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By Kristy Siegfried | 29 January, 2021

THIS WEEK’S TOP STORIES

EU countries urged to investigate ‘illegal’ border expulsions. Refugees and asylum-seekers are increasingly at risk of being forcibly pushed back from Europe’s land and sea borders, according to UNHCR, which this week called on states to urgently investigate such practices. The agency said it had received “a continuous stream of reports” of states restricting access to asylum, including by pushing boat arrivals back out to sea, returning people across borders and using violence. UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Gillian Triggs described such pushbacks as “simply illegal” and a violation of the right to seek asylum. This week, Frontex, the EU’s border agency, suspended its operations in Hungary after the country failed to comply with a December ruling by the European Court of Justice that its practice of denying asylum-seekers protection and returning them to Serbia violated EU law. Meanwhile, Frontex itself is the subject of an internal investigation regarding the agency’s alleged participation in pushbacks from Greece.

More than 200,000 Central Africans forced to flee post-election violence. Since violence and insecurity erupted ahead of December elections, over 100,000 Central Africans have fled to neighbouring countries while another 100,000 are displaced inside the Central African Republic, according to UNHCR. The agency warned today that reaching those displaced inside the country with aid had been hampered by continued insecurity and the closure of the main road that would allow in supplies. The Guardian reports that more than 1,600 trucks are stuck at the border, a third of them carrying humanitarian aid. Meanwhile, 92,000 refugees have now crossed into the Democratic Republic while 13,240 have reached Cameroon, Chad, and the Republic of Congo. UNHCR said those in the DRC were in remote, hard-to-reach areas, close to the rivers they crossed, without basic shelter or sufficient food. Outbreaks of malaria and diarrhoea have already occurred as the refugees rely on river water for drinking, washing, and cooking. UNHCR is working to get emergency supplies to the refugees but warned that needs are growing and funding for its response is critically low.

Refugee resettlement at record low in 2020. Statistics released by UNHCR this week revealed that only 22,770 refugees were resettled through the agency last year, the lowest figure in almost two decades. The COVID-19 pandemic played a major role in delaying departures and processing, but the drop was also the result of lower resettlement quotas being set by states. UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Gillian Triggs expressed the hope that 2020 would be “an extreme anomaly” and that governments would boost their resettlement programmes this year. She noted that 20 countries had resumed programmes paused by the pandemic, showing that refugee resettlement could be safely managed, even during a global health emergency. The United States resettled the highest number of refugees last year, 6,740, but this was down from the 21,159 admitted in 2019. President Joe Biden has promised to raise the cap on the number of refugees allowed into the United States each year.


ONE QUESTION FOR…

Michelle Alfaro, Senior Resettlement and Complementary Pathways Coordinator with UNHCR

What has the drop in resettlement departures meant for refugees who are in the pipeline for resettlement? How do such long waits impact their lives?

“The [COVID-19] pandemic has been terrible for everyone, but especially for so many refugees who live in precarious situations and literally live day-by-day, trying to find a way for their families to survive. Delayed resettlement departures mean their desperation grows as they wonder if they have been forgotten by the rest of the world. It means refugee children working to help support their families instead of going to school; it means parents fretting about how they will manage and what they can to do to keep their children fed, with a roof over their heads while their possibilities to do so literally close around them.

“Living with such uncertainty is frightening for any of us, but especially for refugees for whom every day can be a struggle to just survive. Resettlement is a programme that gives people hope for their future. Every day that their departure is delayed threatens that hope.”


STORIES TO WATCH

Bangladesh moves more Rohingya refugees to remote island. A third group of some 1,700 Rohingya refugees departed for the island of Bhasan Char in the Bay of Bengal this morning, with more preparing to leave on Saturday, according to a Bangladesh navy official. He told reporters that around 4,000 refugees had been sent to the island since December and that the process would continue until the capacity for accommodating 100,000 refugees there had been reached. Authorities have dismissed flood concerns over the island and said refugees were selected for relocation based on their willingness, but human rights groups have alleged that some of the refugees sent in December were coerced. UN agencies have not been involved in the relocations and have yet to be allowed to carry out technical and protection assessments on Bhasan Char.

Refugees cannot be returned to Greece, German court rules. A German court ruled on Tuesday that two refugees granted asylum in Greece could not be sent back there because of the “serious risk of inhumane and degrading treatment”. Germany had previously rejected the men’s asylum applications because they had been granted international protection in Greece, but the court found they would face “extreme material hardship” if returned there and cited the high risk they would become homeless and jobless. Asylum-seekers and refugees in Greece continue to experience overcrowding and poor conditions, particularly at reception sites on the Aegean islands. Since September, when the Moria reception facility burned down on the island of Lesvos, over 7,000 people have been living at a temporary site with basic facilities, built on a former military firing range. This week, Human Rights Watch issued a new warning about the risk of lead contamination at the site.

Flooding hits displaced people in north-west Syria. Torrential rain and strong winds have toppled tents and swept away food supplies and possessions belonging to thousands of internally displaced people living in camps in north-west Syria. At least 21,700 tents have been damaged and destroyed while one child was killed, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The flooding has contaminated water supplies and left people stranded in remote areas in the mud as temperatures drop below zero. Some 1.6 million displaced people are living in over 1,300 camps and informal sites in Idlib and other parts of north-west Syria. OCHA noted that funding shortages were likely to worsen the impact of the flooding, along with the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing violence.


GET INSPIRED

Mindfulness techniques are helping this eight-year-old Syrian girl cope with the trauma she experienced when her family were displaced from their home by airstrikes in 2019. “When I do the breathing exercises, I feel more comfortable and less afraid,” she says.


DID YOU KNOW?

The 22,770 refugees resettled through UNHCR in 2020 represents about a third of the 63,726 resettled in 2019 and less than a fifth of the 126,291 resettled in 2016.