Update on UNHCR’s operations in the Middle East and North Africa, 27 September 2019

from UN High Commissioner for Refugees
Published on 27 Sep 2019 View Original

Regional Update - Middle East and North Africa
Seventieth session
7-11 October 2019

A. Situational context including new developments

Syria situation

As the conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic entered its ninth year, over 5.9 million Syrians remained internally displaced and over 5.6 million Syrians were registered as refugees in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey as at August 2019. Their generosity notwithstanding, these host countries experienced increasing demographic, economic, political, social and security challenges, leading to stricter border management measures. This had a significant impact on the ability of thousands of vulnerable people to seek, and continue to access, safety and assistance.

From January to July 2019, some 52,000 Syrian refugees spontaneously returned to the Syrian Arab Republic. Around 135,530 internally displaced persons (IDPs) also returned to their places of origin in the first four months of this year, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). In 2018, over 55,000 Syrian refugees and some 1.4 million IDPs returned to their areas of origin.

UNHCR is the lead agency for the shelter and non-food items (NFI) cluster, as well as the protection cluster in the Syrian Arab Republic. As of end-June 2019, UNHCR had provided more than 752,000 IDPs, returnees and host community members with community-based protection services. In addition, around 825,200 people received at least one core-relief item; almost 78,000 benefited from UNHCR’s shelter activities; and some 220,000 individuals were supported through UNHCR’s community-based health interventions.

Since violence escalated at the end of April, UNHCR has recorded around 500,000 individual displacements (including secondary displacements) in north-west Syria. A response plan for up to 700,000 people has been prepared by the United Nations.

UNHCR continued to lead, with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan (3RP) in response to the Syria crisis, coordinating the work of over 270 partners in the five main countries hosting Syrian refugees.

Iraq situation

The number of IDPs in Iraq has gradually declined since 2014, with some 1.6 million people still internally displaced, according to the Displacement Tracking Matrix of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) as at 30 June 2019. Many of the 4.3 million returnees face difficulty in accessing basic services, while at the same time contending with ongoing insecurity, the lack of shelter and livelihood opportunities, as well as explosive hazards. This has led to instances of protracted and secondary displacement and re-admittance to camps where return was not possible or sustainable.

Instances of displacement, eviction, denied return, confiscation of documents and limitations on freedom of movement have been recorded due to perceived affiliation to insurgent groups. UNHCR continued to advocate and assist authorities with access to civil documentation for IDPs. Ensuring the protection of the displaced, including through safe and sustainable returns, also continued to be a critical component of the broader recovery and stabilization efforts in Iraq.

The first round of returnee grants from the Ministry of Displacement and Migration were provided to 12,000 Iraqi IDP returnee families at the end of July. Each returnee family received 1.5 million Iraqi Dinar (roughly US$1,250) to help them re-establish themselves in their areas of origin.

UNHCR is co-leading, together with the United Nations Human Settlement Programme (UN- Habitat), the working group on sustainable solutions for IDPs in the context of the recovery and resilience programme for Iraq.

Over 257,000 Iraqi refugees are registered with UNHCR in neighbouring countries, with an additional almost 32,000 individuals living in camps without any form of registration in the Al- Hassakeh Governorate in the Syrian Arab Republic.


The humanitarian situation in Yemen continued to decline in 2019, with more than 24.1 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, amounting to more than three quarters of the entire population. A further deterioration to the political, economic and security situation compromised humanitarian access and delivery of goods, thereby aggravating the existing threat of famine.

Now in its fifth year, the conflict continued to exact a brutal toll on civilians. Despite the welcomed Hudaydah ceasefire in December 2018, violence persisted, including in the governorates of Hajjah, Al Dhale’e and Hudaydah, where 65 per cent of all displaced families (around 54,540) were located. The number of people internally displaced since 2015 reached an estimated 4 million. The absorption capacity for communities hosting IDPs was becoming critical, resulting in evictions, spontaneous settlements and discrimination, with a negative impact on social cohesion.

As of August 2019, despite partial blockades and import restrictions that had an impact on UNHCR’s operational capacity, more than 420,000 IDPs, IDP returnees and host community members were assisted with basic household items. Nearly 100,000 IDPs were also provided with emergency shelter. Protection assessments were carried out for over 85,000 individuals and some seven million IDPs received cash assistance for rental support, protection or winter needs. Despite these achievements, funding shortfalls threatened the continuation of protection and shelter programmes, including cash assistance and camp coordination and management.

Some 276,000 refugees and asylum-seekers in Yemen, the majority from Somalia and Ethiopia, continued to have pressing needs in 2019. Protection space for refugees and asylum-seekers was impacted by anti-migrant rhetoric leading to a rise in arrests, detentions and restricted movements. UNHCR offered protection services for refugees, including legal counselling, education, psychosocial care and health services, as well as refugee status determination and registration support. In response to Somali refugees expressing their intention to return home, UNHCR maintained the assisted spontaneous returns programme, with some 4,550 Somali refugees having returned since April 2017.

North Africa

The volatile security situation in Libya was marked by violent clashes, which started again in April 2019 and created new displacement of 120,000 persons from areas in and around Tripoli. In response, UNHCR provided over 26,400 IDPs and returnees with NFIs and shelter kits, as well as over 5,000 IDPs with cash grants.

As at September 2019, an estimated 5,200 refugees and migrants are detained in Libya, of whom 3,800 are of persons of concern to UNHCR. In pursuit of viable alternatives to detention, UNHCR is strengthening its urban response programme and accelerated durable solutions to third countries through the Gathering and Departure Facility. There are a total of 48,000 registered refugees and asylum-seekers in Libya, and so far this year, over 1,100 refugees have departed Libya through evacuation programmes and over 370 under resettlement programmes. UNHCR has continued to register refugees and asylum-seekers, with over 7,000 individuals newly-registered in 2019, including 2,450 registered while in detention.

As of mid-September 2019, more than 6,650 refugees and migrants have been rescued or intercepted at sea by the Libyan Coast Guard, a decrease of over 50 per cent compared to the same period in 2018. UNHCR intervened at disembarkation points with the primary objective to save lives through the provision of emergency humanitarian assistance.

In Tunisia, the number of new arrivals (some 1,250) as of end August 2019 surpassed the number (around 1,190) for 2018, which reflects the deteriorating situation in Libya. Moreover, some 390 individuals have been disembarked in Tunisia, which is an increase since 2018, when 290 people were disembarked during the entire year.

Overall, there were more than 1,200 new registrations by UNHCR in Tunisia – more than double what it was in 2018. With greater movements along the Western Mediterranean route, asylum-seeker registrations in Morocco also increased by 53 per cent during the first half of 2019, compared to the same period in 2018.

In Egypt, some 250,000 refugees and asylum-seekers of 57 nationalities were registered with UNHCR, with over half originating from the Syrian Arab Republic.

In Algeria, UNHCR continued to provide protection and basic assistance and services to Sahrawi refugees in the five camps near Tindouf, despite serious funding shortfalls, which made achieving international standards of assistance challenging.

In Mauritania, UNHCR registered over 3,700 new Malian refugees in the first half of 2019. Malian refugees were also registered in urban centres, thereby widening the available protection space. In April, the World Food Programme (WFP) and UNHCR introduced the first phase of targeted food assistance to Malian refugees registered at Mbera camp, as part of the joint strategy to help refugees achieve self-reliance.

UNHCR continued to work with national authorities in the region, to develop and implement national asylum systems, expand access to public services, and promote livelihood opportunities for refugees.

Mixed and onward movements

In 2019, refugees and migrants continued to face high levels of risk when travelling from the Middle East or Africa towards Europe via the Mediterranean routes.
UNHCR worked with governments and other partners to provide access to safety and protect persons of concern from refoulement. Solutions in the context of migration management frameworks were also sought.

More than 800 people had reportedly died or gone missing in the Mediterranean as of August 2019. An unknown number of individuals died along routes at crossing points in North Africa, including in the Sahara Desert. An increase in incidents and human rights violations was observed amidst the tightening of border control in the region.

The Central Mediterranean situation rapidly changed with reductions in the search and rescue undertaken by European Union member States and the increasing role that Libyan authorities are playing at sea. Refugees and migrants crossing through Libya faced notable protection risks, particularly when arrested and detained by the Libyan authorities or exposed to criminal networks. In July, an airstrike on the Tajoura detention centre in Libya resulted in the deaths of more than 50 refugees and migrants.

UNHCR sought to evacuate refugees from detention centres for their safety and with a view to providing durable solutions for vulnerable persons of concern. The Office promoted alternatives to detention and advocated for the release of refugees and asylum-seekers.