IDP camp in West Darfur had been set on fire as a well as a nearby village. UNHCR said it would distribute emergency shelters and other relief items as soon as the security situation allows.

Shipwreck off Libya claims at least 43 lives. The first shipwreck involving migrants and refugees in the Central Mediterranean this year left at least 43 people dead after a boat capsized in rough conditions just hours after departing from the Libyan coastal city of Zawiya on Tuesday morning. Ten survivors were rescued and brought to shore in Zwara where they received emergency assistance before being released, according to a joint statement by UNHCR and IOM. The two agencies said the loss of life highlighted the need for State-led search-and-rescue operations to be re-started and for a “shift in the approach to the situation in the Mediterranean”, including ending returns to unsafe ports and “a tangible show of solidarity” from European states with countries receiving high numbers of arrivals. In a separate incident on Wednesday, 48 people on another inflatable boat were intercepted by the Libyan coastguard and returned to Libya. The UNHCR/IOM statement noted that migrants and refugees in Libya continue to be subject to arbitrary arrest and detention, as well as exploitation and abuse by traffickers and smugglers.


ONE QUESTION FOR…

Richelle Haines, a UNHCR protection officer based in Ethiopia’s Tigray region

What were your biggest fears for the refugees in Tigray camps when you had to pull out of the region in November? What are your main concerns for them now?

“My biggest fears for refugees at the time that we had to leave in mid-November was for their safety, but also how they would survive day-to-day amidst challenging circumstances. Truthfully, it hurt deeply to know we were leaving behind refugees who needed us more than ever. We all deeply feared for how they would be able to live and function at a time when all service providers were leaving, and the region was experiencing a lack of electricity, fuel, food, and water.

“Now, I am concerned for those refugees whose whereabouts we do not know, particularly those in the two camps not yet accessible to UNHCR (Hitsats and Shimelba). I am also deeply concerned for those already facing specific protection needs, namely unaccompanied and separated children. This will be a time of rebuilding what has been lost, as UNHCR and partners attempt to restore a sense of normalcy in a place that has experienced a lack of that for some time now.”


STORIES TO WATCH

Worsening humanitarian crisis in northern Mozambique. UN agencies this week expressed deep concern about a worsening humanitarian crisis in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province, where armed groups have forced more than 565,000 people to flee their homes, the vast majority of them in the past year. Valentin Tapsoba, director of UNHCR in southern Africa told The Guardian that 90 per cent of the displaced had been taken in by local people but were living in cramped conditions, with several families often sharing small spaces. A cholera outbreak has also been reported in the region with the arrival of the rainy season. The threat of cyclones, one of which is expected to make landfall in central Mozambique on Saturday, is expected to further compound the crisis.

Bangladesh and Myanmar agree to re-start efforts to repatriate Rohingya refugees. Following a tripartite meeting facilitated by China on Tuesday, Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed to begin a third attempt to repatriate Rohingya refugees to Myanmar’s Rakhine state in June. Bangladesh reportedly proposed starting the repatriations in March, but Myanmar officials asked for more time to make logistical arrangements. UNHCR on Wednesday said it welcomed the discussions as “crucial to making progress” on safe, voluntary and sustainable returns, but added that Rohingya refugees should have a seat at the table. “Many Rohingya refugees tell us they want to return home to Myanmar when conditions permit, and they are asking to be consulted as part of the repatriation process,” said a spokesperson.

Displacement from Sahel violence reaches 2 million. Surging violence in Africa’s Sahel region has now displaced two million people within their own countries in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, and Niger. Over 850,000 are also refugees in the region. Announcing the grim milestone today, UNHCR said the humanitarian response was “dangerously overstretched” and urged the international community to redouble its support to the Sahel where multiple crises are converging, including armed conflict, extreme poverty, climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the start of the year, violence has forced some 10,000 people from their homes in Niger while 11,000 people have fled a series of armed attacks in northern Burkina Faso. Many of the newly displaced lack basic shelter and are sleeping under open skies.


GET INSPIRED

As a refugee and single mother living in Libya, Selma used to struggle with her mental health and was at a low point when UNHCR referred her to a psychologist. Now she’s supporting herself and her children with her own business making and selling falafel.


DID YOU KNOW?

Internal displacement in the Sahel region has quadrupled in just two years from 490,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) at the beginning of 2019 to two million today. More than half of the IDPs are in Burkina Faso.

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