Monthly Archives: February 2020

The world’s refugee system is broken

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We are in an age of mass displacement. Yet the powerful and stable nations of the world have not figured out a humane way to handle the influx of people claiming persecution while balancing domestic concerns about security and cultural change. Instead, doors are simply closing, with asylum protections rolled back seemingly everywhere.

In Italy, where the former interior minister denounced “fake refugees,” boats of Africans have been blocked from docking. The European Union pays handsomely to keep asylum seekers away, while Turkey considers sending Syrian refugees back to their homeland, which is still at war. In the US, the indefinite detention of asylum-seeking children prompted the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to say she was appalled. Thousands of asylum seekers are sent from the U.S. to dangerous sections of Mexico and even to countries they’re not from.

The leaders who created international refugee policy never envisioned today’s refugees, with violent flash points rooted in all kinds of new phenomena—police corruption, climate change, gang warfare—that now dot the Earth, creating the conditions for the worst protracted migration crisis since World War II.

The problem is that the refugee system set forth in United Nations documents signed by most of the world’s countries does not apply to many refugees—at least not how it is currently enforced. The 1951 and 1967 agreements were drafted to specifically address European displacement from World War II while more broadly setting rules to protect people from persecution going forward: Anyone who is “unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”

To get refugee status and a pathway to permanent residency, asylum seekers generally must prove that they were personally targeted by documenting their persecution with paperwork—ostensibly from the very same authorities they are fleeing from. The irony, says David Slater, an American anthropology professor at Tokyo’s Sophia University who works with asylum seekers in Japan, is that those who appear to have the most straightforward cases of persecution “are the ones who are least likely to have documentation” to prove that it happened. “You don’t stop off at the local police station, especially when the police are part of the people who are persecuting you, to try to get a police report,” he said.

More to the point, those arriving are eyed suspiciously as mere economic migrants; poverty and hunger, though defining features of persecution, are not accepted reasons for being granted asylum.

“I would say that the system is broken,” Slater says. “The amount of conflict in the world and the number of people who are fleeing are so disproportionately larger now. For us to try to use a framework that was designed under a particular set of conditions and under a particular scale is no longer feasible.”

[The Atlantic]

Migrants head west after Turkey opens border

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Hundreds of migrants in Turkey started arriving on the borders with Greece and Bulgaria on Friday after a senior Turkish official said Ankara would no longer abide by a 2016 EU deal and stop refugees from reaching Europe.

Greece and Bulgaria, both European Union member states, said they were beefing up frontier controls to prevent the migrants crossing illegally. Bulgaria said it was sending 1,000 extra troops to its border with Turkey.

Turkey already hosts some 3.7 million Syrian refugees and says it cannot handle any more.


Underfunded and at war, Afghanistan scrambles to contain coronavirus

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This week, Afghanistan confirmed its first case of coronavirus; at least 10 further cases are suspected, all traced to neighboring Iran. Afghanistan finds itself moving from preparing for an outbreak to containing one at the same time.

“We will need more of everything,” said Dr. Mohammed Khan, one of the head physicians at the Afghan-Japan Communicable Disease Hospital on the outskirts of Kabul, which has been designated the main treatment facility for coronavirus patients in the capital.

Khan’s lengthy list includes protective medical gear, machines to diagnose the virus, more ventilation machines – and training to keep staff safe. The intensive care unit has a few beds, and the 60-bed clinic has just been boosted to accommodate 100 patients. The World Health Organization and others have been helping the country get ready for the coronavirus since January, but there’s a funding gap of at least $3.5 million, the WHO said.

One clear sign of the shortfalls: Khan’s hospital, Kabul’s main treatment center for coronavirus patients, cannot yet diagnose the disease. The country’s only three devices capable of diagnosing the coronavirus disease from test kits are located in a separate laboratory in Kabul. This is where samples from other provinces are being sent for diagnosis; each test takes between four to six hours.

It’s not an ideal scenario for a country separated by vast distances and often-inaccessible conflict areas. For now, the hallways at Khan’s hospital are empty. But there’s a nervous undertone when staff here speak of what may come. “Of course it’s scary,” said Ahmedi. “There’s been a lot of fear-mongering and the health system in our country is largely underfunded.”

Afghanistan’s health system is a casualty of its decades-long conflict, and local and international aid groups are often relied on to fill the gaps in care. The Global Health Security Index, an analysis of countries’ epidemic preparedness published last year, lists Afghanistan as one of the world’s least prepared countries.

[The New Humanitarian]

Idlib schools and hospital hit by airstrikes

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At least 21 civilians, including nine children and three teachers, were killed when 10 schools and a hospital were hit by “airstrikes and ground attacks” in Idlib province in northwestern Syria on Tuesday, said the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations said in a statement.

Save the Children and its partner Hurras Network confirmed some schools were in class, some had broken up for the day and some were being used as shelters. According to Hurras Network, this is the highest number of schools hit by attacks in Idlib in a single day since at least the start of 2019. Twenty-two schools have now been hit since the start of 2020 – almost half of them today.

Bill Chambers, President and CEO of Save the Children said: “Schools must be safe havens for children, even in a conflict zone. Today’s attacks are another sign that fighting in North West Syria has reached catastrophic levels of violence against children and civilians which go far beyond what is acceptable in conflict. Vast numbers of families have been forced from their homes many times in search of some semblance of safety and stability. And still they face daily and nightly terror as bombs rain down. Nowhere is safe, not even school.”

The United Nations launched a revised response plan for Northwest Syria with a funding requirement of US$336 million to help 800,000 newly displaced people over the next six months.

[CNN/Relief Web]

The window of opportunity to contain the international spread of coronavirus

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The World Health Organization has warned that the window of opportunity to contain the international spread of the new coronavirus epidemic that has killed more than 2,600 people was closing, as the virus has spread to some 26 countries with a large cluster in South Korea and recent outbreaks in Iran, Lebanon and Italy.

“If we do well, we can avert any serious crisis, but if we squander the opportunity then we will have a serious problem on our hands,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in Geneva.

The United States currently has 13 cases of people diagnosed with the virus within the country and 21 cases among Americans repatriated on evacuation flights from Wuhan, China, and from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan, CDC said. Of 329 Americans evacuated from the cruise ship, 18 tested positive for the virus.

The United States has yet to see community spread of the virus that emerged in central China in late December. Nevertheless, U.S. health officials said they are preparing for the possibility of the spread of the new coronavirus through U.S. communities that would force closures of schools and businesses.

Nancy Messonnier, an official with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told reporters if the virus begins to spread through U.S. communities, health authorities want to be ready to adopt school and business closures like those undertaken in Asian countries to contain the disease.

The CDC is taking steps to ensure frontline U.S. healthcare workers have supplies they need, she added, by working with businesses, hospitals, pharmacies and provisions manufacturers and distributors on what they can do to get ready.


Companies explore giving humanitarian assistance to Iran

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U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook said on Thursday the United States was in talks with at least two more companies that would like to send food and medicine to Iran through the Swiss humanitarian channel.

Hook told reporters there was a lot of interest in the Swiss network, intended to supply goods to struggling sectors of Iran’s population without tripping over U.S. sanctions.

Food, medicine and other humanitarian supplies are exempt from the sanctions that Washington reimposed on Tehran after President Donald Trump walked away from a 2015 international deal over Iran’s nuclear program. But the U.S. measures targeting everything from oil sales to shipping and financial activities have deterred several foreign banks from doing business with the Islamic Republic — including humanitarian deals.

The Swiss Humanitarian Trade Arrangement (SHTA) seeks to ensure that Swiss-based exporters and trading companies in the food, pharmaceutical and medical sectors have a secure payment channel with a Swiss bank, through which payments for their exports to Iran are guaranteed.


UN official calls Syrian refugee crisis “cruel beyond belief”

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The United Nations’ human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, on Tuesday called the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Syria “cruel beyond belief.”

Since December, 900,000 civilians have been forced to flee Syrian and Russian bombs in the northwest. Most are women and children.

This is a war that never ends. Nine years of terror, and in Idlib, where there are more than three million people crammed into Syria’s last major rebel stronghold, they still live powerlessly and impotently as their own government bombs them out of their homes.

The regime’s latest offensive, which is backed by its ally Russia, has forced hundreds of thousands of them to flee for their lives and left people homeless in the middle of a bitter winter.

“I’m begging for a place to shelter my kids,” Fared Alhor told CBS News. “The bombs didn’t kill them, and I don’t want them to die of the cold.”

The children of Idlib have grown up in a time of bloodshed and don’t know what it means to feel safe. One video apparently shows a father trying to protect his 3-year-old daughter from the reality of war. She thinks the bombs and mortars are part of a game.


Desert locust plague in Horn of Africa

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Locusts are the world’s oldest and most destructive migratory pest. 

And today, the locust infestation in Kenya is the worst in 70 years. Somalia and Ethiopia are experiencing their worst outbreaks in 25 years, putting crop production, food security and millions of lives at risk. Swarms crossed into Uganda overnight, and Tanzania and South Sudan are now “on the watch list”, the UN’s top humanitarian official reported. 

An average swarm, which contains up to 40 million insects, can travel up to 150 km in a single day and can devour enough food to feed 34 million people within that time. 

Somalia and Sudan faced a famine threat in 2017, and communities have also weathered poor rains, drought, and floods in the past two years. 

The current infestation is threatening food security in Kenya and other African countries, according to the country’s UN Ambassador, Lazarus O. Amayo. “It is also a challenge for pasture, especially our communities that keep livestock,” he added. 

“Without rapid action, we will be facing a rapidly-expanding humanitarian crisis. The Desert Locust swarms are growing exponentially”, FAO Director-General Qu Dongyu warned in a video message.   More on the subject

[UN News]

Freezing weather compounds crisis for displaced in Syria

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A military offensive on an opposition-controlled region of northwestern Syria has created one of the worst catastrophes for civilians in the country’s long-running war, and a bitter winter has compounded the pain.

The weather has contributed to at least 10 deaths, including four who suffered hypothermia, a family of four that died of suffocation in their tent and two who burned to death when their tent caught fire, according to Mohammed Hallaj, a coordinator for the area’s Response Coordination Group.

“The temperatures was no less than -8 or -9 degrees Celsius (15 degrees Fahrenheit) and this is rare in Syria,” a survivor said, speaking to The Associated Press from the Idlib town of Binnish.

The government’s Russian-backed assault on Idlib, the Syrian opposition’s last stronghold, has uprooted more than 830,000 people since Dec. 1, most of them fleeing toward safer areas near the border with Turkey, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said. “Humanitarian needs are increasing exponentially,” Dujarric said. “The ongoing emergency compounds the already dire humanitarian situation for people in the northwest, who have been made vulnerable by years of crisis, violence, economic downturn and, of course, multiple displacements,” Dujarric said.

Around half the territory’s population had already been displaced from other parts of Syria, so formal camps are full.

“It’s cold, it’s snowing and our life is terrible, we can’t take this cold and neither can the kids,” said a woman, who identified herself by her nickname Um Muhammad, who recently fled and was staying at a tent camp near the Turkish border.

[Associated Press]

Mexican migrants sent record $36B in remittances in 2019

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Migrant workers sent a record amount of remittances to their home countries in 2019. 

Mexico’s Central Bank reported that Mexican migrants working overseas sent home a record-high $36 billion in remittances in 2019, a 7 percent increase from 2018.

States with the largest population of Mexican-born immigrants rank highest in remittance transfers. The states with the highest transfers include California ($8.84 billion), Texas ($4.3 billion), Illinois ($1.4 billion), New York ($1.8 billion), Florida ($1.15 billion), and Georgia ($1.0 billion).

Comparatively, Mexico receives about $25 billion from foreign tourism, and $22.4 billion in annual petroleum exports.

Remittance flows could remain high with Mexico’s economy projected to remain sluggish. The International Monetary Fund predicts meager economic growth for Mexico at 1 percent in 2020.

Across the wider Latin America region, remittances grew by 4.7 percent in 2019, according to a study published by Manuel Orozco, director of the Migration, Remittances, and Development Program at the Inter-American Dialogue. Mass protests and civil unrest across Central and Latin America were a primary factor in the rise of remittances.

[Fox News]