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The onset of COVID-19 pandemic last year escalated the vulnerability of migrants from the Horn of African region to smugglers, vagaries of weather and lack of access to basic services, a senior official from International Organization for Migration (IOM) said on Tuesday.

Mohammed Abdiker, regional director for East and Horn of Africa at IOM, said the pandemic worsened poverty, social dislocation and exploitation of migrants from a region that experienced recurrent droughts and conflicts.

“There is an immediate need to expand basic services to migrants across the East and Horn of Africa,” Abdiker said at a virtual briefing in Nairobi.

He said border closures and suspension of air and land travel linked to the pandemic left migrants from the Horn of African region stranded along the perilous Eastern Route that they often used to cross over to the Gulf region.

According to updates from IOM, more than 3,000 migrants are currently stranded in the East and Horn of Africa region, while over 32,000 are stranded in Yemen amid risk of being caught up in the middle of armed conflict.

These migrants according to IOM are trying to get to Djibouti or pass through the country, while travelling from Ethiopia and Somalia to cross the Gulf of Aden to Yemen on their way to Saudi Arabia.

Abdiker said migrants along the less patrolled Eastern Route are at greater risk of exploitation by smugglers besides greater exposure to humanitarian disasters like disease outbreaks and hunger.

He said that migrants who opted to return to their native countries voluntarily have been grappling with financial hardship and inability to access quality basic services like health, shelter and education.

Abdiker said that countries in the Horn of African region should prioritize reintegration of migrants and psychosocial support to enable them cope with declining physical and mental health.

“We need to gradually include migrants under universal health coverage,” said Abdiker, adding that COVID-19 control measures in the region should be migrants’ friendly.

He said that a long-term solution to the challenge of forced migration in the Horn of African region hinges on economic empowerment of communities reeling from natural calamities and conflicts. Enditem

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