Image copyright Reuters Image caption Ertharin Cousin is the executive director of the UN World Food Programme
The UN is urging Canada to let refugees into its territory to help relieve food shortages and a cholera outbreak in Ethiopia.
Canada has blocked four Somali refugees from reaching it via sea to try to stop them speaking out about the government’s “zero tolerance” policy.
The UN’s refugee agency chief, Ertharin Cousin, described the reported policy as “unacceptable”.
But Canada says it does not “sponsor” people, and its embassy says no people are being sent home.
A former Somali refugee says Ottawa had told them it is paying the port where they arrive for them to move on
According to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), the four people – who are all or were at the time refugees in Canada – had sought asylum in Canada after arriving in Toronto last summer.
Ms Cousin said Canada’s federal immigration and citizenship minister, Ahmed Hussen, wanted the claimants to return to their country of origin but were now hiding in Nigeria to avoid being sent back to Ethiopia.
The CBC says they were speaking out because their visas had expired and they were losing hope.
Some Canadian rights campaigners have welcomed the UN’s call for action, saying the situation could worsen and so Canada’s response is needed now.
Eradicating famine, cholera
Relief agencies are campaigning to raise $1.2bn (£885m) in the current year for those displaced by the food crisis.
The UN says 27.4 million people are starving in the Horn of Africa and 16 million have been affected by the cholera outbreak.
“The Somali refugees are coming to this place in circumstances beyond their control and they want to help raise awareness about what is happening here,” Omar Amin, a member of Toronto’s Somali community, told the CBC.
“They want to raise awareness to put pressure on Ethiopia to save their lives because famine has hit their country.”
The refugees claim their UN protection has been compromised, the CBC reports.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says it is aware of the allegations against the Canadian government and is actively investigating them.
The United Nations Human Rights Council in June took up the Ethiopian refugee situation during a special session on the Horn of Africa region.
Canada’s ambassador to the UN and foreign affairs minister, Chrystia Freeland, says her government has never wanted to send anyone home and “it is not engaging in [illegal] refoulement”.
The United States has also said it would not send back any refugees to Ethiopia and called on all countries to join it in not sending anyone back.
There are 75 million people internally displaced worldwide, an increase of 18 million over five years, the UN has said.
Ms Cousin said the drought and high temperatures were a “double whammy” for people in Ethiopia and the number of refugees “is becoming a spillover from the drought”.