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By Kristy Siegfried | 12 February, 2021

THIS WEEK’S TOP STORIES

Colombia grants protection status to Venezuelan refugees and migrants. Colombian president Iván Duque announced on Monday that his government will provide 10-year protection status to all Venezuelans refugees and migrants living in the country. Under the new measure, those who entered Colombia before 31 January will be eligible to apply for protection. Those who already have regular status will be able to extend their stay in the country for at least a decade. UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, who was concluding a visit to the country, described the decision as a “bold humanitarian gesture” that “serves as an example to the world”. Colombia is host to 1.7 million Venezuelans, more than half of whom currently lack the regular status they need to access jobs, education, and health services, including the national COVID-19 vaccination programme. Registering almost a million people and integrating them into social services is expected to be a mammoth task for which Colombia will need greater international support, but the move was celebrated by humanitarian organizations and governments around the world. And in Bogotá, the capital, The Guardian reports that there was relief among undocumented Venezuelans desperate for some stability and an opportunity to “build a real life” in Colombia.

Tens of thousands of displaced Central Africans cut off from aid. A weeks-long blockade of key supply routes and increasing attacks against aid workers are hampering efforts by humanitarian organizations to reach tens of thousands of people in dire need after fleeing escalating violence in the Central African Republic (CAR). Since mid-December when the crisis began, the UN estimates that more than 100,000 people have been displaced inside the country while at least 107,000 have fled across borders into neighbouring countries. AFP reports from a schoolyard on the outskirts of Bangui, the capital, where around 2,500 people are living in precarious conditions after fleeing their village three weeks ago. The little aid that humanitarian organizations managed to deliver to them will soon run out while the blockade has caused prices of imported staple foods to skyrocket. UNHCR today appealed for humanitarian access and warned of a climate of lawlessness and impunity in the country with reports of “grave human rights violations” on the rise, including arbitrary arrest, detention, torture and sexual violence.

US to start processing asylum-seekers sent back to Mexico. Border officials told the LA Times on Thursday that they will start processing asylum-seekers next week who were sent back to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols programme. The programme was suspended on President Biden’s first day in office, but the fate of an estimated 30,000 asylum-seekers waiting in cities along Mexico’s border with the US has been unclear. Officials said they will begin processing asylum-seekers at two ports of entry in California and Texas starting next Friday. All arrivals will first undergo medical screening in Mexico, including coronavirus testing. UN agencies will help process and transport asylum-seekers to the ports of entry, working with NGOs and shelter networks on both sides of the border. Those joining relatives in the US will be able to have their asylum cases heard in nearby courts, rather than at the border and those with ongoing asylum cases who have been waiting the longest will be prioritized. UNHCR spokesperson Chris McGrath said the agency was advising both the US and Mexico on the plans and would help make asylum seekers with open immigration cases aware of the new policy. Another policy aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19, which allows border authorities to turn away migrants and asylum-seekers on public health grounds, remains in place.


ONE QUESTION FOR…

Alba Marcellán, head of UNHCR’s field office in Barranquilla, Colombia

What difference do you think gaining protected status will make to Venezuelan refugees and migrants living in Colombia?

“In Barranquilla, more than 70 percent of the Venezuelans who have arrived in the last couple of years do not have a regular status. Having no documentation has prevented them from getting jobs and having full access to the health system. During the pandemic, many of them lost their jobs or could not continue their street-selling activities. Without financial means, most of their children did not have access to the internet and could not continue their studies.

“Since the announcement by the government, we have been receiving almost 40 phone calls per day asking for further information. All of those reaching out to us say that they just want to make a living and provide for their families’ basic needs.”


STORIES TO WATCH

Malaysia to hand 1,200 Myanmar detainees to country’s navy. Reuters reports that the Myanmar military government, which took over in a 1 February coup, is sending three navy ships to take back its citizens held in Malaysian immigration detention centres. Malaysia does not formally recognize refugees and UNHCR has had no access to immigration detention centres to determine if detainees are in need of international protection since August 2019. Detainees in the past have included members of the Chin, Kachin and Rohingya communities who fled conflict and persecution in Myanmar. Officials did not respond to media queries about whether those being repatriated included refugees. UNHCR said it was seeking further information from the authorities and warned that those in need of international protection should not be deported to a situation where their lives or freedom could be at risk.

US ends asylum agreements with Central American countries. The US State Department announced on Saturday that it had suspended so-called Asylum Cooperation Agreements with the governments of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras with immediate effect. Under the bilateral agreements, all signed in 2019, the United States could send asylum-seekers arriving at the US border to one of the Central American countries to request asylum. Transfers under the US-Guatemala accord were paused last March due to the COVID-19 pandemic while the agreements with El Salvador and Honduras were never implemented. Rights groups argued that that only a small minority of those transferred to Guatemala from the US filed asylum claims. UNHCR, which was not a party to the agreements and warned that they posed serious protection risks, welcomed this week’s announcement.

More countries extend COVID-19 vaccinations to migrants and refugees. The week began with the British government announcing that all migrants living in the country, regardless of their immigration status, would be eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines. Refugees and asylum-seekers were already eligible according to the same roll out criteria used for the general population. Rights groups predicted that some migrants might be “too afraid” to register with doctors to receive a vaccine. Israel began a coronavirus vaccination programme for foreign nationals on Tuesday in southern Tel Aviv, which is home to a large migrant community, including many Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers. Malaysia said on Thursday that it would extend its free COVID-19 vaccination programme to all foreigners living in the country, including refugees and undocumented migrants, although the timing is yet to be decided.


GET INSPIRED

Refugee and future scientist Hadir resettled in the UK last year. As she prepares to start a PhD, she’s drawing on her scientific background to volunteer for the National Health Service.


DID YOU KNOW?

Of the over 5.4 million Venezuelans who have fled their country since 2015, 4.6 million are in Latin America and the Caribbean. Of those, more than a third are living in Colombia.