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By Kristy Siegfried | 25 September, 2020

THIS WEEK’S TOP STORIES

European Commission proposes “fresh start” on migration and asylum. The European Commission on Wednesday presented its “New Pact on Migration and Asylum” – a series of legislative proposals on the EU’s approach to migration and asylum which will now need to be negotiated with Member States and the European Parliament before they can be translated into action. Ahead of their release, UNHCR and IOM appealed for a “truly common and principled approach” that would put an end to the current “ad hoc, crisis-driven” one which the two agencies described as “unworkable, untenable” and often carrying “devastating human consequences”. The Commission’s proposals include possible screening at external borders and an alternative solidarity mechanism that offers States not willing to relocate asylum-seekers the option of contributing in other ways, such as managing the return of people denied asylum or funding reception centres in frontline states. The proposal also outlines a more coordinated approach to search-and-rescue at sea that would involve relocating those rescued to other States and ruling out the criminalization of NGO rescue vessels.

COVID-19 infections rising among displaced populations in Middle East. The Guardian reports that the number of COVID-19 infections in camps for refugees and internally displaced people in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinian territories have risen sharply throughout September and may soon outstrip the limited capacity of host countries to respond. The effects of the pandemic are already causing what Rula Amin, UNHCR’s regional spokesperson, described as a “poverty pandemic” among refugees in the region. Amin said the number of regional COVID-19 cases that the agency monitors has risen to close to 1,000. This week, Médecins Sans Frontières warned of a 10-fold increase in COVID-19 cases in north-west Syria where more than half the population have been displaced by conflict and live in overcrowded camps and settlements. As of 22 September, 640 people had tested positive for the coronavirus in the region, but testing levels remain low. Aid agencies are calling for outbreaks to be urgently contained before the onset of winter when social distancing measures will become even more difficult to enforce.

Flooding adds new hardships for people fleeing Sahel violence. UNHCR said on Thursday it was stepping up assistance to displaced families in Africa’s Sahel region who are among 700,000 people affected by devastating flooding. Heavy rains, which began in August, are believed to be the worst in over a decade. They have destroyed homes, damaged health centres and submerged farmland across the Sahel region where violence has already forced 3.5 million people to flee their homes. UNHCR said Niger had been hardest hit with 71 deaths reported and over 350,000 people impacted, including more than 9,000 refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) who are now in urgent need of shelter. Torrential rains have also caused extensive damage in Burkina Faso, where one in five people were already displaced by violence, as well as Chad and Mali. UNHCR is urging governments in the region to include refugees and IDPs in their response to the floods. The agency noted that rising global temperatures are increasing the frequency and intensity of floods, droughts, and sandstorms across the Sahel.


ONE QUESTION FOR…

Hamzeh Almomani, assistant external relations officer with UNHCR, based at Azraq refugee camp in Jordan

What are some of the biggest challenges in terms of controlling the spread of COVID-19 among refugees living in Jordan, especially as winter approaches?  

“The first is how to maintain social distancing in such a crowded and congested refugee camp where there could be up to seven people sharing one room. In addition, whenever we have a distribution of cash or gas cylinders, refugees have to wait in line. I think refugees are becoming more vigilant because we’ve been doing so much awareness-raising and they’ve received masks; however, this remains a challenge.

“UNHCR has built an entire isolation site for people who return to the camp after being outside. They have to quarantine there for 14 days before they can go to their shelters. Refugees have been very cooperative but if the cases increase more, we’ll have to upgrade the site’s capacity.

“I think the most important challenge is the loss of livelihoods. Leave and work permits for refugees, which allowed them to have jobs outside the camp, have been suspended and there are almost no jobs for Jordanians or refugees living outside the camps. International NGOS that used to employ refugees in the camps have cut back to essential services only. In urban areas, we’ve distributed emergency cash assistance to around 50,000 of the most vulnerable families but there are challenges with funding; we have a big funding gap.”


STORIES TO WATCH

Overlapping crises in Lebanon fuel more crossings to Cyprus. Driven by increasingly desperate economic circumstances in the wake of last month’s Beirut port explosion, growing numbers of Syrian refugees and some Lebanese are boarding smugglers’ boats in Lebanon’s port city of Tripoli bound for Cyprus, The New Humanitarian reports. A boat packed with 37 people was found off the coast of Lebanon on 14 September after nearly a week adrift at sea. At least six people had died, including two children, and another six were missing. According to UNHCR, approximately 21 boats have set off from Tripoli between July and mid-September. Several were intercepted by Lebanese authorities and four were pushed by Cypriot authorities and returned to Lebanon. On Thursday, Lebanon’s president, Michael Aoun, said security forces would intensify their work preventing the sea crossings.

Survey finds devastating economic impacts of pandemic on displaced people. Some 77 per cent of displaced and conflict-affected people have lost a job or income since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in March, according to a survey released by the Norwegian Refugee Council on Monday. The NRC polled 1,431 refugees and internally displaced people across 14 countries including Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, Kenya, Libya, Mali, Uganda and Venezuela. Seventy per cent of respondents said they had been forced to cut meals and 73 per cent said they were less likely to send their children to school. Most said they were struggling to pay rent, and many had already been evicted. The Irish Times reports from Kibuye, a neighbourhood of the Uganda capital, Kampala, that is home to many Congolese refugees. Many of them are now facing eviction and destitution.

Thousands forced to flee conflict in northern Mozambique face hunger crisis. The UN World Food Program warned this week that more than 300,000 people forced to flee their homes in Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado province were at risk of “crisis” levels of food insecurity. A spate of attacks on villages by armed groups beginning in 2017 has forced families to abandon their crops, leaving them completely reliant on humanitarian assistance. Cabo Delgado already has the second highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the country. WFP said any additional shocks could rapidly worsen the situation. UNHCR reported last week that many families have had to flee multiple times and that the majority are now staying with relatives and friends in more stable areas. The province is still recovering from the impacts of Cyclone Kenneth which made landfall last April.


GET INSPIRED

Egyptian football star Mo Salah brought the voices of four refugee students to the UN General Assembly this week. They talked about how a Vodafone Foundation and UNHCR project to bring online learning to refugee camps has transformed their classrooms and urged world leaders to support refugee education.


DID YOU KNOW?

Conflict and violence accounted for 4.8 million new internal displacements in the first half of 2020, a million more than in the first half of 2019.