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By Kristy Siegfried | 26 March, 2021

THIS WEEK’S TOP STORIES

Deadly fire at Bangladesh refugee camp. At least 11 people are dead and more than 300 remain unaccounted for after a massive fire spread through Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar on Monday. The fire destroyed at least 10,000 bamboo and tarpaulin shelters, leaving some 45,000 Rohingya with no home or belongings. Many people were separated from their children and other family members as they fled the blaze, which also destroyed hospitals, learning centres and distribution points. Authorities are investigating the cause of the fire, which was the deadliest since more than 740,000 Rohingya refugees fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh in 2017. Aid groups and Rohingya leaders said a fence that surrounds the camp had hampered rescue efforts and that some refugees had been forced to cut through the fence to escape the fire. Aid agencies and Bangladeshi authorities have been helping survivors with temporary shelter, medical assistance and other needs, including psychological support. Survivors described their pain at having to start over once again. The UN has released US$14 million in emergency funding to help rebuild shelters and support those affected by the fire.

UN reaches destroyed camps in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. UNHCR said today that it had gained access to two refugee camps in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region for the first time since fighting cut off access to the camps in November 2020. Both the Shimelba and Hitsats camps were found to have been completely destroyed, confirming accounts by refugees and satellite imagery taken earlier this year showing shelters and facilities burnt to the ground. UNHCR said it was deeply concerned about the well-being of the Eritrean refugees who had been living in the Hitsats camp, all of whom had fled and are understood to be scattered around the area and in urgent need of safety and support. More than 7,000 of some 20,000 refugees staying at the two camps prior to the crisis have managed to reach two other refugee camps to the south. Earlier this week, UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi joined other top UN officials in calling for a stop to “indiscriminate and targeted attacks against civilians” in Tigray, particularly calling out reports of rape and “other horrific forms of sexual violence”. The joint statement called on the warring parties to protect civilians from human rights abuses, condemn sexual violence and hold perpetrators to account.

Attacks in western Niger kill 137 people. Niger observed three days of national mourning this week after attackers on motorbikes raided several villages in the southwest of the country on Sunday, killing at least 137 people in the deadliest violence to hit the country in recent years. Condemning the attacks, UNHCR said many of those killed in the villages of Intazayane, Bakorat and Wirsnat in Niger’s Tahoua region near the Malian border had been displaced by previous violence. Niger had only just finished another mourning period from an earlier round of attacks that killed 66 people in the Tillabéri region last week. Some 204,000 refugees and internally displaced people are staying in the Tahoua and Tillabéri regions, which border Burkina Faso and Mali. UNHCR called on warring parties in the Sahel to protect civilians, people forced to flee and the communities hosting them, as civilians bear the brunt of increasing attacks in tri-border region.


ONE QUESTION FOR…

Yvette Ravaosolonirina, an associate field officer with UNHCR in Tahoua, Niger

How have recent attacks in western Niger affected refugees and internally displaced people living in that region of the country?

“These attacks have devastating consequences on the local population, refugees and internally displaced people. After events like Sunday’s, people are in a state of shock. They are afraid and wonder if it will happen again and if they will be the next victims. During the attacks, the assailants also steal livestock, and burn houses and granaries, so that from one day to the next people find themselves in total destitution and unable to think about the future.

“As staff, we are deeply shocked by what the refugees and displaced people tell us. It is unbearable, but it strengthens our will to accomplish our mission and not to give in to terror. Our mission is to quickly provide protection and material assistance, but also to be there for these people to provide medical and psychological assistance.”


STORIES TO WATCH

UK announces overhaul of asylum system. UK Home Secretary, Priti Patel, this week announced what she described as “the biggest overhaul of the UK’s asylum system in decades”. Under the new measures, which must still be approved by Parliament, asylum-seekers deemed to have arrived in the UK by unauthorized routes, such as in small boats, will only be given temporary permission to stay and will receive fewer benefits than those who arrive by authorized routes. Purpose-built reception centres will replace the current practice of housing asylum-seekers in temporary accommodation. Critics of the plan said it would create an unfair two-tiered system that based support for asylum-seekers on how they entered the country rather than on their need for protection. Refugee rights groups also noted that under the 1951 Refugee Convention, a person’s mode of arrival has no bearing on their right to asylum.

Kenya orders closure of Dadaab, Kakuma refugee camps. Kenya said on Wednesday that it plans to permanently close two refugee camps that together house more than 410,000 people, most of them from neighbouring Somalia. The interior ministry gave UNHCR two weeks to draw up plans for the camps’ closure and for the repatriation of the refugees within four months. In a statement, UNHCR noted the “short timeframe” and said it was concerned about the impact the decision would have on the protection of refugees in Kenya, including in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The agency said it would keep engaging in a dialogue with the Kenyan authorities on the issue. Authorities in Nairobi first announced their intention to close Dadaab, and then Kakuma, in 2016, citing national security concerns, but the decision was blocked by Kenya’s high court.

Thousands flee to Colombia after clashes on Venezuela border. Thousands of Venezuelans sought shelter in Colombia this week to escape fighting between Venezuelan security forces and irregular armed groups along the nations’ shared border. The Colombian government said 3,900 people had fled from Venezuela to Colombia between Sunday and Thursday in search of protection from the clashes in the Venezuelan border state of Apure. Local authorities in the northeast Colombian municipality of Arauquita, which borders Apure, have set up eight shelters to host them, but Arauquita’s mayor told AP that more refugees are expected to arrive and that the municipality was struggling to feed them all. Colombia announced last month that it would give 10-year protection status to some 1.7 million Venezuelans already living in the country.


GET INSPIRED

Zakaria is one of dozens of refugees employed as seasonal workers by a vineyard in the southwest of France that was facing a labour shortage at harvest time due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After helping to bring in the harvest, some of the refugees received training for other jobs in viticulture that offer year-round employment.


DID YOU KNOW?

Kutupalong camp is home to the vast majority of the more than 870,000 Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar District. Over 700,000 of those refugees arrived in the weeks following violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State in August 2017.