Refugees Deeply: E.U. Must Not Fuel ‘Hellish’ Experience for Libya’s Migrants

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As more refugees reach Italy, describing Libya as “hell,” Europe must ensure its actions and funds are not contributing to these abuses, urges Izza Leghtas from Refugees International. Fresh from research on Lampedusa, she outlines urgent steps for E.U. policy in Libya.

WRITTEN BY Izza Leghtas   PUBLISHED ON Jun. 16, 2017

ON A SUNNY March day on the island of Lampedusa, a group of young men from the West African nation of Guinea sat on a bench overlooking the peaceful port.

Just three days earlier, they had survived the dangerous journey from Libya and were brought by rescuers to the small Mediterranean island. I asked them what Libya had been like. “Libya is hell on earth,” came the answer. “That is the only word to describe it.”

Interviewing refugees and migrants who had recently arrived from Libya, there seemed to be no end to the cruelty they had endured at the hands of ruthless smugglers, detention center staff, members of the Libyan coast guard and criminal gangs.

Many said they had been held for weeks or months in warehouses by smugglers who beat and tortured them and fed them only an occasional piece of bread or a small handful of pasta. Others said they had been detained in appalling conditions in detention centers where food was similarly scarce and beatings were common.

Women and girls are subjected to sexual abuse at all stages of the journey to Europe: in official detention centers, traveling through the Sahara desert and at the hands of people smugglers.

Libya has been in turmoil since the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi in 2011 and currently has three competing governments, militias operating across the country and a blossoming people-smuggling trade. Sub-Saharan refugees and migrants face staggering levels of racism and are often called “animals” by locals. Men and women told me how even walking in the street was too dangerous, as they could be kidnapped and sold like commodities.

European leaders, desperate to stem the flow of people arriving on their shores via Libya, have made a priority of preventing departures from the Middle Eastern country. They are working with the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and providing training and equipment to the Libyan coast guard as well as funding to international organizations working on the ground.

When the Libyan coast guard encounters a boat carrying refugees and migrants, these individuals are taken back to Libyan territory, where they are detained in migrant detention centers under appalling conditions and severe human rights abuses.

When it comes to finding and implementing solutions for the human rights crisis that refugees and migrants face in Libya, the list of obstacles and challenges is endless. But there are a number of urgently needed measures that European leaders can and should undertake immediately. They are essential if the E.U. and its member states are to ensure that their actions and funding do not result in, or even contribute to, the abuses that lead refugees and migrants to refer to Libya as “hell.”

To be clear, the E.U. is empowering the Libyan coast guard to do something none of its member states could do without violating international law – returning people to Libyan territory and thereby exposing them to horrific abuse.

For this reason, the E.U. must urgently take steps to prevent such abuses from occurring. A first step would be to work with the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) for the deployment of human rights monitors in places where refugees and migrants are forced to disembark on Libyan soil, and in the detention facilities they are taken to. In their talks with the Libyan authorities, the E.U. should also urge them to grant nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the U.N. refugee agency free access to refugees and migrants in the centers where they are held.

One stated reason for the actions of E.U. leaders in the Central Mediterranean is the intention to prevent further loss of life at sea. But is saving a man, a woman or a child from drowning, only for them to be taken hours later to a detention center where they may face malnutrition, sexual abuse and deadly beatings, really saving them?

The E.U. is spending more than $146 million on migration-related projects in Libya, part of which has been earmarked to improve conditions in detention centers. Last week, the German foreign minister announcedthat Germany would provide the Libyan authorities with $3.9 million to improve conditions in centers where refugees and migrants are held.

But detention centers where people are deprived of their liberty with no judicial process and no end in sight, albeit with improved ventilation and more toilets, would still violate international law. The E.U. and its member states should insist that the Libyan authorities stop detaining migrants and refugees in closed facilities, or they risk legitimizing this abusive system.

It is no secret that for E.U. leaders, preventing refugees and migrants from reaching Italy via Libya is a priority. But actions that are taken in the name of European citizens and funded with their taxes should not lead to men, women and children becoming trapped in a place where they may face torture, slavery and rape. It is the duty of European leaders to uphold the values of human dignity and fundamental rights on which the E.U. was founded, whether it is north or south of the Mediterranean.

PBS NewsHour: Will one company’s mixed mission in Yemen sow suspicion of aid groups?

For aid organizations, especially those in conflict zones, remaining politically neutral is crucial for trust. A New York Times investigation found that the conduct of a logistics company could drive suspicion that aid groups in Yemen were somehow acting as agents of the U.S. government. William Brangham speaks with The New York Times' Eric Schmitt and Daryl Grisgraber of Refugees International.

View the video here.

Independent: EU helping force refugees back to ‘hell on Earth’ in push to stop boat crossings from Libya, report finds

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Researchers say EU is disregarding international law and human rights
Lizzie Dearden 6 days ago 253 comments

A new report has accused the EU of disregarding human rights and international law in its desperation to slow refugee boat crossings across the Mediterranean Sea.

The bloc has pledged tens of millions of euros in funding for authorities in Libya, despite the country’s ongoing civil war and allegations of torture, rape and killings earning it the moniker “hell on Earth” among migrants.

Research by the US-based Refugees International (RI) group warned that the EU’s push to prevent boats leaving the Libyan coast – now the main departure point towards Europe – could fuel horrific abuses.

“The fate of people who are seeking international protection is effectively absent from the plans outlined by EU leaders to tackle the Central Mediterranean route,” its report concluded.

“With the ongoing violence and chaos in Libya, a country that lacks an asylum system and where the rule of law is absent, EU countries must accept people on their territory through orderly, legal processes that are viable alternatives to ruthless criminal networks. 

“The EU and its member states should also ensure that their funding and actions in Libya do not result in or contribute to human rights abuses against refugees and migrants.”

Researchers gathered harrowing testimonies from asylum seekers who had managed to survive the crossing to Europe, which has claimed a record of more than 1,700 lives so far this year.

Among them was Ali, a 17-year-old boy from Gambia who was detained in what he believed was an official detention centre in Zawaiya.

He said UN workers brought food, clothes shoes and other supplies, which were then sold for profit by guards who gave detainees only one portion of bread and a handful of pasta each day.

“The Arab people working in the prison, if someone is sick, they finish them off,” Ali told Refugees International.

“They beat a boy, he vomited blood. I saw it in front of my eyes.”

When another man died after a severe beating, the teenager and other migrants were ordered to bury his body themselves in a shallow grave outside.

During his detention the “boss” of the prison also forced people into to build a house, which Ali and four others did – unpaid – until they were allowed to leave detention and attempt the journey to Europe.

It is one of numerous accounts of forced labour in Libya, where the International Organisation of Migration warned people were being openly traded in “slave markets”.

Smugglers and armed gangs have exploited lawlessness, since the UK and France led a military campaign to oust Muammar Gaddafi, to expand their ruthless trade, and it is frequently unclear whether squalid detention centres are run by officials, militias or both.

Ali had already been forced back to Libya once after his boat was intercepted by the Libyan coastguard, which has recently been filmed firing into the air during “rescues” and cutting across humanitarian ships, after allegedly causing drownings and opening fire on a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) vessel.

Ali said the armed guards who boarded a dinghy he was travelling on in November 2016 demanded money before “they started to beat people with the guns. They hit me on my head with their guns.”

Humanitarian groups say forcing people back to Libya from international waters is a violation of international law, particularly “non-refoulement” principles that prohibit people being returned to a country where they face torture or other ill-treatment.

But despite training and equipping the Libyan coastguard, the EU appears to have made no move to censure it for venturing outside territorial waters and has not publicly condemned numerous clashes with international ships deployed by commanders in Rome.

As well as torture and killings in detention centres, RI said women and girls in Libya are at particular risk of widespread sexual abuse. 

Rape is so prevalent among migrants in Libya and on journeys to it that some women passing through Ethiopia or Sudan are given a contraceptive injection, but many of those arriving on boats to Italy are pregnant.

Juliette, a 25-year-old woman from Cameroon who spent four months in Libya, told RI that “when someone kidnaps you, he can call his brothers” to tell them he has women and girls. 

“In front of me, men came to take girls away to rape them,” she added. “Especially Nigerian girls.” 

A teenage boy from Ghana said Libyan guards at his detention centre took women away one by one to rape, passing some on to be taken away overnight by unidentified men.

An Eritrean man who had been held by smugglers near Tripoli, said Libyan men abducted a 21-year-old-woman, who later died days after finding out she was pregnant.

In some cases, sexual abuse is used as an alternative to large bribes for release, while other migrants are extorted and forced to call family members abroad for payment.

Izza Leghtas, RI’s senior advocate for Europe and the author of the report, said EU countries know “full well” the dire conditions faced by migrants.

“EU countries can’t send refugees and migrants back to Libya without violating international law, so they’re empowering the Libyan authorities to do so instead,” she added.

Ms Leghtas said abuses by smugglers were well-known but the report’s findings on official detention centres were “particularly worrying” given rising international support.

“The Europeans are so focused on closing down this route that they’re not being responsible,” she told The Independent.

“You can’t tackle one piece the crisis [by stopping sea crossings] and then not follow through.

“The EU should be doing everything it can to help people who are escaping this nightmare.”

RI’s report called on the EU to urge Libya to end the criminalisation of migration, open detention centres and ensure returned refugees are registered and treated in accordance with international law, while calling for a UN investigation into alleged sexual abuse at detention centres.

A spokesperson for the European Commission said it was unable to comment on the findings before formally receiving the report.

Brussels is supporting initiatives led by Italy to strengthen cooperation with Libya’s fragile UN-backed Government of National Accord – one of two governments still vying for power in the country.

Following a show of commitment at a summit attended by EU leaders in Malta in February, a €90m (£80m) programme to “reinforce protection and resilience of migrants, refugees and host communities in Libya” was adopted last month.

More than half of the funds are allocated to disembarkation points for migrants forced back by the Libyan coastguard, detention centres, healthcare, protection for vulnerable groups and 15,000 “voluntary humanitarian returns” to countries of origin.

The plan envisions the creation of unspecified “safe spaces” as an alternative to detention – although it was unclear how they would be created – assistance and information at transit points and increased monitoring of migration flows.

Another €42m (£37m) is going to “socio-economic development” for Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), which is itself accused of working with smugglers and militias, as well as perpetrating abuse in detention centres including torture and murder.

The plan – to be implemented by UN agencies – proposes “quality services” for Libyans and migrants, including health centres, education and jobs, although deep-seated prejudice against sub-Saharan Africans sees them regularly denied access to current facilities.

Ms Leghtas said the plans were “disconnected from the reality on the ground”, pointing out that many of the UN’s own workers are stationed in neighbouring Tunisia because Libya is considered so dangerous.

“A lot more needs to be done to address this emergency,” she added. “For refugees, Libya is death and torture – that is what they are fleeing.”

A spokesperson for the Libyan interior ministry did not respond to The Independent’s request for comment but Jalal Othman, director of communications for the GNA, previously said authorities are “facing immense challenges” and lack funding, equipment and training.

He added: “We completely deplore any violence against migrants."


Huffington Post: A Retreat from U.S. Global Leadership Will Cause Millions to Suffer

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Eric Schwartz
Incoming President, Refugees International
05/23/2017 09:45 am ET

The Trump Administration is releasing its 2018 budget today, and it is proposing cuts in international humanitarian aid of breathtaking magnitude that will cause additional suffering to millions experiencing famine or fleeing persecution and violence.

Many around the world will die as a result.

These cuts will also dramatically compromise the capacity of the United States to support friends and allies addressing humanitarian challenges. Finally, they will send a powerful signal – to the Middle East, to Africa, to Asia and to other parts of the world – of a retreat from U.S. leadership.

It is ironic that this retreat comes at a moment in which the President and his team have emphasized the importance of U.S. leadership and partnership on humanitarian issues. In his remarks this past weekend in Saudi Arabia, President Trump applauded “Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon for their role in hosting refugees,” and repeatedly spoke of the importance of the United States partnering with governments in the region. Prior to her departure for the region, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley emphasized U.S. humanitarian aid, writing that “no country has invested more in protecting, housing, feeding and caring for Syrian refugees than the U.S.” And in connection with the nomination of Mark Green as USAID Administrator, Secretary Tillerson said that USAID has a “vital role in protecting U.S. national security by fostering stability, resolving conflict and responding to humanitarian crises.”

The formal budget release, scheduled for Tuesday morning, will reveal cuts of up to about one-third of U.S. humanitarian aid, with proposals to –

Eliminate the U.S. emergency food aid program at a time of impending famine in Africa: this program, known as Title II of PL 480 and funded at over $1.5 billion in recent years, has played a key role in averting widespread loss of life around the world, and while the Administration may seek to fund food aid through other USAID disaster accounts, the Administration’s proposal is not providing adequate monies for that purpose.

Provide no funding for a highly regarded special emergency humanitarian fund that has been an important source of flexible support for unanticipated emergencies: It’s hard to fathom why the Administration would be proposing to “zero out” the State Department’s “Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance” Fund. This modest fund, which received a $50 million appropriation in 2017, is one of the few State Department sources of genuinely flexible humanitarian resources and provides the Secretary and the President with tools necessary to ensure rapid response and U.S. leadership on key humanitarian issues.

Eliminate an “International Organizations and Programs” account that has been employed to fund critical humanitarian and development programs like UNICEF: The Administration is proposing that this account, known as International Organizations and Programs, be “zeroed out.”

Dramatically reduce U.S. contributions to international peacekeeping: At a tiny fraction of the cost of deploying national militaries, UN peacekeepers play a crucial role in promoting stability in countries threatened by conflict. In recent years, U.S. contributions have been around $2 billion, and these large cuts may also put the United States in violation of treaty commitments.

Reduce contributions to the State Department’s Migration and Refugee Assistance Account: This is the principal account through which the State Department provides assistance overseas to those fleeing persecution and violence. The Administration plans to cut the total 2017 appropriation of nearly $3.4 billion by nearly 20%.

Eliminate the U.S. development assistance accounts: U.S. development assistance has played a key role over many decades in promoting the kind of economic, social and political progress that has helped to avoid the kinds of humanitarian crises that create enormous suffering and require much greater expenditure of resources. It has been funded at nearly $3 billion in recent years, and the elimination of these programs would prove devastating. Here again the Administration may be proposing to fund some of these activities through other accounts, but reports indicate that the monies being proposed are wholly insufficient.

Taken together, these and other cuts would dramatically impact the capacity of the United States not only to lead in addressing the world’s most dire humanitarian challenges, but also simply to partner with friends and allies as they bear the primary burden of providing safe haven for refugees and displaced persons.

At far less than 1% of the total federal budget, funding for humanitarian response, broadly defined, is an exceptionally modest investment.

Thus, it will be up to the U.S. Congress to play its historical role in ensuring that these terrible cuts are reversed, and that the United States continues to pay its historical role as a leader in the effort to prevent and alleviate humanitarian suffering around the world.

Note: Much of this piece is drawn directly from a letter on the 2018 budget to President Trump, co-authored by Eric Schwartz and Refugees International President Michel Gabaudan and dated May 22.

Newsweek: 'It is better to die than stay in Libya:' Libya's slave markets remind us of flaws in EU migration plans

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BY IZZA LEGHTAS ON 4/19/17 AT 10:12 AM

I was horrified when I read the International Organization for Migration (IOM) report last week on sub-Saharan Africans being sold and bought in open markets in Libya—but I was not surprised.

During a recent visit to Italy, I spoke with dozens of men and women from East and West Africa who recently arrived in Sicily from Libya. They recounted extreme acts of cruelty at the hands of human smugglers, members of the Libyan coastguard, state-run detention center workers and locals.

“I was sold twice,” a young man from Guinea told me on the tiny island of Lampedusa, just days after he arrived by boat from Libya. “I was sold to an Arab man who forced me to work and told me to call my family so they would send money. He sold me to another Arab man who forced me to work for him, too.” The young man was only able to leave once his family sent enough money to free him.

The slave trade affects women, too. A young woman from Nigeria told me: “As a female, you can’t walk alone in the street. Even if they don’t shoot you, [if] you’re black, they’ll just take you and sell you.” One man, also from Guinea, said that women are more expensive to buy than men.

Women also face shocking levels of sexual abuse. A United Nations official told me that of the migrants and asylum seekers in Libya, “almost every woman” has been sexually abused.

In this context, it is astounding that the European Union is working hard to keep people off its shores, even if it means leaving them in Libya. As outlined in a declaration in Malta in February, EU heads of state have promised to train and equip the Libyan coastguard and are hoping to “ensure [there are] adequate reception capacities and conditions in Libya for migrants.”

With summer weather approaching—bringing better conditions for crossing the Mediterranean—the EU and its member states are working with a sense of urgency that is palpable.

Training the Libyan coastguard is a welcome move if it contributes to saving lives and treating those rescued with humanity and respect. But the question of what happens after they are rescued is key: People are currently taken to detention centers where they are held in inhuman conditions.

Describing such centers, asylum seekers and migrants told me they had been beaten and forced to ask their relatives for money, that sometimes those who could not pay were shot, and that they were hardly fed at all.  In addition, the collusion between smugglers and people running some detention centres is no secret.

Absent from the EU plan is what happens to people who fled their homes because of violence or persecution. Many of those arriving in Italy via Libya are in this category, among them Eritreans, Somalis, Sudanese, and people fleeing other countries because it is unsafe for them, often because of their political activities or sexual orientation.

The EU is focused on increasing the number of people returning from Libya to their country of origin, but there does not seem to be any consideration for those who cannot do so safely.

Despite the ongoing chaos and violence in Libya there is an absence—with very few exceptions—of international staff, including those from the EU, the U.N., and humanitarian organizations on the ground. As such, the idea that the situation for migrants and asylum seekers will dramatically improve in the coming months is utterly unrealistic.

One Eritrean man told me that “it’s better to die in the sea than to stay in Libya.” Smugglers had chained him to the ground by the ankles for three days when he was unable to pay the money they demanded. It is little surprise that for people like him, risking their lives crossing the Mediterranean seems like the only option.

Izza Leghtas is Senior Advocate for Europe at Refugees International. Leghtas is the author of an upcoming report on the treatment of asylum seekers and migrants in Libya due out this May. Follow her on Twitter @IzzaLeghtas

Fair Observer: Suu Kyi Continues Denial of Rohingya Abuses

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Aung San Suu Kyi continued a pattern of denial and unwillingness to criticize the Myanmar military over crimes against the Rohingya. 

In a rare interview with an international news network, Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi downplayed atrocities committed against the Rohingya people in the country’s Rakhine State and dismissed growing international criticisms of her response to the abuses.

In the interview given to the BBC, Suu Kyi ardently denies charges that Myanmar’s military is engaged in ethnic cleansing. Suu Kyi preferred instead to frame the situation as a matter between “people on different sides of a divide” and insisted that those who have been displaced by violence are welcome to return.

Lost between this denial of atrocities and dubious invitation to return to safe conditions are serious human rights abuses by military and security forces, which prompted the United Nations Human Rights Council last month to establish an independent, international fact-finding mission—a mission with which Suu Kyi refuses to cooperate.

More than 100,000 Rohingya have been displaced and hundreds killed amid rampant severe human rights abuses since a military crackdown started in October 2016. The crackdown was prompted by an attack on border security posts by a group of Rohingya militants that resulted in the deaths of nine officers, but quickly escalated to a disproportionate blanket response affecting the broader Rohingya population in northern Rakhine State.

A February 2017 UN report, based on interviews with some of the more than 70,000 Rohingya who fled the violence to Bangladesh, documented a series of horrific abuses by the Myanmar army—or Tatmadaw—that it concluded may amount to crimes against humanity.

When asked about the Tatmadaw’s apparent freedom to rape, pillage and torture without consequence, Suu Kyi denied this was the case but also failed to acknowledge or call for accountability for the well-documented abuses that have taken place.

Suu Kyi’s answers continued a pattern of denial and unwillingness to criticize the Tatmadaw. Ostensibly, this is a political calculation. Suu Kyi continues to be clear that she considers herself a politician, not the human rights icon that many held her up to be during her years of struggle under house arrest against the previous military junta.

It is true that her influence with the Tatmadaw, particularly on security matters, is limited both by the constitution and the entrenched power of the Tatmadaw in Myanmar’s economy and society following decades of military rule.

But Suu Kyi has gone beyond basic acquiescence to actively support the military’s denials. In her statements since the current crisis began, she has defended the Tatmadaw and, rather than speak out about the increasingly horrific reports, highlighted accusations of “fake rape” on her official Facebook page.

She has further studiously ignored the humanitarian consequences of months of blocking aid to northern Rakhine State. Even as the UN was warning about spiking malnutrition rates in January 2017, a government commission was reporting positively on the food security situation in northern Rakhine State, citing “no cases of malnutrition.” The latest UN humanitarian updates confirm that humanitarian aid continues to be “severely restricted,” calling further into question her claim that those who return will be safe.

But beyond the defensiveness and denials, the BBC interview also provides a glimpse of hope that Suu Kyi is not immune to international pressure. If body language is any indication, she is bothered by the criticisms of her fellow Nobel Peace Prize winners, even if she discounts these criticisms as just their opinion. With the UN report, appeals by the Dalai Lama and the pope as well as the latest UN Human Rights Council resolution, it is quite clear it is an opinion shared by an increasing number of people around the world.

If Suu Kyi is to stem this rising tide of criticism, she will have to provide much more than her own increasingly questionable word, which brings us back to that most pertinent of questions: Why not allow an international fact-finding mission?

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

CNN: Tragedy of a village built on ice

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By John D. Sutter, CNN
Video by Bryce Urbany and John D. Sutter, CNN

Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT) March 29, 2017

John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion who focuses on climate change and social justice. Follow him on SnapchatTwitter and Facebook.

Shishmaref, Alaska (CNN)There's a cemetery in the heart of this Arctic village, its white crosses blending into a backdrop of snow. In the cemetery are two men I've come to Alaska to write about. Their names: Esau and Norman.

Their bodies are buried in the cemetery, I'm sure of it. I've seen the obituaries.

But neither man is dead.

No one in Shishmaref dies, I'm told -- not really.

It's about 9 a.m. as I trudge through the snow, past the cemetery and to a neighboring house. The sky is frozen in pre-dawn twilight. The sun won't rise for hours.

An elder answers the door and welcomes me into a living room that smells of sourdough and coffee. On the shelves, above a big-screen TV: dozens of figurines carved from walrus ivory, a tradition in this 560-person Inupiat village. How meta, I think. Walrus ivory carved back into the shape of a walrus, as if the animal were reincarnated from its own tusks.

Even walruses have a second life here, apparently.

The man offers me a seat and a coffee mug.

I'm here to ask him about Esau.

Yes, one of the men in the cemetery.

But also the 19-year-old born with the same name -- the hoodie-wearing kid with the faint mustache. The one, among many, who's trying to imagine another future for this village.

A future away from this island.

The blue house

Everyone knows Shishmaref isn't expected to last long.

Residents of this barrier island, located just south of the Arctic Circle, some 600 miles from Anchorage and only 100 miles from Russia, have been saying so for years.

To understand it, visit the tiny blue house at the edge of the land.

It's the edge of the Earth, really. And it's also the house where Norman grew up.

Norman, the second man in the cemetery.

Inside, an old woman sits in a wheelchair and an old man peers through the kitchen window at the Chukchi Sea. A cassette-radio buzzes with headlines from God-knows-where, but the man, Norman's father, isn't listening. Shelton Kokeok, a 72-year-old with palm-sized ears and a face that tragedy has worn into a grouper's frown, is focused on the ocean. He scans it in a state of unease; creases etch his forehead. Shelton, who once was a light-hearted man, and whose kind eyes and infectious smile still hint at happier times, will be nervous until the water is frozen cement-hard. Today, in mid-December, it is the texture of a snow cone.

"It's not really solid yet," he tells me, forlorn. "Young ice, fresh ice, you know?"

These aren't bored-old-man concerns.

The ice is disappearing.

And then there's what happened to his son, Norman.

First, the ice.

Here, and across the Arctic, sea ice is forming later and thawing earlier.

That ice protects Shishmaref's coast from erosion. Without it, punishing storms grab hunks of the land and pull it out to sea, shrinking and destabilizing the island.

Look at where the coast was in 2004 -- and where it's expected to be in 2053.

Shelton's blue house is right on the edge of the receding coastline.

He worries it could fall in.

    That happened to one of his neighbors.

    As the world warms -- thanks largely to the 1,200 metric tons of carbon dioxide we humans are pumping into the atmosphere each second -- the ice is disappearing. The planet has warmed about 1 degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution, when people started burning fossil fuels for heat and electricity, creating a blanket of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. But scientists say the Arctic, the far-north, is warming twice as fast as the rest of Earth.

    "I miss that cold, cold weather," says Hazel Fernandez. I meet her in a community hall; she'd rather be fishing on the ice but says it's still too thin. "It's too weird. It's too warm."

    Outside, thermometers show temperatures in the mid-20s Fahrenheit, or about minus 4 Celsius. That's freakishly warm for December, everyone tells me. I'm wearing two coats and ski pants, and residents of Shishmaref seem to find that hilarious. This isn't cold, they say. Their sealskin hats and mittens, the fur-lined hooded parkas -- those mostly stay at home.

    Fernandez, in her early 60s, fondly remembers temperatures of 30- and 40-below Fahrenheit.

    But mean air surface temperatures increased more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) in the Arctic region between 1960 and 2011, according to the US National Snow & Ice Data Center. Arctic sea ice, measured since 1979, was at a monthly record low in January. And the September sea ice minimum is decreasing at a rate of 13.3% per decade.

    The scientific consensus is that human pollution is driving these changes.

    But it's not the science or the charts that matter most to Shelton.

    It's not his blue house, either, perched precariously on the edge.

    It's his son, Norman.

    It's that day: June 2, 2007.

    The day Norman fell through the ice and died.


    The stories about Esau are easy to unearth.

    Like people here, they never truly die.

    "What was Esau like?" I ask the elder whose home is next to the white crosses and the cemetery, in the heart of this village of wooden homes and metal-sided buildings, a place where the winter landscape is an infinity of white, where there's no running water or sewage service, where a shower costs $3.50 at the holiday rate, a 12-pack of Sprite $12.75. Most people prefer to live off the land, hunting seal, walrus and ptarmigan and fishing tomcod as their ancestors did.

    The elder replies in a tone that is airy and patient, a voice measured through time.

    Esau Weyiouanna was something of a renegade in Shishmaref, he tells me. He was an individual in a place that prides itself on community -- an opinionated, outspoken man in a village where many would prefer to blend with the environment. In a photo that hangs on a friend's wall today, Esau wears purple-and-green plaid and Napoleon-Dynamite bifocals, a knowing, understanding smile on his lips. His eyebrows are angled and inquisitive, like an owl's.

    Allow the elder to share one story.

      Decades ago, the Christian church decided to ban some of the village's Inupiat traditions, which had been passed from one generation to the next for centuries, if not longer. The church believed some of these traditions defied the will of God and were incompatible with its teachings. Dancing, in particular, was banned. Children of Shishmaref no longer could gather with drums made of stretched walrus stomach to move their bodies in the same artful patterns their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents always had, the elder tells me.

      Esau was the rare man who could see both sides of this dispute, the kind of man who straddled worlds both modern and ancient. He served on the church board, the elder says. But he also loved the Inupiat cultural traditions -- particularly the dance. So he took a stand. Esau danced boldly and in public, the elder tells me, to remind the community of the value of culture.

      Today, the elder says, children are taught this dance in the local school.

      This portal to the past remains open because of Esau.

      Renegade, reborn

      Decades later, and nearing death, Esau tried to ensure his story would continue.

      He walked up to a pregnant woman and touched her stomach.

      How am I doing in there? he asked.

      It was a startling question, but up here in a world of ice, where no one really dies, or not for long, the meaning was clear to the mother. She knew Esau's body soon would be laid to rest in the cemetery, and that he would be reincarnated as the child still growing inside her.

      Esau Weyiouanna was declared dead on October 29, 1997.

      On November 16, the woman's child was born.

      The family, following tradition, named him Esau.

      Esau Sinnok.

      A village renegade, reborn.


      Elders say the ice should have been safe that day in 2007.

      Norman had been on a hunting trip and was heading back into town in the early morning of late spring, when lower latitudes would still be shrouded in darkness but when this village sees nearly eternal sunshine, the tilt of the Earth making it possible to hunt through the night.

      Village elders and family members tell me he was crossing a narrow part of the lagoon that separates Shishmaref and its barrier island from mainland Alaska. It may sound strange to drive a snowmobile across ice-covered water in June. But elders tell me the ice should have been frozen solid that time of year -- that there was no indication Norman would be in danger.

      Now, everyone is less trusting.

      Some haven't gone hunting on the ice since.

      Norman's death was particularly hard on his father, Shelton, who keeps a photo of the young man, wearing a buzz cut and Reno-911 mustache, on his coffee table, facing the door for all to see. Norman was a second-chance child, one he taught to hunt seal and follow traditions Inupiat people had followed here for at least four centuries, if not many more. Yet, from birth, the boy had an air of tragedy about him, even if no one in the family dared say so aloud.

      It was in the name: Norman.

      Norman was named after Shelton's brother, who died in a plane crash.

      The tragedy brought Shelton together with Clara, who was married to his brother.

      In the wake of the accident, the two mourners decided to marry. Love was at the heart of it, to be sure, but Shelton also felt a sense of duty -- duty to occupy the loving, supportive station his brother had left vacant in Clara's life.

      When one man leaves, another stands in his place.

      'Like an old soul'

        The boy always seemed to possess knowledge from another life.

        As a toddler, Esau Sinnok spouted off phrases in Inupiaq, the local language, even though no one had taught him to do so. Then, as a young boy, Esau was traveling with his birth mother across the empty landscape that surrounds Shishmaref. "That's where I used to camp," he told her. It was the very spot where his namesake, Esau Weyiouanna, used to stay.

        It was as if the renegade elder were speaking through the boy.

        A voice carried on the wind from one generation to the next.

        People in the village treat it this way.

        For many, it's not just that young Esau reminds them of his namesake. It's that Esau is the namesake elder, returned from the grave and walking among them. They sometimes call him "father" or "brother" or "cousin," referencing their relationships with the elder who passed away.

        Esau inherited the elder's respected status, too. "He's like an old soul," says his adoptive mother, Bessi Sinnok. "He's very outspoken, like his namesake. His namesake was very respected by lots of people and because of that he had already earned respect as he was growing up."

        Teenage Esau never knew this when he was young. Bessi Sinnok told me the village hid the history from him. She wanted her son to form his own identity.

        Yet she watched as the elder's personality seemed to emerge from the boy. Esau, who was nearly mute as a child, they say, bookish and reserved, grew to be an outspoken and free-thinking young man, much like the elder Esau -- and much to the surprise of his family.

        Two events helped encourage the shift.

        One was a storm in 2006.

        Esau remembers the waves crashing over his grandparent's roof.

        The small blue house at the edge of the land once seemed like it might stand forever.

        After the storm, he tells me, "We thought the house would collapse."

        The other was the death of his uncle, Norman, the man who feel through the ice.

        Esau was only 9.

        "It really hurts," Esau tells me. He's now a 19-year-old college student with heavy eyes and mussy hair. "It really made me cry and wonder why he left so early. And there's not a day that goes by that I do not think of him. He's always on my mind. He's always in my heart."

        'Climate change is happening real fast'

        A few years after Norman's death, Esau moved into Shelton and Clara Kokeok's blue house at the edge of the Earth. Esau tells me he wanted to help his grandparents with chores his uncle might have performed, which would have included things like getting ice for drinking water from the lake, washing clothes in the local "Washateria" and emptying the "honey bucket" toilet.

        Shelton remembers telling his grandson how much the village had changed over the years, how the weather wasn't cold like it used to be, how these storms seemed bigger now, how much of the land, including the neighbor's house, had already disappeared -- and how he might be next.

        "When I built this house, there was still more ground out there," Shelton says. "We're right on the edge of the beach now ... Climate change is happening real fast."

        But none of this made sense to Esau -- not really -- until his senior year of high school.

          That's when he took Ken Stenek's science class.

          Stenek, an affable, big-smiling guy with a wiry beard and a kettlebell figure, told the students about the greenhouse effect -- how pollution, mostly from fossil fuels, hangs around in the atmosphere and acts like a blanket, heating the planet. They watched "An Inconvenient Truth," the high-profile documentary featuring former Vice President Al Gore and a graph often called the "hockey stick." That now-famous chart shows that levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere haven't been this high in hundreds of thousands of years.

          Esau learned that a consensus of climate scientists -- at least 97% -- agree humans are causing rapid warming, and that continuing to pollute at current rates would be catastrophic, contributing to mass extinction, searing droughts, deadlier heat waves and more.

          They also talked about the consequences for Shishmaref.

          The "erosion" everyone in town was discussing?

          That was related to the melting sea ice, the thawing of permafrost, the frequency of damaging storms. In short: By burning fossil fuels, people were helping destroy this village.

          If you'd asked him the year before what he wanted to do with his professional life, Esau would have told you he wanted to be a petroleum engineer, like his brother. Good money, he'd say, unaware that extracting and burning fossil fuels like oil is contributing to the problem.

          Now, however, Esau was learning the science.

          He thought about his grandfather's house.

          His uncle's death.

          He believes that climate change had a hand in both.

          'Imminent' threats

          This education took him all the way to Paris.

          Through Ken Stenek's science class, Esau met researchers who were studying climate change and its consequences. And through those connections he became an Arctic Youth Ambassador, which is a program of two federal agencies and Alaska Geographic, a nonprofit. He learned that Shishmaref is not alone -- that 31 villages in Alaska face "imminent" threats from erosion and other issues related to climate change, according to a Government Accountability Office report; and that 12 of them were exploring relocation options because of warming.

          Esau started to wonder: Could Shishmaref actually survive the melting of the Arctic?

          Was his village's life nearing its end?

          Or the start of a new beginning?

          Those questions never occurred to Esau before, although they had been on the lips of older people in Shishmaref for years. They're questions kept from young people, hoping to protect them, wanting them to grow up with a sense that the world is more certain than it is.

          The Obama White House named Esau a Champion of Change for Climate Equity. He got to go to Washington. Then, he said, with help from the Sierra Club, an environmental group, he got to attend international climate change negotiations in Paris in December 2015. It was that meeting -- which is often called "COP21," since that's simpler than "the 21st meeting of the conference of parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change" -- where world leaders agreed, after decades of failure, to work together to end the fossil fuel era.

          The target: Limit global temperature increases to no more than 2 degrees Celsius.

          Basically, that means eliminating fossil fuels this century.

          In Paris, hope filled the air -- hope for a cleaner, safer future.

          Esau, meanwhile, arrived in the French capital terrified.

          It was just so different from Shishmaref.

          "It felt a little claustrophobic to me, being in a big city for the first time," he says. "It felt like I just can't take a walk or go outside and walk without thinking of being threatened or beat up. When you walk around here, you don't feel that. Everyone here is family. You get a sense of trust." He was so afraid of Paris -- its clustered buildings, sidewalks thick with people, streets clogged with smoking cars -- that he did not dare leave the hotel without an escort.

          The scale of the place got to him in other ways, too.

          How much pollution are all these people creating?

          How do you get all of them to change?

          In a word: overwhelming.

          Yet amid this chaos, Esau made another leap of understanding.

          'Before it completely erodes away'

          Rae Bainteiti comes from Kiribati, a tropical island nation that could not be more geographically dissimilar from Shishmaref. Sun and sand vs. ice and snow. The two places are thousands of miles apart, separated by the vast Pacific Ocean and a half-world of latitude, with Shishmaref near the Arctic Circle and Kiribati near the equator. Yet when an interviewer sat Rae down with Esau in Paris, the two young men discussed the perils of a common threat.

          Both may have to relocate because of climate change.

          "My future generation of kids will be the last ones that will actually be on the island of Shishmaref before it completely erodes away," Esau tells Rae in the Paris interview, which is posted on YouTube.

          He looks directly at the other young man.

          "It's just really sad knowing that you probably have to relocate and migrate, too," Esau says.

          "Your country has to be stopped from melting so we don't see water rising," Rae replies.

          The two share a laugh at the irony of the situation: As Arctic ice melts and oceans warm, sea levels around the world are rising. A host of locations, from Pacific islands like Kiribati to low-lying countries like Bangladesh and cities from New York to Shanghai will be threatened with coastal flooding -- and possibly relocation, too -- as people continue to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Already, Miami Beach, Florida, is installing pumps and raising street levels to try to hold the water back. That work is only the beginning of a $400-million-plus project. In 2016, the community of Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, got a $48 million federal grant to relocate, in part because of rising seas. But this is the exception rather than the rule. Most local governments don't have the money for infrastructure to hold rising tides back.

          Experts say there are no programs -- in the United States or internationally -- designed specifically to plan and fund climate-driven relocations. Only a few moves have been funded with money designated for climate adaptation projects, said Elizabeth Ferris, research professor at Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of International Migration.

          "Governments are reluctant to think about planned relocations because everyone wants to stay where they are," she told me. But "if it isn't planned well, it just doesn't work. It leaves people much worse off."

          "There's no federal or state law -- no institution in the United States -- with a mandate for how are we going to manage relocation internally," said Alice Thomas, the climate displacement program manager at Refugees International, a non-profit group. "It's going to be enormously expensive. It's going to be very vulnerable people ... people who aren't going to be able to cut their losses on their home when they can't get flood insurance. Where will they go?"

          In Shishmaref, the answer remains unclear.


          August 2016.

          Globally, it tied for the hottest month of the hottest year on record. In Shishmaref, residents went to the polls to decide whether they would relocate because of warming.

          The answer: Yes, by a margin of 89 to 78, according to local officials.

          But the August 16 vote did not solve Shishmaref's trouble. Far from it.

          Annie Weyiouanna, local coordinator for the Native Village of Shishmaref, tells me the tribe has no money to fund the move. And this isn't the first time the village has held a relocation vote. They did so in 2002, as well. Nothing changed. No one in the village today is packing. And Weyiouanna has tried to stop using the word "relocation" -- or uses it minimally, sometimes correcting herself -- because she worries it will signal to funding agencies in the state and federal governments that the village will be gone soon and doesn't need help with grants or infrastructure. The reality is that no one knows how long the village will be stuck.

          Perhaps forever, some worry, or until the island is gone.

          "They are not safe right now, and their lives are in danger because of the storms that are coming in," said Robin Bronen, executive director of the Alaska Institute for Justice and a senior research scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She was referring to Shishmaref as well as Newtok and Kivalina, Alaska, which face similar circumstances. "(T)hey just need a large sum of money to get them to the places that they've chosen so they can be safe."

          Shishmaref has identified two potential sites for a new version of the community. Both are inland, meaning hunters and fishers would not be able to access the sea as easily. Some people in the community -- particularly elders -- believe the move threatens the tribe's Inupiat identity.

          Away from the coast, are they still the same people?

          Why should they move when others are driving climate change?

          Esau has wrestled with these questions, too. His grandparents, Shelton and Clara, the couple in the blue house at the edge of the Earth, who lost their son to the ice, do not want to leave. They want to stay in their home -- in the community they know so well -- no matter the risks.

          Esau worries about them.

          "If you ask the older generations like my grandfather, their views are totally different," he tells me. "They want to stay on this island forever and ever. And I respect that decision. They're my elders.

          "But, to me, I think we have to relocate so that our future generations can still be alive."

          Norman, age 7

          On my last day in Shishmaref, Esau and I paid his old science teacher a visit.

          We found Ken Stenek in a cream-colored house with Christmas lights on the roofline. He lives on a part of the island where houses are newer. Some were moved from the side where Esau's grandparents live, and where coastal erosion is more threatening.

          Standing in his home, I couldn't help but think about the cemetery.

          About the two men -- Esau and Norman -- who are buried there.

          Two young people, bearing those names, were standing in the room with me.

          There was Esau Sinnok, standing in the entryway, of course.

          But also Norman, sitting on the sofa in the living room.

          Norman Stenek, age 7.

          The boy was named after Esau's uncle, the one who fell through the ice.

          When I visited, young Norman seemed more interested in a tablet computer than a conversation with a random reporter, and I can't blame him for that. Still, the encounter sticks with me.

          It made me wonder: What will his life be like?

          His name -- Norman -- carries a tragic legacy. The death in the plane crash. The fall through the ice. Will this 7-year-old live to see the rest of the village drown beneath the waves, too?

          Will the same happen to millions of coastal residents during his lifetime?

          And what about Esau?

          Sometimes I think the weight of this tragedy falls on his young shoulders. His namesake was a local agitator and his uncle's death drove him into activism. The strength of his voice -- his power to command attention -- has surprised a village where few care to stand out from the crowd. He speaks out against fossil fuels, saying that the world must rush to a future with 100% renewable, clean energy. It may be too late for Shishmaref, he says, but what about other communities in similar straits? How many people will pollution force from their homes?

          "I don't blame it on one person, or a group of people. It's all our fault," Esau tells me. "It's not the 1940s anymore. We can't use fossil fuels anymore to heat our homes and use for our energy.

          "We can transition from dirty fossil fuels to renewable energies."

          But how much weight can a 19-year-old bear?

          The rest of us must realize our role in this tragedy.

          Responsibility for Shishmaref's plight falls on those in the industrialized world who continue to pollute the atmosphere with carbon, knowing it will warm the climate, melt the ice and make it less likely Shishmaref will survive. It falls on the Trump administration, which has moved to defund and upend climate change initiatives instead of planning for a transition to cleaner power sources, like wind and solar. It falls on politicians who know the scope of the impending climate relocation crisis but have done little to make adequate plans or secure appropriate funding.

          Shishmaref is part of America, even if it's rarely treated that way.

          It is a place where people never really die, where the cemetery on that hilltop in the center of the island is full of people like Norman and Esau who are kept alive by names and stories. The question now is whether villages, like people, can be reincarnated.

          Can Shishmaref be reborn?

          Sadly, it's a question the village cannot answer on its own.

          VOA: Humanitarian Crisis in Africa - Encounter

          J. Peter Pham, Vice President for Research and Regional Initiatives and Director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, and Michel Gabaudan, President of Refugees International, discuss with host Carol Castiel what is being dubbed the greatest humanitarian crisis since 1945, as conflict exacerbates famine in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Northern Nigeria.

          View the original video here.

          InterPress Service: UN Facing Famines, Conflicts and Now U.S. Funding Cuts

          Read the original article here.

          By Lyndal Rowlands

          UNITED NATIONS, Mar 17 2017 (IPS) - In the midst of responding to the worst humanitarian crisis since records began, the UN is now faced with potential funding cuts from its biggest donor, the United States.


          On Thursday, U.S. President Donald Trump released “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again,” the first such budget proposal of his presidency. The blueprint’s biggest proposed cuts target the Department of State, which would lose 29 percent of its budget, and the Environment Protection Agency, which would lose 31 percent.

          Although details of exactly how the proposed cuts – which still require approval of U.S. Congress – would be made, are yet to emerge, funding for the UN and the USAID which both fall under the State Department is at risk.

          “If approved – and that’s a big “if” – the Whitehouse’s plans could slash several billions in UN funding,” Natalie Samarasinghe Executive Director of the United Nations Association of the UK, told IPS.

          These billions of dollars of potential cuts come at a time when the United Nations is occupied responding to both acute and chronic crises around the world.

          “Some 20 million people are facing famine in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen,” said Samarasinghe.

          “The number of people forced to flee their homes is now the biggest since records began,” she said. “These are people for whom the UN is literally the difference between life and death,” she said.

          “The total foreign aid of the U.S. is about one percent of the budget - not 10 or 15 percent as some people seem to think - it’s one percent.” -- Michel Gabaudan

          Michel Gabaudan, President of Refugees International, told IPS that it is important to keep the United States contribution in perspective when assessing the potential cuts.

          “The U.S. contribution is critical, it is generous, it is vital, but it is not unduly high compared to other countries of the western bloc – who are the main funders of humanitarian aid – and we must keep this contribution in perspective.”

          “The total foreign aid of the U.S. is about one percent of the budget – not 10 or 15 percent as some people seem to think – it’s one percent.”

          “The magnitude of the U.S. economy means that that one percent of money is critical to humanitarian relief and to development programs but if you compare this with what some European countries are doing, like Switzerland, like the Nordics, like the Dutch … they are certainly giving more in terms of dollar per capita of their citizens,” he said.

          Samarasinghe also noted that the proposed cuts are “still a relatively small amount compared to, say, fossil fuel subsidies.”

          She said that it would be “politically challenging for European countries to pick up the slack, especially with elections looming in a number of countries.”

          As an example, said Samarasinghe, a recent appeal from the Netherlands to fund reproductive health and safe abortions has not yet reached its $600 million target. That appeal was set up after Trump re-instated the Global Gag Rule, which removes U.S. funding from non-governmental organisations that carry out any activities related to safe abortion, regardless of the funding source.

          Meanwhile, Deborah Brautigam an expert on China in Africa told IPS that it is unlikely that China will increase its funding to the United Nations as the United States steps back, because China already feels “very comfortable” in its current position at the UN. This position includes a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and UN development policies, which align with China’s priorities, such as industrialisation, said Brautigam who is Professor of International Political Economy and Director of the China Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins University.

          Two UN agencies that receive the most funding from the United States are the World Food Program, which provides emergency food assistance, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

          However Gabaudan said that both the more immediate humanitarian aid as well as long-term development assistance are needed to address the world’s crises:

          “The state department funds UNHCR and USAID funds development programs which tie the humanitarian aid with longer term issues,” said Gabaudan.

          “Most displacement crises are protracted, people don’t leave and get back home after a year or two,” he said, as is the case with the Syrian conflict, which just surpassed six year on March 15th.

          The budget proposal also reinforces other aspects of the emerging Trump Republican administration policies, including sweeping cuts to environment programs and cuts to programs, which assist the poor in the United States.

          Nikki Haley, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations said in a statement that the cuts reflected a desire to make the United Nations more effective and efficient.

          “I look forward to working with Members of Congress to craft a budget that advances U.S. interests at the UN, and I look forward to working with my UN colleagues to make the organisation more effective and efficient.”

          “In many areas, the UN spends more money than it should, and in many ways it places a much larger financial burden on the United States than on other countries.”

          However that financial relationship between the UN and the host of UN Headquarters is not unidirectional. According to the latest New York City UN Impact Report, the UN community contributed 3.69 billion dollars to the New York City economy in 2014.

          In response to the budget blueprint Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesman for UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said that “the Secretary-General is grateful for the support the United States has given to the United Nations over the years as the organisation’s largest financial contributor.”

          “The Secretary-General is totally committed to reforming the United Nations and ensuring that it is fit for purpose and delivers results in the most efficient and cost-effective manner.”

          “However, abrupt funding cuts can force the adoption of ad hoc measures that will undermine the impact of longer-term reform efforts,” said Dujarric.

          Dujarric’s statement also addressed aspects of the proposed budget, which claim to address terrorism. The proposal, which significantly increases spending on the U.S. military appears to favour a “hard power” militaristic approach over a “soft power” diplomatic and humanitarian approach.

          “The Secretary-General fully subscribes to the necessity to effectively combat terrorism but believes that it requires more than military spending,” said Dujarric. “There is also a need to address the underlying drivers of terrorism through continuing investments in conflict prevention, conflict resolution, countering violent extremism, peacekeeping, peacebuilding, sustainable and inclusive development, the enhancement and respect of human rights, and timely responses to humanitarian crises.”

          NPR: 14-Year-Old Who Fled South Sudan: 'They're Killing Women, Children'

          Read the original article and listen to the story here.

          The buses line up at the Invepi refugee camp in northern Uganda.

          One after the other they drop off dozens of South Sudanese seeking refuge on this side of the border.

          They come off carrying whatever possessions they still have: sometimes that means empty plastic jugs, sometimes it means chickens that provide food along the way. Many of the refugees are barefoot. When they've finished with their registration and vaccinations, some just sit there, staring into space.

          As the fighting in South Sudan has intensified, so has the flow of refugees to Uganda. Just over the past week, Invepi went from receiving about 1,000 refugees a day to about 3,000.

          Many of these women are fleeing from "war, hunger and appalling acts of gender-based violence," said Refugees International, a humanitarian organization that advocates for displaced people, in a statement on Friday. "We are yet again seeing the use of rape and other forms of violence against women fleeing South Sudan."

          Angurese, 14, lives about at the Bidibidi refugee camp in Uganda, about two hours away from the nearest paved road. NPR is only using first names of refugees to protect their security.

          She sits inside a mud hut holding her baby son. She says that over the past few months, fighting between the Dinkas and Nuers, the two biggest ethnic groups in South Sudan, had gotten really bad around her home right outside of Lainya, a village southwest of Juba. At one point, she says, the fighters even started attacking civilians.

          "When the Dinkas come, they either slaughter you with the knife or they cut you with a machete, so we're now running away because we could not wait," she says.

          The only midwife in town took off. And Angurese's mother told her she had no choice but to follow the midwife because at that time, she was pregnant.

          Fatuma, the midwife, says their group walked four days through the bush. South Sudan has been an ethnic battleground on and off for decades, but Fatuma says this conflict is different. She says she saw young pregnant women raped  and the road in front of her house had become a killing field.

          "They used not to kill women but these days now they're killing women, children, elderly even the pastors, the bishops, they don't spare us," she says.

          It wasn't long ago that the world had high hopes for South Sudan.

          In 2011, amid massive celebrations, it became the world's newest independent nation. But just a few years later, South Sudan's president Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, accused his vice president Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer, of planning a coup. As Kiir's Dinka troops disarmed and attacked Machar's Nuer fighters, the country quickly descended into a civil war.

          This week, the United Nations Human Rights Council issued a report that found the country was on the brink of genocide. And last month, the U.N. declared a famine in some of parts of country.

          The situation for women and children is bleak: Human rights groups have documented fighters raping girls and sexually mutilating boys by castrating them. Both sides have abducted over 3,000 children for use as soldiers since 2013, according to the U.N.

          Jerry Farrell, South Sudan country director for the aid group Catholic Relief Services, says in most conflicts, it is women and children who suffer most. But the number of them being displaced in this conflict is "extremely high."

          He says that in a lot of ways the civilians in South Sudan have been caught in a perfect storm: Conflict has combined with an economic collapse and a bad drought.

          The number of women and children affected, he says, is also testing the aid response. For example, it's become clear that his group's efforts to help that population would have to be scaled up many times over to meet the needs of the displaced.

          He says that many children, for example, are not being educated, because much of the aid simply goes toward keeping people alive by feeding them.

          "So the long term prospects of the country are grim," he says.

          Cecilia Tabu is a case worker for the aid group Save the Children. She works with South Sudanese children at Camp Rhino in Uganda. A big part of her job is to find foster families for children who flee South Sudan on their own.

          She moves through the vast camp talking to families and checking up on those who have been placed in foster homes.

          On a recent day, she stops to visit Kani Jane. Kani Jane came with two children of her own — then began accepting foster kids. Now, she lives with 13 children in a small mud hut that the older kids built.

          Tabu points to one of the little ones — 6-year-old Santo, whose parents took whatever money they had saved and sent him off to search for a refugee camp. It might seem unfathomable that young children can find the camps on their own, but they usually find an older kid or an adult to tag along with.

          "The father just sent him to come, so sometimes he doesn't talk," she says.

          She calls Ludiya, one of the young people in her care. She gives her a smile and asks how she's doing. When Ludiya was 17 last year, her mother did not have enough money for the whole family to flee. So she sent Ludiya off with four younger kids.

          Now, she has peace, but she doesn't have her mother, she says. And while she is in school, she sits in a classroom with dozens of other students. Some classes have more than 100 kids.

          Tabu, the case worker, says that many of the children are traumatized and have yet to come to terms with what they've witnessed. She says some of the kids still don't have shoes and at school they don't have educational materials.

          But here in Uganda, she says, they have a chance. She knows that from personal experience. Back in the '90s, when Tabu was 13 and war was raging between north Sudan and south Sudan, her parents sent her off to Uganda on her own. She landed in Camp Rhino.

          It was hard, she says, but she was safe and eventually managed to reunite with her parents and go to college.

          Tabu walks from the family's house in the camp to a big playground built by Save the Children.

          When the playground first opened, Tabu says, the kids would fight along ethnic lines. But slowly, Tabu and other case workers helped them understand how to solve problems without violence.

          It's simple things, she says, pointing at the swing set, where there's a long line of kids waiting their turn. Each one counts to ten swings, they jumps off and give the other one a turn.

          Tabu smiles as she watches the kids play tag through a cloud of dust. They slide and they swing and they chase a football.

          For that moment at least, the world here feels normal.

          Huffington Post: Executive Order Targets Victims Of Extremism, Not The Extremists

          Read the original here.


          Executive Order Targets Victims Of Extremism, Not The Extremists

           02/08/2017 01:23 pm ET
          Michel Gabaudan
          President, Refugees International

          President Donald Trump’s recent Executive Order halting thousands from entering the United States in particular placed a temporary but devastating ban on the resettlement of refugees - ALL refugees, no matter their country of origin or the circumstances which drove them to flee their homelands. At its core, the president’s Executive Order was hastily undertaken and ill-conceived, targeting the very men, women, and children who are so often on the frontlines of the extremist violence and atrocities that President Trump says he wants to confront. By targeting refugees under his so-called travel ban, President Trump is conflating the victims of extremism with the perpetrators of extremist crimes.

          While the Executive Order is now on hold, thanks to a district court ruling in Washington state, the Order may still stand as it works its way through the U.S. legal system, ultimately ending up in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court. Once the case goes before the Supreme Court, the justices will have to weigh the president’s national security powers against other legal protections under the U.S. Constitution. More specifically, the Supreme Court justices will have to decide whether it is constitutional for a president to assert his broad national security authorities and significantly disrupt the U.S. refugee resettlement program, an action that will cause irreparable harm to individuals in the total absence of evidence that they or the program poses a clear and present danger to the security of the United States.

          Respected organizations such as the Rand Corporation and the Cato Institute have debunked arguments that would justify the identification of refugees, including Syrian refugees, as potential terrorists. President Trump often points to Europe, which has been afflicted by terrible terrorist attacks over the past two years. But these examples are not applicable to the United States, and the repetition of these arguments is misleading. European countries, which are facing an acute humanitarian crisis of historic proportions, were not in a position to utilize anything even remotely approaching the extensive U.S. vetting process. The United States, however, already has an effective vetting system in place - not a single resettled refugee has been convicted of domestic terrorism.

          Regardless of this evidence or how the current legal battle over the Executive Order is resolved, the Trump administration has made clear its intention to reduce the resettlement quota by more than half in 2017, from a planned 110,000 refugees to about 50,000. This move will dash the hopes of some 60,000 refugees who are currently in the midst of extensive vetting process. In 2015 and 2016, Europe faced a historic flood of refugees which was created by an utterly unique set of circumstances. The United States does not face similar uncontrolled influx of refugees, both because of our geography and because the United States already employs an effective and stringent immigration system. What’s more, the extensive and in-depth vetting process used by the United States can take anywhere between two years and in some cases up to ten years to complete, further limiting and controlling the flow of refugees entering the United States.

          It is important to note that, if imposed, the president’s travel ban would mean that refugee women and girls living in dangerous places will remain at risk of sexual violence and other forms of gender-based violent acts, that ill refugees would not get access to life-saving medical treatment, that unaccompanied children would remain at risk of exploitation and trafficking, and that refugee families would endure separation from family members already in the United States. Further, refugees who were already poised to travel to the U.S. on approved documents are now particularly vulnerable, having resigned jobs, sold all their belongings, and severed ties with their communities, only to see long-held promises of resettlement vanish overnight.

          Beyond the devastating impacts on individual refugees, the president’s plan to turn his back on a successful and long-standing U.S. bi-partisan policy will affect the decision making of governments worldwide. The United States has been the lead architect of the collective humanitarian, human rights, and security architecture of the post-World War II era. There are more refugees today than at any time since the Second World War, and most of these refugees - more than 85 percent - reside in countries neighboring those from which they fled. In many instances, refugees flee to countries that are facing their own economic hardships and political and social instabilities.

          In eschewing its long-held leadership, reneging on the principle of joint action and responsibility sharing, the United States will in all likelihood engender the progressive erosion of the international refugee protection system with dramatic human consequences. Why shouldn’t Kenya, Germany, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Pakistan - among many other refugee-hosting nations - make similar claims and immediately suspend their refugee protection programs? If nations take these actions, the Middle East, Africa and other regions would likely be thrown into even greater turmoil which could then be exploited by extremist groups and further endanger our common strategic interests.

          When the world came together last year for the UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants and the U.S. Leaders Summit on Refugees, countries around the world made specific commitments and today are developing compacts to enshrine the best solutions to the current displacement crisis. Just when the need for U.S. leadership is the greatest, the Trump administration has taken action that will weaken international resolve and endanger the lives of tens of thousands of refugees.

          The Trump administration has made crystal clear that the Washington state court decision and other pending legal rulings will not end their pursuit of further anti-refugee policies. But by continuing down this path, the Trump administration is turning its back on decades of humanitarian doctrine and on the moral standing and leadership the United States once demonstrated to the rest of the world.

          Bloomberg: Trump's Travel Ban Harms the Islamic State's Victims

          Read the original article here.

          Trump's Travel Ban Harms the Islamic State's Victims

          JAN 31, 2017 2:19 PM EST

          By Eli Lake

          If you want to get a sense of the cruel stupidity of President Donald Trump's executive order on immigration and refugees, look no further than Vian Dakhil. She is a Yazidi lawmaker who became famous for her 2014 speech to Iraq's parliament as her people faced genocide. "Mr. Speaker," she said. "We are being slaughtered under the banner, 'There is no God, but Allah.'"

          Because Trump has banned travel to the U.S. for citizens from Iraq (and six other Muslim-majority countries) for 90 days, Dakhil will not be allowed to attend a ceremony next week in Washington to receive the Lantos prize, an annual human-rights award named for Holocaust survivor and former Representative Tom Lantos.

          Think about that for a minute. Dakhil, who is on an Islamic State most-wanted list, is precisely the kind of person Trump's new executive order is supposed to protect. It prioritizes "refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual's country of nationality."

          What's more, the fate of the Yazidis personifies the "world on fire" that Trump is always complaining about. When he talks about practices we haven't seen since the Middle Ages, he's talking about the Islamic State's crucifixion, mass rape and murder of Yazidis and other minorities in Iraq and Syria.

          As Katrina Lantos Swett, the president of the Lantos Foundation told me: "It's hard to imagine a more ironic and powerful illustrative example of how wrongheaded this executive order has been conceived."

          It's not just Dakhil. Consider also Archbishop Bashar Warda. He's the Chaldean Catholic leader of Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, and one of the most tireless advocates for the besieged Christians of the Middle East. Because of Trump's order, Warda had to cancel a trip to Washington next week where he was going to meet with members of Congress to discuss the persecution of religious minorities. At a press conference on Monday in Rome, Warda said Trump's executive order will place a new burden on Iraqi Christians who are languishing as refugees: "It is not easy to distinguish from their names who is Christian and who is Muslim."

          An irony here is that Trump's decision to prioritize religious minorities persecuted for their faith is one of the reasons his opponents say the new refugee policy and travel restrictions, taken together, comprise a prejudicial "Muslim ban." Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, made this point on CNN Sunday. "Here you have Mr. Trump saying that we're going to exclude individuals from predominantly Muslim countries, and then he carves out an exception for minority religions," he said. "The executive order is a smoking gun that violates the First Amendment."

          Daniel Mach, the director of the ACLU's program on freedom of religion and belief, further explained Romero's logic. "In practice, the minority-faith preference will severely disadvantage Muslim refugees, the vast majority of whom would be ineligible for this religious exception," he said.

          While this may be true, it doesn't make the Trump order a Muslim ban. To start, it does not ban travel from countries such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, which are Muslim-majority and whose citizens have conducted terrorist attacks in the U.S. Also, while it's true that Muslims are victims of the Islamic State (not to mention the Syrian regime and other actors in the Middle East), non-Muslims are at a special risk. John Kerry made this point in March when he said the Islamic State was perpetrating a genocide against Christians, Yazidis and Shiite Muslims.

          President Barack Obama's refugee policy did not reflect the special risk posed to religious and ethnic minorities from the Islamic State. In 2016, the U.S. ended up taking in far more Muslims from Syria than Christians or Yazidis. Nina Shea, an international human rights lawyer and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who tracks U.S. refugee policy, told me that in 2016, 99.5 percent of Syrian refugees to the U.S. were Muslim. Only 12 Christian families were taken in last year from Syria under the new policy.

          Even though Islam is by far the majority religion in Syria that number of Christians given safe haven is still much lower than it should be. The population of Christians in Syria in 2011 was estimated to be somewhere between 5 percent and 10 percent.

          The main reason the U.S. has taken in so few Christians from Syria is that many do not feel safe in the U.N. refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. Those camps are where refugee applicants are first processed. Shea said most Christian refugees tell her that Islamic militias and criminal gangs prey on minorities in the camps, so most Syrian Christians go to the cities or churches for shelter.

          Michel Gabaudan, the president of Refugees International, acknowledged in an interview that Christians face discrimination in refugee camps. Though he said many also feel strongly about remaining in the Middle East, which has been a home to Christians since the time of Christ. Even still, Gabaudan said, the greatest cause of refugees in Syria is the indiscriminate bombing and military campaign of the Syrian regime. These atrocities affect Muslims disproportionately in some cases because many of Syria's Christians support the dictator, Bashar al-Assad, who is also from a religious minority group, a sect of Islam known as the Alawi.

          So in one sense it's admirable for Trump to try to open the door for religious minorities in the Middle East. They do face a special threat in a region where jihadists seek to cleanse conquered territory of non-Muslims, or at the very least subject them to second-class citizenship.

          Had Trump's White House drafted the executive order through the normal process of government, giving Congress and other departments and agencies a chance to weigh in, he might have done some good. He might have avoided the confusion over last weekend about the status of permanent residents. He might have made exceptions for Iraqi translators, who help the U.S. military fight the jihadists Trump promises to destroy.

          Instead, Trump has banned travel for the very people he says he wants to save.

          The New Yorker: How to Lose the War on Terror

          Read the original article here.


          By Robin Wright

          January 25, 2017

          Last July, anguished by the war in Syria and the plight of millions fleeing the grisly six-year conflict, Andrea Dettelbach e-mailed her rabbi at Temple Sinai, in Washington, D.C. She suggested that the synagogue sponsor a Syrian refugee family. He agreed. Temple Sinai has since raised “unbelievable amounts of money” for the family, she told me, found cell phones to give when they arrive, organized a life-skills team to help with everything from banking to education, and lined up doctors, including a female internist who speaks Arabic. Dettelbach’s basement is full of boxes, of donated furnishings, clothing, a television. “One member of the congregation decided, instead of giving gifts last year, to buy all new pots and pans in the names of her friends.” Temple Sinai partnered with Lutheran Social Services to launch the complex process.

          The wait was almost over. “We were expecting a family within a week or two,” she said. “This is the history of the Jewish people and a commitment to helping those in need. As an American, it’s opening our doors to those who seek refuge. It’s who we are as a people. How can we turn our back on them?”

          On Wednesday, a draft executive order circulated that would call for an end to all processing and admission of Syrian refugees in the United States. The arrival of Temple Sinai’s refugee family, who have been waiting for years and come so close to finding a safe haven, has now been put off indefinitely, Dettelbach told me. “They were vetted to an inch of their lives. It’s insane to hold them accountable for what is going on in their country—or in our country.”

          The eight-page draft order is titled “Protecting the Nation from Terrorist Attacks by Foreign Nationals.” It would also halt all refugee admissions and resettlements from any country for the next four months, to allow for a review of vetting procedures. It would order an immediate thirty-day halt to the admission of all people—even for business or trade, family reasons, humanitarian emergencies, or tourism—from Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen, as well as Syria. Trump would also cut the number of visas for refugees worldwide by more than half, to fifty thousand, for 2017.

          The draft produced an immediate backlash, for being discriminatory and harmful to the people most desperate for help. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright tweeted, “I was raised Catholic, became Episcopalian & found out later my family was Jewish. I stand ready to register as Muslim in #solidarity.”

          Syrian refugees now account for a quarter of the world’s twenty million refugees. “It’s the most important refugee population in the world,” Michel Gabaudan, the president of Refugees International, told me. “We are extremely troubled. They have fled the very terrorists who we pledge to fight, and to deny them resettlement is to deny help to the most vulnerable. It gives another argument to isis and the radicals who say we’re against people of an entire religion. It’s the wrong message. It will backfire severely against the very aim of this action.”

          The draft charges that “hundreds of foreign-born individuals have been convicted or implicated in terrorist-related crimes since September 11, 2001, including foreign nationals who entered the United States after claiming asylum; after receiving visitor, student, or employment visas; or through the U.S. refugee resettlement program.”

          The numbers cited in a report by the Rand Corporation, from 2015, challenge this estimate of the threat from Muslim-majority countries. Rand found that the majority of the hundred and eighty-two terrorist plotters since 1990 who were inspired by jihadi ideology and attempted to carry out attacks in the United States or on U.S.-bound flights were already in the United States. “They did not need to travel to the United States, they needed no documentation—they were Americans,” the report, authored by Brian Jenkins, read. “In some respects, identifying terrorist operatives overseas and preventing them from coming here is the easy part. Identifying enemies among us is the big challenge.”

          A recent report by the international-security program of New America, a Washington think tank, affirms Rand’s findings. “Far from being foreign infiltrators, the large majority of jihadist terrorists in the United States have been American citizens or legal residents,” it reads. Even more notable, “every jihadist who conducted a lethal attack inside the United States since 9/11 was a citizen or legal resident. In addition about a quarter of the extremists are converts, further confirming that the challenge cannot be reduced to one of immigration.”

          Gabaudan added, “There is no evidence that any refugees since 2001 have committed terrorist acts in the United States. It’s completely false. It’s so gross and inaccurate.” Doris Meissner, the commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service from 1993 until 2000, and now a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, told me the same thing.  Syrians face the toughest vetting of any nationality applying for admission to the United States, even though they represent the world’s largest collection of victims, she said.

          The terrorism threat from Syrian refugees is low for three reasons, according to Dan Byman, a staff member of the 9/11 Commission, which in 2011 conducted the official inquiry into the Al Qaeda attacks. “First, very few among the refugees support the terrorists,” Byman, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told me. “Second, the vetting for the refugees is extensive. Third, the American Muslim community has consistently shown itself to be hostile to terrorism and reports most of the few suspects in their ranks.”

          The real danger is the rippling effect that the order would have on allies and enemies—and even at home. Trump’s decision, Byman said, would discourage other countries from taking in refugees. It could legitimize or fuel anti-immigration movements that have been gaining ground across Europe. It could indefinitely set adrift almost five million Syrians sitting in camps in Turkey (2.8 million), Lebanon (one million), Jordan (six hundred and fifty-five thousand), Iraq (two hundred and thirty thousand), and Egypt (a hundred and sixteen thousand), where employment opportunities are often nonexistent and education is limited. Young refugees have few outlets; they are susceptible to criminal and extremist groups. Inside Syria, another six and a half million people are displaced, or forced from their homes; many want to flee.

          Jihadi movements—the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, and dozens of smaller groups—will almost certainly exploit the move as proof that the West is at war with world’s 1.7 billion Muslims. In a recruitment video last year, an Al Qaeda branch in Somalia showed footage of Trump, then on the campaign trail, proposing his ban of all Muslims from the United States.

          A further danger, Byman added, is that Muslims in the United States will feel more alienated “and thus easier to recruit or inspire to be lone wolves. In addition, it may make communities feel they are suspect and decrease vital coöperation with law enforcement. The hostile rhetoric that goes with these bans makes all this more likely.”

          The Council on American-Islamic Relations condemned the draft order. “These orders are a disturbing confirmation of Islamophobic and un-American policy proposals made during the presidential election campaign,” it said in a statement. “Never before in our country’s history have we purposely – as a matter of policy – imposed a ban on immigrants or refugees on the basis of religion, or imposed a religious litmus test on those coming to this nation.”

          Lutheran Social Services, which has resettled thousands of displaced persons and refugees, also chastised the Trump Administration. “Today, we are saddened by the potentially tens of thousands of individuals who will lose the opportunity for the chance at starting over; people who will not be able to experience the freedom, safety, and prosperity that has defined generations of immigrants and new American citizens,” it said in a statement e-mailed to me.

          Trump’s executive order would undermine a dynamic interfaith initiative—Jews and Christians joining forces to rescue Muslim victims of war. In Washington, Lutheran Social Services has worked with Temple Sinai and other synagogues to foster Syrian refugees. Temple Sinai has, in turn, also worked with a Catholic charity that helps minors coming across the Mexican border.

          “It’s some of our greatest interfaith work,” Rabbi Jonathan Roos, of Temple Sinai, told me. The collaboration is also a stark contrast to the deadlock on Middle East peace, which has only deepened animosity between Jews and Muslims.

          Temple Sinai’s refugee program is “particularly important for the American Jewish community,” Roos said. “We constantly tell the story of when our refugees were turned away and occasionally sent back to their deaths in Europe. When we say never again a genocide, we also mean we will never again send refugees away to their deaths.” That applies to Muslims, too.


          Robin Wright is a contributing writer for, and has written for the magazine since 1988.

          Harvard International Review: Aung San Suu Kyi's Ultimate Test

          Read the original article here.

          Dan Sullivan  January 19, 2017  37(4) Fall 2016AsiaHuman RightsPerspectives

          The victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel laureate and former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi, has marked an historic political transformation in Myanmar (also known as Burma). But little has improved for the country’s most vulnerable people.

          As Suu Kyi and the NLD move beyond their first six months in power, addressing Myanmar’s human rights and humanitarian challenges remain among their greatest tests.

          By the Numbers


          According to UN figures, nearly a million people from Myanmar are displaced either within the country or in surrounding countries. Much of this displacement is the result of long-term policies of discrimination and bellicosity by the military-dominated government. This displacement includes some 100,000 refugees across the border in Thailand and hundreds of thousands dispersed in southeastern Myanmar. But a significant portion of the displacement is the result of more recent dynamics, even as recent reforms have been instituted (or perhaps partially because of reforms). Since 2011, more than 240,000 people have been displaced by violence and conflict in Myanmar, roughly 100,000 in Kachin and Shan States in the northeast and 140,000 in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Most of the latter are Muslim Rohingya, a heavily persecuted minority.

          Beyond those displaced, more than one million Rohingya have been rendered stateless due to the government’s refusal to recognize their citizenship. Though better off than the 120,000 who remain cordoned off in squalid displacement camps, they too face severe restrictions on their freedom of movement and access to health care, education, and livelihoods, not to mention their rights to marry, have children, and even self-identify. Tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled conditions in the country by sea in recent years, with many suffering abuse at the hands of human traffickers and hundreds dying along the way. This dynamic captured international attention in May 2015 when thousands of Rohingya, along with migrants and asylum seekers from Bangladesh, were abandoned by traffickers and trapped at sea. Today, the displacement crisis continues, though largely outside of the headlines.

          Historic Election

          The NLD’s resounding victory was the culmination of a decades-long struggle for a more democratic government that included the student uprising in 1988 and the monk-led “Saffron Revolution” in 2007.

          Myanmar’s displacement crisis has been largely overshadowed by the NLD election victory in November 2015 and assumption of power in March 2016, which represented the first truly civilian-led government in half a century. The NLD’s resounding victory was the culmination of a decades-long struggle for a more democratic government that included the student uprising in 1988 and the monk-led “Saffron Revolution” in 2007. These protests were sparked by new economic policies and crackdowns that reflected a longer history of failed economic policies and heavy restrictions on personal freedoms suffered by most of the population. Suu Kyi was initially elected to Parliament in 1990, but soon detained along with hundreds of other political prisoners. She gained international notoriety for spending the better part of two decades under house arrest.

          Years of campaigning by both domestic and international activists kept the struggle in the headlines, but a real opening did not come until 2010 when the military leadership announced a transition to a civilian-led government (though effectively retaining power) and the release of Suu Kyi and other political prisoners. The change of heart came as a result of continued pressure by the domestic democracy movement, international overtures offering an escape from sanctions and isolation, and a desire to open to the West to rebalance against China’s rising influence.

          Suu Kyi was allowed to run for and win a seat in parliament in 2012. Several significant reforms occurred over the ensuing years, including the release of more than 1,000 political prisoners, lighter restrictions on media and public gatherings, and ceasefire agreements with several of the ethnic minority armed groups who had been fighting the military-led government for years. These reforms were met with the lifting of most international sanctions, increased international investment, diplomatic recognitions including the appointment of a US Ambassador, chairmanship of the regional governmental alliance (ASEAN), and visits by world leaders, including President Obama. Suu Kyi was welcomed to the White House in September 2016 as President Obama announced the lifting of most remaining sanctions. The NLD electoral victory has largely been seen as a vindication of international policy towards Myanmar and hopes for further reforms have remained high through the first months of governance.

          Not all Good News

          Not all the news has been good, however. In the lead up to the elections, there was significant backsliding on much touted reforms including new arrests of political prisoners, crackdowns on media freedoms, and unwillingness to move forward on constitutional reforms. The current military-influenced constitution, written with Suu Kyi in mind, blocks her from being President. The NLD partially worked around this by creating a “State Counselor” position and appointing Suu Kyi as Foreign Minister. But the constitution also guarantees the military control of important ministries and 25 percent of parliamentary seats – an effective veto on any constitutional changes. Former generals continue to control most of the economy behind the scenes. Corruption remains widespread and the US State Department has listed Myanmar as among the very worst countries in its latest human trafficking report.

          Progress on negotiations with ethnic armed groups has also been mixed. While eight groups signed a National Ceasefire Agreement just ahead of the elections, seven others who had been invited to negotiations did not, including those of the Kachin and Wa, who have the largest militias. Suu Kyi has prioritized national reconciliation, hosting a notable gathering of nearly all the country’s ethnic groups in a peace conference in August 2016, but little beyond opening statements has been achieved so far. The UN and independent monitors continue to report severe human rights abuses including rape, torture, and summary executions committed with impunity by Myanmar’s army and rebels. Fighting in the Kokang region last year forced tens of thousands across the border into China. Bouts of fighting have also flared up with other groups, such as the Arakan Army. Aid restrictions also continue to put lives in danger. Of the nearly 100,000 people who remain displaced by fighting in Kachin and northern Shan states, half are in non-government controlled areas, where a UN official who recently visited warned “humanitarian access is shrinking.”

          The most decidedly negative news has been the rise of an extremist, nationalist brand of Buddhism, known as the 969 movement, which expresses itself in inflammatory anti-Muslim rhetoric and has exploded in violence, particularly against the Rohingya minority.

          The most decidedly negative news has been the rise of an extremist, nationalist brand of Buddhism, known as the 969 movement, which expresses itself in inflammatory anti-Muslim rhetoric and has exploded in violence, particularly against the Rohingya minority. The Rohingya have faced decades of state-led persecution, but their situation has in many ways worsened in recent years. Violence that broke out between ethnic Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in Rakhine State in 2012 led to scores of deaths and the displacement of some 140,000 people. A climate of increasingly hate-filled and dehumanizing rhetoric has fed the previously mentioned flow of tens of thousands attempting dangerous escapes by sea.

          The situation is such that the US Holocaust Museum’s Early Warning Project lists Myanmar as the country most likely to see a new bout of mass killing. A team from the Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide visited Rakhine State and warned of a high likelihood of atrocities and even genocide, while a Yale Law human rights study last year found “strong evidence” that genocide may already be under way. The UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide has similarly warned that the Government of Myanmar must address discrimination against the Rohingya “…or face the risk of further violence and, potentially, more serious crimes.”

          Plight of the Rohingya

          But the Rohingya have been particularly singled out with policies of persecution.

          The challenge in Rakhine State is mired in a complex mix of exploitation by the military-led government, decades of state-sponsored persecution of the Rohingya, and widespread anti-Muslim sentiment stoked by the rise of a well-organized movement of influential ultra-nationalist monks. Rakhine State is the second poorest state in Myanmar. All of the ethnic groups within the state have been negatively affected by government policies, including Buddhist Rakhine, Muslim Rohingya, and non-Rohingya Muslims like the Kaman. But the Rohingya have been particularly singled out with policies of persecution. A great number of people across Myanmar view the darker-skinned Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, a remnant of colonial policies of bringing foreigners into the country. The military-led government and many across the country have refused to recognize the Rohingya as a people, insisting on calling them “Bengali” in reference to their perceived illegal immigrant status.

          In reality, the Rohingya are a people that can trace their presence in today’s western Myanmar to at least two hundred years ago. In previous elections, Rohingya representatives and votes were cultivated by the military-led Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) party as a counter to Rakhine influence. Some Rohingya have even been tacitly recognized as citizens by being elected to Parliament. Similarly, repatriation agreements in the 1990s signaled acceptance of their citizenship claims.

          Still, a perception of the Rohingya as foreigners persists and has been stoked by the 969 movement, led by a group of ultra-nationalist Buddhist monks who have traveled the country giving vitriolic speeches, dispersing hate speech in DVDs, and pushing for boycotts of Muslim-owned businesses. At the head of the movement is the monk Ashin Wirathu, who has been described as the Buddhist Bin Laden, compared Muslims to vermin, and called the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Myanmar a “whore” for defending Muslim rights. Wirathu and others paint the Rohingya as a rapidly growing existential threat to Buddhist and majority Burman culture, despite the fact that the country remains nearly 90 percent Buddhist.

          This dynamic is not new. In 1978, 250,000 Rohingya were driven out of the country into Bangladesh. Another 200,000 fled to Bangladesh before being largely repatriated in the 1990s. Leaked government documents have shown decades of state-sponsored persecution of the Rohingya. Perhaps most damning, a 1982 Citizenship Law left the Rohingya out among the 135 officially recognized ethnic groups of Myanmar, effectively making them one of the largest stateless populations in the world. Lacking citizenship limits their ability to move freely, seek work and education, and leaves them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

          What is new is the level of separation between the ethnic Rakhine and Rohingya in apartheid-like conditions. The two groups had long interacted commercially, especially in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State. But today all of the Rohingya have been driven out of the city, save for a few thousand sequestered in a ghetto area called Aung Mingalar. Tens of thousands of other Rohingya who previously lived in and around the city now live in displacement camps that have been described as open-air prisons.

          Widespread violence and displacement began in 2012, sparked by the rape of a Rakhine woman by Rohingya men. While the violence has often been described as intercommunal, it was enabled by state-led persecution and the refusal of state security forces to intervene, with some reports of the state’s active participation in the violence. The government’s accountability measures have also been inordinately skewed. Despite the fact that the United Nations estimates 95 percent of those displaced by violence have been Rohingya, few Rakhine have been charged for the violence, while hundreds of Rohingya have been detained.

          International aid access has also been restricted with dire consequences.

          International aid access has also been restricted with dire consequences. In 2014, the government expelled Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the primary source of health care for hundreds of thousands of Rohingya. Within the first two weeks of their expulsion an estimated 150 died from the lack of medical care. While MSF has since been allowed to return, it is at a much reduced level and otherwise preventable deaths continue to take place.

          Today, under the new government, some 120,000 people remain in displacement camps. In hervisit to the camps in June, UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Myanmar Yanghee Lee reported “poor” and overcrowded conditions concluding that “the situation on the ground has yet to significantly change.”

          Broader Anti-Muslim Dynamics

          In central Myanmar, an attack on non-Rohingya Muslims in the village of Meiktila in 2013 left some 40 people dead – many of them children – and several mosques and Muslim-owned shops destroyed.

          The violence against Rohingya has occurred in a broader environment of anti-Muslim sentiment. Kaman Muslims, recognized as citizens, have suffered attacks and displacement in Rakhine State as well. In central Myanmar, an attack on non-Rohingya Muslims in the village of Meiktila in 2013 left some 40 people dead – many of them children – and several mosques and Muslim-owned shops destroyed. Riots in Mandalay in 2014 similarly targeted Muslims. In recent months, a Muslim prayer hall was destroyed in central Myanmar and a mosque was burnt to the ground in the north, with little accountability.

          The blatant racism of Wirathu and the 969 movement continues, but has also been joined by a more sophisticated anti-Muslim movement. The Buddhist-monk-led Ma Ba Tha or Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion, formed in 2014, has proven a formidable force in domestic politics. They have drafted and successfully pressured officials to pass so-called Race and Religion Protection laws that largely target Muslims, restricting freedoms to convert religions, marry people of other religions, and have children in areas deemed by authorities to need population control measures.

          But it is not just the ultra-nationalists contributing to anti-Muslim dynamics. The military-led USDP party stripped the rights of sitting Rohingya members of Parliament to run for re-election. The NLD did not put forward a single Muslim candidate in the elections. And, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who voted in the last election were disenfranchised, as new policies invalidated their temporary identification cards and demanded near impossible standards as proof of citizenship.

          Prospects for Change

          The first six months of the new NLD-led government have seen strong indications of both potential progress and regression regarding Myanmar’s displacement challenges.

          The more positive potential lies with refugees in Thailand and those displaced within Kachin and northern Shan States.

          The more positive potential lies with refugees in Thailand and those displaced within Kachin and northern Shan States. The root cause of this displacement has been fighting between ethnic armed groups and Myanmar’s army. Suu Kyi and the NLD have identified a peace process with Myanmar’s ethnic minorities as a top priority. In August, she held a 21st Century Panglong Conference, a new version of the meeting convened by her father General Aung San with key ethnic groups in 1947. That original meeting led to a signed, but never implemented, agreement setting the basis for a federal system with significant autonomy for ethnic groups. The NLD enjoyed widespread support among ethnic minority groups in the elections. That goodwill has translated, at least initially,  into a willingness of holdout ethnic groups like the Kachin and Wa to participate in further talks.

          The outlook for the Rohingya and the smaller number of non-Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists displaced in western Myanmar is decidedly more troubling. Despite great optimism among Rohingya that their situation might improve with the new government, initial indications have been less hopeful. Shortly after the NLD took the helm of the new government, a spokesman indicated the party would take the same line as the previous military-dominated government in refusing to recognize the Rohingya as anything other than illegal “Bengali” immigrants from Bangladesh. Suu Kyi, in her new role as State Counselor and Foreign Minister, has since asked foreign governments and the United Nations to desist from using the name “Rohingya.” Unfortunately, the European Union (EU), in a statement, expressed its willingness to comply.

          The government has re-launched a citizen verification process in Rakhine State, but the Rohingya are viewing it with great skepticism. Earlier documents supposedly verifying their claims to citizenship have been revoked. The head of the State Counselor’s office recently suggested a doubling down on the 1982 Citizenship Law, suggesting that anyone identifying as Rohingya would be barred from citizenship.

          The situation in northern Rakhine State took a turn for the worse in October 2016 with attacks on border security posts, reportedly by Rohingya, and a subsequent security crackdown by Myanmar authorities.

          The situation in northern Rakhine State took a turn for the worse in October 2016 with attacks on border security posts, reportedly by Rohingya, and a subsequent security crackdown by Myanmar authorities. This new dynamic is still playing out, but within the first weeks has led to dozens of deaths, displacement of at least 10,000 Rohingya and 3,000 Rakhine, and blocked food aid to tens of thousands.

          Room for Hope?

          The most hopeful signs lie in the continued attention and pressure from the international community. While the EU stance is troubling, others have continued to stand up for the Rohingya. Even after the US Embassy in Myanmar faced protests for using the word “Rohingya” in a statement of condolences for the deaths of some 20 Rohingya who drowned in April 2016, the US Ambassador said he would continue to use the term. Days later, when US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Myanmar, he recognized sensitivities, but stated, “we all understand, as a matter of fact, that there is a group here in Myanmar that calls itself Rohingya.”

          Suu Kyi herself used the term Rohingya for the first time publicly at a joint press conference with Secretary Kerry and recognized the importance of identity, even as she warned about the use of “emotive words” and asked the international community to give her time. Though she continues to ask that the term Rohingya not be used, she is also asking that the term “Bengali,” favored by the previous military government, be avoided.

          There is also hope in the fact that the new government has set up a Central Committee for Implementation of Peace and Development in Rakhine State, headed by Suu Kyi, and appointed an independent advisory commission led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to seek solutions in Rakhine State. Though the committee and commission both conspicuously lack any Rohingya representation, they are more balanced than previous attempts dominated by local Rakhine extremists. Annan’s commission will bring outside gravitas to a difficult domestic issue, and if Suu Kyi’s commission is true to its mandate to “bring peace, stability and development to all people in Rakhine State,” it cannot help but address the situation of the Rohingya.

          There are also some indications that the new government and Buddhist leaders in Myanmar are willing to stand up against the broader anti-Muslim movement. The country’s highest Buddhist authority, the Ma Ha Na, stated that Ma Ba Tha is not a recognized Buddhist group, and Myanmar’s Religious Affairs Minister warned that Ma Ba Tha leaders could face legal consequences for endorsing hate speech. While Ma Ba Tha influence remains strong and the discriminatory laws it pushed through remain on the books, this is a significant change from the previous government’s silent acquiescence toward, if not implicit support for, the group.

          Also on the more positive side, the spring of 2016 did not see a repeat of the exodus of Rohingya at sea seen the year before. Much of this can be attributed to the shutting down of trafficking routes and greater awareness of the dangers of the journey brought on by last year’s crisis. But at least some of it can be attributed to the hopeful “wait and see” outlook shared by many Rohingya about the new government. But as the days progress and progress remains stagnant, that mindset may very well change.

          Passing the test?

          To be sure, the new government faces a host of competing priorities, from constitutional reform to delivering promised growth, even as the military continues to wield inordinate economic and political influence. But these issues are not mutually exclusive with human rights and humanitarian concerns. As the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Myanmar stated in her most recent report, tackling key human rights challenges, including in Rakhine State, will be “essential in order to make meaningful and real progress towards democratic transition, national reconciliation, sustainable development and peace in Myanmar” and “should be at the top of the country’s agenda over the coming weeks and months.”

          The plight of the Rohingya must be a top priority of the new government. It is also the most easily addressed, at least in the short-term. The long-term solutions needed – revision of the 1982 Citizenship Law to allow all Rohingya a path to citizenship, return of the more than 120,000 internally displaced Rohingya to their communities, and investigations and accountability for severe human rights abuses – are unlikely to see immediate progress. But short-term remedies, including increased freedom of movement, unfettered international humanitarian access, and openingan Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (as promised by the previous president in his 11 Commitments to President Obama), can and must be pursued.

          At present, the political will to take these steps is lacking. Domestic support is stifled by the organized stoking of fear and hatred, making it difficult and often dangerous for local voices to take a strong stance. As long as this dynamic continues it will be all the more important for the humanitarian test to be prioritized on the international stage. Suu Kyi and the NLD will need to show leadership in countering these dangerous forces and the international community must support and, where necessary, pressure the new government to do so.

          The message must be clear: the ultimate test for Myanmar’s new government is not its ability to pursue its own interests, but how it treats its most vulnerable.

          The message must be clear: the ultimate test for Myanmar’s new government is not its ability to pursue its own interests, but how it treats its most vulnerable.

          Myanmar Times: Environmental disasters could doubly affect IDPs

          Read the original article here.

          By Lillian Kalish   |   Thursday, 08 December 2016

          The coupling of increased environmental disasters with internal conflict has created unique and threatening realities for internally displaced persons in Myanmar, according to a recent Refugees International report.

          In interviews conducted one year after the 2015 floods, which temporarily displaced close to 1.7 million people in Rakhine, Chin, Magwe, and Sagaing, the report found that the government has yet to elaborate long term solutionsfor relocated communities doubly affected by dangerous weather and an unpredictable political climate.

          The report, “Accelerating Threats from Climate Change: Disasters and Displacements in Myanmar,” noted that last year’s hastily relocated communities continue to face vulnerabilities including limited financial and technical support for rebuilding durable housing, limited access to education, clean water and bathrooms, as well as diminished job opportunities.

          Though communities in the Ayeyarwady Region were relocated with relative swiftness in 2015, proper evacuation procedures as well as relocation guidelines should take precedent in areas that are constantly at risk of floods, cyclones, droughts, and more, the report says. Refugees International cautioned against quicksteps and advised the government “to ensure that safeguards [are] in place for those targeted for relocation.”

          After Cyclone Nargis ravaged the Ayeyarwady Region in 2008, Myanmar has worked to initiate preparedness measures, one of which was the adoption of the Myanmar Action Plan on Disaster Rick Reduction in 2011 under U Thein Sein’s governance.

          Yet five years after its implementation, Refugees International’s climate displacement program manager, Alice Thomas, said that Myanmar is still lags behind in targeting the complicated overlap of factors affecting internally displaced communities.

          “In decades to come … increasing numbers of impoverished communities will be displaced or migrate as more extreme weather and other climate change effects undermine their safety and security,” said Ms Thomas, who spearheaded the fieldwork mission.

          For one of the country’s most at risk communities – Rohingya and Rakhine communities living in IDP camps – the report observed an apparent lack of evacuation plans or disaster preparedness. Restrictions to the Rohingya’s mobility in the Rakhine State also pose a serious challenge in the face of an emergency situation.

          The report suggests the government work alongside disaster relief organisations to “prioritise investments in recovery and livelihood restoration” to those affected in 2015 and beyond through the implementation of a “comprehensive” and “long term” plans.

          “Failure to take these steps will only continue to undermine development and exacerbate Myanmar’s other challenges,” said Thomas.