CNN: Tragedy of a village built on ice

Read the original story here.

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.

          AP: US cautions crackdown in Myanmar could radicalize Muslims

          Read the original article here.

          By Matthew Pennington | AP December 3

          WASHINGTON — It’s a scene straight out of Myanmar’s dark past: a military offensive waged beyond world view that forces ethnic minority villagers from the smoldering ruins of their homes.

          The U.S. government, a key sponsor of Myanmar’s democratic transition, says a security crackdown that has displaced tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims and left an unknown number dead risks radicalizing a downtrodden people and stoking religious tensions in Southeast Asia.

          The military moved in after armed attacks by unknown assailants on police posts along the border with Bangladesh in October. The attacks in Rakhine State were a possible sign that a small number of Rohingya were starting to fight back against persecution by majority Buddhists who view them as illegal immigrants although many have lived in Myanmar for generations.

          The top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, Daniel Russel, is critical of the military’s heavy-handed approach and says the escalation of violence risks inciting jihadist extremism in the country also known as Burma. He is also calling on neighboring countries, such as Muslim-majority Malaysia and Indonesia, to resist the urge to stage protests that could further stir religious passions.

          Assistant Secretary of State Russel told The Associated Press that, “if mishandled, Rakhine State could be infected and infested by jihadism which already plagues neighboring Bangladesh and other countries.”

          The plight of the Rohingya, once characterized by the U.N. as the world’s most friendless people, has attracted the attention of Muslim extremists since a spike in intercommunal violence in Rakhine in 2012 that left hundreds dead and forced more than 100,000 into squalid camps.

          The Somali-born student who launched a car-and-knife attack at Ohio State University this week reportedly protested on his Facebook page about the killing of minority Muslims in Myanmar. And last weekend, Indonesian authorities arrested two militants who were allegedly planning to attack the Myanmar Embassy in Jakarta.

          It has also raised hackles in the political mainstream. Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak, facing domestic pressure over an investment fund scandal, is reportedly planning to attend a protest in his religiously moderate country this weekend condemning the military operation in Myanmar.

          Daniel Sullivan at the advocacy group Refugees International said increasing numbers of Rohingya are fleeing across the land border to Bangladesh, and the spike in violence could set off another exodus by sea.

          Tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled by rickety boats in recent years to countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, but those routes have been blocked since a crisis in 2015 when thousands were stranded at sea.

          The U.S. and other nations have called for an independent investigation into the latest violence in Rakhine. Estimates of the death toll range between dozens and several hundred. Human Rights Watch said Nov. 21 that satellite imagery showed at least 1,250 buildings have been destroyed.

          With journalists barred from the affected area, it’s been near-impossible to substantiate reports of rapes and killings by Myanmar soldiers — the kind of conduct that has long blighted the military’s reputation in ethnic conflicts.

          Adama Dieng, U.N. special adviser on the prevention of genocide, said this week that if reports of excessive use of force in Rakhine were true, “the lives of thousands of people are at risk.”

          Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was appointed by Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi in August to find ways to help resolve the communal tensions. On a fact-finding visit Friday, he said that security operations must not impede humanitarian access.

          That’s been a repeated demand from the international community, including the United States, but it’s made little impact.

          The U.N. World Food Program said Friday that since Oct. 9 it has been able to deliver food or cash to only 20,000 of the 152,000 people who usually receive assistance, and to about 7,000 newly-displaced people.

          The Obama administration has diminished leverage. It was instrumental in ending the former pariah state’s diplomatic isolation as it shifted from five decades of military rule but the last U.S. sanctions were lifted in October.

          The military’s crackdown in Rakhine has also exposed the limits of Suu Kyi’s power. The Nobel laureate’s party won elections a year ago, but the military still controls key levers of government power, including access to sensitive border regions.

          Human rights activists who once lionized Suu Kyi now criticize her for failing to defend the stateless Rohingya, but Russel defended her.

          “We all should have confidence in her judgment and not fall prey to the idea that she does not get it and she does not care. She does get it, and she does care,” he said.


          Associated Press writer Michael Astor at the United Nations contributed to this report.

          CNN: Iraqi forces recapture key air base near Mosul

          Read the original article here.

          By Mohammed Tawfeeq and Ingrid Formanek, CNN
          Updated 6:34 AM ET, Thu November 17, 2016 

          (CNN)Iraqi paramilitary forces have recaptured a strategic airbase outside the northern city of Tal Afar, a spokesman for the Popular Mobilization Forces said.

          Ahmed al Assadi acknowledged that militia forces have yet to extinguish some pockets of ISIS resistance inside the airbase, however, saying late Wednesday that mopping-up operations will continue for the next few hours.

            Iraq's Joint Operations Command put out a similar statement.

            The base will serve as a staging area for Iraqi Security Forces in their battle with ISIS west of Mosul, authorities said. Tal Afar is a predominantly Sunni city that used to be divided between Sunni and Shia Turkmens before ISIS captured it in 2014. It is about 70 kilometers (43 miles) west of Mosul.

            Mosul, Iraq's second-most populous city, is ISIS' last major stronghold in Iraq and the terror group is well entrenched there. The campaign to retake the city has raged on for a month, forcing nearly 59,000 people to flee their homes, according to the United Nations.

            An ISIS attack on a Mosul neighborhood previously declared "liberated" from the militants killed at least two civilians and wounded at least seven more people, including children, Iraqi army officials told CNN on Wednesday.

            The officials said at least four mortars landed in the eastern Mosul neighborhood of al Zahraa, which was declared under the full control of Iraqi security forces nearly a week ago.

            Witnesses also told CNN there had been civilian deaths and injuries from the attacks.

            Video of the aftermath broadcast by local Kurdish TV station Rudaw showed several of the injured, including children with bloody wounds. Up to a dozen children are being maimed every day as fighting pushes into the city, according to Save the Children.

            "Many children have been through two years of ISIS and were then forced to flee through a war zone, and some told us they have seen people shot and hanged," said Aram Shakaram, deputy country director for Save the Children in Iraq. "Imagine what effect that would have on a child."

            The Iraq Joint Military Operations Command declared six days ago that its security forces had taken full control of al Zahraa as well as two other eastern neighborhoods -- al Samah and al Malayeen.

            Attacks by ISIS in areas previously cleared by Iraqi forces are frequent. These areas often lack water, power and medical services, according to the UN.

            Fierce resistance

            Iraqi forces have encountered fierce resistance as they battle their way into Mosul.

            While the ISIS presence has started to wane in parts of the northern city, a number of residents told CNN they are disappointed with the pace of Mosul's liberation.

            They said people are increasingly fearful because of what they see as slow advances by Iraqi forces.

            ISIS has fortified its positions and regrouped after the Iraqi forces' initial push on Mosul, which was faster than current progress, residents said.

            The Mosul offensive began almost one month ago.

            ISIS emboldened by leader's message?

            Brig. Gen. Halgurd Hikmet, a spokesman for the Peshmerga, or Kurdish forces, told CNN on Wednesday that "for ISIS, Mosul is survival."

            Hikmet said he believes ISIS militants won't leave Mosul but will continue to put up a fight that will only grow fiercer as the battle moves to the city's west.

            He pointed to the audio message purportedly from ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi released just weeks ago, which seems to have emboldened and inspired ISIS fighters.

            Hikmet also reiterated the difficulty posed for Iraqi-led forces by the potential for civilian casualties among the dense urban population, saying the utmost care was being taken not to bomb civilians.

            The terror group's use of civilians as "human shields" is also a challenge because it's often hard to differentiate between them and ISIS members, Hikmet said.

            The paramilitary force said Tuesday it has intelligence that al-Baghdadi is somewhere between al Baaj and Tal Afar. The two cities are about 50 miles (80 kilometers) apart and close to the border with Syria.

            Iraqi Ministry of Defense spokesman Brig. Gen. Tahsin Ibrahim would not confirm nor deny that al-Baghdadi is in the area.

            US-led coalition

            Meanwhile, a military official said Tuesday that the US-led coalition against ISIS has pounded targets linked to the extremist group relentlessly since the Iraqi-led offensive began on October 17.

            In four weeks, coalition forces have hammered ISIS targets with 4,000 bombs, artillery strikes and missiles, coalition spokesman Col. John C. Dorian said. They also have killed hundreds of fighters in the battle to retake Mosul, he said.

            Nearly 60 vehicles equipped with bombs and more than 80 tunnels have been destroyed, Dorian said at a news conference in Qayyara.

            Aid groups stretched thin

            The Mosul offensive has exacerbated widespread displacement of residents in northern Iraq and placed heavy demands on humanitarian groups working to provide aid for civilians fleeing the war, Refugees International said in a report Tuesday.

            Since ISIS began seizing territory across Iraq in 2014, 3.3 million civilians have been displaced. The Mosul battle is spurring more civilian flight, the group says. The International Organization for Migration says more than 56,000 people have been displaced since the start of the offensive.

            More resources are needed as tens of thousands of families have no place to stay, the leaders of NGOs and UN agencies said a joint statement.

            "With winter approaching, and temperatures dramatically dropping at night, families, many who fled their homes with virtually nothing, need heaters, blankets and other winter items."

            Save the Children reported that children who've been able to flee Mosul are showing signs of distress. The organization has set up tents to care for nearly 2,000 children with classes.

            CNN's Jennifer Hauser and Joe Sterling contributed to this report.


              National Interest: What Obama Should Tell the EU on Refugees

              Read the original article here.

              Europe's governments have a responsibility to solve the refugees and migrant crisis in line with their international obligations.

              Izza Leghtas

              At the Leader’s Summit on Refugees in September, President Obama urgedgovernments to do more to help the 65 million refugees and displaced people around the world today—the largest number of people driven from their homes by war and conflict since World War II. “History will judge us harshly if we do not rise to this moment,” Obama said at the September summit.

              Two months later, as President Obama prepares to visit Greece and Germany, it is clear that countries of the European Union, the world’s richest economic bloc, have not risen to meet this critical challenge. Thousands of asylum-seekers are still stranded in shocking conditions in Greece and a record 4,233 people have died or gone missing trying to cross the Mediterranean so far this year. The plight of these refugees, asylum-seekers, and migrants should be high on the agenda when Obama meets with the German and Greek leaders.

              It has been more than seven months since the EU and Turkey agreement entered into force, a controversial agreement established to stem the flow of asylum-seekers and migrants into Europe via Greece. EU leaders have celebrated the agreement as a success, pointing to the significant fall in the number of arrivals: 211,663 people arrived by sea to Greece in October 2015; in October 2016, the numbers dropped to 2,970. But for the men, women and children stranded in cold, unsafe, and unsanitary camps around Greece, Europe has failed spectacularly in dealing with this situation in a humane way.

              In April, the European Union provided international organizations working in Greece—including UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, and the International Federation of the Red Cross—with 83 million euros to improve the living conditions of refugees, asylum-seekers, and migrants. The EU announced a further EUR 115 million disbursement in September. The contrast between these amounts and the reality on the ground is alarming.

              During a recent mission to Europe, I visited some of the camps on Greece’s mainland and on the islands of Lesvos and Chios. I saw first-hand the appalling conditions in which thousands of refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers are living. In many camps, people sleep in tents, exposed to the cold, rain, and the humidity. In the Petra camp near Mount Olympus, where more than 1 thousand Yazidis have been living for months—people who fled the horrors and trauma of ISIS in Iraq—I spoke with a young woman who told me she is traumatized in new ways by the poor conditions in the camp, where the cold is already biting. The young mother added that she is scared that her three-month-old daughter will choke on smoke in their tent or be attacked by insects.

              In a camp on the island of Chios, two Syrian mothers, who are caring alone for three children each, told me they live in constant fear. Potential violence, alcoholism, thefts, and the fear of fires, like the one that recently broke out in the camp, are their daily reality. They said that at night, they put diapers on all their children—ages one-and-a-half through six—because it is too dangerous to leave their rooms to take them to the bathroom.

              The insecurity and conditions of the camps in Greece beg the question: where is all the EU money being spent and what is the EU doing to ensure its funding translates into real refuge and protection?

              What’s more, far from putting the human smugglers out of business—the stated goal of the EU-Turkey agreement—the current situation has forced asylum-seekers and migrants to seek new options since borders remain closed and safe and legal pathways toward refuge and protection are blocked for many. Outside the Moria camp in Lesvos, a young man from Iraq said to me, “Our only hope is money.” With money, he said, a smuggler can provide a number of possible pathways to move across Europe.

              In 2015, EU countries committed to take in and process 160 thousand asylum-seekers from Greece and Italy by September of 2017. Some countries such as Hungary have refused, and the United Kingdom has opted out. As of November 4, only 5,343 asylum-seekers had been relocated from Greece to other countries under this scheme. EU countries should urgently step up their pledges and provide other options for people who are not eligible, such as Afghans and Iraqis. Another option is family reunification: many of the people currently in Greece have family members in other EU countries. Processing their claims promptly and enabling them to join their loved ones is an obvious solution for many of these people.

              From Brexit to the rise of far right parties and the divisions within the EU itself, the European Union faces significant challenges on multiple fronts. However, Europe’s governments have a responsibility to solve the refugees and migrant crisis in line with their international obligations. And they have the moral responsibility to treat refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants with dignity and humanity. People who have fled for their lives from war, violence, or persecution should not be paying the price for Europe’s failures.

              Izza Leghtas is the Senior Advocate for Europe at Refugees International. She traveled to refugee camps in Greece in October. Her Twitter handle is@IzzaLeghtas.

              CNN: In push for Mosul, US coalition pummeling ISIS

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              By Mohammed Tawfeeq, Jennifer Hauser, Joe Sterling and Ingrid Formanek, CNN
              Updated 5:45 PM ET, Tue November 15, 2016 

              Irbil, Iraq (CNN)The US-led coalition has pounded ISIS targets relentlessly since the offensive to recapture Mosul began last month, a military official told reporters on Tuesday.

              The heavy fighting has been evident on the ground.

                Witnesses said Iraqi Security Forces and ISIS clashed for several hours as they fight for control over neighborhoods east of the city.

                Each side used mortars and RPGs and engaged in close-quarter fighting in some areas, residents said.

                As the Iraqi Security Forces have mobilized into Mosul, ISIS has clogged potential access routes using blast walls, buttressing its last standing stronghold and moving farther into parts of the city.

                In the eastern Salam neighborhood, residents reported five civilians killed by ISIS mortars as militants fought Iraqi forces in the area. Iraqi security officials said there was progress in the fight in Salam.

                The presence of ISIS in certain parts of the city has started to wane.

                In some areas, residents said, some ISIS members and sympathizers have started selling their houses, cars and other property to finance escapes.

                The sympathizers have met opposition from residents who are discouraging people from buying the cheap property in retaliation for what the ISIS members or supporters did to the citizens of Mosul.

                But a number of residents told CNN they are disappointed with the speed of Mosul's liberation.

                They said fear across the city among residents has increased because of what they see as slow advances by the Iraqi forces.

                ISIS has fortified its positions and regrouped after the Iraqi forces' initial push on Mosul, which was faster than current progress, residents said.

                In the last four weeks, coalition forces have hammered ISIS targets with 4,000 bombs, artillery strikes and missiles, coalition spokesman Col. John C. Dorian said. They also have killed hundreds of fighters in the battle to retake Mosul, ISIS' last remaining stronghold, he said.

                Nearly 60 vehicles equipped with bombs and more than 80 tunnels have been destroyed, Dorian said at news conference in Qayyara.

                "We will continue to strike the enemy for as long as it takes for the Iraqi flag to be raised over Mosul and every other corner of this country," Dorian said.

                Coalition forces have been helping Iraqi soldiers wrest Mosul from ISIS since the offensive started on October 17. Mosul is the second-largest city in Iraq and is located in the country's north.

                Iraqi forces have been slowly battling their way into Mosul and have encountered fierce resistance. But they have made strides.

                On Sunday, the forces liberated the village of Nimrud, an achievement that drew praise from Dorian. He lauded security forces "for the manner in which they've conducted themselves as they've undertaken a very tough fight in Mosul."

                Nimrud is the site of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, founded during the 13th century B.C. Archeologists first began excavating Nimrud in the 19th century.

                "The Iraqi security forces have been very deliberate and very careful in order to protect civilian life," Dorian said. "As a member of the coalition I find that level of effort inspiring and I hope that all Iraqis are proud of this level of effort."

                Where is al-Baghdadi?

                A group of militias who have been fighting and coordinating with the Iraqi military said they have intelligence information that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is somewhere between al Baaj and Tal Afar in northern Iraq. The two cities are about 50 miles apart and close to the border with Syria.

                The Popular Mobilization Units made the remark as they announced the third phase of their military operations to liberate areas west of Mosul.

                The PMU groups are made up of mostly Shiites but also Sunnis, Christians and other ethnic and religious groups.

                The goal of the third phase is to liberate the remaining villages towards Tal Afar airbase in west of Mosul.

                The airbase will be used as a launching point toward the city center of Tal Afar.

                Al-Baghdadi first came into the public eye with a sermon delivered at the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul in July 2014.

                US officials have suggested he may be moving from one place to another within ISIS' shrinking so-called caliphate to avoid detection -- and that they would attack his location if they knew where he was.

                Iraqi Ministry of Defense spokesman Brig. Gen. Tahsin Ibrahim would not confirm or deny that al-Baghdadi is in the area.

                Iraqi intelligence agencies have solid information that al-Baghdadi fled Mosul along with senior ISIS leaders during the first week of the operation, Ibrahim said.

                "We know that al Baghdadi fled Mosul and headed out of the city in a western direction," Ibrahim said. " We also have confirmed intelligence information that al-Baghdadi is not in Tal Afar."

                Aid groups stretched thin

                The battle has exacerbated widespread displacement of residents in northern Iraq and placed demands on humanitarian groups working to provide aid for civilians making a getaway from war, Refugees International said in a report Tuesday.

                In the two years since ISIS began seizing territory across Iraq, 3.3 million civilians have been displaced. The Mosul battle is spurring more civilian flight, the group says. The International Organization for Migration says more than 56,000 people have been displaced since the start of the offensive.

                "As the government of Iraq moves to reclaim Mosul from ISIS, civilians from the areas around Mosul -- known as the Mosul corridor -- have already been on the move," Refugees International Senior Advocate Daryl Grisgraber said. About 100,000 have left the region since fighting started.

                The group said the UN's Iraq Humanitarian Response Plan for 2016 is "barely half-funded, as is the emergency appeal to address needs related to Mosul."

                "Humanitarian aid groups in Iraq are already struggling to meet the needs of some 10 million people who rely on humanitarian assistance in some form. The humanitarian needs created by Mosul are simply adding to a humanitarian disaster that was already not adequately addressed. Recent events in Iraq will only aggravate that situation," Grisgraber said.

                CNN's Mohammed Tawfeeq reported from Irbil. CNN's Jennifer Hauser reported from Atlanta. CNN's Joe Sterling reported and wrote from Atlanta.

                Middle East Eye: Obama’s rush to fix refugee pledges before January

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                Donald Trump’s election is one more reason for Obama’s team to firm up global refugee plans before leaving the White House

                James Reinl
                Monday 14 November 2016 21:48 UTC
                Last update: Tuesday 15 November 2016 3:52 UTC

                UNITED NATIONS – Members of US President Barack Obama’s administration are scrambling to cement gains they made in tackling the global refugee crisis at a summit earlier this year before the team vacates the Oval Office in January.

                Catherine Wiesner, the US Department of State’s deputy assistant secretary on refugees, told Middle East Eye that colleagues were working to ensure that donor countries come good on their pledges to resettle refugees and boost aid for those displaced by war and disasters.

                They seek to confirm exactly what the 52 countries and world organisations that attended Obama’s Leaders’ Summit on Refugees in September offered. They also aim to publish a list of international pledges in the coming weeks to answer criticisms of opaqueness.

                The US is seeking another country to “take over responsibility” on refugees by hosting a follow-up meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in 2017 to keep track of the “progress and the commitments” made in September, Wiesner told MEE.

                “We’ll also be looking with whoever steps forward to be the co-host and … planning with them some regional or thematic meetings over the course of the year to keep the momentum going,” she added.

                Global refugee crisis

                Obama hosted the refugee summit on the sidelines of UNGA as an ad hoc response to a global refugee crisis of some 65.3 million displaced people after UN members rejected a global plan to commit to resettle 10 percent of refugees each year.

                The largest mass displacement crisis since the Second World War has seen refugees pour into Europe from parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, giving succour to populist, anti-immigrant politicians in the West, including US President-elect Donald Trump.

                Trump’s campaign rhetoric suggests he will be unwilling to accommodate refugees from Islamist countries in the US after he takes office in January – and less likely than Obama to push other countries to share the burden.

                At Obama’s UN summit, countries agreed to boost spending on refugees by $4.5bn from the 2015 levels, to eventually double the number of resettlement slots to about 360,000 and to make it easier for refugees to work and study in host countries.

                After pledging conferences, organisers typically publish lists of donors and their commitments in the media. Since the September summit, however, US officials have kept tight-lipped about the pledges made behind closed doors.

                Mark Yarnell, an advocate at Refugees International, a pressure group, urged the US State Department to release details speedily to help activists and aid workers in donor countries keep tabs on their governments.

                “First you need that basic information of the full commitments and then you need to dig into what each country pledged exactly. Is it actually a new commitment? Is it money that was previously committed and then re-purposed?” Yarnell told MEE.  

                According to Wiesner, the “list will be published”. She put delays down to “sensitivity” among donors over absorbing refugees and opening up job and schooling opportunities that could be perceived as detrimental to native populations.

                The list is expected to reveal sharp increases in resettlement slots in some middle-income countries, as well as new visa opportunities for workers and their families from war-torn Arab countries to live in the oil-rich Gulf, Wiesner said.

                “In the Gulf, a lot of these countries have Syrians and other nationalities that have come to their country to work … so a lot of the dialogue there is about alternative pathways,” Wiesner said. “Whether people are already working in Gulf countries and have their status regularised, or are able to bring their families in safe ways to join them.”

                A co-host from the September meeting is expected to take responsibility for a follow-up meeting during the UNGA in 2017 to track pledges, but, so far, neither Canada, Ethiopia, Germany, Jordan, Mexico nor Sweden has stepped up to the plate.

                Praise for refugee donor countries

                Matthew Saltmarsh, a spokesperson for the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, praised countries for making “significant and tangible commitments to support refugees” via aid, new admissions, strengthening asylum systems and offering other legal protections.

                “We understand that the specifics of a review process and follow-up to the summit are being discussed among the co-hosts and other participating states. UNHCR looks forward to supporting states as they begin the important work of implementation,” Saltmarsh told MEE.

                According to Saltmarsh, UN members are also working towards a global deal to “address refugee situations more comprehensively, predictably and equitably” at some point in 2018.

                Karen Abuzayd, who led UN efforts on refugees during the meetings in September, said the UNHCR aimed to significantly increase the number of safe havens for displaced people worldwide by resettling five percent of global refugees each year.

                That would amount to 1.1 million resettlements in 2017, compared to 100,000 in 2015.

                “I think UNHCR’s going to push it, so, and the governments have agreed to it, so they’ll have to step up,” Abuzayd told MEE. “And if they do 5 percent, I’ll be really pleased next year.”

                Medium: The Global Security Threat that the U.S. Candidates Haven’t Addressed

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                Alice Thomas, Refugees International

                While there are many reasons to be deeply unhappy about this year’s election, one issue in particular fails to get much-needed attention from the candidates and the media: global climate change. During the three presidential debates, neither candidate was asked a single question about climate change. Worse yet, the candidates’ plans for addressing this looming crisis hardly factor into their campaign platforms. What the candidates, the media, and many voters fail to recognize or take seriously is the significant and growing threat that climate change poses to global stability and U.S. national security.

                More than 65 million refugees and displaced people struggle across the globe today, the most since World War II. If the crisis in the Mediterranean is any indication, the international community is totally unprepared to address the additional population flows that climate change is anticipated to unleash. Yet during the debates, the only discussion of refugees centered around the (baseless) accusation that refugees — who are themselves the victims of persecution and terrorism — present a security threat. Unaddressed were far more important questions such as how we can better protect and assist not only the millions of innocent civilians fleeing conflict but also the millions more who have been driven from their homes by climate-related disasters each year (who are not protected by the 1951 Refugees Convention). Also unaddressed are questions about how to best support and promote the resilience of those most vulnerable to climate variability so that they’re not forced to resort to migration as their only available survival strategy. And despite all the bluster and hard talk, neither candidate has acknowledged the role that climate change will play in fomenting social unrest and even armed conflict in the future.

                On November 9, the New York Times columnist Tom Friedman will explore the link between climate change and conflict in “Out of Africa,” a segment from The Years of Living Dangerously series. If you’re someone whose vote today is based in whole or in part on concerns over national security, I highly recommend that you watch this program.

                In 2010, Refugees International, deeply concerned about the role that prolonged drought and dwindling natural resources played in unleashing the violent conflict in Darfur, launched the Climate Displacement Program. Informed by field missions to climate-vulnerable countries, the program advocates to governments, the UN, and the public to act urgently to put in place laws, policies, and strategies to prevent and minimize climate-related displacement and protect the human rights of affected populations. Over the past six years I’ve met with countless individuals from around the globe facing displacement from changes in their environment linked to climate change. From impoverished, drought-stricken farmers in West Africa who had never even heard of human-induced climate change, to fishing communities in the Philippines who remain displaced three years after super-Typhoon Haiyan annihilated their villages leaving them homeless and jobless, what stands out most is that those most affected bear the least responsibility for the climate crisis.

                As the U.S. National Intelligence Council recently warned, both at home and abroad, climate change presents one of the biggest security challenges of our time. Addressing it will require employing our ability to think strategically, to innovate, and to work collaboratively toward collective goals, as well as our sense of fairness and desire to help one another — things that truly make us “great.” Let’s hope the next president of the United States has what it takes to confront this critical issue and defend global security and threatened communities great and small.

                Alice Thomas manages the Climate Displacement Program at Refugees International in Washington, DC.

                AP: Kenya Warned Against Closing World's Largest Refugee Camp

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                JOHANNESBURG — Nov 4, 2016, 9:17 AM ET

                 Another major aid group is warning Kenya not to close the world's largest refugee camp, saying the move is pressuring tens of thousands of Somali refugees to return to their deeply unstable country.

                A new Refugees International report says Somali refugees in the Dadaab camp in Kenya say they feel under pressure to leave for Somalia, where attacks by Islamic extremist group al-Shabab continue and hunger is widespread.

                The U.N. refugee agency "claims that it only supports voluntary returns, but none of the refugees whom we spoke with in Dadaab said they felt like they have much choice," said Mark Yarnell, who wrote the report after visiting Dadaab and Somalia. "It is a failure of the international refugee response system that other options are not available."

                The report says Kenya should lift its Nov. 30 deadline to close the camp, which has existed for a quarter-century and holds more than 250,000 people. It sprawls in a dry, thorny region near the border with Somalia, where many born in the camp have never been.

                On Monday, Kenya's High Court will hear a petition filed by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights to challenge the government's plan to close the camp, Amnesty International said Friday.

                Groups including Doctors Without Borders, Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Refugee Council also have expressed alarm in recent weeks over Kenya's reported pressure on Somali refugees to leave. They say large parts of Somalia remain insecure and aid for returnees is limited.

                Kenya has expressed concern that some Dadaab residents are used by the Somalia-based al-Shabab to launch attacks inside Kenya. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has said repatriations will be voluntary and humane.

                The Refugees International report urges the U.N. refugee agency to give Dadaab residents "reliable information" about security conditions in Somalia.