2021 Year in Review: Why worldwide refugee flows surged again despite the pandemic

2021 Year in Review: Why worldwide refugee flows surged again despite the pandemic
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Updated 02 January 2022

2021 Year in Review: Why worldwide refugee flows surged again despite the pandemic

2021 Year in Review: Why worldwide refugee flows surged again despite the pandemic
  • In the first 11 months of 2021, some 14,000 migrants had already come to Europe — more than in the whole of 2020
  • The Mediterranean remains the focus of the great exodus of people from Africa and Asia in search of a better life

LONDON: For two years, the global refugee crisis has been overshadowed by the battle against COVID-19. But in 2021 there was a worrying uptick in the number of people fleeing poverty and conflict, and there is every indication that the situation will get even worse in 2022.

Anyone who followed media coverage in November of the unseemly squabbling between Britain and the EU after the tragic deaths of 27 migrants in the English Channel could be forgiven for thinking the economic and social burden of the global refugee crisis in 2021 fell mainly on northern Europe.

Nothing could be further from the truth. As the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, frequently points out, 85 percent of the world’s 20 million or more refugees are hosted either in neighboring countries or elsewhere in developing regions.

Turkey, for example, has more refugees within its borders than any other country — more than 3.5 million (or 43 for every 1,000 of its own citizens). Jordan has almost 3 million, while tiny Lebanon hosts 1.5 million — more than 13 refugees for every 100 Lebanese.

Germany, home to a million former refugees, has been the most generous of the European states. In the UK, which receives far fewer applications than either Germany or France, but where politicians whip up animosity towards migrants by suggesting, falsely, that the country is being overrun, there is only one tenth of that number. 

Iranians made up the largest proportion of those claiming asylum in the UK in the year ending September 2021.

By the end of November, 23,500 migrants had successfully crossed the Channel over the course of 2021 — double the number that did so in 2020 — while France had prevented 18,000 more from attempting the crossing.

But it is clear that the treacherous Mediterranean Sea remains the focus of the great exodus of people from Africa and the Middle East in search of a better life. Figures from UNHCR show that between January and October 2021, a total of 81,647 people risked it all in a bid to set foot in Spain, Italy, Malta, Greece or Cyprus. 

It goes without saying that the deaths of the 27 people, including three children, when their flimsy rubber craft foundered off the coast of France on Nov. 25, is a tragedy that has touched the hearts of many.




Libyan health workers recover bodies of drowned migrants, who were hoping to travel to Europe by sea, after a shipwreck off the beach in Sabratha, some 120 kilometres west of the Libyan capital Tripoli, on November 25, 2021. (AFP)

But what the coverage has largely overlooked is that during the year up to that date no fewer than 2,543 people had already drowned in the Mediterranean or the eastern Atlantic while seeking refuge in Europe.

The majority, some 1,422 individuals, perished on the infamous central Mediterranean route, bound for Italy or Malta. Overall, the Missing Migrants Project reports, deaths in the Mediterranean “drastically increased in the first nine months of 2021, compared to the same period in 2020,” a phenomenon it attributed in part to the relaxation of mobility restrictions imposed in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Another 959 people lost their lives in 2021 attempting the increasingly popular, but deceptively hazardous, crossing from West Africa to the Spanish Canary Islands, 100 kilometers offshore at their closest point to Morocco or the Western Sahara. 

One of the most recent lives lost on this route was that of a baby, found dead in one of five inflatable dinghies, carrying nearly 300 people from sub-Saharan Africa, that were intercepted off the islands at the beginning of December.

Yet despite such tragedies, compassion fatigue appears to have set in.




A baby is rescued by members of the Spanish NGO Maydayterraneo on board the Aita Mari rescue boat during the rescue of about 90 migrants in the Mediterranean open sea off the Libyan coast on February 9, 2020. (AFP)

Such catastrophes would once have made front-page news around the world, as in 2015 when the body of three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi washed ashore near Bodrum in Turkey.

For a while, the uproar created by the harrowing photographs of the child’s body face-down in the surf a few hundred meters from a popular tourist spot, seemed like it might tip attitudes in favor of the world’s refugees. 

Since then, however, the drownings have continued, and a world now preoccupied with the COVID-19 pandemic has largely lost interest.

In the five years that followed Kurdi’s death in 2015, no fewer than 17,000 people lost their lives attempting the sea crossing to Europe. Exactly how many of them were children is unclear. But given that one in five migrants are children, it is plausible that Kurdi has been followed to his untimely death by approximately 3,400 of his young peers.

In the flood of statistics that has been generated since the refugee crisis exploded in 2015, it is easy to lose sight of the reality of the myriad human tragedies that lie behind the numbers — the countless families and communities devastated by the loss of mothers, fathers and children. And it seems there is no end in sight.

With a total of 109,726 refugee arrivals in Europe as of the end of November, 2021 has not been a particularly bad year — certainly when compared to 2015 when over a million people sought sanctuary on the northern shores of the Mediterranean.




A European Union flag waves behind barbwires at the new closed center for migrants in the Greek island of Kos on November 27, 2021. (AFP)

Indeed, the numbers have declined year on year since 2015 — dramatically so in 2016, to 380,300, and again in 2017, when “only” 178,700 came to Europe. Over the next three years the numbers dropped steadily, from 141,400 in 2018 to 95,700 in 2020.

But in 2021, for the first time in five years, the downward trend began to reverse. In the 11 months to November, some 14,000 people had already come to Europe — more than in the whole of 2020.

Experts are divided on the cause of the recent flurry. Certainly, the movements of people serve as a barometer of global affairs. That the largest proportion of refugees in 2021 — some 25 percent of the total — came from Tunisia reflects that country’s ongoing socio-economic problems.

But second to Tunisia, and accounting for more than 11 percent of all refugees in 2021, was Bangladesh, which in the past year made a surprise appearance in a top 10 of source nations, a list previously dominated by countries in Africa and the Middle East.

Between January and the end of October this year, 6,455 refugees whose journey began in Bangladesh arrived in Europe. An unknown number died trying. In May 2021, 50 would-be migrants drowned when their boat sank off Tunisia. Rescuers were surprised to find that all 33 of the survivors, found clinging to an oil platform, were from Bangladesh.




Migrants rescued by Tunisia's national guard during an attempted crossing of the Mediterranean by boat, rest at the port of El-Ketef in Ben Guerdane in southern Tunisia near the border with Libya on June 27, 2021. (AFP)

It is, however, unclear whether they were in fact Bangladeshis. One ominous explanation for the sudden appearance of Bangladesh in the statistics may be the plight of the Rohingya, the persecuted Muslim minority in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar’s Rakhine State, about a million of whom have been driven to seek sanctuary across the border in Bangladesh. 

Life in the overcrowded, under-resourced Bangladeshi refugee camps is becoming intolerable, and there are fears for the wellbeing of large numbers of Rohingya who have recently been resettled on a remote island about 50 kilometers offshore in the Bay of Bengal. 

As UNHCR reported in August, between January 2020 and June 2021, some 3,046 Rohingya, two thirds of whom were women and children, attempted to cross the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal to seek refuge in Indonesia or Malaysia, departing either from Rakhine State or from Bangladesh. More than 200 perished in the attempt.

It remains to be seen exactly how the composition of the world’s refugee population will change in 2022. Events in Eritrea and Ethiopia will doubtless contribute to the mix in the coming year, while there is every indication that countries such as Egypt, Iran and Syria, whose citizens together accounted for more than 20 percent of Mediterranean crossings in 2021, will continue to contribute more than their fair share to the global refugee crisis.

“Despite the pandemic, wars and conflict continue to rage across the world, displacing millions and barring many from returning home,” said Gillian Triggs, UNHCR’s chief of international protection, at the launch of the Projected Global Resettlement Needs 2022 report.

“With rising humanitarian needs far outpacing solutions, we appeal to countries to make more resettlement places available for the refugees whose lives are in danger or who are otherwise at risk,” Triggs continued.

UNHCR is in the business of resettlement, persuading countries to take a share of the growing army of refugees. It is a task seemingly as hopeless as it is noble.

Last year, of the 20.7 million known refugees in the world, just 35,000 were resettled. The UN refugee agency predicts that an additional 1.47 million refugees will be in need of resettlement in 2022. 


Sri Lanka PM warns of looming food crisis

Men wait with their carts at a market, amid the country's economic crisis in Colombo, Sri Lanka. (REUTERS)
Men wait with their carts at a market, amid the country's economic crisis in Colombo, Sri Lanka. (REUTERS)
Updated 20 May 2022

Sri Lanka PM warns of looming food crisis

Men wait with their carts at a market, amid the country's economic crisis in Colombo, Sri Lanka. (REUTERS)
  • Last year’s ban on chemical fertilizer has affected rice production in the country
  • Island nation unable to pay for essential imports as it faces worst financial slump in decades

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka’s prime minister warned on Friday of looming food shortages, with the country unable to secure fertilizer for rice cultivation amid a devastating economic crisis.

The island nation of 22 million people is facing acute shortages not only of food, but also medicines and fuel, as its budget deficit climbs to $6.8 billion, or 13 percent of gross domestic product, leaving essential imports out of reach.

Many in Sri Lanka can hardly afford three meals a day, with the price of some essential food items, such as rice, having risen by 300 percent since the beginning of the year, according to the central bank’s estimates from April.

The country has already defaulted on its debts after missing a deadline for foreign debt repayments on Wednesday. The following day, it ran out of petrol, with no money coming and fuel ships remaining anchored offshore.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who took office after his predecessor resigned last week, said the looming food crisis was due to a lack of fertilizer for agricultural production.

“From August there is the possibility of a food crisis in Sri Lanka,” he said in a statement, adding that it remains to be seen how the county will survive.

“As Sri Lanka has not had fertilizer for cultivation, the coming rice cultivation season will not have the full production.”

A decision in April last year by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to ban all chemical fertilizer has led to a fall in crop yields. Although the ban was lifted a few months later, no substantial imports have taken place.

The situation is compounded by the war in Ukraine, a leading global exporter of grain.

“The shortage of food in the country is likely not only because of the local production but also due to the scarcity of imports, which were affected by the Ukrainian war,” Prof. Palitha Weerakkody, from the Department of Crop Science of the University of Peradeniya, told Arab News.

“Rice is the staple food here and there will be around 30 percent reduction in its harvest in July since the farmers have not got their imported inputs to boost their cultivation.”

Dayan Jayatillake, Sri Lanka’s former envoy to the UN in Geneva, said the anticipated food crisis will be the “greatest tragedy in the annals of Sri Lanka.”

Jayatillake told Arab News: “The ban on chemical fertilizers has jeopardized not only the paddy cultivation but also our tea plantation, which is our cash crop. Our dollar income from the export of tea is also dwindling.”

He said:  “Denial of food security in the country cannot be taken by the common man, and it can lead to a severe uprising.”

Sri Lanka’s devastating economic crisis — the worst since independence in 1948 — has triggered widespread demonstrations across the country since March, with protesters demanding the resignation of Rajapaksa and his family, whom they blame for the worsening situation.

Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president’s elder brother, quit as prime minister on May 9, after clashes between government supporters and protesters left nine people dead and almost 300 injured.

 


Fears abound at Afghanistan’s largest bird market that swansong is nearing

A man sits beside a cage of partridges in a shop at Ka Faroshi bird market in Kabul, Afghanistan, Jan. 18, 2018. (Reuters)
A man sits beside a cage of partridges in a shop at Ka Faroshi bird market in Kabul, Afghanistan, Jan. 18, 2018. (Reuters)
Updated 20 May 2022

Fears abound at Afghanistan’s largest bird market that swansong is nearing

A man sits beside a cage of partridges in a shop at Ka Faroshi bird market in Kabul, Afghanistan, Jan. 18, 2018. (Reuters)
  • Kah Faroshi, also Kabul’s oldest such market, sells thousands of species from around the world
  • Few Afghans can now afford the traditional pastime of bird fighting or to keep songbirds as pets

KABUL: Mohammad Zahir was sitting alone at his shop at the Kah Faroshi market in the heart of Kabul’s old city, surrounded by parrots, partridges, quails and other birds that used to attract crowds.

Not long ago, visitors would throng to the oldest bird market in the Afghan capital, where entering the narrow, congested lanes was like a journey two centuries back, to the city’s corners untouched by war.

But now the people are gone, as few can afford the traditional pastime of bird fighting, or to keep songbirds as pets.

For Zahir, who in the good times would earn as much as $70 a day, business has almost dried up.

“Sometimes, I don’t make any sales for several days,” he told Arab News.

An Afghan woman stands in front of a shop at Kah Faroshi bird market in Kabul, Afghanistan, Jan. 18, 2018. (Reuters)

“I get embarrassed when beggars come to my door and ask for help, but I am not able to give them something as I don’t make any money.”

The 53-year-old — a former member of the national football team — started working at the market under the first Taliban regime, in power from 1996-2001. He said he was even briefly imprisoned during their rule for disobeying a ban on bird fighting, an ancient Afghan sport.

As the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan last year, it is not the prospect of the ban being re-imposed that affects his sales, Zahir said, but a financial crisis that came with international sanctions slapped on the country since their return.

“The Taliban are not eating anyone,” he said.

“It’s the economic challenges that hinder people from continuing their hobby.”

Kah Faroshi, also the largest bird market in the country, sells thousands of kinds of birds from around the world, ranging in price from as little as $1 to as much as $1,000.

Before the Taliban takeover in mid-August, it would see visitors come from across the country, as well as foreigners for whom it was a colorful tourist attraction, and a perfect background for social media posts.

“We had good sales every day before the economic situation worsened,” Mohammad Shafi, another seller, said.

“Now, we don’t make any sales on some days.”

The future of the market, which has outlived all Afghan governments, is now uncertain.

For Mohammed Marouf, who has been selling birds for nearly six decades, its downfall would end hopes that good times could return.

“I was seven when I started working at this shop with my father,” he said.

“I had the most comfortable life in the old Kabul.”

His sales have already been affected by the economic crisis, but his main customers — men who buy quails, partridges, cocks, and canaries for fighting — still allow him to stay afloat.

If a ban on the sport takes effect, he knows the business, into which he has already brought his three sons, would practically disappear.

“We will continue until it’s banned,” he said, closely inspecting the beak of a quail. “The day it’s banned, it’s banned.”

 

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Ukraine apartment residents suffer war in different ways

Ukraine apartment residents suffer war in different ways
Updated 20 May 2022

Ukraine apartment residents suffer war in different ways

Ukraine apartment residents suffer war in different ways
  • The inhabitants of two of the blocks, which sit barely 100 metres apart across an overgrown lot, could be living in different worlds
  • Across the lot, where abandoned cats nose through the long grass and children once played around a set of rusting swings, the contrast in the conditions could not be more stark

SLATYNE, Ukraine: The only 10 residents left in the Commune, an apartment complex in the eastern Ukraine town of Slatyne, share the hardships of Russia’s invasion, from relentless shellfire and exploding rounds to a lack of power and running water.
But the inhabitants of two of the blocks, which sit barely 100 meters apart across an overgrown lot, could be living in different worlds.
Inside Vera Filipova’s gloomy, grimy home, blackened pots litter the messy kitchen and rumpled comforters sit on unkempt beds.
“It’s like hell,” the 65-year-old retired shop clerk told Reuters. She lives with her friend Nataliya Parkamento, a former shoe factory worker who moved in after her own home was destroyed.
This block is largely intact — unlike many buildings in Slatyne, the Commune has escaped a direct hit from the nearby fighting of a Ukrainian counter-offensive that has driven Russian troops away from the city of Kharkiv over the last two weeks.
But Filipova and Parkamento only have enough humanitarian aid to eat once a day. They cook outside on an open fire of shattered wood they pull from other destroyed homes, shielding the flames from rain with corrugated cement sheeting blown off a roof.
“I have nowhere to go and nobody to take me out of here,” said Parkamento, who fetches drinking water in a plastic bottle from a nearby well.
Across the lot, where abandoned cats nose through the long grass and children once played around a set of rusting swings, the contrast in the conditions could not be more stark.

’WINDOWS ARE BEING SMASHED’
There, Larissa and the six other residents tend neat gardens of roses, peonies, carrots and spring onions. They wash with buckets of water drawn from Slatyne’s many wells. Laundry dries on lines outside their tidy apartments, beds draped with colorful covers, house plants growing in glassed-in balconies.
The conditions are just as challenging. “Windows are being smashed, walls are being destroyed and there is nothing we can do about it,” Larissa, 46, said. But she and the others in her block have tried to make the best of it.
The seven residents — none would give their last names – said they share the humanitarian aid delivered to the complex by volunteers from the nearby town of Dergachi, supplementing it with pickled vegetables stocked in a basement.
Alla, 52, who managed a subway station in Kharkiv, 28 km (17 miles) to the south down a remote, shell-blasted road, cooks for everyone in her kitchen on a stove powered by a gas bottle. When shellfire eases, she ventures out with her husband, Volodymyr, 57, a railway worker who acts as the block’s handyman, to an abandoned home to make meals on a brick grill.
No one in either of the blocks could say why their experiences were so different. “I don’t know,” Filipova responded when asked why she and Parkamento put up with their bleak living conditions.
When the war came, some just found the energy to organize and surmount the hardships together while others languished in despair.
“We’ve tried helping them,” said Anna, 66, a tenant of the second block who has lived for 19 years in the complex built in the early 1970s. “When the humanitarian aid deliveries arrive, we visit Vera and Nataliya to bring them their aid.”
She and some of the other residents said a key to their resilience was maintaining a strict routine, cooking enough food for two days of breakfasts and dinners, eating the former at noon and the latter at 4 pm.

’WE CARE FOR EACH OTHER’
In between, they said, they haul water, read, and tend their gardens and chat, sitting on sunny days at a makeshift table in the shadow of their block, trying to ignore frequent blasts and occasional far-off small arms fire.
“All of the people who have stayed here for the last three months are like family,” Anna said of her companions. “We have got close to each other. We care for each other.”
Gardening is especially calming.
“I love the soil,” said Alla, whose family hails from a farming village in a Russian-controlled area north of Slatyne. “My soul would ache if I could not plant anything in that earth. It distracts you. How is it not possible not to love your soil?”
For all the differences in how they cope, the war is ever present for the seven friends, Filipova and Parkamento, and Volodiya Stachuk, a 34-year-old tractor driver who lives in the basement of another block next to that of the two women.
None can forget being jarred awake the night that a Russian missile plunged into an adjacent house earlier this month.
The explosion blew out that building’s walls and roof, shattered many of the Commune’s windows and shredded Stachuk’s apartment with shrapnel, forcing him to move to his basement.
The blast also killed Filipova’s cat, Gina, she said, and left Alla with a memento of the exact moment of her brush with death.
“The explosion knocked a clock off my wall and broke it,” she recalled. “It stopped at 12:05 am.”


Russia prosecutes veteran rock star for criticizing Ukraine conflict

Russia prosecutes veteran rock star for criticizing Ukraine conflict
Updated 20 May 2022

Russia prosecutes veteran rock star for criticizing Ukraine conflict

Russia prosecutes veteran rock star for criticizing Ukraine conflict
  • Shevchuk faces a maximum fine of $800 if found guilty
  • A case has been launched against him for "publicly discrediting the use of Russia's armed forces"

MOSCOW: Soviet rock legend and outspoken Kremlin critic Yuri Shevchuk has been charged with “discrediting” the Russian army after condemning Moscow’s military campaign in Ukraine during a concert.
Shevchuk faces a maximum fine of 50,000 rubles (770 euros, $800) if found guilty.
A case has been launched against him for “publicly discrediting the use of Russia’s armed forces,” a court in the city of Ufa in central Russia told the RIA Novosti news agency.
RIA Novosti said the case would be transferred to Shevchuk’s hometown Saint Petersburg.
On May 18, the 65-year-old performer told his audience in Ufa that it “is not the president’s ass that needs to be licked and kissed,” according to videos posted online.
“Now people are being killed in Ukraine. Why? Our guys are dying in Ukraine. Why?” he told a cheering crowd.
The frontman of the 1980s Soviet rock band DDT, Shevchuk has over the years publicly criticized President Vladimir Putin and opposed the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.


France, Germany, Belgium report first monkeypox cases

France, Germany, Belgium report first monkeypox cases
CDC microscopic image shows monkeypox virus particles. (Reuters)
Updated 20 May 2022

France, Germany, Belgium report first monkeypox cases

France, Germany, Belgium report first monkeypox cases
  • France, Belgium and Germany reported their first cases of monkeypox, joining several other European and North American nations in detecting the disease

PARIS: France, Belgium and Germany on Friday reported their first cases of monkeypox, joining several other European and North American nations in detecting the disease, endemic in parts of Africa.
Monkeypox was identified in a 29-year-old man in the Ile-de-France region, which includes Paris, who had not recently returned from a country where the virus is circulating, France’s health authorities said Friday.
Separately, the German armed forces’ microbiology institute said it has confirmed the virus in a patient who developed skin lesions — a symptom of the disease.
And in Belgium, microbiologist Emmanuel Andre confirmed in a tweet that the University of Leuven’s lab had confirmed a second of two cases in the country, in a man from the Flemish Brabant.
With the growing number of detected cases in several European countries, Germany’s health agency Robert Koch Institute has urged people returning from West Africa to see their doctors quickly if they notice any chances on their skin.
The rare disease — which is not usually fatal — often manifests itself through fever, muscle aches, swollen lymph nodes, chills, exhaustion and a chickenpox-like rash on the hands and face.
The virus can be transmitted through contact with skin lesions and droplets of a contaminated person, as well as through shared items such as bedding and towels.
Cases of monkeypox have also been detected in Italy, Portugal, Spain and Sweden as well as in the United States and Canada, leading to fears that the disease — normally concentrated in Central and West Africa — may be spreading.
Monkeypox usually clears up after two to four weeks, according to the WHO.