Humanitarian work severely hampered in eastern Ukraine

The administrations of the separatist enclaves in eastern Ukraine have long regarded international organizations with suspicion, accusing some of them of spying for the West.

At the end of last week UN agencies and several NGOs were ordered out of Luhansk.The organizations were not named, but Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) closed their offices, saying it was “extremely concerned” by developments. MSF continues to work in Donetsk, which has a separate government to the one at Luhansk.

The UN stated that its operations in Donetsk have also been suspended. Stephen O’Brien the head of its humanitarian mission in Ukraine, described the actions as a “blatant violation of international humanitarian law”. Stopping supplies, he stressed, meant that “hospitals cannot perform surgery because they lack anesthesia and 150,000 people are not receiving monthly food distributions. All this is having a serious impact on three million people as winter approaches.”

Relationship between the separatists and NGOs soured as the rebellion against the Kiev government gathered momentum in the east. Adding to the tension was the fact that many of the local staff working for these organizations were young, westernized and opposed to secession from Ukraine. To add to the chagrin of the rebels, some of them were also active in political and human rights fields; agents of Kiev according to their opponents.

After being seriously roughed up, the former official for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a humanitarian NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) operating in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine decided that he was not going to wait for the knock on the door by the men in camouflage. He moved to another city.

[The Independent]

Putin speaking at the UN on Syrian refugee problem

When Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed the General Assembly on Monday, he spoke about a “great and tragic migration of peoples” that requires members of the U.N. to unite to stabilize Syria.

The way to do that, he said, is to “cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces who are valiantly fighting terrorism face-to-face.” To do otherwise would be a “mistake,” he said.

“We should finally acknowledge that no one but President Assad’s armed forces and Kurdish militia are truly fighting the ‘Islamic State’ and other terrorist organizations in Syria,” Putin said.


Austrian volunteers flock to better conditions for refugees

Built to house 1,800, the federally outsourced Traiskirchen facility, 20 kilometers south of Vienna, is now a temporary home to 4,500 refugees.

Until several weeks ago, more than 1,000 people were sleeping on the open lawn, bracing through rain storms and heat-waves alike without any shelter, a situation criticized even by Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner, who was largely seen as responsible for the inadequate response.

The United Nations and Amnesty International went a step further and describe conditions as “inhumane” and “degrading.”

Images of people sleeping in the open shocked Austrians, said Dunja Gharwal, one of many volunteers independently helping refugees in Traiskirchen. “Austria is a very rich country. We really sit here in abundance, and this is not necessary,” she said, calling it her country’s duty to welcome refugees.

On a recent afternoon, locals parked outside the gates of the former school and unloaded jackets and sneakers in all sizes, as well as thick coats, hats and gloves for the approaching winter to clothe those staying at the refugee camp.

Close to 7,000 volunteers have signed up with Caritas to help in recent months. “Those aren’t just people who’ve filled in on a weekend,” spokesperson Margit Draxl said. “It’s been going on for months, and without them, this help wouldn’t be possible.”

Some bosses allowed volunteers to take paid leave if they wanted to help at camps. Big conglomerates are initiating vocational training programs for young refugees. Austrian singers and bands are organizing a free concert called “Voices of Refugees” in Vienna to collect donations for asylum seekers. Austrian state broadcaster ORF recently set up a website aimed at linking Austrians with vacant apartments or houses with refugees and the organizations that assist them.

“There’s an almost unbelievable readiness to help,” Draxl said.


Good Samaritans in Lebanon hosting more Syrian refugees than the entire US

There is a small village in the mountains of Lebanon that is hosting more Syrian refugees than all 50 U.S. states combined. Ketermaya is a quiet little place surrounded by patches of farmland. It isn’t a particularly wealthy town, but the residents here have taken in thousands of refugees fleeing the war in Syria.

“We have a history of welcoming refugees,” says Ali Tafesh, a local business owner. “In 2006 we did the same,” he adds, referring to the displacement of people caused by Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon that year.

Tafesh has done more than most. When Syrian families started to arrive in the town in the early days of the civil war, he arranged housing for them. When there were no more places left to stay he offered up his own land. “We built the first tent for two families. Then more people came and we built a second, and then it just kept growing,” he says.

Tafesh hosts 330 Syrians on his one-acre plot–a stony patch of land on the side of a hill, with olive trees scattered in between makeshift tents. At his own expense, he built a toilet and installed running water into the camp. He doesn’t charge the residents of this camp, but people like him are in the minority. Most refugees pay rent to landowners, even when their accommodation is little more than a wooden shack.

The U.S. has resettled 1,500 Syrian refugees since war broke out in 2011 (the small village of Ketermaya hit this number in July 2014), and aims for that number to reach 5,000 by the end of the year. President Barack Obama announced recently that he had ordered his administration to prepare for double that number in 2016. Aid agencies have said this is not enough: Oxfam America had been calling for the U.S. to resettle 70,000 Syrian refugees.

There are currently more than one million registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon (the actual number of refugees is thought to be much higher). If you include the estimated number of unregistered refugees, Syrians now account for more than a quarter of the country’s population.

There are no official refugee camps in Lebanon. Instead, refugees are scattered across the country and make their home on whatever land they can find.

[Global Post]

The psychological toll of the Syrian refugee crisis

The nearly 12 million Syrians — half of them children — who have fled their homes to protect themselves and their families have seen unspeakable violence, both during the war in Syria and during their escapes.

These experiences are understandably traumatic, but their long-term effect may be even greater than we realized. A new study has found that half of the Syrian refugees who have fled to Germany are experiencing psychological distress and mental illness resulting from trauma, Germany’s chamber of psychotherapists announced this week.

The researchers evaluated refugees seeking asylum in Germany, and found that more than 70 percent had witnessed violence and that about 50 percent were victims of violence themselves.

The findings also revealed that 40 percent of adult refugees experienced nightmares, and 50 percent had vivid flashbacks reliving a traumatic event.

Forty percent of the children who were evaluated had witnessed violence, and 26 percent had watched their families being attacked, the new research found. 1 in 5 suffers from a psychological disorder as a result of trauma.

Dietrich Munz, president of the German chamber of psychotherapists, estimatedthat while 3,000 to 4,000 psychotherapy sessions are offered in German refugee camps each year, the demand may be 20 times higher.

[Huffington Post]

Ethnic make-up of refugees and migrants arriving in Europe

Syrians account for 50% of the refugees arriving in Europe after crossing the Mediterranean, but several other nationalities are turning up in large numbers. According to UN figures, 75% of the total refugees hail from countries in the midst of armed conflict or humanitarian crises. So apart from Syria, where are they coming from, why did they leave, and how are they reaching Europe?

Afghans – 13% – According to the Afghan government, 80% of the country is not safe, as extremist groups such as the Taliban and Islamic State’s local affiliate are waging insurgencies in many provinces. Most are walking over the border into Iran, a trek that takes up to two days. Then they drive to Iran’s border with Turkey, where they cross again on foot, in another laborious hike. Once in Turkey, Afghans take a day’s bus journey to the same Aegean ports many Syrians are using to reach Greece.

Eritreans – 8% – Eritrea is Africa’s version of North Korea, a country with no constitution, court system, elections or free press. Outside of the metropolitan elite, most Eritreans must submit to a form of forced labor – lifelong military conscripts who have no choice about where they live or work. Any dissenters are sent to prison without any judicial recourse. Most walk over the border into Ethiopia or Sudan, a dangerous first step that sees some shot by border guards, begin a brutal journey through the Sahara to Libya, [where] they are held in smugglers’ compounds and usually tortured until their families send the $2,000 required for payment before the refugees are permitted to board a ramshackle boat to Italy from one of the country’s western ports.

Nigerians – 4% – Boko Haram, the Islamist extremist group, continues to fight an insurgency in northern Nigeria, killing and kidnapping locals and forcing many to flee. Other Nigerians are escaping from poverty. Most head over the northern border to Niger and join the smuggling trail to Libya, experiencing similar horrors to Eritreans crossing the desert from Sudan.

Somalians – 3% – Islamist insurgents, including al-Shabaab, are fighting an insurgency, with civilians caught in the middle. One popular route is through Kenya, Uganda and south Sudan. Then people head north to Sudan, where most follow the same route and adversities as the Eritreans. But a smattering of refugees now follow the Balkan route – into Kenya, fly to Iran, then cross the Iranian-Turkish border, before heading by boat to Greek islands.

Pakistanis – 3% – More than 1.2 million Pakistanis have been displaced by insurgencies in north-west Pakistan.  Like Afghans, Pakistanis walk into Iran, then take a bus to the border with Turkey, where they cross again on foot. They then pick up the Balkan route that begins on the Turkish coast.

Iraqis – 3% – Vast swaths of Iraq, including its second city, Mosul, have recently been conquered by Isis, worsening a nightmare that began with the west’s invasion of the country in 2003. Iraq borders Turkey, so most reach Turkey by land and then take boats to Greek islands.

Sudanese – 2% – Civil wars in the country’s Darfur and Kordofan regions continue to displace civilians. Darfur is still unsafe – a Human Rights Watch report recently alleged that the Sudanese government had carried out many killings and mass-rapes of civilians in dozens of towns. Sudanese refugees are smuggled to Libya, and then across the Mediterranean to Italy. Like Eritreans and Somalians, many die of thirst in the desert and fall victim to extortion and torture by smugglers in Libya.

[The Guardian – Statistical source: the UN refugee agency]


The White House’s slow approach to the Syrian refugee exodus

The throngs of desperate migrants fleeing Syria and the images of children washing up on European shores have spurred the Obama administration into action, officials said.

The Obama administration is preparing to announce a plan to admit more refugees — from 70,000 this year to 85,000 next year and 100,000 in fiscal 2017 — but at this point the numbers being proposed are too small to relieve the crisis streaming out of Syria.

The problem with the plan, no matter how quickly adopted, is how long it will take to have any effect. Migrants applying for refugee asylum in the United States now will not have their applications considered until at least 2017 because of a long backlog. And once an application begins to be considered, the asylum seekers can face a further 18 to 24 months before they are granted or denied asylum.

Human rights experts said that the United Nations has already referred over 16,000 Syrian refugees to the U.S. for vetting, and the 10,000 increase would come almost exclusively from the backlog of Syrians who have already applied, not the people who are fleeing now.

The U.S. has accepted only 1,500 Syrian refugees since the war began.


Half of all Syrians forced from their homes by war

Imagine every man, woman and child leaving home in 29 states, mostly in the U.S. West and Midwest of the United States.

That’s everyone west of Ohio and Kentucky and north of Texas, all the way to California.

The 158 million people in those states make up the same share of the U.S. population — 49% — as the proportion of Syrians that have fled carnage there.

The war in Syria is so hellish and unrelenting that more people have left that country than any other in recent years.

One of every five displaced persons in the world is Syrian.


Most displaced in history

Worldwide, 59.5 million people are on the move as refugees or displaced people within their home countries.

That population would be enough to make them citizens of the world’s 24th biggest country!

Humanity has never seen such displacement. Ever.

“Wars, conflict and persecution have forced more people than at any other time since records began to flee their homes and seek refuge and safety elsewhere,” the United Nations said in June.

At least 15 wars and conflicts are to blame — in Africa, the Mideast and Asia.


Syrian refugees: Which countries welcome them, which ones don’t

The expanding Syrian refugee crisis — the worst refugee crisis since the Rwandan genocide more than 20 years ago — highlights the differences among countries that welcome desperate migrants and those that don’t. Here’s a country-by-country look:

Germany: As Germany faces the largest share of Syrian requests for asylum in Europe, Chancellor Angela Merkel called for quotas to be set for each country to take a share of displaced people, including from Syria. There could be 800,000 applications for asylum in Germany this year, and the country could take 500,000 refugees annually for several years, Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel has said.

Sweden: Sweden joins Germany in demonstrating a high standard of responsibility in the refugee crisis, and Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven joined Merkel at a press conference this week in urging a Europe-wide solution for hosting refugees. In the 1990s, Sweden accepted 84,000 refugees from the Balkans.

France: French President François Hollande has said France is ready to take on more responsibility and host 24,000 refugees over the next two years.

United Kingdom: The United Kingdom will likely see an upswing in asylum requests now that it has said it will take up to 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years. But Britain will focus on resettling vulnerable refugees from camps in countries bordering Syria, not those who have already entered Europe.The refugees will receive a five-year humanitarian protection visa. Britain has been the second largest provider of humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees within the Middle East region.

Denmark: Denmark has received a relatively large number of Syrian asylum requests but has sought to discourage the arrival of more migrants. The country earlier had paid for ads in Arabic in four Lebanese newspapers to get the word out about its new, tightened restrictions — such as reducing social benefits — to try to prevent refugees from getting into the Scandinavian nation.

Hungary: Many Syrian refugees are reluctant to register an asylum application in Hungary. Having traveled north through the Balkans, those arriving on the country’s border with Serbia have had police greet them, and they’ve been forced to wait, sometimes for days, in holding areas and transit camps, where conditions are said to be poor. Hungary’s right-wing government, which has been trying to stop the flood of migrants, has erected a barbed wire fence along its more than 160-kilometer (100-mile) border with Serbia to prevent them from crossing there.

United States: Only about 1,500 Syrian refugees have been admitted to the United States since the start of the conflict in 2011, the vast majority of them this fiscal year. In the face of growing questions about such small numbers, President Barack Obama ordered his administration to “scale up” the number of Syrian refugees — at least 10,000 in the next fiscal year, a White House spokesman said Thursday.

Canada: More than 2,370 Syrian refugees have resettled in Canada since January 2014, and the government promised in January to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees over a three-year period.

Australia: Prime Minister Tony Abbott said his country would take in an extra 12,000 migrants fleeing conflict in the Middle East. Priority would go to persecuted minorities — especially women, children and families — who are in camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, Abbott said.

Saudi Arabia: 0
Kuwait: 0
Qatar: 0
Bahrain: 0
United Arab Emirates: 250,000


Countries which have taken in the most Syrian refugees

Some 4.1 million Syrians are fleeing a homeland riven by more than four years of civil war. Some Mid East countries have taken in so many migrants it’s caused a population spike, while others have done little or nothing at all.

Turkey: 1.9 million – Remarkably, Turkey now shelters almost half of the Syrian refugees and clearly has more than it can handle. Geography explains much of it: Turkey and Syria share a border. The masses are so vast that 14% of them are sheltered in camps, U.S. figures show.

Lebanon: 1.1 million – The influx is so profound in Lebanon that the 1.1 million Syrian refugees mark a 25% increase in the country’s 4.4 million population. Those figures make Lebanon the country with the highest per capita concentration of refugees, the United Nations says. It also shares a border with Syria.

Jordan: 629,000 – Jordan provides shelter to a large number of refugees from Syria, Iraq, Somalia and Sudan, but Syrians constitute the majority of Jordan’s refugee population. About 20% of the Syrian arrivals live in camps. The Syrian arrivals, however, strain resources and “could have a negative impact on Jordanian public opinion of refugees and make preserving the country’s asylum space in the country challenging,” the United Nations says.

Iraq: 249,000 – The notion of Syrian refugees in Iraq may strike some as ironic, if not absurd, because Iraq has deteriorated under sectarian strife and ISIS assaults, producing a sizable population of Iraqi refugees. Most of the Syrian refugees have settled in northern areas such as Irbil, Duhuk and Nineveh, which are among the closest to the Syrian border and have large Kurdish populations. About 38% of the Syrian refugees live in camps in Iraq, the U.S. State Department says.

Egypt: 132,000 – Egypt rounds out this look at how the Mideast hosts most of the Syrian refugees. No refugees live in camps there. In fact, Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris, one of the region’s wealthiest men, has offered to buy an island for refugees. He would like to buy an isle from Greece or Italy. His name for the proposed island home: Hope.


Sweden to accept 80,000 refugees

Sweden expects to receive 80,000 refugees this year and has more asylum seekers per capita than any other European nation thanks to a generous immigration policy allowing automatic permanent residency for Syrians.

Sweden’s Migration Agency said more that 13,700 had arrived in the country in the past five weeks. Sweden stands out in the Nordics as an exception.

Denmark has recently tightened immigration and citizenship rules, including cutting benefits for refugees by up to half in a bid to discourage them from staying here. Denmark’s tough refugee policy mirrors similar trends in Finland and Norway where right-wing anti-I refugee parties are on the ascendant and part of coalition governments.

Refugees have been streaming in by two routes from Germany — crossing by train overland into Jutland, the western part of Denmark that is connected to continental Europe, or by ferries carrying trains that arrive in Lolland, an island linked by bridges to Zealand, where Copenhagen is located.

One group of Danish volunteers said they had been giving lifts to refugees for 48 hours straight, leaving them at Copenhagen’s central station rather than in Malmo (Sweden), to avoid charges of human trafficking.

The refugees are part of a wave of refugees sweeping north through Europe, many escaping the war in Syria.


Germany bracing for 800,000 refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq

Thousands of Syrian migrants are being welcomed with cheers, candy and open arms as they finally reached the lands of their new beginnings: Austria and Germany.

Islamic State militants have seized control of one-third of Syria and are driving the civil war responsible for more than 250,000 deaths and more than 1 million people wounded.

Many of the migrants cry tears of joy at their westward journey’s end, becoming the first wave in a flood of 800,000 asylum seekers expected in Germany by the end of the year. Those arriving in Munich were greeted by local residents with applause, sweets and stuffed animals for the kids.

Thousands more were following in their footsteps. Trains with refugees are arriving in Salzburg, Austria, at least once an hour.

While the migrants were being welcomed into Germany, others were photographed collapsing to the ground and begging for food in port cities in Greece.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said her nation would continue with its open-arms approach in the crisis. “As a strong, economically healthy country we have the strength to do what is necessary (to place) no limits on the number of asylum seekers,” she said.

Her finance minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, said the German government was creating a supplementary budget for the rest of 2015 to cover the expenses of the new arrivals.

The offer of assistance from Germany and Austria was hailed by the global human rights group Amnesty International. “After endless examples of shameful treatment by governments of refugees and migrants in Europe, it is a relief to finally see a sliver of humanity,” said the group’s deputy director for Europe, Gauri van Gulik. “The pragmatic and human approach applied here should become the rule, not the exception.”

[News Wire Services]

That little Syrian boy: Here’s who he was

The numbers associated with today’s migration crisis are huge: 4 million Syrians fleeing their country; 3 million Iraqis displaced. But it was the image of a solitary child — a toddler in a red T-shirt, blue shorts and Velcro sneakers, found face-down on a Turkish beach — that shocked and haunted the world this week.

The drowned boy was 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, from Syria, part of a group of 23 trying to reach the Greek island of Kos. They’d set out in two boats on the 13-mile Aegean journey, but the vessels capsized.

Aylan Kurdi’s 5-year-old brother Galip also drowned, as did the boys’ mother, Rehan. Their father, Abdullah, survived. In all, five children from that journey are reported dead.

Aylan Kurdi’s family, Syrian Kurds, had fled Kobani, a city along the border with Turkey that has been contested between ISIS and Kurdish fighters and undergone hundreds of airstrikes. They’d applied for legal migration as refugees to Canada, where Abdullah Kurdi’s sister, Teema, lives and works as a hairdresser. But their application had been denied, says Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. “Their only option was to put their lives in the hands of the smuggler,” Bouckaert says.

Bouckaert acknowledges that “It’s a very disturbing photo, but I think we should be offended that children are washing up dead on our beaches because of the failure of our politicians to provide safe passage… rather than by the photo itself.”

In Britain, where just 216 Syrian refugees have been accepted so far, reaction to the photo put Prime Minister David Cameron on the defensive. “We will do more,” he said Thursday.

The message of Aylan Kurdi’s photo seems clear enough: The world needs to do better in addressing migrants’ needs, safety and dignity.

“We really need a wakeup call that children are dying, washing up dead on the beaches of Europe, because of our collective failure to provide them safe passage,” Bouckaert says. “People fleeing Syria are legitimate refugees and they should be welcomed in Europe and the rest of the world.”


Citizens of Germany and Iceland show the way

While Europe’s politicians flounder in the face of an unprecedented wave of refugees and migrants seeking shelter — many of them from war-torn Syria — some individuals have decided to take matters into their own hands.

In Iceland, author and professor Bryndis Bjorgvinsdottir has set up a Facebook page to call for her country’s government to increase the number of refugees it was planning to accept from a reported 50 — prompting a big response and wide media interest. Bjorgvinsdottir’s inspiration came from a friend who posted a status update on Facebook — addressed to Iceland’s Minister of Welfare Eyglo Hardar — saying he wanted to take five Syrian refugees into his own home, she said.

And in Germany, a website has been running for months which aims to match offers of accommodation in private homes — ideally shared rental apartments — across the country with individual refugees in need of a place to stay. The website, Refugees Welcome (Fluechtlinge Wilkommen,) has already placed dozens of refugees who otherwise might be placed in overcrowded migrant centers or struggle to put a roof over their heads at all.

Bjorgvinsdottir’s page already has 12,000 members, said — no mean feat given the country’s population is only about 300,000. Proportionately, that equates to some 12 million people signing up in the United States.

Such direct action couldn’t be more needed. Migrants are pouring over Europe’s borders in record numbers this year, many of them fleeing conflict in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. In July alone, a record 107,500 were detected at EU borders.

Inspired by the Icelandic example, a U.S. group has also been set up on Facebook, called “Americans Supporting Syrian Refugees: Open Homes, Open Hearts.”

[Read full CNN article]  

2,600 refugees have died crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Europe

The United Nations refugee agency announced that more than 300,000 refugees and migrants have crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.

That number does not include the 2,600 who have died on the journey.

This photo published on the cover of The Independent (UK) shows a small boy lying face down in the sand on a Turkish beach as an official stands over him. The child, who is thought to be Syrian, has drowned in an apparent attempt to flee the war ravaging his country.

Such extraordinary images serve as a stark reminder that, as European leaders increasingly try to prevent refugees and migrants from settling in the continent, more and more refugees are dying in their desperation to flee persecution and reach safety.

The Independent took the decision to publish these images because, among the often glib words about the “ongoing migrant crisis”, it is all too easy to forget the reality of the desperate situation facing many refugees.

[PBS/The Independent]

Greece and Italy swamped with refugee migrants

A Syrian woman cries while holding her children moments after arriving on a dinghy on the Greek island of Lesbos

During July, a record 50,000 refugee migrants have landed in Greece by boat from Turkey, Reuters reported. Arrivals have exceeded 160,000 this year, exposing massive shortages in the country already mired in the worst economic crisis in generations.

Elsewhere, Italy’s Coast Guard says it coordinated the rescue of 4,400 migrants from overcrowded boats in the Mediterranean Sea on Saturday — the most in a single day — officials reported.

So far in 2015, about 110,000 migrants have been rescued off of Libya and brought to southern Italian ports.


International aid needed for refugees in Europe

Angry scenes erupted outside Budapest’s main train station Tuesday morning, as crowds of angry migrants and refugees were prevented from boarding trains they hoped would take them on from Hungary to Austria and Germany, toward Western Europe.

It’s the latest crisis point to emerge as a wave of migrants — many refugees fleeing conflict in Syria or Iraq — seek to make their way by land to Western European nations where they hope to claim asylum.

Other flashpoints have emerged. Thousands were stranded last month in a no-man’s land between northern Greece and Macedonia, where Macedonian security forces used tear gas and stun grenades as some desperate people tried to rush the razor wire border fence.

In other places — including parts of Germany and Greece — there’s been a warmer welcome, with volunteers handing out food and water.

Germany’s government said last month that it expected up to 800,000 asylum seekers to come this year — four times more than in 2014.