By Kristy Siegfried | 12 June, 2020
THIS WEEK’S TOP STORIES
Greece urged to investigate pushbacks of asylum-seekers at sea and land borders. UNHCR today urged Greece to urgently investigate multiple reports of pushbacks of migrants and asylum-seekers by Greek authorities at the country’s sea and land borders. The agency said that while the number of asylum-seekers arriving in Greece by land and sea had dropped significantly since March, the number of reported pushbacks has been rising. Some of the reports include allegations that groups of people were summarily returned after reaching Greek territory. Earlier this week, the Times shared video footage of masked men intercepting a boat in the Aegean and removing its outboard motor. A separate clip showed a Greek coastguard vessel creating waves that pushed the boat back into Turkish waters. UNHCR said Greece had a legitimate right to control its borders, but that controls must guarantee the rights of asylum-seekers to protection and should respect international human rights standards.
Hundreds of Rohingya come ashore in Malaysia. A group of 269 Rohingya refugees were allowed to land in north-west Malaysia on Monday after officials discovered their boat was badly damaged. The boat was thought to have departed from Bangladesh in February along with another boat. The second boat reportedly also tried to land in Malaysia on Monday but was turned back, according to the Malaysia’s coastguard chief. Countries across Southeast Asia have tightened border security in recent months over coronavirus concerns. Human Rights Watch today called on Malaysia and Thailand to urgently rescue the estimated 300 Rohingya refugees still stranded at sea. Their boat is now near Thailand’s Koh Adang island, according Malaysia’s Maritime Enforcement Agency, although a Thai naval official denied that any boats carrying Rohingya were present in Thai waters. On Wednesday, a UNHCR spokesperson in Kuala Lumpur said they were still trying to access the 269 Rohingya being held in detention to assess their protection needs and provide humanitarian assistance. “Allowing for the timely and safe disembarkation of refugees and asylum-seekers is a critical and life-saving act, consistent with international norms for the protection of asylum-seekers and persons at risk at sea,” said the spokesperson.
More than 50 dead after boat sinks off Tunisia. Tunisian authorities have recovered 52 bodies from the sea, including at least 24 women and three young children, after a boat sank off the Kerkennah Islands last week. According to an initial reconstruction of events, the boat had departed from the coastal city of Sfax, aiming to reach Italy, with 53 passengers on board, most of them women and children from sub-Saharan Africa. The shipwreck occurred between 4 and 5 June and authorities were alerted on Tuesday after fishermen spotted some of the bodies. According to UNHCR, attempts to reach Europe by sea from Tunisia increased three-fold between January and May compared to the same period last year. UNHCR’s Special Envoy for the Central Mediterranean, Vincent Cochetel, told The Guardian he feared more would attempt the crossing as over half of migrants and refugees in Tunisia have lost their jobs because of COVID-19 restrictions. “Despair drives people to risk their lives and smugglers keep lying to them,” he said. Tunisian authorities have launched an investigation into the incident.
ONE QUESTION FOR…
Raouf Mazou, Assistant High Commissioner for Operations
What are some of the ways UNHCR’s operations have adapted to restrictions and obstacles imposed by the coronavirus?
“In certain places we have not been able to be physically in touch with refugees because of travel restrictions. The ways we have devised to deal with this will stand us in good stead once the pandemic has passed.
“For instance, we have increased the use of mobile phones and the standard messaging apps where refugees have access to them. The use of call centres to offer guidance and advice has risen sharply. And we have accelerated the introduction of innovative services, such as IT support that allows refugees to update personal data.
“And when it comes to camps and settlements in particular, we are being far more attentive to what can be managed and run by refugees themselves — disseminating information, connecting vulnerable people to services, responding to fires, storms, floods and other calamities, monitoring the health of vulnerable people, providing cleaning and sanitation services and building roads, bridges and other infrastructure. In many settings, refugees are key actors in the response.”
STORIES TO WATCH
US administration proposes far-reaching changes to asylum system. The US administration on Wednesday proposed new rules that would make it more difficult for people to gain asylum in the United States, reports CNN. If implemented after a 30-day public comment period, they would expand on a policy introduced by the administration last July that requires most asylum seekers to file a claim in the first country they pass through before they reach the US southern border. The new rules would also prevent most asylum applicants from being entitled to a full court proceeding to hear their claims, according to the Wall Street Journal. The draft regulation would also narrow the definition of “membership in a particular social group” as a basis for an asylum claim. Justice and Homeland Security officials told the Wall Street Journal that the new regulation would streamline procedures, allowing for quicker decisions.
Attacks multiply in Africa’s Sahel, triggering more displacement. UNHCR this week highlighted escalating violence in the Sahel region which has seen hundreds of innocent civilians targeted in recent weeks and adding to one of the fastest growing displacement crises in the world. Recent attacks by armed groups in central Mali’s volatile Mopti region have left at least 100 people dead, including 26 people in one village that was targeted on 5 June. Violence that started in northern Mali in 2011 has spread to central Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso where the number of internally displaced people has rose by 288,000 between February and April this year and has now reached 848,000. UNHCR today launched a US$186 million emergency appeal to respond to the refugee and displacement crisis in the region, including COVID-19 measures.
Asylum-applications in Europe at decade low during coronavirus lockdowns. Asylum applications in Europe fell to the lowest level for over a decade in April as borders closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, according to figures from the European Asylum Support Office. Just 8,730 applications were filed during April compared to 61,421 in February, an 86 per cent drop. “The situation for those in need of asylum has undoubtedly been very challenging,” EASO executive director Nina Gregori told Reuters. “It is clear the access that potential asylum applicants had was severely restricted over the past few months.” UNHCR issued practical recommendations to support of European countries in ensuring access to asylum and safe reception during the lockdown in April. EASO reports that some countries used the lull in new applications to clear backlogs of cases.
For UNHCR’s Youth with Refugees Art Contest, we invited young artists to draw pictures or comics to share the message that #everyonecounts, including refugees, in the fight against the coronavirus. We received more 800 submissions from all over the world. Winners will be announced in July and their drawings will be animated by a Japanese studio.
DID YOU KNOW?
Just 300 refugees and migrants reached Greece’s shores between 4 May and 7 June, compared to 3,282 over the same period last year.