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Migration from the Horn of Africa to the Gulf has dropped dramatically since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UN migration agency said on Friday.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said 28,000 migrants crossed the world’s busiest maritime route in the first quarter of 2020, compared to 37,000 that made the same journey in January-March 2019.

According to the IOM, risks facing migrants such as stigmatization and ill-treatment have been on the increase. It called on governments to protect the rights of migrants as indications suggest the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been a key factor influencing migration patterns.

“All authorities have a responsibility to respect the rights of migrants even in times of emergencies such as COVID-19,” Mohammed Abdiker, IOM regional director for the East and Horn of Africa, said in a statement issued in Nairobi.

The IOM said some 138,000 people crossed the Gulf of Aden on boats on the so-called Eastern Corridor in 2019, with the vast majority being Ethiopian nationals bound for Saudi Arabia in search of employment.

The flow began to dry up as the pandemic spread, the IOM said, adding that security was heightened at borders and informal entry points, and crackdowns initiated against smugglers and traffickers.

“Arrivals decreased by a quarter between February and March 2020. By the end of the month barely any departures were reported from Djibouti and movements from Somalia had decreased by 25 percent,” the IOM said.

According to the UN migration agency, migrants along the route face serious risks to their protection and human rights, as thousands have found themselves stranded and a rising number face crowded conditions in transit and detention centers, as well as forced quarantine in circumstances not aligned with public health measures.

“As many countries tighten border controls in an effort to contain COVID-19, it is critical for authorities to implement infection control measures in full compliance with public health guidelines,” Abdiker said.

He said forced quarantine based on immigration status is not in line with global standards and puts the lives of both migrants and host communities at risk.

The UN agency said migrants are also being scapegoated by local media who are labeling them as carriers of diseases like COVID-19 and cholera.

The IOM “is concerned that migrants are being stigmatized and associated with the risk of importing diseases. Conditions along the route, including barriers to health services, poor living and working conditions and exploitation, pose serious health risks,” Abdiker said. Enditem

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