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By Kristy Siegfried | 14 August, 2020

THIS WEEK’S TOP STORIES

UK considers new measures to prevent Channel crossings. More than 650 migrants and asylum-seekers have crossed the English Channel in small boats so far this month, including 235 in a single day last week. The UK government has responded with a promised “action plan” to curb the crossings, including deploying Navy ships to block boats. UNHCR and IOM said they were “troubled” by the proposal and warned in a joint statement on Thursday that the use of large naval vessels to block small, flimsy dinghies could result in fatal incidents. The two UN agencies pointed out that the numbers of people crossing the Channel remained “low and manageable” and that “saving lives should be the first priority”. The statement also recommended expanding legal options for asylum-seekers to reach the UK safely, such as by making it easier for them to reunite with family members already in the UK. UNHCR said its research showed delays and administrative barriers to family reunion increased the likelihood of people, including vulnerable, unaccompanied children, turning to smugglers. UK and French officials met for talks on the issue this week but have yet to release details of plans for further cooperation.

Beirut blast death toll includes dozens of refugees. As the number of people dead or still missing as a result of last week’s huge explosion in the Lebanese capital reached over 178, UNHCR today said it was in the process of verifying reports that 89 refugees were among the dead. Reuters spoke to a Syrian man whose wife and two of his daughters were killed when the three-storey building where they lived was reduced to rubble. Another child remains in intensive care. UNHCR said its immediate humanitarian response to the blast included Lebanese, refugees and migrant workers. Spokesperson Babar Baloch said the current priority was to identify those in need of weatherproofing materials for shattered windows and doors. Cash transfers are also being used to help people quickly repair their homes and buy food and other essentials. Aid agencies warned this week that Lebanon was experiencing a resurgence of COVID-19 cases even before the blast and that the emergency had caused many precautionary measures to be relaxed. Meanwhile, at least three of the city’s hospitals were destroyed by the explosion, resulting in the loss of about 500 beds, according to the World Health Organization.

Clashes in Sudan’s Darfur force refugees into Chad. Recent violence in Western Darfur has forced at least 2,500 people to seek safety in neighbouring Chad since late July, UNHCR said on Tuesday. Many of the newly arriving refugees had returned home to Darfur from eastern Chad earlier this year. More than 80 per cent are women, children and elderly people who ran for their lives as clashes erupted. UNHCR said it was working with the authorities in Chad and local partners to relocate refugees away from the border areas to the Kouchaguine-Moura refugee camp further inland, but that poor road conditions and heavy rains had slowed the process. The situation in West Darfur has reportedly stabilized since an attack on the village of Masteri on 25 July left 61 people dead, but it remains unpredictable and thousands of people who fled to the town of El Geneina are still reluctant to return home.


ONE QUESTION FOR…

Laura Almirall, Head of UNHCR’s Beirut-Mount Lebanon Field Office

In the aftermath of last week’s explosion, how are you responding to a crisis that has affected entire communities? 

“This tragedy is happening at the worst possible time for Lebanese, refugees and migrant workers who are grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic and an economic crisis that has pushed millions under the poverty line in Lebanon.

“The scale of destruction across a number of neighbourhoods in Beirut is massive, and thousands of people lost their homes and belongings. UNHCR teams have quickly mobilized to be next to all affected communities during this extremely difficult time. Refugee Outreach Volunteers from Syria and Iraq are working side-by-side with their Lebanese neighbours to help remove the rubble and glass from streets and homes.

“In a second phase, we will be conducting essential rehabilitations in affected buildings. We are also working with sister UN agencies and partners to compile a list of vulnerable families and individuals who are in urgent need of cash assistance.”


STORIES TO WATCH

COVID to displace more than million across the Sahel, new tool predicts. New forecasting software developed by the Danish Refugee Council has predicted that the coronavirus pandemic will displace a further one million people from their homes across the Sahel as it triggers increased conflict, unemployment and human rights abuses. The Foresight tool uses open data from sources including the UN and the World Bank to predict forced displacement and has already shown a high degree of accuracy when tested in Afghanistan and Myanmar, reports The Guardian. One of its funders, Denmark’s ministry of foreign affairs, described it as a potential game-changer for the humanitarian sector. There are already over 3 million refugees, internally displaced people and returnees in the Sahel, a region that had recorded over 12,000 COVID-19 cases by early August.

Greece reports first coronavirus case in island reception centre. A 35-year-old man living at the Vial reception centre for asylum-seekers on the Greek island of Chios tested positive for COVID-19 late on Wednesday, according to a Greek migration ministry official. He told AFP the man was being quarantined at a local hospital and that another 30 people were being tested. Over 3,800 people live inside the Vial centre, over three times its official capacity. It is the first case at one of Greece’s over-crowded island reception centres, which have been under lockdown since March. Hundreds of asylum-seekers have been transferred to the mainland in recent weeks in an effort to decongest the islands, but over 25,000 remain in centres built to handle fewer than 6,100.

Refugee admissions to US resume after pausing due to COVID-19. CNN reports that refugee admissions to the United States have re-started after being put on hold five months ago due to the coronavirus pandemic. A State Department spokesperson said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had approved the resumption of admissions on 29 July. The spokesperson described the US refugee resettlement programme as “a vital lifeline for the world’s most vulnerable refugees” who had been made even more vulnerable by the COVID-19 pandemic. He added that the resumed arrivals would take place in the context of “significant COVID health measures”. UNHCR and IOM announced the resumption of resettlement travel for refugees on 18 June.


GET INSPIRED

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Bahati Ernestine, a Rwandan refugee living in Kenya, has not stopped looking for ways to make a difference to her community in Nairobi. As well as interning at a local hospital, she mobilizes other young people to help her distribute food to disabled, elderly and homeless people. “This is my way of sharing the kindness and the love that was given to myself and my family when we got here,” she says.


DID YOU KNOW?

The UK received 35,566 asylum applications in 2019. Meanwhile, France received 123,900 applications and Germany received 142,500.