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What’s The Future For The Rohingya?

The abuse of Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar continues, with hundreds more fleeing to neighbouring Bangladesh in recent months.

There, they join the world's largest refugee camp of around a million other Rohingyas who fled a co-ordinated campaign of violence designed to drive them out of mostly Buddhist Myanmar.

But what will happen to these displaced people long term? Myanmar has claimed they would be able to return, but it’s clear that remains impossible.

The aid agency Refugees International says the most recent arrivals to Bangladesh paint a bleak picture of life in Myanmar for remaining Rohingyas.

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The Atlantic: The UN’s Migration Body Rejects Trump’s Pick to Be Its Leader

Since President Trump took office in January 2017, the U.S. has withdrawn from the Paris climate agreement and the non-binding Global Compact on Migration.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



Courthouse Service News: Federal Judge to Hear Trump’s Request to Extend Immigrant Detention

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

Reuters: Trump choice to lead IOM could see American rejected for first time in decades

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, 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

Christian Science Monitor: Refugee crisis: While some follow US as it disengages, others lead

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

Washington Post: Anti-Islam statements should disqualify Trump’s pick for U.N. migration post

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

Asia Times: Reports highlight displaced Rohingya and business agendas

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

CNN: Pompeo praises refugees, but doesn't mention US border crisis

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


Common Dreams: On World Refugee Day, Trump Gets Big Fat "F" for Treatment of World's Displaced and Persecuted

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

Politico: Pompeo commemorates World Refugee Day amid family separation controversy

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

NPR-All Things Considered: FEMA Blamed Delays In Puerto Rico On Maria; Agency Records Tell Another Story

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."

Financial Times: Aquarius dispute shows EU leaders at sea over migration

From aboard the Aquarius, somewhere between Sardinia and Spain, Aloys Vimard tells how the ship’s 629 migrant passengers experienced the relief of being rescued from the Mediterranean Sea — then the horror of being denied the right to land in Italy.

“One man threatened to jump into the water because he was so scared of being returned to Libya,” said Mr Vimard, a Médecins Sans Frontières project co-ordinator on the former German coastguard vessel. “He said: ‘I don’t trust you, I would rather die than go back to Libya.’ Everyone was very, very anxious.”

The Aquarius is now sailing towards an emergency safe harbour offered by Spain. But the political storm over the vessel, whipped up by a new government in Rome, shows no sign of abating.

Tension over European migration policy, which has been half-hidden since almost 2.5m people applied for asylum during the 2015-16 crisis, has burst into the open — showing it to be every bit as much an existential fear for the fate of the bloc as the eurozone’s financial crisis.

Since Matteo Salvini, Italy’s anti-immigration interior minister and leader of the far-right league, denied landing rights to the Aquarius, Italy has argued with Malta and sparred with France over the fate of its passengers. Criticism from President Emmanuel Macron sucked Rome and Paris into a diplomatic row.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s differences with her interior minister, Horst Seehofer, over migration policy threatened a full-blown coalition crisis. Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s chancellor, added fuel to the fire during a visit to Berlin by declaring that he, Mr Seehofer and Mr Salvini were an “axis of the willing” demanding a harder line on migration.

The disputes threaten a fragile detente over migration that has held mainly because of the steep fall in the numbers coming across the Mediterranean: they have dropped from 1m in 2015 to fewer than 40,000 this year, mainly due to a squeeze on travel via Turkey and Libya. It stokes a sense that Europe is ill-prepared for the next migration crisis— which many see as a matter of when, not if. I do not see any solution at this point in time. Malta cannot accept them. Spain cannot keep on accepting them EU diplomat

“It’s a big mess and they are all responsible for it,” said Izza Leghtas, senior advocate for Europe for Refugees International. “It just puts them to shame.”

The Aquarius’s long-suffering passengers may yet face more problems when they dock in Valencia on Sunday morning. There are worries of trouble once those rescued — more than 500 of whom have now been transferred to two Italian ships — disembark. España 2000, a far-right group, has called on members to gather on Saturday night at the port.

The Aquarius row has underscored what one diplomat brands the “Gordian knot” of Europe’s migration disputes. There is no EU authority with the power to interpret — still less enforce — where international maritime law dictates a rescue ship should dock.

“I do not see any solution at this point in time,” the diplomat said, when asked what could be done to prevent a repeat of the Aquarius tug of war. “Malta [by far the smallest EU state] cannot accept them. Spain cannot keep on accepting them.”

The Aquarius affair will intensify an already fractious debate due at an EU summit this month on long-running efforts to overhaul asylum policy.

An attempt to reform the EU’s so-called Dublin regulation, on which states are responsible for asylum applicants, seems intractable. Central and northern European states including Hungary have resisted a push from Mediterranean countries for compulsory refugee resettlement quotas. Mr Kurz has raised the stakes by signalling that Vienna will push harsh policies when it starts its six-month term as EU president next month.

Mr Kurz — who governs with the far-right Freedom party — and Lars Lokke Rasmussen, his Danish counterpart, last week raised the idea of sending failed asylum seekers to a camp in a non-EU country.

The tough rhetoric has frustrated European envoys who argue calm consideration is the only way to win a comprehensive pan-EU settlement on migration. “Unfortunately all of these interventions are pushing us away from a balanced debate,” said one diplomat. “We need to make things a bit more rational.”

Perhaps nowhere is this felt more than in Germany, where Ms Merkel has warned that a failure to solve the migrant and asylum crisis will put fundamental tenets of EU life — the free movement of people — at stake. But as her political opponents realise, her authority has been undermined by the fallout from her “open doors” policy in 2015 and 2016, when Germany let in more than 1m refugees.

The EU also faces growing pressure over its anti-migration efforts on Libya, which have been crucial to cutting arrivals in Italy. The UN Security Council last week imposed sanctions on six alleged people-traffickers including Abd al-Rahman al-Milad, a local commander in Libya’s EU-trained coastguard. Recommended Review Non-Fiction Europe’s migrant crisis, up close and personal A UN panel of experts has accused Mr Milad’s unit of being “directly involved in the sinking of migrant boats using firearms”. The EU has said it did not train Mr Milad, but has not responded to repeated questions from the FT on whether it trained anybody under his command.

Defenders of EU policies say it has invested in efforts to give human rights training to coastguards, monitor their behaviour and improve conditions in migrant detention centres.

On the European home front, diplomats point to progress in areas such as accelerating and co-ordinating asylum procedures, and identifying safe countries of return.

But the Aquarius case has shown once again how quickly the trouble on migration in Europe can blow in — and how grave the political and human consequences can be.

“We were left adrift during 48 hours without any instructions, any idea of what would happen,” said MSF’s Mr Vimard, speaking as the ship continued its fraught voyage to Valencia. “When you see authorities put political considerations above the safety of the people, it’s really shocking.”

This piece originally appeared here

Washington Post: The U.N. and Burma signed a deal to resettle Rohingya refugees, but no one knows what’s in it

Last week, the United Nations inked a deal with the government of Burma to begin the long process of resettling some of the 700,000 Rohingya refugees who fled their homes for neighboring Bangladesh after a brutal military campaign last year.

The Burmese government promoted the agreement as proof that it is doing right by the Rohingya, a persecuted minority that is denied citizenship rights and freedom of movement in Burma. The United Nations has celebrated it as a major first step that would help secure the future of the Rohingya in Burma.

But no outside observers are able to verify the claims: The agreement has been kept unusually secret. 

The three parties that signed the memorandum of understanding — the U.N. refugee agency, or UNHCR; the U.N. Development Program; and the Burmese government — have declined to make the text of the agreement available to those who have asked to see it, including journalists, other U.N. officials and U.N. donor countries such as the United States.

Nongovernmental organizations, including Refugees International, have urged that the text be made public and warned in a statement that “conditions for Rohingya in Myanmar remain appalling,” referring to Burma by its official name. A statement from about two dozen Rohingya organizations across the world also raised concerns about keeping the text secret.

“All previous records showed that the U.N. agencies, including UNHCR as the agent of the interest of the international community, could not provide adequate protection to the Rohingya returnees due to obstinacy of the Myanmar government,” the groups said. “We are intrinsically aware of the false promises of the Myanmar authorities who are characterized by cheating and brutality.”

A Western diplomat closely following the negotiations said the United Nations has withheld the text of the agreement at the request of the Burmese government and called the lack of transparency “problematic.” The diplomat, who was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly, spoke on the condition of anonymity. A spokesman for the Burmese government could not be reached to comment. 

In response to questions from The Washington Post, Knut Ostby, the U.N. resident and humanitarian coordinator in Burma, said the UNHCR, the UNDP and Burma's government are in “discussion about publicly releasing the contents of the MoU.”

“Such a decision would require consent of all three parties,” he added.

Negotiations between the U.N. agencies and the Burmese government took about four months, with especially heated discussions about the issues of citizenship and identity for the Rohingya. Most Burmese, including Aung San Suu Kyi and other government officials, do not even use the term “Rohingya.” The U.N. news release on the resettlement agreement referred to the group as “refugees in Bangladesh.”

Ostby said in an interview before the signing of the agreement last week that both sides eventually agreed that the Rohingya need to have “an identity and need to exist as normal people.”

He also said that the agreement specifies that the Rohingya need to be able to live in safety and be provided basic services, including access to work and shelter. “We have requested and agreed that there should be a clear and predictable pathway to citizenship,” Ostby said.

But no details have been provided by the United Nations, which will not be handling the citizenship verification process, or the Burmese government. And a statement from Suu Kyi’s office on the repatriation agreement simply refers to the Rohingya community as “displaced persons” rather than using the word “Rohingya.”

In an interview with the Japanese broadcaster NHK, Suu Kyi pointed to the agreement as a sign that Burma's government has “carried out all [their] responsibilities” toward the refugees, and she urged the international community to study its text — the same text that has not been made public.

The Rohingya refugees themselves doubt that the government can ensure their safety. Many fled amid atrocities that allegedly included rape, torture and extrajudicial killings at the hands of the Burmese military, carried out in response to attacks by a militant group on police posts in Rakhine state.

The United Nations has not negotiated with the refugees themselves on the terms of their resettlement but says it can do so now because it will be granted access to northern Rakhine, where the attacks occurred. The area was all but sealed off after the violence in August.

“We have not been in a position to negotiate with refugees before this, but UNHCR will now be in a position to have these conversations,” Ostby added.

This piece originally appeared here

The Jordan Times: Experts launch global migration programme for ‘improved humanitarian policy framework’

AMMAN — Policymakers, academics and government officials from around the globe recently gathered in Washington DC to discuss new ways to tackle global migration, displacement, and humanitarian policy challenges in the 21st century, as part of the official launch of the “Migration, Displacement and Humanitarian Policy” programme.

Organised by the Washington based Center for Global Development (CGD), the conference aimed to “foster constructive dialogue around the global compacts on migration and refugees, and advance policy discussion on a range of issues such as innovative labour mobility agreements, compacts for refugee and host livelihoods, and reform of the humanitarian system”, CGD director of communications Holly Shulman told The Jordan Times.

In his opening remarks, CGD president Masood Ahmed said: “We are thrilled to see the launch of our programme that brings together the different streams of research and policy work in these areas that we see more and more interconnected.”

“Rather than thinking about migration as having a set of fixed benefits or costs, it is the policy framework under which you manage migration that determines what the outcomes are going to be in terms of balance of benefits and costs,” Ahmed stressed, citing the long term work undertaken by researchers Cindy Huang, Jeremy Konyndyk and Michael Clemens that helps enlighten policy work in areas affected by migration such as Jordan.

Starting off the discussion panels, former executive director of the UN World Food Programme Catherine Bertini, former US assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs Bathsheba Crocker and former US assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration Eric Schwartz tackled the issue of “aspirations vs limitations: can humanitarian reform deliver change?”

“This topic doesn’t need this much discussion. Actually, if we had more senior national and international leadership on resolving crises, or ‘political will’, we would not need this many discussions around issues facing the humanitarian world,” Bertini claimed, before moving on to highlight the need to distinguish between the number of displaced and the state of humanitarian funding.

“We cannot keep comparing the current situation to that of the past,” she stressed, citing the case of the protracted Syrian and Yemenis crises which “created refugees who need aid for longer, hence for larger amounts of money.”

She commended the voluntary nature of humanitarian funding, saying “I believe this is one of the points that should be retained in any new model as it allows for more accountability, responsibility and effectiveness compared to assessed funding.”

Schwartz, who is the current president of the NGO Refugees International, went on to discuss ways to reform and improve the humanitarian system, noting “we are facing the challenge of a large number of agencies and operations trying to do good but in a very uncoordinated, unmanaged way.”

Acknowleding the “progress made on real self sufficiency mechanisms such as education and employment,” he stressed, however, “we cannot achieve transformative humanitarian architectural reform at the same time as we are witnessing the erosion of rights for refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers”.

During his presentation in the panel titled “Responding to Protracted Displacement: Innovation in Challenging Times”, director of the Jordan Compact Project Management Unit Feras Momani stated: “When it comes to such crises, rather than addressing immediate short term humanitarian needs, the idea is to look at it as a development challenge and take into consideration the long term economic development needs.” 

Adressing the specific case of Jordan, Momani introduced the launch of the Jordan Compact Project Management Unit following the London Conference on the Syrian Crisis in 2016, saying: “We wanted to make sure that the activities targets of the Jordan Compact are being met, especially in light of the large number of actors involved in the compact”.

“We are working to consider Syrian refugees as assets not burdens, meaning that we are not only looking at their immediate needs such as water, food, shelter etc. The Jordan Compact realises that refugees are human beings with needs that are much more than humanitarian. They have their own aspirations, skills, etc,” he told the audience, stressing “this is especially relevant in the case of Jordan, which hosts some 1.4 refugees from protracted crises in the region.” 

Invited as a keynote speaker, UN special representative for international migration Louise Arbouralso emphasised the “bigger picture” entailed in the current narrative on migration. “There is a lot more to migration and development than remittances,” she stated, pointing out the need for migration policy to be “fair and nuanced, especially at the most granular level.”

“With its implications across so many broad areas, the issue of migration needs to be tackled in a way that maximises the economic and social benefits of human mobility for all,” the UN official commented.

“As countries struggle with political pressures to close borders and question the value of traditional aid to humanitarian emergencies, divisive rhetoric can often drown out reasoned debate,” said Schulman, noting that the CGD event came to address “the imperative for pragmatic evidence on migration, forced displacement, and humanitarian policies.”

The event also witnessed the official launch of the migration programme’s flagship project, a study in a series of migration policy recommendations titled “Migration Is What You Make It”.

“This series will offer synthetised evidence on the economic, social and other impacts of human mobility, and how policy can shape these impacts for greater benefit for host and origin countries, as well as migrants themselves,” Shulman concluded.

This piece originally appeared here

Jacobin: The Catastrophe of the Rohingya

Although global media outlets like the Economist have made the case that the Rohingya of Burma are the “most persecuted people in the world” for several years at this point, their plight has yet to fully register around the world.

Besides the fact that the genocide involves a poverty-stricken and stateless ethnic people with no political voice, the world’s lack of knowledge about the Rohingya also stems from the fact that Myanmar State Councillor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has offered cover for the brutality of her military through her lack of action and her dismissal of the carnage going on under her rule.

As Hannah Beech wrote in the New Yorker, “[Suu Kyi] has described the Rohingya insurgents as ‘terrorists’ and dismissed the worldwide condemnation, saying that international outlets have created ‘a huge iceberg of misinformation.’ Her office has accused the Rohingya of setting fire to their own homes in order to provoke an outcry.”

This January Bill Richardson, former New Mexico governor and former member of an international panel advising Suu Kyi, described her situation this way: “She seems isolated. She doesn’t travel much into the country. I think she’s developed a classic bubble.” Richardson resigned from the panel in frustration, blaming the Burmese military for most of the killing and destruction and calling the government’s investigation into the Rohingya crisis “a whitewash.”

What exactly is being whitewashed? A New York Times article gave graphic details of the kinds of atrocities the Myanmar government is trying to cover up: “Survivors said they saw government soldiers stabbing babies, cutting off boys’ heads, gang-raping girls, shooting 40-millimeter grenades into houses, burning entire families to death, and rounding up dozens of unarmed male villagers and summarily executing them.”

Human Rights Watch has gathered expensive data that corroborates what the refugees told the New York Times: “The atrocities committed by Burmese security forces, including mass killings, sexual violence, and widespread arson, amount to crimes against humanity. Military and civilian officials have repeatedly denied that security forces committed abuses during the operations, claims which are contradicted by extensive evidence and witness accounts.”

In March, the US Holocaust Museum joined several organizations that have taken back humanitarian recognition from Suu Kyi: it revoked its prestigious Elie Wiesel award, stating, “We had hoped that you — as someone we and many others have celebrated for your commitment to human dignity and universal human rights — would have done something to condemn and stop the military’s brutal campaign and to express solidarity with the targeted Rohingya population.”

At a recent international conference on the Rohingya held in Paris, organized by Dr. Maung Zarni, a Burmese Buddhist activist and organizer with the Free Rohingya Coalition, Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi indicted Suu Kyi specifically in terms of rape: “My sister laureate has dismissed as ‘made-up stories’ credible finding of the Burmese military’s use of systematic and pervasive rape and other acts of sexual violence – such as public stripping of Rohingya women.

The UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy on sexual violence Primila Patten of Mauritius has also gone public with her exasperation over Suu Kyi’s refusal to engage substantively on the issue of Burmese military’s systematic sexual violence against literally thousands of Rohingya women and girls – many of whom did not make it to Cox Bazaar’s [in Bangladesh] camps. Suu Kyi should know that inactivity in the face of genocidal actions can carry moral and legal responsibility.”

Ebadi insisted that Suu Kyi and Burmese military leaders be brought before an international tribunal on charges of genocide. Stripping Suu Kyi of her prizes and accolades is an important step towards exposing the violence going on under her protection, but knowing the history and the causes behind the persecution is essential.

The debates over what words to use to describe the carnage in Myanmar are not simply a matter of semantics. Words like “genocide” and “apartheid” trigger specific sanctions within international law and human rights discourse. The issue of whether or not the Rohingya are an actual “ethnic group” is likewise a critical point of debate, with specific rights and remedies hanging in the balance.

Roots of an Atrocity

Who are the Rohingya and why is Burma so intent on its brutal program of ethnic cleansing?

The Rohingya are recognized internationally as an ethnic group, present in their current location from at least the twelfth century. When the modern states were created upon the end of the British empire, the Rohingya were instantly transformed from a distinct people into an ethnic minority within Burma, later to be known as Myanmar.  But the Rohingya are Muslim, and the Burmese state sees itself as Buddhist. The ethnic cleansing is meant to force Rohingya into submission or out of the country.

There are two main reasons behind the genocide: racism and greed. Militant Buddhist groups such as the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party voice the dominant anti-Rohingya sentiment. One of its leaders, U Shwe Mg asserts: “the so-called Rohingya are just illegal immigrants. We allowed them to settle down here because we are generous people and we thought they would just stay a while. But the Bengali had a lot of children, paid Buddhist women to convert to Islam and marry them, stole our land, squeezed our resources, and now they demand equal rights and citizenship. It can’t be.”

This racism has been stirred up by the Burmese military, who have other reasons for expelling the Rohingya.: the land they have lived in for centuries has large natural gas resources. Big multinational corporations acting in collusion with the military are profiting from the killings and displacements. Even some Arab states such as Qatar are complicit in supporting the Burmese regime. According to Shirin Ebadi, these corporations and the military are “knee deep in the blood of the Rohingya people.”

The idea that these resources do not belong to the Rohingya, and that they are simply interlopers in Burma, is manifested in laws that perpetually keep them disenfranchised. Last year Myanmar began a citizenship verification program in Rakhine State under which some residents were granted a form of citizenship on condition that they identify as Bengali, rather than Rohingya. This puts the Rohingya in a Catch-22 situation. If they identify as Bengali in order to get this citizenship they are considered as immigrants from Bengal and their form of citizenship made precarious.

This is essentially a bribe to self-incriminate. Their taking this bait advances the government’s argument that the Rohingya are not a distinct Burmese ethnic group but rather Bengali “foreigners.” The Rohingya have resisted this form of blackmail and insist on their designation as a Burmese ethnic group.

Amnesty International has called the system the Rohingya live under “apartheid”: “This system appears designed to make Rohingyas’ lives as hopeless and humiliating as possible.  The security forces’ brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing … is just another manifestation of this appalling attitude.”

The deliberate burning of Rohingya villages, often with their inhabitants inside, is done not only to cause death and displacement, but also because according to Burmese law, the state can then claim that land.

In December, UN Human Rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein noted “concordant reports of acts of appalling barbarity committed against the Rohingya, including deliberately burning people to death inside their homes, murders of children and adults; indiscriminate shooting of fleeing civilians; widespread rapes of women and girls, and the burning and destruction of houses, schools, markets and mosques… Can anyone… rule out that elements of genocide may be present?”

The only sanctuary that has been offered to the more than one million Rohingya refugees has been from one of the poorest nations in the world, Bangladesh, whose resources are now stretched to the limit. Fifty-eight percent of those refugees are children, many of them orphans who witnessed the execution of their parents and other family members. These children continue the generations-old history of being stateless. They are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable.

To give a sense of the immensity of this human-made horror, Shirin Ebadi asserted that refugee camps in Syria and Palestine are like “five-star hotels” compared to the refugee sites in Bangladesh.  The present conditions are bad enough, with the monsoon season is fast approaching, disease, hunger, and death will rise exponentially very soon.

A Just Return

The Rohingya in exile are arguing for their human right to return, but most importantly in safety and with rights.

On June 6, the United Nations announced that a Memorandum of Understanding had been signed between the Government of Myanmar, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP). It says the MOU is the first step needed to create conditions “conducive to voluntary, safe, dignified, and sustainable refugee returns from Bangladesh, and their reintegration in the country.”

While this seems an encouraging advance, it is crucial to note that the very people it is meant to help, the Rohingya, were given no voice in the matter. That is a disturbing sign. The process that led to this MOU has not been transparent, and the key idea of “citizenship” is left wide open to interpretation.

The only satisfactory kind of citizenship for the Rohingya would need to full and unconditional enfranchisement. Otherwise all the talk about “reintegration in the country” would rightfully be looked upon with suspicion. And even if legally granted full citizenship, it would be naïve to think the Myanmar government would not continue to find ways to continue its repression.

The international human rights NGO, Refugees International, reacted to the MOU thus: “UNHCR’s engagement in the process is welcome and its inclusion in a framework for returns will be an important step toward ensuring that any improvement of conditions in Myanmar can be independently verified. However, RI urges that the text of the MOU be made public and warns that conditions for Rohingya in Myanmar remain appalling.”

It added that “continued impunity, restricted access to aid, and denial of basic human rights in Myanmar’s Rakhine State make repatriation a distant reality at this time.”

But international law is mostly a matter of self-interest and the exercise of power to secure those interests. Today those interests are aimed toward acquiring those natural gas resources — hence the need to think broadly and imaginatively about how to act alongside international protections, which are slow to be activated. The role of civil society is therefore critical.

In the Paris conference, Mireille Fanon-Mendès France, a prominent human rights activist and daughter of Franz Fanon, noted the similarity between the case of the Rohingya and that of the Palestinians, and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement there, which stems from Palestinian civil society. The likeness is striking.

Foreign Policy agrees: “Both groups became disenfranchised in the aftermath of colonial rule and imperial collapse, and both the Myanmar and Israeli governments have attempted to relocate them from their territory, portraying them as foreigners with no claim to the land. In both Israel and Myanmar, there have been attempts to rewrite the history of the two persecuted groups, claiming that neither constitute a ‘real’ ethnic group and are thus interlopers and invaders.”

International solidarity groups have formed in many countries such as Japan, Turkey, the US, India, and Ireland that support and offer refuge to the Rohingya. Calls for boycotts and sanctions have been issued. At this point Bangladesh is bearing the weight of the world’s responsibility — this cannot continue to be the case.

Hannah Arendt wrote that human rights cannot depend on nation-states or international bodies for their viability. She said the only guarantor of human rights is the human community. On August 25, the Free Rohingya Coalition will hold a global day of awareness, and ask that world governments and civil society help end the suffering and death of the most vulnerable and persecuted people in the world.

This piece originally appeared here


Elite Daily: Hillary Clinton’s Tweet About Puerto Rico Takes Aim At Donald Trump & It's Spot On

Even though Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico all the way back in September of 2017, the storm's devastation is still rippling through the island. And as bad as the news already was, it got even worse: On May 29, the New England Journal of Medicine released a study that estimated that the death toll was actually almost 70 times the government's official number. The news was obviously horrifying, and many wondered how such a disaster could have taken place. Now Hillary Clinton's tweet about Puerto Rico takes aim at Donald Trump and his administration for their failings in helping Puerto Rico, and rightfully so.

The May 29 study funded by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health estimated that over 4,600 people were killed as a result of Hurricane Maria — way more than the 64 cited by the official government report. The study cited interruption of medical care as the "primary cause" of the higher death toll. So the numbers don't just reflect immediate deaths, they reflect everyone who had died as a result of Hurricane Maria, including those who didn't get help on time. People were, of course, outraged — including Clinton, who sent out a tweet slamming Trump on his failure in Puerto Rico.

In a May 31 tweet, the former presidential candidate referenced the New England Journal's study, slamming the the government for failing its people. Clinton also warned that hurricane season is about to come around again, and so the Trump administration better "step up & protect its people." She wrote,

More than 4,600 lives lost in Puerto Rico. 70x the official number. The US gov’t has failed its own citizens. The response itself is an American tragedy. Hurricane season is about to begin in Puerto Rico. The administration must step up & protect its people.

During a press briefing on May 30, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded to a question about the study by saying that the president has been "monitoring the situation" since the beginning and takes it "extremely seriously." Sanders also added that the administration had responded to the crisis with the "largest FEMA operation in history."

She said,

The two Category 4 hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico were historic, and we’ve responded with the largest FEMA operation in history. And we’re going to continue to work with the people of Puerto Rico and do everything we can to be helpful.

Sanders might call the post-Hurricane Maria relief the "largest FEMA operation in history," but following the devastation of Hurricane Maria, it garnered a lot of criticism for being ineffective and poorly planned. Back in December 2017, a report from human rights group Refugees International called out the operation for having "poor coordination and logistics on the ground," as well as not devoting enough urgency and attention to the relief effort according to NPR. "It is troubling that it took five days before any senior federal official from the U.S. mainland visited the island," the organization said. During a September 29 press conference, Puerto Rican officials said that Trump's efforts in Puerto Rico were not sufficient, explaining that about half of the population was still without running water and out of their 69 hospitals, only 36 had power and were open, according to Politico.

One of the most vocal critics of Trump's Puerto Rican relief effort was San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz. According to Politico, during that same September press conference she said that the residents of San Juan got four pallets of water — that about 4,000 bottles for about 350,000 people. The food situation was no better, they received just four pallets of food and 12 of baby food and supplies. Cruz also warned that the situation in Puerto Rico could turn into a genocide if not dealt with, according to The Los Angeles Times. She said,

I'm mad as hell because my peoples' lives are at stake . . . . We are dying here. If we don't get the food and the water into people's hands, what we are going to see is something close to a genocide.

In response, Cruz was met by a series of tweets from Trump accusing her of being swayed by the Democrats to be "mean" to him. In one particular tweet, Trump called out Cruz's "poor leadership. He wrote,

...Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help. They....

Trump even went so far as to say that Cruz calling Trump out on his relief effort was basically just the people being lazy. "They ...want everything to be done for them with it should be a community effort," he wrote.

Puerto Ricans are part of the American people. So if you ask me, the American government should be a part of that "community effort." So, that's on you, President Trump.

This piece originally appeared here

Ahval: Syrian refugees can go home – Kılıçdaroğlu

Syrian refugees should return since the conflict in Syria is “almost finished,” Turkish main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu told a journalists association in the southeast Turkish city of Gaziantep on Wednesday.

“We have naturally opened our arms to the Syrians who fled the civil war and sought refuge in our country,” said Kılıçdaroğlu. “But the country has not been a warzone for a long time, its almost over. Our Syrian brothers now need to return to their own country.”

Turkey is host to a reported 3.8 million Syrian refugees, having implemented an open doors policy at the beginning of the conflict.

With a survey by Bilgi University showing overwhelming support for sending Syrian refugees back home once the war is over, Kılıçdaroğlu’s statement is unlikely to cause much controversy in Turkey.

In fact, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has also discussed sending the refugees back , saying in February that areas controlled by Turkey in northern Syria, including the northwest Syrian enclave of Afrin, captured from Kurdish forces in March, could be a destination for returning Syrians.

Kılıçdaroğlu, meanwhile, has promised as part of his party’s election declaration for the upcoming Jun. 24 elections to establish an organisation with Turkey’s neighbours in Syria, Iran and Iraq to peacefully resolve the region’s simmering conflicts.

This, as well as the CHP leader’s assertion that the Syrian civil war has cooled down, will be viewed as wishful thinking by many, as the prospect of peace in Syria appears no closer after the breakdown of another round of United Nations-backed peace talks last December.

Since then, a chemical weapons attack on civilians and opposition fighters in Douma provoked joint missile strikes by the United States, France and the UK; Israel and Iran have continued to battle out their rivalry on Syrian territory; and thousands of Syrian civilians have been forcibly displaced as Bashar al-Assad’s regime captured rebel-held territory.

Financial Times: After Maria, Thousands on Puerto Rico Waited Months for a Plastic Roof

For 25 years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has installed temporary plastic roofs on storm victims’ homes after disasters, part of a key emergency response program called “Operation: Blue Roof.”

But in the wake of the most destructive storm season on record, that system broke down. After Hurricane Maria, the blue roof program was riddled with problems, an investigation by FRONTLINE and NPR found, causing delays that left tens of thousands of Puerto Rican homes vulnerable to the elements for months. While the Army Corps provided thousands of blue roofs in the immediate aftermath of storms like Irma and Katrina, in the first 30 days after Maria, it finished just 439 — less than 1 percent of the total needed. Even three months after the storm, only half of the number of blue roofs needed were up in Puerto Rico.

Internal government documents and interviews with officials in the Army Corps, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, disaster experts and contractors in Puerto Rico illustrate that behind the slow pace of the Puerto Rico program were two key issues: shortages of essential supplies and bureaucratic problems with contracting. Together, these lapses reveal a fundamental lack of preparation for an event the size and scope of Hurricane Maria, according to disaster experts who spoke to FRONTLINE and NPR for the documentary Blackout in Puerto Rico.

“Homes that were salvageable are ruined now. They’re beyond repair,” said Alice Thomas, a disaster response expert with Refugees International, which looked into the delays in temporary shelter programs in Puerto Rico. “It’s an emergency. You need a roof over your head, and you need it now.”

Slower that Katrina

By almost any measure, Hurricane Maria was an unprecedented storm. But the Army Corps had vast experience installing temporary roofs after other devastating disasters, where it had met the demands for blue roofs at a far faster clip.

After Hurricane Katrina – the Corps’ largest blue roof mission ever – the agency was able to install 107,344 in 100 days. After Maria, it installed just 30,000 blue roofs in the first 100 days, half of what was needed.

The Corps had even performed better in Puerto Rico. After the island’s last major hurricane, Georges, in 1998, the Corps and its 44 contractors completed approximately 30,000 roofs within 37 days of the storm.

Even during the 2017 storm season, the Army Corps program in Florida after Irma was 10 times faster in the first 30 days, where it installed more than 4,500 blue roofs.

Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, head of the Army Corps, told FRONTLINE and NPR that the program, which the Corps runs on behalf of FEMA, went as fast as it could given the historic challenges that existed after Maria, but acknowledged that the agency should move faster and rethink it’s planning.

“There’s always going to be some degree of a delay. The question is, how can we speed it up, to have quicker roofs and more roofs put into the first couple months?” Semonite said. “We want to be faster … But there’s some mechanics of a storm. Mother Nature gets a vote here. In Puerto Rico, Mother Nature got a big, big vote.”

Lack of Supplies

However, the initial delays after Maria weren’t caused solely by the storm, but also from a lack of supplies.

It would take two weeks from the day Maria hit before a single blue roof was completed in Puerto Rico. That’s because, according to internal FEMA documents, when Maria made landfall on Sept. 20, FEMA had none of the sturdy tarp material it needed on the island.

“Almost all the warehouses were empty. So when we hit, the amount of available supplies … blue roof material, whatever it might be, were just not there to be able to respond in an effort that would have probably been something that could have got us more of a jump start,” Semonite said.

He added that the sheeting material in Puerto Rico had just been moved to the U.S. Virgin Islands after Hurricane Irma, which hit the archipelago hard. As a result, documents show, the first shipment of plastic sheeting, 1,200 rolls, didn’t arrive in Puerto Rico until Oct. 3.

Even then, there were further delays. A week after sheeting first arrived on the island, FEMA awarded a $9.2 million contract for additional plastic sheeting to a Florida-based company called Bronze Star, which had no disaster experience and had only formed that August. A month later, FEMA cancelled the contract after the company failed to deliver any sheeting, forcing the agency to scramble in search of a new supplier.

A Slow Ramp Up

As sheeting trickled in, the Corps came up against new hurdles with the firm it had contracted with to help build the roofs themselves.

Before Maria, it had lined up an advance contract with a disaster recovery firm called Ceres Environmental Services Inc. As part of its contract, the Minnesota-based company was required to be ready to deploy to Puerto Rico to install blue roofs in the event of a disaster. These kinds of contracts were a key requirement of the 2006 Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act, which attempted to address the failures of coordination and preparation that led to the bungled federal response after Katrina.

Ceres had years of experience with blue roofs, including in Puerto Rico, where it was one of the contractors on the ground after Hurricane Georges in 1998. But after Maria, federal data show that Ceres did not meet its initial contract requirements.

Ceres began installing blue roofs in Puerto Rico on Oct. 4, and according to contracting documents, was given 10 days to ramp up to a minimum of 200 blue roof installations a day. By Oct. 13, Ceres was supposed to put up at least 120 roofs a day. That day it only managed 90, leading the Army Corps to warn Ceres it would face penalties if it did not improve its performance. The company submitted a plan to fix its installation rate.

Ceres officials declined to be interviewed, but in a response to written questions said that, “despite the destruction to roofs and the infrastructure affecting the speed of the recovery, Ceres still met or exceeded its contract requirements.” The Army Corps never sought damages for its initial failure to meet the installation rate.

Ceres said the sheer devastation of the storm made travel in the immediate aftermath difficult. It also said that part of the early challenges were due to a change in the scope of work for the blue roof program in Puerto Rico. In most storms, severely damaged homes cannot have a blue roof. But because Maria was so destructive, FEMA changed the rules to include severely damaged properties. The result, Ceres wrote, was that “these severely damaged roofs required up to four times the crew hours to complete.”

But several former workers for Ceres said delays were also exacerbated by the company’s struggles to retain workers hired by local subcontractors in Puerto Rico.

One of those former subcontractors, Ponce-based Venegas Construction, worked for Ceres for about a week before quitting. Emilio R. Venegas, vice president of the firm, said Ceres provided limited training and paid subcontractors a rate that barely covered costs.

Ceres Environmental disputed Venegas’ characterization of its training program, saying its subcontractors were, “supported by our Management Team with experience from other Corps blue roof contracts.” It added that, “Ceres contractors were paid commensurate with the rates received by Ceres to install the roofs.”

By Oct. 19, Ceres was producing the required 200 roofs a day, but even at the pace spelled out in its contract, it would take nearly a year for them to finish the roughly 60,000 roofs needed on Puerto Rico. Things were improving, but not fast enough to meet demand. The program needed more workers.

Semonite said the Army Corps is deciding whether to make changes to its contracting practices going forward.

“We’re looking at this really hard to say, ‘Is there a way we can incentivize our contractor in the next storm?’” he said. “We work for FEMA, so this is a partnership … We’re in those dialogues right now, so if a contractor hits the ground, how can we get the curve of implementation much, much quicker?”

FEMA’s top official in Puerto Rico, Mike Byrne, acknowledged in an interview with FRONTLINE and NPR that there had been “challenges” with the program and said the agency will evaluate its performance after the recovery.

“We had issues with some of the labor that they were doing,” Byrne said. “We had issues about the challenge of getting materials into some of these remote areas. All of this made it a challenge. But again, the important thing to realize is we were doing, and we were executing to the maximum that we were capable in terms of the resources that we had available to do that.”

Local Bidders

The Army Corps would eventually get more workers – but the process would take months, thanks in part to a dispute over government contracts that resulted in a temporary work stoppage.

After Hurricane Georges, the Corps had 44 contractors on the ground within weeks. After Maria, it had one and then took more than six weeks to open up a $93 million bid for two additional local contractors to help with the blue roof program.

Those contracts were targeted at local companies as part of efforts to reinvigorate the economy in areas impacted by the storm.

On Nov. 21, the Corps awarded the contracts to two bidders: a Puerto Rican firm called Power & Instrumentation Services, and another company called Ceres Caribe Inc. The Army Corps said that adding these two companies would “bring our capability up to around 1,000 roofs a day.” By this point, Ceres Environmental was putting up 400 roofs a day, bringing its total number of installations to about 11,000.

Venegas said that when he saw the award, he was puzzled. He had never heard of Ceres Caribe, but was struck by the name’s similarity to Ceres Environmental from Minnesota.

He pulled the company’s registration documents and found that Ceres Caribe was first registered in Puerto Rico in 1999. The documents listed its founder as David McIntyre, the founder of Ceres Environmental.

The federal contracting database shows that Ceres Caribe won at least 15 federal contracts between 2004 and 2009 worth more than $42 million for various construction jobs. But by 2011, the company’s annual report showed that it had no income or assets. In 2013 and 2014, Ceres Caribe failed to file annual reports or pay dues to the government, triggering warnings from the Puerto Rican State Department and a subsequent suspension of its registration. The company, Venegas found, had only renewed its registration three days after the Corps opened up the bidding process. According to registration documents, McIntyre is still the director and president.

“The bid was set aside for local companies. We thought that perhaps somebody in the Corps had made a mistake, and we submitted a protest to let them know about our opinion,” Venegas said.

Another Puerto Rican company, RBC Construction Corp., also protested. In response, the Army Corps temporarily halted the two contracts, but Ceres Environmental, the company with the original contract, kept working.

McIntyre was not available for an interview, but Rick Good, senior project manager for Ceres Caribe, said the company was, “a standalone corporation,” with separate management from Ceres Environmental, but that the two were owned by McIntyre. He said the company’s work after Maria was “of the highest quality” and that 90 percent of those employed on the project were locals.

The Army Corps said Ceres Caribe was evaluated as a separate company because as “a subsidiary of Ceres Environmental, they are considered two legally independent companies.” The Corps called the company’s bid proposal “one of two that were the best value to the Government.”

Ceres Environmental wrote that the new contract “was properly awarded.” It added, “Ceres Caribe, Inc. has over the years contributed greatly to the local economy and provided employment and training to Puerto Rican and other employees.”

Venegas said the Corps encouraged him to drop his protest in exchange for a contract of his own. He said he agreed. The Corps said his award came after “the number of roof requests increased.”

The protest from RBC Construction was dismissed on technical grounds. With the contracting dispute over, the Corps ended the work stoppage after eight days.

The additional workers helped. By Dec. 30, the Army Corps had put on 30,000 temporary roofs. Five days later, it reached its goal of 1,000 roofs a day.

By then, the program had helped just half of those approved for a temporary roof  –something Hector Pesquera, Puerto Rico’s secretary for public safety and the commonwealth’s point person for the emergency response after Maria, noted critically in an internal report prepared for the governor.

The report said that the problems in the program stemmed from “bureaucratic delays associated with mobilizing personnel, a lack of pre-planning for this type of mission in Puerto Rico and the intricacies and unacceptable timelines associated with federal procurement actions.”

“The people of Puerto Rico deserve to have services established as fast as possible,” said Semonite. “I think we need to look as a country, what kind of response do we need to give in remote areas, and if we … need to put a lot more capability pre-storm, this is going to come at a cost.”

Just about six months to the day that Maria hit, the contractors working for the Corps finished the final blue roof in Puerto Rico – number 59,469. And now, more than seven months after Maria, thousands are still waiting for permanent repairs.

This piece originally appeared here

IRIN: Aid groups in Congo fear political tensions could impede their work

Relations between the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo and international aid agencies have hit a “low point” since the government refused to attend its own donor conference earlier this month, humanitarian experts and officials here and in Geneva said, elevating concerns that relief to more than 13 million people could become a political bargaining chip, ahead of elections now slated for December.

After its no-show at the Congo fundraising conference in Geneva on 13 April, President Joseph Kabila’s government upped the stakes last week by declaring it will set up a new Humanitarian Fund Management Agency to “manage, monitor and control humanitarian funds and work to channel all financial flows affecting the humanitarian sector” in the country.

"Money has been raised. The DRC government must now be involved in its management. If not, there will be serious consequences," warned Congolese Foreign Minister Léonard She Okitundu in an interview with local media.

The 13 April donor conference, attended by 54 countries, raised $530 million of the $1.7 billion the UN says is required to meet the needs of 10.5 million people targeted for assistance, including 4.5 million displaced by conflict, many of them suffering from disease and malnutrition.

Three weeks before the conference, however, the government announced it would boycott, with Congolese Acting Prime Minister José Makila accusing the UN and the international NGO community of propagating a "bad image of DRC throughout the world".

The government has not elaborated on what the “serious consequences” might be for aid agencies or donor governments that don’t cooperate with its proposal to manage funds. It is not yet clear how the fund is expected to work, but experts on international aid said it is unlikely that donors would use the Congolese government as a conduit for large sums of aid money.

“Can you image the United Kingdom government saying the money they were supposed to send to UNICEF will instead go to the Congolese government to manage?” a senior UN staffer in Kinshasa working closely with the relief effort said. “We are not talking about a normal government. Nobody will send them money to address the humanitarian crisis.”

Few aid workers or officials with international donors and humanitarian organisations who spoke to IRIN would agree to be named for fear that public statements might jeopardise their ongoing work in the country.

But, in a series of interviews with several people close to the matter, serious concerns were raised over both the long- and short-term impact that tensions between the government and the aid sector could have on providing assistance to Congo’s 13.1 million people in need. One UN official, speaking on condition of anonymity, described relations as at a “low point”.

Congo has suffered from decades of conflict and political dysfunction. As unrest has continued to escalate in North and South Kivu, Tanganyika, Kasai, and Ituri, the number of Congolese requiring humanitarian assistance has doubled since 2014, reaching the same overall numbers as Syria.

Disputing the data

Analysts and aid workers point to domestic politics as the main reason behind the government’s boycott of the Geneva donor conference.

Kabila, who has faced international condemnation since his refusal to stand down from power in December 2016 (several top officials have also been sanctioned by the European Union and the United States) had little to gain from an event focused on the ills of his country. He has vowed not to seek re-election, but voting has been repeatedly delayed and the police have cracked down hard on political protests that have turned deadly in the capital, Kinshasa.

Kabila’s government views a negative portrayal of the country’s humanitarian situation as a gift to the opposition, in advance of the December elections.

The government has disputed the data used to assess the situation. Congo's Minister of Humanitarian Affairs Bernard Biango, for example, points to only 230,000 internally displaced people nationwide, compared to the UN’s estimate of 4.5 million.

Kinshasa has said it rejects the UN’s assessment of the humanitarian crisis in Congo, in particular the designation last October of parts of the country as a ‘Level 3 emergency’ – the gravest classification possible – putting the country on a par with Syria and Yemen. The designation was downgraded early in April, a move the UN said was routine, but one that was criticised by some who saw it as a misguided gesture designed to mollify the Congolese government.

As well as contesting the scale of the crisis, two people within the UN said the Congolese government was aggrieved by the decision to invite it to the conference as a guest rather than as co-host and organiser. “It may have been a mistake,” one said.

A Security Council briefing on 19 March by UN relief chief Mark Lowcock, which linked the humanitarian crisis in Congo to the political crisis in Kinshasa, may have also “angered the government”, that same person said.

Implications for aid work

What impact any lasting discord between the Congolese government, donor countries, and aid agencies will have on the relief effort, spread across several insecure regions in the vast country – around two thirds the size of Western Europe – remains to be seen. Earlier disagreements have already had some effect, however.

After a diplomatic spat that began in January, when the Belgian government announced it would carry out a “fundamental revision” of cooperation with the DRC until “credible elections” were held, Kinshasa threatened local and international NGOs that received money from its former colonial power.

At the pledging conference, Belgium said it would contribute up to 25 million euros to “continue expressing its solidarity with the Congolese people”, but Foreign Minister Okitundu has said NGOs that receive this money will not be authorised to work in the DRC.

Analysts said that strained relations could impact aid workers in other ways, too.

NGOs in the DRC regularly confront complicated visa and registration procedures, for example.

Recent statements by Congolese officials “clearly signal that this may worsen, and that they are trying to tarnish the reputation of aid agencies,” said Alexandra Lamarche, advocate for sub-Saharan Africa and peacekeeping for Refugees International. “Bureaucratic impediments could increase and become more crippling and even dangerous.”

For now, however, humanitarians working in the field said they have not noticed any changes. “Local authorities tend to appreciate what we are doing,” one aid worker said, adding: “They don’t receive any help from Kinshasa.”

What would make a difference to people in need is more funding reaching aid programmes on the ground. Before the Geneva conference, still relatively early in the calendar-year process, donors had pledged only 13 percent of the funds requested by the UN, compared to 23 percent for Syria and 46 percent for Yemen.

Some observers suggested the absence of the Congolese government reduced the amount of money raised in Geneva, although it was never expected to near the $1.7 billion target. “All the main crises go through the same donors: if I am a donor and have three conferences, and one of the countries is playing smart and doesn’t want to participate – I’ll keep my money and give to somebody else,” the senior UN source in Kinshasa said.

Veronique Barbelet, a fellow at the London-based Overseas Development Institute, said there was an anxious atmosphere, especially among some local aid agencies working in Congo, for example in places like South Kivu, from where resources have been diverted to help emergencies elsewhere in the country. “It’s not back to square one, but we are seeing serious implications,” she said. “Humanitarian organisations were already thin on the ground.”

Stephanie Wolters, head of the peace and security research programme at the Institute for Security Studies, said the Congolese government’s decision to boycott the Geneva conference was “grotesque political posturing”.

“A responsible government,” she said, “would have welcomed the opportunity to access additional resources to assist its own population.”

This piece originally appeared here

Portfolio: Explosive economy of Venezuela causes refugee crisis

On a rainy Wednesday before Easter, hundreds of Venezuelan immigrants shuffled into the brick-walled patio of the Casa de Paso Divina Providencia in the Colombian border town of Villa del Rosario, sat at long wooden tables and waited patiently for to have lunch. A priest promulgated mass before dozens of church volunteers served steaming fountains of rice, lentils and sausages. The immigrants settled.

Many wore ragged clothes. His sunken cheeks and thin limbs suggested that this was his first decent meal in days. The children were barefoot. A man came in on his crutches, his right leg amputated below the knee. Another came pushing an old woman in a wheelchair.

(Read: Europe, Asia, Latin America and the United States will persecute corrupt Venezuelans)

These are the victims, often desperate, of the worst migration crisis in the recent history of Latin America. Some had arrived from Venezuela that morning, escaping from food shortages, hyperinflation, the collapse of the economy, diseases and violence.

Others had been in Colombia for days or weeks, looking for work, looking for food, sleeping in the streets and avoiding being deported.

While the eyes of the world have focused on the crisis of the Syrian refugees and the exodus of the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar, the humanitarian disaster in Venezuela has gone relatively unnoticed. But the large number of people who are now fleeing the country is changing that. The UNHCR says that 5,000 migrants leave every day; At that rate, 1.8 million people, more than 5% of the population of Venezuela, will leave this year.

It was not always like that. For decades, Venezuela was a net importer of people, attracting Europeans with lucrative oil jobs. A generation ago, it was the richest country in Latin America.

When Hugo Chávez came to power in 1999, launching the socialist 'Bolivarian Revolution', some wealthy Venezuelans left, fearing Cuban-style communism. But the vast majority of Venezuelans stayed and many enjoyed the benefits of Chávez's oil-funded social programs. Only recently there has been a massive migration of Venezuelans driven by the collapse of the economy and the deterioration of the revolution, under the leadership of Maduro.

Many go west to Colombia, which, coming out of a long civil conflict of its own, is ill-equipped to receive them. Today there are more than 600,000 Venezuelans in Colombia, twice as many as a year ago.

While Colombia has been the country most affected by the Venezuelan exodus, it is far from being the only country that faces this challenge.

UNHCR says that 40,000 Venezuelan immigrants arrived in Peru in the first two months of this year. Thousands more have emigrated to Panama, Ecuador, Chile, Spain, EE. UU and beyond. Boats carrying Venezuelan immigrants have docked on Caribbean islands. In January, one turned up in front of Curaçao, where at least four people died.

The number of Venezuelans seeking asylum abroad has skyrocketed by 2,000% since 2014. Brazil is another country that has received a large influx. In total, authorities and international organizations estimate that some 70,000 Venezuelans have fled south to Brazil.

The collapse of the Venezuelan health system has caused a resurgence of previously controlled diseases. The government no longer provides reliable medical data: when the health minister revealed last year that the number of cases of malaria had increased by 76% in one year, deaths related to pregnancy had increased by 66% and infant mortality had Uploaded 30%, was fired immediately.

A recent survey conducted by the opposition suggested that 79% of Venezuelan hospitals have little or no running water.

The British Medical Journal recently reported on an acute contraceptive shortage "that contributes to peaks in unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions, maternal and infant mortality and sexually transmitted diseases." HIV and AIDS rates have risen in Venezuela to levels not seen since the 1980s. Measles, eradicated in much of Latin America, have returned. Of the 730 cases confirmed in the region last year, all but three were in Venezuela. As people flee, they take the disease with them. In the first months of this year, there were 14 confirmed cases in Brazil and one in Colombia. The 15 victims were Venezuelan immigrants.

"People are running away because if they stay, they die," says Dany Bahar of the Brookings Institution in Washington. "They are dying because they do not get enough food to eat; because they contract malaria and can not receive treatment