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The Refugee Brief – 19 February 2021

By Kristy Siegfried | 19 February, 2021

THIS WEEK’S TOP STORIES

US begins to admit asylum-seekers waiting in Mexico. The United States is expected to start admitting a small number of asylum-seekers who have been waiting in Mexico for as long as two years at a border crossing in San Diego today. Two other crossings in Texas will next week begin allowing in asylum-seekers returned to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols programme. Some 25,000 people with active asylum cases under the programme are being encouraged to register on a website that UNHCR will launch. Amidst freezing temperatures this week, AP reports that many asylum-seekers staying in tents in the Mexican border city of Matamoros turned down offers to be transferred to city shelters, fearing they would lose their chance to be allowed to cross into the United States. UNHCR officials told reporters on Thursday that they will work with US and Mexican officials to identify the most vulnerable and those who have been waiting the longest. Meanwhile, AP reports that the number of migrants and asylum-seekers crossing into Mexico from Guatemala is on the increase just as shelters along the route have had to reduce their bedspace because of COVID-19. Those turned away from shelters are sleeping in the streets, exposed to rain and cold.

Five million Yemenis ‘one step away from famine’. UN officials warned on Thursday that the conflict in Yemen has taken a “sharp escalatory turn” and the country is “speeding towards the worst famine the world has seen in decades”. UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths told the Security Council that recent attacks in Marib governorate were putting millions of civilians at risk and threatened to reach camps for people already displaced by fighting elsewhere in Yemen. Since 2015, one million people are thought to have fled to Marib, which had been viewed as relatively safe. Mark Lowcock, the UN’s coordinator for humanitarian affairs, said the escalation in Marib threatened to displaced hundreds of thousands of people “at a time when everyone should be doing everything possible to stop famine”. He warned that malnutrition rates were at record highs and 400,000 children were severely malnourished. To prevent catastrophe, Lowcock called for unimpeded humanitarian access, more funding for aid operations, support for the shrinking economy and progress towards peace.

Attacks by armed groups on the rise in eastern DR Congo. Men armed with machetes, knives and pick-axes killed 10 people in an overnight attack on a village in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo’s North Kivu province. News of the attack emerged on Tuesday as UNHCR expressed alarm at “ongoing atrocities” carried out by armed groups in the region. More than 2,000 civilians were killed in attacks mainly attributed to armed groups in the three eastern provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu and Ituri during 2020, and the violence has continued into 2021. UNHCR said people displaced by previous attacks were being targeted in North Kivu. Two men living in a site for displaced people in Masisi Territory were killed by an armed group on 24 January, and three others were kidnapped from another displacement site a week earlier. Attacks are often carried out on the suspicion of collaboration with other armed groups or Congolese security forces, with civilians “trapped in the middle” between the different groups. UNHCR is calling for perpetrators to be brought to justice and is working with local authorities to protect people in affected areas.


ONE QUESTION FOR…

Lamis Daoud, an external relations associate with UNHCR in Lebanon’s Bekaa region

How have Syrian refugees staying in makeshift shelters in Lebanon been impacted by this week’s winter storm?

“The harsh storm that began Wednesday morning brought sub-zero temperatures and blizzard-like weather conditions to the Bekaa. Some refugees used rope, plastic, wood and any other material they could find to reinforce their tents in preparation for the storm and over the past two days, refugees have been coming together to help clear the snow accumulating around and on top of their makeshift shelters. Despite that, some of the shelters have been irreparably damaged.

“Many children are running around in plastic slippers, a thin layer of clothing or oversized jackets. Despite the freezing temperatures, they play in the snow until their parents call them back into their shelters for fear of them getting sick. Inside their shelters, some refugees have heaters to stay warm, but they are rationing their fuel in the hopes it will last them until the end of the cold winter season.”


STORIES TO WATCH

COVID-19 vaccination ‘wildly uneven and unfair’, says UN Secretary-General. António Guterres told a high-level meeting of the UN Security Council on Wednesday that the current distribution of COVID-19 vaccines was “wildly uneven and unfair”, with just 10 countries having administered 75 per cent of all vaccinations so far. Meanwhile, more than 130 countries have yet to receive a single dose. The Secretary-General said those countries affected by conflict and insecurity were at particular risk of being left behind and called for a Global Vaccination Plan to ensure fair vaccine distribution. In an interview with CNN’s Becky Anderson on Thursday, UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi said poorer countries that host the majority of the world’s refugees need more support from the international community to include refugees and migrants in coronavirus vaccination campaigns.

EU asylum applications fell to eight-year low in 2020. Asylum requests in the European Union dropped by 31 per cent in 2020 – their lowest level since 2013 – as asylum-seekers came up against coronavirus travel restrictions, the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) said on Thursday. A total of 461,300 claims were lodged compared to 671,200 in 2019. Although almost all nationalities lodged fewer applications, the top countries of origin remained Syria, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Colombia and Iraq. EASO said national asylum authorities continued processing claims at similar levels to 2019, allowing them to partly clear a backlog of applications. UNHCR warned last month that asylum was “under attack” at Europe’s borders, with increasing reports of expulsions and pushbacks. The refugee agency said it was possible to protect against COVID-19 and ensure access to speedy and fair asylum processes.

Venezuelan migrants and refugees face higher risk of eviction during pandemic. Two in five Venezuelans who sought refuge in Latin American countries have been evicted during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a survey released on Wednesday. Responses from 1,220 interviews carried out by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, UN agencies and charities found that three out of four Venezuelans had no place to call home once evicted and that even those who found a new place to live were at risk of being evicted again. Venezuelans with no regular status in their host country were at most risk of eviction with many having lost jobs in the informal economy during lockdowns. Some governments have introduced temporary bans on evictions, but those measures will soon expire, warned the report. Colombia announced last week that it will give 10-year protection status to all Venezuelans living in the country.


GET INSPIRED

Syrian refugee Nour opened her wedding dress shop in Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp three years ago. She designs the dresses and does hair and makeup for the brides. The COVID-19 pandemic has meant fewer weddings lately, but Nour has managed to keep her doors open.


DID YOU KNOW?

More than five million people have been uprooted by insecurity and violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the last two years, with nearly two million displaced in North Kivu Province alone.

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