By Kristy Siegfried | 5 February, 2021
THIS WEEK’S TOP STORIES
Biden to ramp up refugee admissions to 125,000 a year. US President Joe Biden issued an executive order on Thursday to increase massively the annual cap on refugee admissions to the United States to 125,000 during his first full fiscal year in office, which begins in October. The current cap was set at an historically low 15,000 places by the Trump administration. “It’s going to take time to rebuild what has been so badly damaged, but that’s precisely what we’re going to do,” said Biden, referring to the country’s refugee resettlement system. His announcement earned swift praise from UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, who said it would send a powerful message to other countries to follow suit. “The action today by President Biden will save lives,” he said. “It’s that simple.” On Tuesday, Biden issued executive actions ordering a review of asylum processing at the US-Mexico border, programmes to address the forces driving people north, and the creation of a taskforce to reunite families separated at the border while trying to seek asylum in the United States. Biden also pledged to work with other governments and organizations to build regional asylum capacity and to provide legal pathways for asylum-seekers to enter the United States.
Eritrean refugees “caught in crossfire” of Tigray conflict. As many as 20,000 mainly Eritrean refugees have dispersed from the Hitsats and Shimbela camps in Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray region, where the UN still lacks access three months on from the start of the conflict there. Over the weekend, UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi visited Mai Aini – one of two camps in southern Tigray where the UN has regained access. He said about 3,000 refugees from the Hitsats and Shimbela camps had made it to Mai Aini where they described being cut off from assistance and subjected to killings and abductions by armed groups. Grandi said some of the refugees had been “forced to return to Eritrea at the hands of Eritrean forces present in the areas.” Satellite imagery shows widespread damage to both camps in northern Tigray with between 15,000 and 20,000 refugees having moved to areas where the UN lacks access. Grandi called for that access to be restored so more refugees could be relocated to the southern camps. Other senior UN officials are also pressing the Ethiopian government for access to deliver aid to hundreds of thousands of people in Tigray who are facing an increasingly dire humanitarian situation, with reports that food is scarce and malnutrition rapidly rising.
Rohingya refugees worry Myanmar coup will prolong their plight. In the wake of a military coup in Myanmar on Monday, Rohingya refugees living in camps in Bangladesh expressed their fears for the safety of loved ones still living in the country and for their prospects of safely returning to their homeland. Ahead of a UN Security Council meeting to discuss the crisis on Tuesday, UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said the coup could worsen the plight of some 600,000 Rohingya who remain in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, including 120,000 who are effectively confined to camps. Rohingya refugees said they have been unable to contact relatives in Rakhine due to disruptions to mobile networks. Officials from Bangladesh and Myanmar met last month to discuss beginning repatriations of Rohingya refugees in June. But refugees told AP that the military takeover made them more fearful of returning.
ONE QUESTION FOR…
Madeleine Tchabi Moumouni, head of UNHCR’s sub office in Gbadolite, Democratic Republic of the Congo
What are your biggest concerns for Central African refugees arriving in the DRC in recent weeks?
“During the past weeks, I was in the north of the DRC to oversee the registration and needs assessment of refugees who fled violence and insecurity in CAR. Local authorities have reported 92,000 new arrivals, many of whom are sleeping in the open or in makeshift shelters, others with Congolese families who face severe poverty. In these circumstances, a lot of them have lost their privacy and sense of decency.
“The refugees are in remote areas spread out over hundreds of kilometres along the border rivers in North Ubangi, South Ubangi, and Bas Uele provinces, and even robust vehicles can hardly reach most of the areas. So, we are going there by motor-bike, trekking to some locations, and tying dugout canoes together to ferry our vehicles across the river.
“The rainy season will start next month making the areas completely inaccessible by road. If we cannot transport emergency items for the most vulnerable before the rains start, they will be exposed to the elements and diseases. We will be left with no option other than costly airlifts for which we do not have funding.”
STORIES TO WATCH
Colombia asks for help vaccinating Venezuelan refugees and migrants. Colombia’s president called for international help on Wednesday to vaccinate nearly a million undocumented Venezuelans against the coronavirus. Ivan Duque called on the international community to help mobilize resources and vaccines that would allow Venezuelans in an irregular situation to be included in vaccinations due to start later this month. He said he would take up the matter with UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, who is due to visit Colombia next week. COVID-19 vaccines have yet to arrive in many countries hosting refugees, but UNHCR spokesperson Shabia Mantoo told Devex that the agency is advocating with governments to ensure equitable access when vaccination programmes begin.
Mounting concerns for asylum-seekers in former UK military barracks. Concerns continue to grow about conditions at two former military camps – Napier Barracks in Kent and Penally Barracks in Pembrokeshire – that were repurposed last September to house asylum-seekers. MPs on Thursday heard that 28 asylum-seekers at Napier Barracks had shared a room with a man who had tested positive for COVID-19 but could not self-isolate. Meanwhile, The Independent reports that unwell asylum-seekers were being blocked from accessing doctors by Home Office-contracted staff running the sites. A deputy high court judge ruled on Tuesday that an asylum-seeker and potential victim of trafficking housed at Napier must be urgently rehoused. The court heard evidence about unsafe and unsanitary conditions at the barracks.
More at risk of displacement as climate change outpaces response, UN warns. Several heads of UN agencies spoke on Thursday about the need to ramp up action to prevent more people being forced from their homes by the effects of climate change and to better protect and assist those already uprooted. Speaking at a virtual event to mark five years since global agreements to tackle climate change and disasters were adopted, UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi said refugees, internally displaced people and the stateless were often among the first to be affected by the climate emergency. In a joint statement with IOM, he called for more investment in preparedness to mitigate and prevent the effects of climate change on the displaced. A video released by the New York Times this week reports on the dilemma facing the residents of a hurricane-hit village on the coast of Nicaragua who must decide whether to abandon their homes and way of life and move inland.
Five years after fleeing Syria to Germany, Taraq Alaows hopes to become the first Syrian refugee to be elected to the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament. Alaows learned German within six months of arriving in the country and started working as a social worker, offering legal counselling to other refugees. He is set to run for the Green Party in Germany’s general election this September.
DID YOU KNOW?
A survey of people affected by conflict and displacement in eight countries found that three out of four had lost their income since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.