The Trump Administration is talking about drastically reducing the number of refugees permitted into the U.S. next year. The cutback has forced Refugees International - a leading advocacy organization that previously focused only on refugee crises overseas - to intervene here in the U.S. Andrea Mitchell is joined by Eric Schwartz, President of Refugees International, to discuss.
See original piece here.
Rohingya refugees are at immediate danger from an assortment of sectors
The Rohingya crisis has proved to be a herculean challenge for Bangladesh over the past nine months. Even as the country hosts nearly a million forcibly displaced Rohingya people in Cox’s Bazar, the problems seem to escalate despite every effort to solve them.
Refugees International (RI), an advocacy group for displaced and stateless people, published a report where it said that Rohingya refugees are at immediate danger from an assortment of sectors, and recommended feasible solutions to stakeholders to address the situation.
The report titled “Unnatural Disaster: Aid Restrictions Endangering Rohingya Ahead Of Monsoons In Bangladesh” concurs with reports by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) about the immediate threat the Rohingya diaspora in Bangladesh are facing.
Long-term planning and political viability
The report commends Bangladesh for its bold moves to accommodate the Rohingya refugees and urges even bolder moves to draw the situation to a close. However, it identifies that the government has no long-term planning because of political pressure ahead of the elections and concerns that it may ease pressure on the Myanmar government if the Rohingya are rehabilitated in Bangladesh.
Lack of accountability in aid
The involvement of numerous international aid bodies has convoluted the humanitarian efforts and prevented development of uniform guidelines or standards. As such, when there are massive setbacks like 2,699 latrines are decommissioned and another 15,000 are emptied, and a further 5,000 no longer function, there should be a mechanism of accountability for shoddy planning and construction.
There are concerns that the process of aiding Rohingya refugees has become labyrinthine with a plethora of international NGOs, domestic NGOs, government agencies, and other concerned groups getting involved. One such issue is the subject of issuing visas to international humanitarian personnel.
Earlier in March, 39 foreign aid workers were detained by authorities for not possessing the necessary paperwork to work in the country. They were later released after pledging to rectify matters. Refugees International (RI) recommends the visa process be eased for these groups. Aid workers now receive non-immigration visas, but it requires juggling between several ministries and there is no specific policy regarding it.
Retaliation against Myanmar
The report stresses that the solution, just like the origin of the problem, lies with Myanmar. Hence, it recommends UN member countries to place selective sanctions on senior Myanmar military officers tied to the Rohingya genocide. In addition, an arms embargo on the Myanmar military is recommended, as well as referring cases of abuse of the Rohingya to the International Criminal Court.
RI recommends donors be asked to fully fund the $951m Joint Response Plan for the Rohingya crisis plan, of which only 17% has been raised.
The repatriation to Myanmar is urged to be safe, voluntary, and dignified. The report asks for a Memorandum of Understanding between Myanmar, the UNHCR, and the UNDP as a framework to support repatriation efforts.
RI is opposed to repatriation at this time, citing the lack of long-term planning and sustainability.
Bhasan Char relocation ill-conceived
The Bangladesh government’s plans to relocate Rohingya refugees to Bhasan Char has been seen as a cause for concern. Natural disasters like flooding, storms and cyclones, in addition to reduced accessibility, are identified as a hindrance to the rights of the Rohingya people.
This piece originally appeared here
Since President Trump took office in January 2017, the U.S. has withdrawn from the Paris climate agreement and the non-binding Global Compact on Migration. The president himself has criticized refugees, blamed migration for Europe’s ills, instituted a travel ban that targets the citizens of five predominantly Muslim countries, and adopted a tough policy on migrants along the U.S. border with Mexico.
The global community appears to have noticed. On Friday, it issued something of a response: Ken Isaacs, Trump’s candidate to lead the International Organization on Migration, was rejected by the UN agency, a rare repudiation of U.S. leadership by the Geneva-based body.
Isaacs was a longtime executive at Samaritan’s Purse, the evangelical Christian aid organization that is headed by Franklin Graham. He also served as director of foreign-disaster assistance during the George W. Bush administration, and worked in Africa, Asia, and other parts of the world. But his remarks about Muslims and Islam drew widespread condemnation and doomed his candidacy. Isaacs was reportedly eliminated after three rounds of voting. The ultimate winner, Antonio Vitorino, a Socialist Portuguese politician who previously served as an EU commissioner, defeated Laura Thompson, the Costa Rican diplomat who is the currently the number two official at the IOM. With the exception of a brief period in the 1960s, an American has held the top spot at the organization since it was founded in 1951. Vitorino will succeed William L. Swing, the U.S. diplomat who has headed the IOM since October 2008.
“This was a very competitive election with three highly qualified candidates,” a U.S. State Department spokesperson said in a statement. “We congratulate the winner and look forward to working with” him. “IOM is an important partner for the United States around the globe, and we are committed to working with IOM to address root causes of migration and to promote safe and legal migration.”
The development was not unexpected. The backlash against Isaacs’s nomination began almost as soon as it was announced in February. The Washington Post unearthed social-media posts in which Isaacs made comments that were widely seen as disparaging of Islam and Muslims. In one he tweeted: “If Islam is a religion of peace, let’s see 2 million Muslims in National Mall marching against jihad & stand for America! I haven’t seen it!” He criticized the Obama administration’s decision to increase the number of Syrian refugees accepted by the U.S., saying while “most of the refugees are fine people … there are real security risks and this can’t be swept under the rug.” He also said the U.S. should preferentially admit Christian refugees from Syria because they “can never return.” Subsequently, CNN reported that Isaacs tweeted that Austria and Switzerland should consider building a wall in the Alps “to control their borders from refugees.”
When confronted with the posts, Isaacs, via the State Department, said he regretted that his “comments on social media have caused hurt and have undermined my professional record.” Additionally, he said: “It was careless and it has caused concern among those who have expressed faith in my ability to effectively lead IOM. I pledge to hold myself to the highest standards of humanity, human dignity and equality if chosen to lead IOM.”
But the opposition to the nomination only grew. Hundreds of aid groups wrote to the IOM, asking its members to vote for a director general with a record of “condemning xenophobia, discrimination and intolerance.” And this week, Eric Schwartz, the president of Refugees International, wrote in the Post that Isaacs’s “regrettable statements must be disqualifying.”
The IOM, which was set up in the aftermath of World War II, coordinates the global response to worldwide migration, including that of refugees, and became a UN agency in 2016. At present it coordinates the international response to the migrant crisis in Europe as well as the Rohingya crisis along Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh. The job of its director general would have been to represent the values of the IOM and the UN system, not the U.S. government position on migration.
But the Trump administration’s policies on families at the U.S. border with Mexico, its travel restrictions on citizens from five Muslims or predominantly Muslim countries, and the president’s own remarks about Muslims and refugees would have likely placed an American director-general in an awkward position. As Jeremy Konyndyk, who was the Obama-era director of the office of foreign-disaster assistance, wrote in IRIN, the website that covers humanitarian relief:
This naturally raises the question—would Isaacs, if elected, join his UN peers in condemning Trump’s family separation policy? Against the backdrop of the migration policies of the administration that nominated him, his position on this cuts to the core of his credibility as the potential leader of IOM. Unlike most past IOM chiefs, Isaacs is a dust-on-his-boots relief operator rather than a diplomat or migration expert – so there is little indication of his migration policy views beyond his inflammatory social media statements. And while he kicked off his campaign with a quasi-apology after reports of those social media posts emerged, he has never fully repudiated his attacks on Muslims, descriptions of refugees as security threats, and mockery of climate science. For the proposed head of an organization whose roles include coordinating global migration policy, supporting refugee resettlement, and mitigating potential climate disasters, these stances create more than a bit of awkwardness.
This piece originally appeared here
The Assad regime last weekend launched an offensive into southwest Syria aimed at dividing opposition forces in Daraa province and reasserting government control over the region.
Why it matters: The regime campaign, backed by Russian airpower, has already displaced at least 45,000 civilians — many seeking shelter along Jordan's closed border — and that number could soon reach 200,000. The UN has warned that a full-scale offensive could put as many as 750,000 lives at risk and prove as bloody as the sieges of “eastern Aleppo and eastern Ghouta combined" (which included the use of chemical weapons).
The details: Syria’s southwest is a strategically sensitive area that borders Jordan, Lebanon and Israel. The new regime offensive is taking place in a “de-escalation zone” negotiated last year by the U.S., Jordan and Russia — an agreement that decreased violence and lowered tensions between Israel and Iran over the latter’s presence in the area. This could all now change, and an Iranian role in the regime offensive could drag Israel deeper into the fight.
What’s next: There is a small window to prevent a worst-case scenario. The parties to the de-escalation agreement could try to resuscitate it, but no such effort appears underway. Although Moscow has reportedly reached out to Washington to broker a deal under which opposition fighters would turn over positions to regime forces, it is unclear if Washington could compel that outcome even if it wanted to.
If diplomacy cannot slow the fighting, the humanitarian situation will deteriorate. Most assistance to Syrians in the southwest is delivered via UN cross-border relief operations from Jordan. But if violence escalates, those operations could cease. If Jordan continues to keep its doors closed, displaced Syrians will be left to languish in informal settlements along the border or try their luck in areas controlled by the regime.
Hardin Lang is vice president for programs and policy at Refugees International.
This piece originally appeared here.
LOS ANGELES (CN) – The conversation over the nation’s immigration policy crisis, highlighted in recent weeks by the separation of immigrant children from families detained at the border, will shift over to a Los Angeles federal courtroom next month.
U.S District Judge Dolly Gee will hear arguments July 27 on the executive order signed by President Donald Trump this past week ending his administration’s policy of separating immigrant children from migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border.
The order says it will maintain” family unity” by detaining “alien families together throughout the pendency of criminal proceedings for improper entry or any removal or other immigration proceedings.”
Trump makes clear in his order that families entering the country illegally will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law – language in line with his zero tolerance policy that has resulted in the separation of more than 2,300 children from their families in recent weeks.
As part of Trump’s action, the Department of Justice was ordered to file a request – which it did on June 21 – asking the court to modify the Flores settlement agreement. The 1997 consent decree limits the detention of migrant families to no more than 20 days.
The government is seeking a modification allowing detention of immigrant families past the current time limit.
In a June 26 speech to the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Los Angeles, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the Flores settlement has had “disastrous consequences” for immigrant children.
FILE – In this Dec. 15, 2017, file photo, President Donald Trump sits with Attorney General Jeff Sessions during the FBI National Academy graduation ceremony in Quantico, Va. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
“[The Flores settlement] keeps us from detaining alien children with their parents for more than 20 days while their asylum cases are pending,” Sessions said. “We are asking the court to let ICE detain illegal alien children together with their parent or legal guardian in family residential facilities.”
The DOJ’s filing said the Flores settlement created a “powerful incentive for aliens to enter this country with children” by eliminating the “practical availability of family detention across the nation.”
The agency blamed the Flores agreement for a “3- to 5-fold increase in the number of illegal family border crossings.”
As part of the request, the government also seeks an exemption for ICE family residential facilities from any state licensure requirements.
“The government is not asking to be relieved from the substantive language of the agreement on the conditions of detention in these facilities. The government asks for immediate relief, along with a schedule to allow the parties to more fully address the issues raised by this request,” the filing says.
The Flores agreement, a settlement in the California case Flores v. Reno, set national standards for the detention, release and treatment of all undocumented children in federal custody.
It includes a provision that detained minors be placed “in the least restrictive setting appropriate to the minor’s age and special needs.”
The settlement also requires that juveniles be released from custody without unnecessary delay to a parent, legal guardian, adult relative or an individual designated by the parent.
The Trump administration must operate under standards set by the Flores Settlement unless Congress or the courts modify it. The prospect of congressional action on immigration policy is uncertain at best.
Congressional Republicans have proposed a bill that would override the Flores Settlement and allow indefinite detention of immigrant families together during criminal and immigration court proceedings.
A statement by Refugees International said “it remains to be seen whether this bill will overcome the longstanding stalemate” in Congress on immigration policy reform.
“In any case, it might well be subjected to court challenge,” the statement said. “That leaves the courts.”
The Trump administration may not find the relief it seeks in Los Angeles. A look at Judge Gee’s background and previous rulings may offer a hint at whether she will agree with the administration’s plans to hold families longer.
Gee – appointed to the federal bench by President Obama in 2009 – is the daughter of Chinese immigrants and has been described as an advocate for workers, immigrants and women.
In a ruling that was the first of its kind, Gee ordered the U.S. government in April 2013 to provide legal counsel for mentally disabled immigrants who are detained for potential deportation.
In June 2017, Gee ruled that conditions and staff training at family detention centers at the border violated the Flores settlement. She called on the Trump administration to address detention facility conditions, which she called “deplorable and unsanitary.”
If Gee rejects the DOJ’s motion, the administration could start separating families again or allow adults to go free while their asylum cases proceed.
Rejection would deal Trump’s immigration policy another significant blow this week after a federal judge in California on Tuesday ordered a freeze to family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border.
The order requires federal officials to stop detaining parents apart from their minor children and also calls for the reunification – within 30 days for cases involving children age 5 and older – of all families that have been separated at the border.
The order also mandates that officials provide parents contact with their children by phone within 10 days, if the parent is not already in contact with his or her child.
“Plaintiffs have demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits, irreparable harm, and that the balance of equities and the public interest weigh in their favor, thus warranting issuance of a preliminary injunction,” US District Court Judge Dana Sabraw wrote Tuesday.
This piece originally appeared here
GENEVA (Reuters) - President Donald Trump’s nomination of a Christian charity executive who has disparaged Islam to head the U.N. migration agency could see countries reject an American for the first time in nearly 50 years when they pick its new leader on Friday.
Since the body now known as the International Organization for Migration was founded to manage the vast movement of people in post-World War Two Europe, all nine of its leaders have been Americans apart from a Dutchman who ran it in the 1960s.
But Trump’s choice of Ken Isaacs, a vice president of U.S. evangelical charity Samaritan’s Purse, could end that streak.
Isaacs, whose only major government experience was a 2004-2005 stint under George W. Bush as a political appointee in charge of disaster relief at the U.S. overseas aid agency, is one of three candidates to succeed William Swing, a veteran U.S. and U.N. diplomat retiring after a decade as IOM chief.
The IOM is involved in politically sensitive operations around the globe, from helping European countries manage the arrival of hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers to aiding Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.
In February, shortly after the Trump administration nominated Isaacs to lead the IOM, the Washington Post dug up tweets and social media posts in which he disparaged Muslims.
Isaacs has since apologized for hurting anyone’s feelings and said he had “never shown discrimination against anybody or anything, period”. He said he had been retweeting and commenting on material to provoke debate.
In one post reported by the paper and since deleted, Isaacs wrote in a comment on a CNN story about a militant attack in London: “...if you read the Quran you will know that ‘this’ is exactly what the Muslim faith instructs the faithful to do.”
In another, he wrote on Twitter: “If Islam is a religion of peace, let’s see 2 million Muslims in National Mall marching against jihad & stand for America! I haven’t seen it!”
The U.S. State Department said it was “proper” that Isaacs had apologized, but his “private” social media posts did not disqualify him for the IOM post.
“Mr. Isaacs is committed to helping refugees and has a long history of assisting those who are suffering. We believe that if chosen to lead IOM, he would treat people fairly and with the dignity and respect they deserve.”
At a press event in Geneva in March, Isaacs was introduced by Jennifer Arangio, senior director of the White House National Security Council: “He embodies what the United States believes.”
Isaacs is up against Portuguese politician and ex-EU Justice Commissioner Antonio Vitorino, and Laura Thompson, a Costa Rican now serving as Swing’s deputy. The vote will be held in secret.
Isaacs says he will not represent the U.S. administration if he leads the IOM. But he has also made clear he would not challenge Trump policies widely viewed as hostile to immigrants, such as a ban on citizens of seven Muslim majority nations entering the United States and a drastic scaling back of the U.S. program to accept refugees.
“I’m not going to speak on any country’s domestic policy,” he said, when asked at the March briefing about Trump’s plan for a wall on the Mexican border.
“States have a right to protect their borders the way that they deem necessary,” he said. “If it’s inhumane, then I’ll come back and have private conversations. But I think states have a right to protect their borders the way that they want to.”
Approached by Reuters at a garden party at the U.S. mission in Geneva on Thursday, he declined to comment further.
The vote poses a dilemma for IOM states, Jeremy Konyndyk, who like Isaacs served as a head of U.S. foreign disaster assistance, told Reuters.
“Do they risk angering the Trump administration by rejecting its preferred candidate, or risk validating Trump’s migration agenda by putting a Trump nominee in charge of IOM at the very moment his administration is attacking asylum in the U.S.?”
Konyndyk said Isaacs must disavow the views uncovered in his social media posts. “He has never fully repudiated his attacks on Muslims, descriptions of refugees as security threats, and mockery of climate science,” Konyndyk wrote in an opinion piece for IRINnews.org, a news agency for humanitarian aid groups.
Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International, wrote in the Washington Post on Monday that Isaacs’ social media posts were “bigoted”, “appalling” and must disqualify him.
More than 600 aid agencies that work in the migration field signed a letter to IOM member states last week which did not mention Isaacs by name but said the new IOM chief must demonstrate “a record of and commitment to respecting diversity and condemning xenophobia, discrimination and intolerance”.
Privately, aid agency officials say their chief concern is that the real aim of the Trump administration — which has already withdrawn from the Paris climate treaty, the U.N. human rights council, the U.N. cultural body UNESCO and U.N. negotiations on a “global compact” to manage migration — is to undermine the IOM’s role as a global body engaged in migration.
“The risk that we analyze is that Ken Isaacs is not independent from the Trump administration and could be a puppet put in to disrupt the U.N. system,” said a senior official at one of the agencies supporting the letter, who requested anonymity because he may work with IOM in future.
This piece originally appeared here
Around the world, the number of refugees and internally displaced people continues to rise – now estimated at more than 68 million people, with more than a third of them refugees forced by conflict across international borders.
In response, the United Nations’ member states are negotiating a new pact on migration that aims to improve the world’s response to the mounting crisis.
All of the UN’s 193 members, that is, save one: the United States.
The US under President Trump is sitting out the talks on an area of international policy where it long took the helm: It set an example as the largest resettler of refugees and largest donor of funds to meet the needs of the displaced, and as the world’s most powerful country it cajoled others to follow its lead and adopt its humanitarian values.
The Trump administration announced in December that concerns over potential infringements on national sovereignty and border security compelled it to pull out of the negotiations, which are set to deliver a new Global Compact for Migration by the end of the year.
The compact – like the Paris climate accord that the US under Mr. Trump withdrew from last year – includes no mandatory measures but seeks to offer guidelines and principles for orderly and safe migration and humane resettlement of refugees.
But now the US withdrawal from the global migration talks – especially in the wake of the 2017 numbers released for World Refugee Day last week showing a worsening crisis – is raising new concerns about the impact of the US turn on migration issues.
Are other countries stepping up to fill the void left by the US, or are countries taking a cue from Trump’s America and stepping back from the world’s refugees and displaced?
International migration experts say they’re seeing some of both – in a country like Canada welcoming more refugees than in past years, for example, or on the other hand, in a country like Hungary matching Trump’s anti-immigrant posture and imposing harsh new anti-migrant measures.
“If you looked at the world’s response to the migration crisis through the lens of the United States’ actions and policy prescriptions, you’d get a pretty distorted view of the broader context and mobilization,” says Craig Mokhiber, director of the New York office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
As chair of the migration task force within the compact negotiations, Mr. Mokhiber says he’s seeing not just countries but nongovernmental refugee organizations, faith-based groups, the private sector, and municipalities come together to hammer out an accord.
“So the US,” he says, “is very much an outlier.” But then he adds a caveat:
“On the other hand, it’s true that a few countries have rejected international law and humanitarian norms since the crisis began,” he says. “And that’s where the US response to all of this becomes very worrying,” he adds, “because when a very powerful country and traditional leader bows in any way to disrespecting human rights, others can be tempted to say, ‘We can follow this powerful leader’s example and do the same.’ ”
Others, too, say they see both trends happening. But they worry that the sheer weight and influence of the US in an international issue like refugee resettlement and migration policy could have a dire impact over time.
“It is difficult to overestimate the impact that the rhetoric and policies of the Trump administration are having on so many levels around the world on efforts of international organizations and humanitarians to address the challenges of this ongoing crisis,” says Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International in Washington.
The crisis of migration and rising numbers of refugees is not that different from just two years ago, Mr. Schwartz says, when all UN members (including the US) signed a “New York Declaration” on migration launching the current “compact” negotiations. At the time, then-President Barack Obama assembled world leaders to unveil a US pledge to resettle more refugees (110,000 in 2017) and to implore others to follow the American example.
Most of the world’s refugees come from the same countries in conflict as a few years ago, with Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar, and Somalia accounting for about two-thirds of refugees in 2017.
“But the world does feel very different – and to my mind that is attributable almost exclusively to the rhetoric and policies coming out of Washington,” says Schwartz, a former assistant secretary of State for population, refugees, and migration. “American leadership has always been a powerful catalyst on all these issues,” he adds, “and now it’s not there.”
There are also signs that the “different feel” extends to publics, including in the US. Polls show a majority of Americans still support receiving refugees and immigration generally, but in falling numbers. And in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has seen her support wither as she has championed immigrant assimilation in the wake of the large refugee influx of recent years.
If anything, Schwartz says the Trump administration’s rhetoric and actions – from the Muslim travel ban that the Supreme Court upheld Tuesday and a steep reduction in the number of refugees to be resettled in the US to presidential warnings of an “infestation” of immigrants – are enabling the world’s worst actors, from Hungary to Myanmar.
“Can you imagine a George W. Bush being complicit in the nationalist, antidemocratic, and anti-migrant rhetoric coming out of Europe right now?” Schwartz says.
Even some quarters generally supportive of the Trump administration and its initiatives are balking at the tough stand on refugees. The Heritage Foundation in Washington last year issued a paper calling for a strengthening of the US refugee admissions program, even as the Trump administration was drastically reducing resettlements.
“We are certainly concerned about security, and we understand the need for thorough vetting [of refugee resettlement applicants], but we also believe there is a clear US national security interest to continue to resettle refugees,” says Olivia Enos, a specialist in migration and human rights issues at Heritage and one of the authors of last year’s report.
The slow pace of resettlement that could result in fewer than 20,000 refugees gaining approval to enter the US this year is an “area of disappointment,” says Ms. Enos. The average intake of refugees in previous years – falling generally between 40,000 and 60,000 – made the US the global leader on refugee issues and allowed it to “promote our core values, including assisting the world’s most threatened and neediest,” she says.
Noting that the Heritage team has taken its report and its concerns over the refugee program to the White House national security staff and to some congressional offices, Enos says, “We’re hopeful that with some reform and strengthening of the program, the administration can in coming years get closer to the more typical numbers for refugee resettlement.”
Whether or not that happens, other experts say the key to addressing the rising rejectionist mood toward refugees and migrants globally will be vigorous campaigns to debunk the many myths that have taken root concerning refugees – from the dangers they pose to the jobs they take and the public resources they drain.
“What we’re up against are these proliferating distortions and propaganda around immigrants, so to counter that we are advocating a global effort based on the two pillars of evidence and values and built on the framework of international law that we’ve been building since World War II,” says the UN’s Mokhiber.
The “myths” include the terrorism risks and economic hardships that refugees pose, he says, “when we know from data that all of this is misinformation and false.” No refugee in the US has committed a deadly terrorist act at least since the 9/11 attacks, which did not involve refugees.
Refugees International’s Schwartz says his organization and others in the migrant advocacy community are anxious to work with the Trump administration “whenever we can.” He cites Trump’s supportive comments for the government of Bangladesh’s resource-stretching accommodation of more than 600,000 Rohingya refugees, and says, “We’re going to encourage this president and work with him when the opportunity arises.”
But in the absence of traditional US leadership on the migrant issue, Schwartz and others say that other countries and organizations are stepping up.
Heritage’s Enos says Canada is providing a model for the US and others – not just by accepting more refugees, but through a resettlement program that encourages private-sector and even individual-citizen sponsorship of refugees and emphasizes the role of assimilation in successful resettlement.
Around the world and in the US in particular, Mokhiber says, one salutary effect of the US leadership retreat has been a “massive mobilization” of other actors, from migrant advocacy organizations and faith-based groups, to local governments and mayors and large and small businesses.
One example: the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an association of Catholic sisters that lamented the Trump administration’s “misguided” decision to pull out of the refugees and migrants compact negotiations. In response, it has redoubled its longtime advocacy of immigrant and refugee communities.
“All of these groups and individuals have stepped forward to pick up the slack where national governments have come up short,” Mokhiber says. “The challenge they face is that in a growing number of places they are in a struggle for the soul of public policy.”
This piece originally appears here
In a conference hall in Geneva on Friday, the world’s governments will send a fateful message about their views of prejudice against the world’s nearly 2 billion Muslims. On that date, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) — consisting of 169 member governments — is scheduled to elect its new director general. The individual nominated by the Trump administration, Ken Isaacs, has an unfortunate record of bigoted statements against Islam.
The facts are not in dispute. As The Post and others have reported, Isaacs has in recent years repeatedly posted statements online reflecting the view that Islam is a religion that is inherently violent and inextricably linked to terrorism.
After the July 2016 terrorist attack in Nice, in which a Tunisian resident of France drove a truck through crowds celebrating Bastille Day and killed 86 people, Isaacs tweeted that “Islam is not peaceful.” In September of that year, he tweeted that “Islam is 7th Century violence and bullying.” In a June 2017 tweet, he commented on a CNN International report quoting the bishop of Southwark Cathedral in London after terrorists killed eight people in that city. According to CNN, the bishop stated that the attack and the killings were “not what the Muslim faith asks people to do.” Isaacs responded, “Bishop, if you read the Quran you will know ‘this’ is exactly what the Muslim faith instructs the faithful to do.” And in Twitter replies to expressions of sorrow about the 2016 Orlando nightclub terrorist attack, he simply tweeted the hashtag #Islam.
There are more such tweets from Isaacs, as well as retweets of other condemnations of Islam for acts violence and terrorism, all of which fuel prejudice against Muslims.
The statements are appalling by themselves, but more so given the important position Isaacs is seeking. The director general of IOM oversees an institution that is playing a key role in meeting the growing challenges of global migration. With an annual budget of more than $1 billion and an international staff, IOM provides a broad menu of critical services both to governments and people on the move. This includes assistance to newly resettled refugees, voluntary repatriation of vulnerable migrants to countries of origin, shelter for individuals displaced by conflict, and programs to prevent human trafficking, among dozens of other valuable initiatives.
My concern about this issue is reinforced by my personal experiences with this important organization. As a former National Security Council official, as U.N. deputy envoy for tsunami recovery between 2005 and 2007, and as assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration between 2009 and 2011, I witnessed firsthand critical IOM work on refugee resettlement and on an array of international shelter, health-care and other assistance initiatives.
IOM is very active in countries that are majority-Muslim, and Isaacs has understandably apologized for his unfortunate statements. There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of his apology, and we should welcome his renunciation of such noxious comments. Moreover, Isaacs, who has already had a long career in humanitarian service, will no doubt continue to make contributions to the field.
But he should not be elected to lead the world’s most important international migration agency. For that position, his regrettable statements must be disqualifying.
Imagine, for instance, had a candidate for this position made a similar succession of disparaging remarks about Jews, Catholics, evangelical Christians or any other religious group. Would anyone seriously suggest that such statements should not present a bar from assuming such an important office as director general of IOM? Of course not, because electing such an individual would be disrespectful, dispiriting and demoralizing to the victims of such expressions of bias.
Two other credible candidates, from Portugal and Costa Rica, provide real alternatives for IOM leadership, and one or the other should be chosen.
Some IOM members may be concerned that defeat of the American candidate could put at risk financial support from the United States, which provides the organization with about one-third of its budget. Such an aid cut would be unfortunate and disruptive, but such fears should not guide decision-making on such a fundamental issue of principle.
Expressions of anti-Muslim sentiment — or prejudice against any religious group — should be a source of profound concern for citizens and governments around the world. Now is a moment for world leaders to give voice to that concern and to avoid complicity in prejudice. The IOM mission, which includes upholding the human dignity and well-being of all migrants, demands no less.
This piece originally appeared here
The UN refugee agency’s annual report on global forced-displacement trends, released on Wednesday, which was World Refugee Day, focused on the additional 650,000 “marginalized and stateless” Muslim Rohingya expelled from Myanmar into Bangladesh from mid-2017, bringing the year-end total to almost 950,000 housed in the world’s largest refugee camp in rural Cox’s Bazar.
They face “increased protection risks” during the May-September monsoon season from natural disaster and disease, aggravated by overcrowding and aid-delivery coordination difficulties listed in a separate analysis by Washington-based advocacy group Refugees International. The Bangladeshi government has floated a proposal to relocate part of the population to Bhahshan Char Island off the Bay of Bengal coast, also a vulnerable climate zone.
The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) points out that more than half of the latest Rohingya refugee wave, which followed previous ones in 2016 and in the 1990s and 1970s, are children under the age of 17, and that women and girls often experience sexual violence.
Back in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, an estimated 125,000 have been internally displaced persons (IDPs) in camp detention for the past five years, while fewer than 500,000 remain in the northern part under “entrenched discrimination and denied human rights.”
Myanmar ranks as the No 4 home country for refugees globally, with only Afghanistan, at No 2 with double the exodus at 2.5 million, exceeding it in Asia. Almost 1.5 million Afghans have fled to neighboring Pakistan over decades of civil war, and Iran hosts just under 1 million.
In Southeast Asia, advanced emerging markets Malaysia and Thailand have also received large Rohingya contingents fleeing by boat, and a new study co-authored by the US-based Center for Global Development (CGD) and Tent Partnership for Refugees finds them mostly in urban areas with ready employment and supply-chain access to local and multinational business.
In 2017 the world’s displaced total reached another high of 68.5 million, with 20 million UNHCR-designated and 5.5 million Palestinian refugees over several generations. Developing nations are host to 85%, with Turkey at the top of the list with half of Syria’s 6.5 million uprooted, and Uganda a leading destination for multiple African crises.
The Rohingya exit was “particularly rapid,” as hundreds of thousands arrived over three months. The Asia-Pacific refugee population is 4.2 million, and it is already under a “protracted situation” where at least 25,000 are in place in an asylum country for a minimum five years, and the life-saving emergency has passed without a long-term solution.
Return and resettlement are options, but came to less than 1 million for both categories, leaving local integration as a main emphasis, promoted by best practices to be finalized in a new UN Global Refugee Compact this year. They include full citizenship, education and employment opportunities, even as Asian hosts currently impose curbs on political and poverty grounds.
The UNHCR trends report noted that the region had IDP return successes in Pakistan and the Philippines last year with around 300,000 going home in each country, but warned that their security was still “hazardous.” It added that international protection was especially difficult to obtain in Japan and South Korea, where initial asylum approval rates are less than 10%, while applicants from China still had almost 100,000 claims outstanding worldwide.
Regional anomalies were cited as well, such as Indonesia’s only 25% female and Tajikistan’s entirely male refugee groups, and Afghanistan’s nearly three-quarters versus Nepal’s 10% children’s share.
The CGD-Tent survey confirmed across a sample of two dozen host states that 60% were in urban locations, and half were of working age. Of the latter, one-quarter are in the biggest cities where multinational companies typically operate and can offer thousands of local jobs and supplier relationships.
Malaysia has more than 50,000 urban refugees, while Thailand is at the opposite end with fewer than 7,000 under the research classifications, although both have more than 2,000 registered foreign direct investors.
In Bangladesh, Chittagong, a city of 4 million, is relatively close to Cox’s Bazar and the giant Kutupalong-Balukhali camp. However, proximity is just a “first step,” since labor, skills and legal restrictions are common, which keep refugees in the low-paying informal economy at best.
The paper urges the business community to demonstrate with pilot projects and “policy voice” potential bottom-line and host-community returns, with East and South Asia immediate test cases for more compassionate and commercially minded treatment of the Rohingya.
This piece originally appeared here
The Trump administration’s policies on immigration have fired up local activists, with protests set for Escondido, San Ysidro, and downtown San Diego this weekend.
I signed a very good executive order yesterday, but that’s only limited. No matter how you cut it, it leads to separation, ultimately.” — Donald Trump, June 21, 2018
Another round of demonstrations is in the works for next weekend, coinciding with actions in over 400 cities being organized by Move-On. See calendar further down in the story for details.
And while a substantial part of the U.S. looks on in horror at the cruelty and chaos within the administration, the rest of the world is taking notice.
From the Washington Post:
Leaders from London to Ottawa to Tehran described the separations as unjust and cruel. In pointed comments before lawmakers in Parliament, British Prime Minister Theresa May described photos she had seen of children “being held in what appear to be cages.”
“This is wrong,” she said. “This is not something we agree with.”
The pope, who has placed the issues facing migrants at the center of his papacy, also stepped into the issue, saying in an interview with the Reuters news agency that he agreed with statements by U.S. Catholic bishops, who called the separations “immoral” and “contrary to our Catholic values.” He added that “populism” and “creating psychosis” are not the way to resolve migration problems.
Doug Sanders, writing in the Globe and Mail, points to crime statistics showing immigrants – including illegal immigrants and refugees from Latin America – have considerably lower rates of criminality, including violent crime, than Americans do.
To be clear: There is no immigration crisis in 2018. Not in the United States, not in Europe, not in Canada.
“It is not a migration emergency – it’s a political emergency,” William Lacy Swing, the American director-general of the International Organization for Migration, said this week. The IOM’s 8,400 staff monitor the movement of people around the world, and while they’ve identified plenty of challenges, there aren’t any overwhelming or unmanageable movements of people this year. “The overwhelming majority of migration is taking place in a regular, safe and orderly fashion,” he said.
“There is a very serious problem of communication, but what we’re seeing is that the numbers are pretty modest,” said Angel Gurria, secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. The OECD, which advises 34 countries (including the United States and Canada) on immigration policy, this week released its annual report on migration levels in OECD countries. It showed a fall in numbers to ordinary, non-crisis levels.
Refugees International marked World Refugee Day by issuing a report card giving the Trump administration an “F” on performance concerning refugee and humanitarian protections.
We have evaluated the Trump administration in six critical areas, involving performance both at home in the United States and overseas. Regrettably, as described in detail in the sections that follow, the Trump administration has received an overall failing grade for its policies and performance.
Unfortunately, over the past 17 months, the Trump administration has weakened U.S. domestic refugee law and humanitarian policy significantly. This of course includes the inhumane separation of families seeking asylum at the southwest border of the United States. But there are many other examples of this erosion of basic protection principles, including the dramatic weakening of the U.S. political asylum process generally, the crippling of the U.S. Refugee Admissions program, and the disregard of humanitarian imperatives in the application of Temporary Protected Status. In humanitarian activities overseas, President Trump has sought to roll back U.S. leadership in financial support for lifesaving assistance based on need, imposed policies that adversely impact women and girls, and failed to assert leadership in efforts to end conflicts that continue to inflict horrific humanitarian suffering
As the President’s push to get an immigration bill out of Congress failed, he pivoted again to blaming Democrats, saying stories about immigrant detention were “phony.”
As Republicans in Congress struggled to reach consensus on immigration legislation, the White House has grappled with fierce criticism in recent weeks over the policy that has separated more than 2,300 children from their families.
Despite his concession on Wednesday, Trump suggested on Friday that some of the wrenching tales that have emerged from the border were fabricated by Democrats, tweeting, “We cannot allow our Country to be overrun by illegal immigrants as the Democrats tell their phony stories of sadness and grief, hoping it will help them in the elections.”
Following the president’s order to keep families together in detention during immigration proceedings, it remained unclear how and when those children would be reunited with their parents, and where families would be held while the parents face criminal charges.
This piece originally appeared here
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed Wednesday that the United States is working tirelessly to support refugees around the world, even as the Trump administration drew international condemnation for its policy of family separation and its treatment of asylum seekers. In a statement marking World Refugee Day, Pompeo praised the “strength and courage” of millions of refugees, adding, “We will continue to help the world’s most vulnerable refugees, reflecting the deeply held values of the American people.” Pompeo’s comment came as Refugees International graded the Trump administration’s treatment of refugees with an “F” in a scathing new report released Wednesday. Refugee rights groups say admissions of refugees have slowed to a crawl under President Trump, with the U.S. on track to take in just 22,000 people this year. That’s less than half of Donald Trump’s stated target of 45,000 refugees—which was already set to be the lowest number resettled in the U.S. since 1980.
This piece originally appears here
WASHINGTON, United States — The United States is on course this year to welcome the lowest number of refugees since its resettlement program began in 1980, as President Donald Trump escalates his anti-immigration rhetoric.
America has historically been by far the most generous destination for those fleeing war and persecution, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended its record Wednesday on World Refugee Day.
But, even as many Americans recoil at images of child asylum seekers separated from their families at the US border, official figures show a dramatic drop in refugees accepted for resettlement.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a press conference in Amman, Jordan, on April 30, 2018. (AFP Photo/Stringer)
And this when the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has pointed to a global crisis fed by wars in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia — and when the United States remains the top preferred destination.
Already last year, Trump had slashed the number for refugees that Washington is prepared to accept to a historic low of 45,000 — down from 110,000 in the last fiscal year under Barack Obama.
But between October 1 and June 15, two thirds of the way through the 2018 fiscal year, only 15,383 of the most vulnerable, chosen mainly from camps in Africa and the Middle East, had been admitted.
Refugee advocates and resettlement agencies said this puts the United States on course to accept fewer than 25,000 refugees — fewer than in any year since 1977 and down from 84,994 in 2016.
The program formally began in 1980 with the passage of the US Refugee Act, but State Department admissions figures go back to 1975.
“Refugee resettlement to the US has been ground to a halt,” the major non-profit International Rescue Committee declared in a highly critical report timed to coincide with World Refugee Day.
A two-year-old Honduran asylum seeker cries as her mother is searched and detained near the US-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas (John Moore/Getty Images/AFP)
Independent advocacy group Refugees International gave Washington a failing “F” grade in its Refugee Day report card and accused Trump of misleading the public about the danger of accepting Muslims.
Despite America having accepted around a million refugees since the September 11, 2001 attacks, not one has been convicted of an act of violence resulting in an American death, the group said.
Nevertheless, the group alleged, the admissions program has been “crippled” and the separation of families seeking asylum is “inhumane.”
On Tuesday, Trump made clear his position on asylum seekers on the southern US border, declaring “I don’t want people coming in” and alleging they have rehearsed exaggerated claims of persecution.
But refugees arriving under the resettlement program are vetted abroad by US security and intelligence agencies and chosen mainly from at-risk groups in UN-registered camps — the elderly, widows and disabled.
Nevertheless, with ever more stringent checks pushing the vetting process to greater length, the numbers are down, de facto inching Trump closer to his 2016 campaign pledge to ban all Muslim immigration.
Pompeo defended the system in his World Refugee Day message, noting that the United States remains a humanitarian leader which has provided $8 billion in aid this year to help war and disaster victims.
“This assistance is provided as close to refugees’ homes as possible in order to facilitate their voluntary, safe, and dignified return if and when conditions allow,” he said.
US President Donald Trump signs an executive order to keep families together at the border, but says that the ‘zero-tolerance’ prosecution policy will continue, during an event in the Oval Office of the White House, on June 20, 2018. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
While not addressing the numbers coming through the system today, Pompeo noted correctly that the United States has resettled 3.3 million people — more than any other country — since the program began.
He said “global displacement has reached record levels” and urged governments, financial institutions and the private sector to do more while the US will “prioritize the admission of the most vulnerable.”
And he vowed that the United States would continue to work to end the conflicts that have led to what the UNHCR says are 65.6 million displaced people around the world — a new record.
This piece originally appeared here
Washington (CNN): Secretary of State Mike Pompeo commemorated World Refugee Day on Wednesday by praising the "strength, courage, and resilience of millions of refugees worldwide," but made no mention of the Trump administration's hardline enforcement against illegal immigration that has been widely criticized.
The Trump administration is coming under fire for its treatment of asylum seekers along the southern border with Mexico and continues to reduce the number of refugees it accepts into the United States every year.
Pompeo's statement did not refer to the current situation along the border with Mexico that has generated controversy as young children, including toddlers and babies, according to an Associated Press report, have been placed in shelters after being separated from their families who illegally crossed into the US.
Pompeo touted the assistance the US has provided to refugee crises playing out in Asia, Africa and the Middle East and said the US "will continue to help the world's most vulnerable refugees, reflecting the deeply held values of the American people."
'Safety and security'
However, Pompeo also made clear in his statement that the US will look to other countries and organizations to play a bigger role in addressing the global migration crisis as the Trump administration changes its approach to both refugees - who apply for resettlement from abroad - and asylum seekers, such as those who enter along the southern US border after traveling from Central America.
Pompeo's statement highlights the over $200 million the United States has provided to address the Rohingya refugee crisis in Myanmar and Bangladesh, and the nearly $277 million the United States has donated to the calamity in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but is notable for its omission of the conditions of certain countries in Central America that currently drive the large numbers of individuals seeking asylum in the United States.
"Since 1975, the United States has accepted more than 3.3 million refugees for permanent resettlement - more than any other country in the world," Pompeo said in the statement. "The United States will continue to prioritize the admission of the most vulnerable refugees while upholding the safety and security of the American people."
In September, the Trump administration announced it would cap refugee admissions for the upcoming fiscal year at 45,000, with regional caps of 19,000 for Africa, 17,500 for the Near East and South Asia (which includes most Middle Eastern countries), 5,000 for East Asia, 2,000 for Europe and Central Asia, and 1,500 for Latin America and the Caribbean.
Trump: Dems want immigrants to 'infest' our country 02:05
Since the start of the fiscal year, the US has admitted just under 15,600 refugees, compared to over 46,400 during the same time period in the final year of the Obama administration, according to publicly available government data.
These numbers include only people who are legally qualified as "refugees," meaning they are referred to the US for resettlement by the United Nations. It does not include individuals who seek asylum from within the US, or from a US port of entry, and therefore does not include Central American migrants who arrive through the southern US border, though these applicants are often fleeing similar violence and persecution.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said Wednesday the US received the highest number of asylum applications amongst nations in the 37 country organization, with 329,800 applications registered in 2017 alone - a 26% increase in asylum applications to the US, replacing Germany as the top destination of those seeking refuge within the group.
In its most recent annual report on Global Trends in Forced Migration, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), notes that "the US received the largest number of new claims for asylum with 331,700 in 2017 - nearly double the 172,700 claims from two years previous and a continuation of an upward trend that began in 2013."
Refugees International, an independent refugee advocacy group, issued a report card Wednesday on the Trump administration's handling of refugee issues and humanitarian protection, and gave it an "F," noting that it has weakened US domestic refugee law, humanitarian policy and the political asylum process significantly.
Pompeo's statement, which lauded the work of the UNHCR, comes a day after the US announced it was withdrawing from the UN Human Rights Council.
This piece originally appeared here
As the international community marks World Refugee Day on Wednesday, a new report card offers a scathing—though unsurprising—assessment of how the Trump administration's doing in terms of refugee and humanitarian protection, assigning it an F.
The performance review from the Washington, D.C.-based humanitarian organization Refugees International (RI) covers six areas. Three take a look at how the administration is doing domestically—regarding the issues of asylum, the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, and Temporary Protected Status. The other three cover how the administration is doing abroad—specifically regarding humanitarian funding and diplomacy to save lives, efforts focused on refugee women and girls, and overall leadership on international migration issues.
While the administration scraped by with Ds for the categories of humanitarian funding and refugee women and girls, it failed the other four, giving it an overall grade of F.
"The challenges confronting refugees and displaced persons around the world are the greatest I have ever witnessed in decades of work on human rights and refugee issues," commented RI president Eric Schwartz, who noted that there are nearly 70 million people uprooted from their homes across the globe.
That displacement, he continued, comes "at a time in which governments are becoming increasingly restrictive in their treatment of refugees and displaced persons, including, regrettably, the government of the United States."
"Our situation at the southwest border is really horrendous—the inhumane separation of children from parents who are seeking asylum in violation of basic decency as well as U.S. commitments to international humanitarian principles," he noted.
In addition to that policy, the report card also notes with concern the new Justice Department guidance which "put[s] at risk the lives of thousands of women who seek to escape domestic and gang violence."
Detailing other diminished protections, the report card singles out:
The dramatic weakening of the U.S. political asylum process generally, the crippling of the U.S. Refugee Admissions program, and the disregard of humanitarian imperatives in the application of Temporary Protected Status. In humanitarian activities overseas, President Trump has sought to roll back U.S. leadership in financial support for lifesaving assistance based on need, imposed policies that adversely impact women and girls, and failed to assert leadership in efforts to end conflicts that continue to inflict horrific humanitarian suffering.
In contrast to the Trump administration's criminalization of those fleeing war, poverty, and other adverse factors, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi called for World Refugees Day to be "a time for solidarity with refugees—and with the communities that welcome them."
"Now, more than ever," he continued, "taking care of refugees must be a global—and shared—responsibility. It's time to do things differently."
That perspective on refugees was echoed by Amnesty International.
"Here in the U.S., we should be welcoming them into our communities with open arms and inviting them to our table, not building taller walls and implementing draconian policies meant to keep refugees and asylum seekers out," said Ryan Mace, grassroots advocacy and refugee specialist for the human rights organization.
This piece originally appeared here
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo marked World Refugee Day Wednesday with a statement “commemorating the strength, courage, and resilience of millions of refugees worldwide” as the Trump administration continues to defend its policy of separating children from parents who bring them into the U.S. illegally seeking asylum.
“We join the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and our international partners in commemorating the strength, courage, and resilience of millions of refugees worldwide who have been forced to flee their homes due to persecution and conflict,” Pompeo said in a statement. “The United States will continue to be a world leader in providing humanitarian assistance and working to forge political solutions to the underlying conflicts that drive displacement.”
The secretary of state’s statement comes amid boiling outrage directed at the Trump administration over its policy of prosecuting everyone who enters the U.S. illegally, a practice that has resulted in thousands of children being separated from their parents after crossing into the U.S. Outcry has risen in recent days, fueled by images of children kept in cages and audio of them crying and wailing after being separated from their parents.
Many of those seeking asylum in the U.S. are migrants from Central American nations where violence is nearly ubiquitous and criminal gangs exert significant control.
Asylum seekers who enter the U.S, and make their claim legally at a port of entry are not subject to arrest and separation, only those who cross the border illegally. There have been some reports, however, of families separated after they seek asylum at legal ports of entry.
That the State Department is not involved with the separation policy, a point spokeswoman Heather Nauert made Tuesday at her press briefing, has not shielded it from criticism. During a department-hosted Facebook live chat on traveling with children, the hosts were inundated with criticism and sarcastic comments from viewers, such as "do you recommend cage training for children to get them used to arriving in the US?"
Pompeo, in his Wednesday statement, touted America’s significant commitment to humanitarian assistance abroad, totaling $8 billion in fiscal year 2017. He made specific mention of U.S. efforts in Burma and Bangladesh, as well as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Pompeo wrote that “the United States also maintains a steadfast commitment to getting life-saving support to Syrians wherever they are.”
Trump has pushed hard to dramatically limit the number of refugees the U.S. accepts and has sought to ban all Syrians, refugee or otherwise, from entering the U.S. for security reasons.
“Through active humanitarian diplomacy, humanitarian assistance, and tireless efforts to end conflicts and achieve durable solutions for persecuted people around the world, we will continue to help the world’s most vulnerable refugees, reflecting the deeply held values of the American people,” Pompeo said in his statement.
Refugees International, a non-profit that advocates for refugees around the world, issued the Trump administration an "F" on its World Refugee Day report card.
"The Trump administration has undermined U.S. refugee law and longstanding U.S. humanitarian policy through the inhumane separation of families seeking asylum, weakening of the U.S. asylum process generally, and crippling of the U.S. Refugee Admissions program," the group wrote. "Overseas, President Trump has sought to restrict lifesaving humanitarian aid, including aid to refugee women and girls, and failed in leadership to end conflicts that inflict humanitarian suffering."
This piece originally appeared here
A month after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, Army Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan stepped off a helicopter in the town of Ceiba with a mission: Get relief supplies to people in need.
He and FEMA's regional administrator, Thomas Von Essen, told the town's mayor and other mayors from across the island that generators, plastic roofs and tarps would be there within days.
"There are 50,000 more blue tarps coming in over the next week," Buchanan said. "So these will all get pushed to all the mayors."
Von Essen added that FEMA had as many as 500 generators on the island before the storm and would soon distribute them.
But today, it's clear none of those promises were kept, and FEMA and the federal government failed on multiple fronts to help the devastated island recover.
Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan (left) talks to a U.S. Army helicopter crew member in Barranquitas, Puerto Rico, after a supply delivery mission for residents affected by Hurricane Maria, Oct. 23, 2017.
Ricardo Arduengo/AFP/Getty Images
NPR and the PBS series Frontline examined hundreds of pages of internal documents and emails. Rather than a well-orchestrated effort, they paint a picture of a relief agency in chaos, struggling with key contracts, basic supplies and even its own workforce.
Internal briefing documents show FEMA never had 500 generators on the island before the storm — it had 25. Its plastic roof program was out of plastic, and the most tarps FEMA ever produced was 125,000 — months after people needed them.
Hours after NPR and FRONTLINE published these findings, Democratic lawmakers from the House and Senate introduced a bill to create an independent commission to investigate the "flawed" federal response in Puerto Rico. They noted the "botched FEMA contracts" in calling for the commission. The legislation also calls for an examination of the island's death toll, and whether Puerto Rico was treated differently than Texas and Florida were after hurricanes last year, as NPR and FRONTLINE found.
"It is heartbreaking to learn that the more we closely examine [Hurricane Maria's] aftermath, the clearer we see the federal government failed the people of Puerto Rico," said U.S. Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., in announcing the legislation, which was written by U.S. Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez, D-N.Y.
FEMA's federal coordinating officer for Maria, Michael Byrne, said blame for any failures rests with the storm, not with federal responders contending with taxed resources and complicated geography.
"If there's a villain here, it's the 190 mph winds and the 50 inches of rain," Byrne said. "That's the villain. That's what did the damage to the people. We've done nothing but try to remedy that."
Still, as NPR and Frontline traveled the island in the months after the storm, it was clear many of the problems were man-made.
In Luquillo, Mayor Jesus Rodriguez said he had been waiting more than two months for FEMA to provide just seven generators that would power the town's water pumps. He said he couldn't understand what could hold up such a critical request in a town that had no running water.
"Water is life," he said, frustrated.
In Piñones, William Torruella, a pastor, and his congregation spent weeks gathering supplies on their own to deliver to nearby towns. He said when FEMA arrived in Morovis, two months after the storm, he asked what had taken so long. Officials told him the roads to the town had been closed.
"They were not closed," Torruella said, shaking his head. "I've been going there. The excuses do not explain what's happening."
Even an international disaster worker checking on survivors in Yabucoa in January was confused by the delays.
"We were pretty surprised to see how slow the response was [in Puerto Rico]," said Alice Thomas, a program manager with Refugees International, who has been to more than a dozen disasters. "Compared especially to major emergencies I've seen in foreign countries," she said. "And we couldn't get over particularly how bad the shelter response was."
The seemingly simple process of distributing tarps to storm victims illustrates the problem. Thomas said storm victims need tarps in the first week or two if they hope to save their homes.
"Why they couldn't get tarps, I do not know," she said, adding that federal officials working on the ground called the tarp delays a "mystery."
When asked what accounted for the delays, FEMA's Byrne said it was difficult to get supplies to Puerto Rico because it's an island.
"We had problems getting everything," he said. "When you have to ship it, you have to add seven days or sometimes longer to everything that you want to bring in. It's definitely a challenge."
Yet 20 years ago, after Hurricane Georges hit the island, there weren't reports of these logistical problems.
Contractors apply a FEMA tarp to a home in Morovis on Dec. 20, 2017, three months after it was damaged by Hurricane Maria. The day Maria hit, FEMA had fewer than 12,000 tarps on the island, far below what was needed.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
And the agency's own records reflect a different picture.
According to planning and briefing documents, the agency did not pre-position enough supplies on the island before the storm, as federal rules require. The day Maria hit, agency records show, FEMA had fewer than 12,000 tarps on the island. Then, the agency failed to acquire more.
First, records show, FEMA hired a company that was just two months old. It didn't provide a single tarp. Then FEMA chose a company whose last contract had been for $4,000 worth of kitchen utensils for a prison. It didn't produce a single tarp either.
Finally, FEMA turned to a third company, called Master Group. Its specialty, according to its website, is importing hookah tobacco. It produced some tarps, but when employees examined them in a warehouse in January, FEMA says, the tarps failed a quality-control inspection.
Import records examined by NPR and Frontline show the company brought the tarps in from China, which violates federal contracting rules. After NPR and Frontline questioned FEMA about this, the agency suspended the company.
FEMA was also struggling with contracts to deliver food, diesel fuel and other supplies.
Byrne said these were just a few troubled contracts out of more than 2,000 that did not have problems.
"We had a couple of ones that didn't work out well and we dealt with it," Byrne said. "I continue [to] focus on getting it solved."
Behind the scenes, though, some federal workers were discouraged. In one email, a top Army Corps official complained to FEMA managers, "We cannot survive any longer with any delay of materials," the engineer wrote. "I cannot keep saying we are trying. ... I need solutions."
A car battery connected to an inverter and a generator provides power for a street party on a block without electricity on Dec. 24, 2017.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
The Army Corps' plastic roof program, known as blue roofs, provides stronger roof sheeting tied down to houses. Without tarps, it became even more critical.
But FEMA didn't have enough plastic sheeting on the island. In the first month after Hurricane Irma in Florida, records show, the Army Corps put up 4,500 blue roofs. In Puerto Rico, just 439.
"It goes back to how much material do you have?" said Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, who oversees the Army Corps. "Almost all the warehouses were empty. So when we hit, the amount of available supplies, either generators, blue roof material, whatever it might be, were just not there ... that could have gotten us more of a jump-start."
When it came to getting the lights on, federal officials chose a contractor named Fluor — a company with global experience building power generation plants but little experience rebuilding the grids that distribute power to communities. Government sources said they went with Fluor because it was a company they trusted, but they also described weeks of bureaucratic delays as the company got up to speed.
But that wasn't all that was causing FEMA headaches. FEMA was struggling with its own staff. One internal staffing document reveals that more than a quarter of the staff FEMA hired to provide people assistance on the island was "untrained" and another quarter was "unqualified."
Byrne bristles at the suggestion that FEMA didn't help people.
"I think we've done a lot of support," he said. "How can you look at the fact that we gave a billion dollars in assistance out, that we've given out 62 million liters of water, 52 million meals to the people. How can you categorize that as not providing assistance? I find that that doesn't connect."
Oscar Carrión taught himself how to string up electrical wire and restored power to thousands in his town.
Still, he said FEMA will learn from its mistakes. There were "a number of places where we weren't perfect," he said. "I'll accept that. I'm going to keep working to get better."
Four months after the storm, in a small neighborhood near San Juan called Villa Hugo, local resident Oscar Carrión wasn't waiting for help.
He had taken it upon himself to turn the lights on and had already restored power to 3,000 neighbors.
"I'm afraid of heights and of the electrical current," he said in Spanish. "The first time I got up there, I was trembling all over. I still tremble."
Carrión owns a grocery and has four kids. He has no experience working on power poles and doesn't own any safety equipment. He and his neighbors pooled together $2,500 to buy an old rusted bucket truck.
On this day, the neighbors unwound wire along the street and Carrión worked pole to pole.
"I guess I am taking a risk," he said, "but it's difficult to live in the dark. We were tired of hearing that they can't get to us. So we've decided to move forward on our own."
As he got back into the truck, he paused for a minute and said, "If we don't do it, nobody will do it for us."
Italy’s interior minister has sparked a new migration crisis in the Mediterranean by barring two rescue boats from bringing refugees to shore, a week after the Aquarius was prevented from docking.
“Two other ships with the flag of Netherlands, Lifeline and Seefuchs, have arrived off the coast of Libya, waiting for their load of human beings abandoned by the smugglers,” Matteo Salvini, the leader of the anti-immigrant party the League, wrote on his Facebook page. “These gentlemen know that Italy no longer wants to be complicit in the business of illegal immigration, and therefore will have to look for other ports [not Italian] where to go.”
Italy’s closure of its ports to the migrant rescue ship Aquarius, which was carrying 620 people, triggered warnings from aid agencies of a deadly summer at sea for people trying to cross the Mediterranean.
Axel Steier, the co-founder of Mission Lifeline which operates the Lifeline ship, said his crew had rescued more than 100 migrants off Libya on Friday in an operation with a US warship, and transferred them to a Turkish merchant vessel.
He said his ship was too small to make the journey from Libya to Italian ports and that he always transferred migrants to other ships, but insisted those craft should have the right to land in Italy.
“I am sure there is an obligation for Italy to take them because its closest safe harbour is Lampedusa. We hand over migrants to Europe because of the Geneva convention,” he said.
Vessels chartered by an assortment of European NGOs have plied the waters off Libya for three years, rescuing migrants from leaking boats and transporting them to Sicily.
Following Salvini’s decision to prevent the Aquarius from docking, however, Malta quickly followed suit, leaving the vessel stranded at sea until Spain offered to take the ship. It is due to arrive in Valencia on Sunday.
Crews of the NGO boats say Salvini’s port closures leaves them without anywhere close by to take the people they rescue, and that the move will prove counterproductive.
“It will not stop people coming,” said Ruben Neugebauer, of the German charity ship Sea Watch. “They will come anyway, but more of them will die.”
Sea Watch refused last week to take 40 migrants rescued by the US navy ship Trenton off Libya, fearing a fate similar to that of the Aquarius. Trenton waited four days before being allowed to dock in Sicily.
Charities say the NGO boats are a vital lifeline, rescuing more than 88,000 people in the past two years, but critics say they are a pull factor, encouraging people to make the dangerous sea journey.
More than 600,000 migrants have made the crossing from Libya to Italy in the past four years, and Salvini’s stance reflects frustration that the rest of Europe refuses to take its share of arrivals. At least 13,000 people have drowned trying to reach European shores.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, accused Salvini last week of cynicism and irresponsibility, but at the same time refused to allow the Aquarius to dock at French ports.
“Malta and Italy didn’t open their ports, but then most other European governments didn’t help either,” said Izza Leghtas, a senior advocate at Europe for Refugees International. “They are all passing the ball among themselves.“
If the NGO boats are unable to land the people they rescue and cease to operate, Operation Sophia, an EU anti-smuggler mission patrolling the Mediterranean, may take up some of the slack. NGOs, however, say its warships operate too far out to sea, given that people traffickers favour towing rubber boats full of migrants to the edge of Libya’s 12-mile territorial waters before setting them adrift.
Italy’s port closures come despite an 85% fall in migrant crossings since last year. The decrease is in part the result of the EU and Italy training and funding Libya’s coastguard to intercept vessels.
Read full article in The Guardian, here.