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IMMIGRATION

Refugee claims by Venezuelans surging: United Nations

Nearly 100,000 people who fled Venezuela have claimed refugee status since the start of 2017, the UN said Tuesday, as it ramped up response plans for a displacement crisis likely to worsen.

Refugee claims by Venezuelans surging: United Nations
A Venezuelan indigenous refugee child cries at the Pintolandia shelter in the city of Boa Vista, Roraima, Brazil, on February 24th. Photo: AFP

The UN refugee agency based in Geneva said the number of Venezuelans who have sought asylum has shot up 2,000 percent since 2014, but the most dramatic increases have ocurred over the last 14 months.

With the country's economic and political crisis intensifying, UNHCR has drawn up a “regional response plan that covers eight (surrounding) countries”, spokesperson Aikatarina Kitidi said.

“In view of the situation in Venezuela, it is crucial that people are not deported or forcibly returned there,” she added.

Asked if the UN had received reports of deportations or forced returns, Kitidi did not answer directly, saying only the  agency was calling for “solidarity” among nations in the region in responding to Venezuelans in need.

An influx of Venezuelans has reportedly stirred tensions in Brazil, notably in the city of Boa Vista which has received 40,000 people, raising its population by more than 10 percent.

Hundreds of Venezuelans there have been sleeping on the ground for months, while using restrooms in gas or bus stations.

UNHCR warned that an increasing number of Venezuelans, especially those living abroad without legal protection, are “vulnerable to exploitation, trafficking, violence, sexual abuse, discrimination and xenophobia”.

The UN agency does not have a precise figure for those who have fled the crisis in Venezuela.

Regarding only those who have filed refugee claims, UNHCR said the figure stood at 145,000 since 2014 – but 94 percent of those claims have been recorded since the start of 2017.

 

IMMIGRATION

Amnesty decries Swiss asylum centre abuse

Minors and adults housed in Swiss asylum centres have faced serious abuses at the hands of security staff, including beatings and chokeholds, Amnesty International warned Wednesday.

Amnesty decries Swiss asylum centre abuse
An asylum centre in the Alpine village of Realp, Central Switzerland. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

In a report, the rights organisation’s Swiss chapter detailed “alarming abuse” in the country’s federal asylum centres, and called for urgent government action to address the problem.

The report documents a range of abuses by staff of the private security companies Securitas and Protectas, which had been contracted by Switzerland’s State Secretariat for Migration (SEM).

Amnesty said it had spoken with 14 asylum seekers, including two minors, who reported having faced abuse from the security officers between January 2020 and April 2021, along with 18 current and former security agents and other witnesses.

The asylum seekers described being beaten and physically restrained to the point where they could not breathe or fainted.

Some also complained about trouble breathing after being doused with pepper spray, and being locked in a metal container in freezing temperatures.

The report found that six of the alleged victims had to be hospitalised, while two said they had been denied the medical assistance they had requested.

“In addition to complaints about physical pain, mistreatment and punitive treatment, these people also voiced concerns about (security staff’s) hostility, prejudice and racism towards the residents,” said Alice Giraudel, a lawyer with Amnesty’s Swiss branch.

Such attitudes had seemed to target people of North African origin in particular, she said. Some of the abuse cases, Amnesty said, “could amount to torture”, and would thus violate Switzerland’s obligations under international law.

In a media statement, the SEM said it took the criticism “very seriously”, but rejected the suggestion that abuses were taking place in a systematic manner in federal asylum centres.

It stressed that there was no acceptance for “disproportionate constraint” of asylum seekers, and vowed to “sanction all improper behaviour.”

Giraudel hailed that the SEM had recently announced it would open an external probe into isolated abuse allegations.

But, she insisted, the situation was alarming and required the government to stop looking at allegations of abuse as the work of “a few bad apples”.

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