Prior to Sri Lanka’s January 2015 election, it was impossible to turn on the television, look at a newspaper or walk down the street without being bombarded with images of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his two brothers, Basil and Gothabaya, who between them dominated many of the key Cabinet positions. But the face of Sri Lanka has changed.
About two years ago I secretly met with a dozen stateless Rohingya refugees in a hotel room in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. They were new arrivals from Rakhine State in Myanmar and had waded through shallow areas of the Naf River on the Bay of Bengal to escape violence and persecution. We met clandestinely because they were afraid that if they were identified as Rohingya, they would be arrested, detained, and sent back to Myanmar. Newspapers worldwide were reporting the expulsion of large numbers of Rohingya, and the refugees knew of others who had been spotted and deported.
“Afghanistan is not hopeless.”
So said Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AK) in a recent speech at the US Institute of Peace. Cotton, elected to the Senate last year after one term in the House of Representatives, is a former U.S. Army officer. He served in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division and in 2008-9 with a U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan. Now a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Cotton is working to convince the president and his colleagues of the importance of continued U.S. and international engagement in support of the security, development, and humanitarian needs of the Afghan people.
In December 2013 South Sudan's capital city, Juba, exploded in violence. Fighting between troops loyal to the ousted vice president Riek Machar and those loyal to President Salva Kiir was followed by a wave of ethnic violence. As panic set in, thousands of people sought refuge in bases belonging to the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). Today, there are more than 100,000 displaced South Sudanese sheltering in UNMISS bases across the country.
South Sudan is continuing to reel from internal conflict that ignited in the capital Juba a little more than a year ago and quickly spread throughout the country. On December 15th, 2013, fighting erupted in Juba between soldiers loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar and those loyal to President Salva Kiir. More than one year on the fighting continues, primarily in Jonglei, Unity, and Upper Nile states in the north.
This month, one of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s longest-running conflicts may finally reach an inflection point. After months of political posturing, it appears that the international community will now launch a military offensive against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). The Congolese armed forces (FARDC) will be expected to lead the way, supported by the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC (MONUSCO).
In September 2013, in the city of Zamboanga on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, fighting broke out between the Moro National Liberation Front, a Muslim separatist group, and the Philippine Army. One hundred and twenty thousand people were displaced. The confrontation was the latest in a 40-year struggle by minority Muslim groups – comprised of indigenous ethnic people known collectively as “Moros” – for self-determination. Today, more than one year later, over 38,000 people remain displaced.
In September 2014, Refugees International went to Rakhine State to meet with displaced Rohingya, document the humanitarian situation, and advocate for their rights. Around 900 stateless Rohingya are fleeing Myanmar’s Rakhine State every day on unseaworthy boats that are supposed to take them to Malaysia or Thailand but often put them in the hands of vicious human traffickers.
On November 12, 2014, Refugees International supporters gathered in Midtown Manhattan for the 12th Annual New York Circle. The evening included a presentation on RI's work in Iraq and atime to honor Ann Curry, renowned national and international journalist and recipient of RI’s 2014 Exceptional Service Award. Long-time RI board member Matt Dillon, who presented the award, praised Ms. Curry for her tireless work to showcase humanitarian crises often overlooked or unheard of by the American public.
Earlier this year, I made my first trip to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in a search for some urban refugees. Although urban refugees are not officially recognised by the government of Tanzania, some organisations which work with the urban refugee population, such as Asylum Access, estimate that there may be over 10,000 in the city.
Between 2011 and 2014, the number of people displaced in the DRC's Katanga province jumped from 55,000 to 500,000 – more than 900 percent – as more than 100 villages have been burnt to the ground. Civilians face threats from local rebel movements, tribal militias, and abusive elements of the Congolese army. In this video, RI staffer Michael Boyce provides an update on RI's advocacy in the DRC to ensure that the displaced get the aid and protection they need.
Hunger is a feeling that will not be denied. In times of famine or displacement, people inevitably make sacrifices to feed themselves and their loved ones. They sell their belongings; they do hard labor for little pay; they forego leisure, education, and even healthcare. They do so because if they can eat, then at least they will be alive. But today, in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo, many displaced people are so hungry that they are risking their very lives – and fates worse than death – for a few cups of corn or beans. But instead of extending a helping hand, donor governments and humanitarian agencies have largely turned away.
Since the war in Syria began four years ago, more than 200,000 Syrian refugees have arrived in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq. The Kurdistan Regional Government, the United Nations, and international and local humanitarian agencies have all done what they can to help people survive. But as their time in Iraq grows longer, many of the Syrians are running out of money, no longer have personal belongings to sell, and are continuing to incur debt. Although some refugee camps do exist in the region, many families prefer not to stay in them. As a result, many are becoming so desperate that they end up living on the streets.
On September 30, 2014, the Washington Circle gathered for dinner at the residence of His Excellency The Ambassador of Spain, Ramón Gil-Casares. As the Honorary Chair of RI's 36th Anniversary Dinner, the Ambassador spoke of his time serving as the Spanish Ambassador to Sudan and South Sudan. In addition, the evening featured an around-the-world presentation and a back-from-the-field report on the displacement crisis in Iraq by RI President Michel Gabaudan.
Last month’s advance by the militant Islamic State group (also known as ISIS or ISIL) in northern Iraq forced more than 100,000 people to flee their homes - including the Yazidi minority of Sinjar. Many of those newly displaced made their way to Erbil, Iraq, where they joined tens of thousands of Syrian refugees already seeking shelter in the city. There, they are struggling to get by. Aid agencies are working hard to locate the new arrivals who are living scattered across the city. The displaced often arrive not knowing where to go for help. Some find refuge with family members or friends, but others simply have no option but to settle in one of the city’s public spaces. Many of them lack food, water, and healthcare, and are living in makeshift shelters and unfinished buildings dangerously exposed to the elements, even as winter rapidly approaches.
For decades, Kenya has provided a safe haven to thousands of refugees from neighboring countries fleeing war, persecution, and famine. While most reside in refugee camps, a significant number have made their way to urban centers like Nairobi where they have better access to jobs, education, and medical care. But growing insecurity within Kenya, including terrorist attacks by the Somalia-based terrorist group Al Shabab, have triggered xenophobic responses.