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By Kristy Siegfried | 16 April, 2021

THIS WEEK’S TOP STORIES

Tens of thousands flee attacks in north-east Nigeria. An armed group launched several attacks on the north-east Nigerian town of Damasak in Borno State this week. At least eight people were killed in the latest attack on Wednesday, and UNHCR said up to 65,000 people had fled the town – up to 80 per cent of its residents. Several thousand fled across the nearby border into Niger’s Diffa region. Armed men looted and burned down private homes, warehouses belonging to aid agencies, a police station, a clinic and a UNHCR protection desk where vulnerable displaced people are assisted. Many residents had already fled towards the regional capital, Maiduguri, and to Geidam town in neighbouring Yobe State following three previous attacks. Others fled on Wednesday after militants attempted to overrun a military base outside the town. The attacks are expected to affect humanitarian support to nearly 9,000 internally displaced people living in Damasak as well as to the host community. UNHCR said humanitarian access was increasingly challenging in many parts of Borno State due to insecurity. Funding for the response is also critically low.

Escalating fighting in Yemen’s Marib threatens civilians. As conflict intensifies in Yemen’s Marib governorate, civilians in and around Marib city are increasingly at risk, UNHCR warned today. Since the start of the year, fighting has displaced over 13,600 people in Marib – a region hosting a quarter of Yemen’s 4 million internally displaced people. UNHCR said 70 incidents of shelling, crossfire and air strikes had killed or injured civilians in Marib in the first quarter of the year, with 40 casualties in March alone. Infrastructure has also been destroyed, including makeshift settlements housing the displaced. UNHCR called for safe passage for civilians wanting to leave conflict zones and protection for those who choose to stay behind. The new displacement in putting a strain on public services and humanitarian agencies at a time of funding shortfalls and a second wave of COVID-19 hitting the country. UNHCR staff report that displaced families are seeking refuge in already overcrowded sites in Marib city and in nearby areas where several families are sharing one shelter and where access to water and toilets is limited.

Mexico receives record number of asylum applications. Mexico’s Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR) registered 22,606 new asylum applications in the first quarter of this year, a 31 per cent increase from last year and a 77 per cent jump from the same period in 2019. The over 9,000 asylum requests received in March marked a monthly high for asylum claims. At the current rate, Mexico is on track to match or surpass a record number of asylum claims in 2019, following a dip in numbers last year when COVID-related movement restrictions were in place. UNHCR, which is supporting COMAR’s efforts to boost its registration and case processing capacity, said most applications were related to gang violence affecting hundreds of thousands of people in the North of Central America. The New York Times reported last week that after decades of being mainly a throughway for people seeking to reach the United States, Mexico is increasingly viewed by asylum-seekers as a viable alternative destination, with many filing claims in the country’s southern border states. UNHCR said it was scaling up its programmes to assist asylum-seekers while their claims are being considered and helping to expand shelter capacity.


ONE QUESTION FOR…

María José Reyes Retana, a senior protection assistant at UNHCR’s office in Tapachula, Mexico

How are you helping asylum-seekers while they wait for their claims to be evaluated?

“Firstly, we address information needs by providing counselling regarding the asylum procedure with COMAR (Mexico’s Commission for Refugee Assistance), as well as informing asylum-seekers on available services such as those related to livelihoods, health, education and shelter.

“Secondly, we identify and assess specific needs, which allows us to deliver a case-by-case response, whether by referring those sleeping in the streets to shelters, those facing food insecurity to food banks, or those with serious medical conditions to health centres. We ensure the provision of legal counsel and psychosocial assistance to those in need.

“Thirdly, we evaluate and respond to protection risks. Asylum-seekers may be at risk of persecution or abuse due to Mexico’s porous southern border and their limited freedom of movement. In these cases, we help them find solutions. When necessary, we liaise with authorities to ensure timely case management.”


STORIES TO WATCH

Resurgence of violence in DR Congo’s Kasai region displaces thousands. Some 21,000 people have fled clashes between two ethnic groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Great Kasai Region since 28 March, according to local authorities. UNHCR today called for a renewed focus on restoring peace and defusing tensions in Kasai, where violence in 2017 displaced 1.4 million people within the country and forced 35,000 refugees to seek safety in neighbouring Angola. The recent violence has been concentrated in Bakwakenge locality, where tensions over land between the Luba and Kuba ethnic groups have been on the rise since August 2020. Many of the roughly 40,000 people displaced by attacks and counter attacks last year have not been able to return home due to fear of reprisals, said UNHCR.

Pressure growing on President Biden to raise refugee admissions. Pressure is growing on President Joe Biden to take action to restore the United States refugee resettlement programme after a report by the International Rescue Committee this week noted that only 2,050 refugees have been resettled in the US midway through the fiscal year. In early February, Biden announced plans to increase refugee admissions to as many as 125,000 during the next fiscal year. That same month he also sent the required report to Congress detailing a revised target of 62,500 admissions for this fiscal year, up from the 15,000 cap set by the President Trump. However, he has yet to sign a presidential determination that would activate that plan. Refugee resettlement agencies told Al Jazeera that flights had to be cancelled for 715 refugees they were expecting last month and added that they had been unable to plan for further arrivals this year.

Canada-US asylum agreement upheld by court. A Canadian appeals court on Thursday ruled that asylum-seekers arriving in Canada via official border crossings can be turned back to the United States, reversing an earlier decision by a lower court which found the practice to be in violation of Canadian law. The ruling deals with the Safe Third Country Agreement, signed by Canada and the US in 2002, which requires asylum-seekers to make their claims in whichever safe country they reach first. The case was first filed in 2017 and had drawn attention because of a rise in the number of asylum-seekers crossing into Canada from the US on foot at that time, primarily using an unofficial border crossing between New York State and the Canadian province of Quebec. Refugee advocacy groups who brought the case said they had not yet decided whether to bring the matter before Canada’s Supreme Court.


GET INSPIRED

Before he fled Syria, artist Akram Safvan buried some of his works beneath his studio in Deir Ez-Zor and filled a bag with soil to take with him. “Whenever I miss my country, I try to feel the scent of my homeland through it,” he says. Akram’s sculptures about the suffering of war are now displayed in galleries and public buildings in Turkey, where he has found safety and artistic freedom.


DID YOU KNOW?

Between 2014 and 2019, the number of asylum claims registered in Mexico jumped from 2,137 to 70,302 – an increase of over 3,000 per cent.