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UNHCR requests clarification over boarder closures
Kisut Gebreegziabher, Spokesperson of the UNHCR Office in Ethiopia

UNHCR appeal clarification over boarder closures

Concerned over the fate of refugees, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has requested the Ethiopian government to clarify the decision and implementation of the recently imposed boarder closures.

The UNHCR issued a statement in regards to the latest precautionary measures Ethiopia has taken to contain the spread of the Novel Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19), which first originated in China in December 2019 and was later on declared as a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO).

As part of the measures to protect against the spread of COVID-19, the Government of Ethiopia on March 23 announced a series of additional measures, which included directing the National Defense Forces “to halt the movement of people along all borders, with the exception of incoming essential goods to the country.”

“These are necessary measures in times of crisis. UNHCR appeals to the Government, in the implementation of these measures, to take into consideration the protection needs of asylum seekers as outlined, in the following statement by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees,” the statement read.

“With the world mobilizing to combat the spread of COVID-19, many countries are rightly adopting exceptional measures, limiting air travel and cross-border movements.”

“For many people around the world, everyday life has come to a standstill, or is being transformed in ways that we had never envisaged. But wars and persecution have not stopped – and today, across the globe, people are continuing to flee their homes in search of safety. I am increasingly worried by measures adopted by some countries that could block altogether the right to seek asylum.”

It also urged that all states must manage their borders in the context of this unique crisis as they see fit.

However, the statement adds, “But these measures should not result in the closure of avenues to asylum, or force people to return to situations of danger.”

UNHCR recognizes Ethiopia’s long-standing open-door and progressive refugee policies,” the statement said adding the UNHCR is closely monitoring the situation of the coronavirus and are working with the Government of Ethiopia to implement preventative measures in refugee camps.

“Solutions exist. If health risks are identified, screening arrangements can be put in place, together with testing, quarantine and other measures. These will enable authorities to manage the arrival of asylum seekers and refugees in a safe manner, while respecting international refugee protection standards designed to save lives. In these challenging times, let us not forget those who are fleeing war and persecution. They need - we all need - solidarity and compassion now more than ever before, the statement read.”

UNHCR Ethiopia also reiterated that it stands ready to support any measures that can enhance the arrival of asylum-seekers and refugees in a safe manner.

In a phone interview with The Reporter, the Spokesperson of the UNHCR Office in Ethiopia, Kisut Gebregziabher, confirmed that UNHCR is working closely with Government authorities to ensure the continued protection of refugees in Ethiopia.

He further told The Reporter that both the government and UNHCR officials are looking at measures to safeguard refugees who are already settled here in Ethiopia while not compromising the safety of its citizens.

Yasin Aliey, Public Relation Service Head, at the Agency for Refugees and Returnees Affairs (ARRA), told The Reporter the recent government’s decision to close the boarder does not target refugees. It was made to insure citizens’ safety as well as those existing refugees which have already settled in Ethiopia.

He said Ethiopia continues to discharge its responsibility and commitments to refugees in line with the 1952 International treaty, like it has been doing for decades before.

Citing the decline of daily influx of refugees, Yasin said: “Currently we may have one or two refugees crossing Ethiopia’s border daily. And this situation is not difficult to manage.”

He hopes both the Ethiopian government and UNHCR will come to an agreement that enables to insure the safety of local citizens as well as refugees in accordance with international law.

Additionally, Yasin told The Reporter that no COVID-19 cases has so far has been found among the refugees in all camps.

“Though we are now witnessing the impact that coronavirus is having in communities with strong health systems, we are glad to announce that no case has been registered in the refugee and host population,” he told The Reporter.

According to Yasin, in line with the government’s directive, ARRA is doing its best to ensure the safety of refuges and asylum seekers by making all the necessary preparations of care and prevention.

“Including refugees in the national plan to respond to COVID-19, we are working to insure access to accurate and relevant information. Giving prior attention to the safety of refugees and the host; schools at camps are closed following the government’s decision to do so nation-wide,” he said.

To add to the preventive measures in place, asylum seekers will be subjected to screening and 14 day quarantine prior to status determination.

Ethiopia is one of the largest refugee-hosting countries in Africa, sheltering 748,448 registered refugees and asylum seekers as of February 29, 2020. Most of the refugees come from Somalia, Eritrea, South Sudan, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other countries who have fled civil war, persecution and conflicts.