US refugee policy also puts a damper on Christians

Laith Yakona wants only one thing for Christmas, the same thing he has prayed for the last four Christmases: To spend the holidays with his family.

War, bombings, kidnappings, death threats, and death squads failed to break up the Yakona family in their hometown of Baghdad before leaving for Jordan. Yet after a decade of their navigating the increasingly polarized war-torn Iraq and then a life in exile, one event has split the family in two: A new life in America.

“As soon as my parents left for America, our lives here have been on hold,” Mr. Yakona says from the sparse rented apartment he shares with his sister in Amman. “Our family is torn in two, and we have been given no reason why.”

Yakona is one of thousands of Christian refugees from the Middle East whose arrival on American soil has been put on hold indefinitely amid the Trump administration’s slowdown and downsizing of the US refugee program. With the policy to tighten the borders, the US intake of refugees has dropped dramatically. In fiscal year 2017, the US government accepted a quota of 110,000 refugees. Under President Trump, the ceiling was lowered to 45,000 for fiscal year 2018. But according to the State Department, the US only took in half that number, 22,500, in 2018.

The new Trump Administration policy has disproportionally impacted Christian refugees from Iraq, Syria, and Iran. The US intake of Christian refugees from across the Middle East was down 99 percent from 2017 to 2018, and for Iraqi Christians, down 98 percent, according to State Department statistics analyzed by World Relief, a Christian organization that advocates opening US borders to refugees.

“American churches, primarily evangelical churches, may not realize that there is a dramatic slowdown in refugee resettlement, and they definitely don’t realize that persecuted Christians have been so dramatically shut out,” says Mathew Soerens, US director of church mobilization at World Relief.

[Christian Science Monitor]

US funding cut for Palestinian refugees

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, needs to find about $350 million a year if the United States pulls all its funding, as threatened.

The European Union said its members, which collectively represent the largest donor to UNRWA, will consult on how to fill the gap.

With social services at risk for 5.4 million Palestinian refugees living in the occupied territories and the wider Middle East, including schooling for half a million children, here’s a look at the numbers and what they mean.

The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA, was formed in 1949 to help Palestinians who fled at the time of the creation of the state of Israel. The United States has been a major donor for 70 years and US funding to the agency averaged $348 million for the five years 2013-2017. But earlier this year President Donald Trump’s administration paid only $60 million, a fraction of the expected US contribution, and on Friday it ordered a complete halt to any further funding.

The US State Department said it was tired of shouldering a “very disproportionate” share of the agency’s spending. However, the US contribution from 2013-2017 represented an average of 28 percent, the same percentage used as the country’s fair share of UN peacekeeping costs.

In an open letter issued today, the head of UNRWA, Pierre Krähenbühl, says there are 5.4 million refugees who have “undeniable” rights that “cannot be wished away”. UNRWA can’t be blamed for perpetuating the refugee issue, he says, arguing that it’s the whole world that has failed to resolve the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

[IRIN]

Child mortality continues to fall

With the decline in extreme poverty. There’s been an overall improvement in global health. One such example: kids born in 2017 are much less likely to die in their first five years of life than kids born in 1990 were.

The global under-five mortality rate fell from 93 per 1,000 to 39 to 1,000, meaning it fell by over 58 percent!

We don’t have data for 2018 yet, but given the change just between 2015 and 2017, it’s likely there was a further decline.

In 2015, the under-five mortality rate fell from 42 to 39 worldwide, meaning overall deaths fell from 5.8 million to 5.4 million.

[Vox]

Extreme poverty fell again in 2018

The extraordinary rate of economic growth in India and China — as well as slower but still significant growth in other developing countries — has led to a huge decline in the share of the world population living on less than $1.90 a day, from 35.9 percent in 1990 to only 10 percent in 2015.

And the trend continues! The World Bank’s poverty statistics depend on household surveys in 164 different countries, that are carried out over different time periods, in different ways, and so forth, so it takes time for the group to produce point estimates for poverty in a given year. But it estimates that the 2018 rate will be about 8.6 percent, a notable decline from 2015.

7-year-old migrant girl dies in US Border Patrol custody

The headline alone made my heart sink. “7-year-old migrant girl taken into Border Patrol custody dies of dehydration, exhaustion.” I felt a wave of deep sadness, but no surprise.

The girl was reportedly taken into United States Border Patrol custody last week along with her father. More than eight hours later, she began having seizures. Emergency responders measured her temperature at 105.7 degrees, and according to the Border Patrol, she had not had anything to eat or drink for several days.

Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch reported how the US Border Patrol is harming children and families by detaining them in inhumane jail-like conditions. Migrant families commonly call the border jails hieleras, or freezers, for their frigid temperatures. These sometimes lack sufficient beds for families, leaving children to sleep on cold concrete floors.

None of this is new. In my five years at Human Rights Watch, I’ve spoken with countless migrants, including families, about their experiences in these abusive detention centers. One asylum-seeking mother detained with her 18-month old told me this summer that she was worried her daughter was dehydrated. “I’m having a hard time making enough milk, because I’m not getting enough food,” she said. “And I don’t want to ask for a doctor because I’m afraid it will hurt my case.”

Another mom from Guatemala I interviewed after she was released from Border Patrol custody in Arizona in 2014 had been detained with her 10-year-old US citizen son. She was bringing him to the US to seek medical care. Her son has a disability that makes it impossible for him to walk, talk, or chew and requires that he eat liquefied food. During their three days in CBP detention, Border Patrol provided no food that her son could eat. “He fainted twice,” the woman said. “I was very worried. I said I needed help and Border Patrol said I couldn’t get help.”

This brave mother put her finger on exactly the problem with US Border Patrol jails. They are built to punish – not to help – and that includes children like the 7-year-old who died last week. Authorities should urgently investigate her case, but more broadly, the US government should be asking itself why children are in these cells in the first place.

[Clara Long, Human Rights Watch]

U.S. Senate votes to end US military support in Yemen

The U.S. Senate has passed a resolution calling for an end to US military support to the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemen war. The measure marked the first time the Senate had invoked the 1973 War Powers Resolution to seek to curb the power of the president to take the US into an armed conflict. It marked a significant bipartisan rebuke to the Trump administration, which lobbied intensively against it.

The independent senator Bernie Sanders who had pushed the resolution persistently throughout the year, called it “a historic moment”.

He said: “Today we declare we will not long participate in the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen which has caused the worst humanitarian crisis on earth,with 85,000 children starving to death. Today we tell the despotic regime in Saudi Arabia that we will no longer be part of their military adventurism.”

“For decades, under Republican presidents and Democratic presidents, [with both] Republican Congresses and Democratic Congresses, the Congress of the United States has abdicated its constitutional responsibility for war-making,“ Sanders said.

“It is not the president who has the responsibility under the Constitution to send our young men and women to war, it is the Congress. And we have got to take it back,” added Sanders while discussing the effort in the Senate to bring U.S. involvement in the Saudi war in Yemen to an end.

Moments after the Senate vote to end American military assistance for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen,  senators also unanimously approved a separate resolution to hold Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia personally responsible for the death of the journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.

[The Guardian]

The countries most at risk of humanitarian disaster in 2019

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) has identified Yemen, Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan,Afghanistan and Venezuela as the countries most at risk for major humanitarian crises going into 2019.

David Miliband, president and CEO of the IRC, said these countries are the “best evidence of the world’s fragility.”

The next five countries on the most at-risk list are Central African Republic, Syria, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Somalia.

Miliband told Axios that one of the things that keeps him up at night is that the “traditional sources of compassion and humanitarian assistance in the West are turning their back on these people.”

According to Miliband, the political climate in the U.S. with respect to refugees “has gone from relatively benign, to quite toxic.”

[Axios]

Refugee teens in Austrian schools straddle different worlds

Lilas Almalaki didn’t know a word of German when she enrolled in an Austrian middle school two months after fleeing her war-torn homeland in 2015, so she relied on the proficient English she learned as a top student in Syria to keep the bullies in place.

Hassan Husseini didn’t speak German either and had never spent a day in a classroom when he arrived as an Afghan refugee the same year. He had a tougher time when picked on.

Despite their differences, the two teens share the same challenge. Like the nearly 10,000 other school-age children who arrived in Austria during Europe’s largest modern influx of refugees, school is where they must learn to bridge different worlds: one that has shaped their families and identities, and the other where they hope to prosper in peace.

Immigration and the integration of 2.5 million people who the European Union says sought asylum in 2015 and 2016 are issues across Europe. On the front lines are the schools, where teachers, administrators, psychologists and parents are clashing over the future of the next generation.

“The children are living in two worlds,” says Andrea Walach, the principal at Hassan’s middle school in Vienna, where only seven of more than 200 students speak German at home. “One world is school … but when they are at home, all of this is forgotten.”

51 percent of the quarter-million students in Vienna’s schools speak languages other than German in their daily life, according a 2018 report.

That number goes up to more than 70 percent in vocational middle schools like Hassan’s, pathways to apprenticeships in trades that must accept anyone who applies.

[Associated Press]

South Sudan’s man-made crisis

Since gaining its independence from Sudan in 2011, South Sudan has struggled to fulfill the promise of a new nation, eventually descending into civil war in late 2013. The country continues to bear the devastating human and financial costs of a complex conflict with ever-changing armed and political actors.

South Sudan has received significant humanitarian aid from the United States and the international community for decades. Since 2011, total humanitarian funding surpassed $9.5 billion. Aid organizations face an array of humanitarian access constraints while working to address the acute needs of 7 million people, roughly half of the country.

Since 2013, more than 4 million South Sudanese, or approximately 1 in 3 of its citizens, 85 percent of whom are women and children, have been forced from home. Of the 7 million people currently in need of humanitarian aid, 5.3 million are food insecure. A recent study showed that the conflict has led to almost 400,000 deaths since late 2013.

Although there is cause for cautious optimism after a peace agreement was signed in September 2018, these humanitarian needs will only grow in the absence of sustainable peace and a political solution to the man-made crisis in South Sudan.

[Center for Strategic and International Studies]

Rescue ship forced to terminate operations in Mediterranean

European policies and obstruction tactics have forced the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and its partner SOS Méditerranée to terminate the lifesaving operations carried out by the search and rescue vessel Aquarius, the last dedicated rescue boat operating in the Central Mediterranean.

“This is a dark day,” said Nelke Manders, MSF’s general director. “Not only has Europe failed to provide search and rescue capacity, it has also actively sabotaged others’ attempts to save lives. The end of Aquarius means more deaths at sea, and more needless deaths that will go unwitnessed.”

Over the past two months, with people continuing to flee by sea along the world’s deadliest migration route, the Aquarius has remained in port in Marseille, unable to carry out its humanitarian work. This is the result of a sustained campaign, spearheaded by the Italian government and backed by other European states, to delegitimize, slander, and obstruct aid organizations providing assistance to vulnerable people. Coupled with the European Union’s (EU) ill-conceived external policies on migration, this campaign has undermined international law and humanitarian principles. With no immediate solution to these attacks, MSF and SOS Méditerranée have no choice but to end the Aquarius’ operations.

The forced end to the Aquarius’ operations happens at a critical time: an estimated 2,133 people have died in the Mediterranean in 2018, with departures from Libya accounting for the overwhelming majority of deaths.

“Today, Europe is directly supporting forced returns while claiming successes on migration,” said Karline Kleijer, MSF’s head of emergencies. “Let’s be clear about what that success means: a lack of lifesaving assistance at sea; children, women, and men pushed back to arbitrary detention with virtually no hope of escape. … As long as people are drowning and trapped in Libya, MSF remains committed to finding ways to provide them with medical and humanitarian care.”

Since the start of its search and rescue program in February 2016, the Aquarius has assisted nearly 30,000 people in international waters between Libya, Italy, and Malta.

[MSF]