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Entries in refugees (2)

Monday
Jan112016

Protecting Syria's Civilians: Another Discarded New Year's Resolution?

@HuffPost

It's been just three weeks since the UN Security Council adopted its latest resolution on the conflict in Syria, re-authorizing cross-border delivery routes for humanitarian aid and promising -- once again -- to take "further measures" if the parties to the conflict do not comply with international humanitarian law.

In these three weeks, the Assad government has systematically ignored this warning. Instead, its forces have continued their relentless violation of international rules of war, among them the requirement to spare civilians, health personnel and medical facilities. 

On December 25, a suspected chemical weapons attack in Moadamiya drove civilians to the local hospital with symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic agents, including difficulty in breathing, bloody frothing at the mouth, muscular contractions and involuntary urination and defecation. Several patients have died as a result. Local documenters say the missile attack came from the Syrian government-controlled Al Mezzeh airbase. 

It's very likely that this suffering was caused by illegal chemical weapons, but it has not been possible to confirm which toxic agent was responsible, and how it was distributed. There's a reason for that. 

Chemical weapons attacks are notoriously difficult to substantiate. The debris they leave is hard to detect from satellite images. To positively identify a toxic agent, you need to analyze affected blood samples. But in Syria, and in particular in the Damascus suburb where the December attack occurred, the specialized medical equipment needed to conduct these tests is in severely short supply. 

What's more, it is exceedingly difficult to safely deliver blood samples from Moadamiya to health care facilities with the necessary infrastructure. Supplies to adequately preserve samples are virtually non-existent. With health care centers and personnel openly targeted -- at least 240 medical facilities have been attacked and 697 medical workers killed in the conflict, primarily by Assad government forces -- transporting blood samples has become very dangerous. The combination makes identifying toxic agents near impossible.

Further, government forces have recently turned their sights on border area hospitals in northern Syria that to some extent have served as referential hospitals. Physicians for Human Rights has received multiple reports that health facilities in 'Azaz and Hraytan, in the suburbs of Aleppo, were hit on December 25 and 26, further debilitating Syria's already fragile health infrastructure. 

How many war crimes does the Assad government need to commit for the UN Security Council to take more decisive action?

Some might say the December 2015 resolution did effect change. Last week, the Assad government agreed to allow humanitarian aid into Madaya, a rural area close to the Lebanese border where a six-month siege has caused countless deaths and unspeakable suffering. This aid is supposed to arrive today. Survivors, driven to starvation by their own government, report being reduced to eating leaves, insects, even their pets - and having to depend on a veterinarian and a carpenter for health care and surgery. 

However, the very fact that the Assad government is in a position to allow or deny humanitarian aid is because it is using besiegement as a weapon of war - in direct contravention of UN Security Council directives and the Geneva Conventions. In fact, the limited ceasefire agreement between Syrian government and opposition forces last year should, in principle, have brought humanitarian aid to Madaya months ago. Moreover, under international humanitarian law, organizations providing aid must have unfettered access to Madaya and the dozens of other besieged areas throughout Syria, with or without Assad's express permission. 

It has been nearly five years, 300,000 deaths, and four million refugees since the Security Council first called on the Syrian authorities to respect their obligations under international law. The three weeks since the latest Security Council resolution show the Assad government has no intention of doing so. 

Whatever solution Syrian peace talks may arrive at, world leaders must immediately focus on protecting civilians and improving conditions on the ground. Without concrete action to reduce the suffering of Syrian civilians, another UN Security Council resolution on this conflict will appear as empty as so many other New Year's resolutions.

Wednesday
Dec162015

A New Low: Stealing Family Heirlooms in Exchange for Protection

@HuffPost

The refugee crisis in Europe has shown the very real limits to the social coherence and solidarity that seemed to form the basis for the European Union until now. But even within the climate of hostility against asylum seekers in Europe, Denmark stands apart as one of the worst aggressors.

First, the Danish government took out advertisements in Lebanese newspapers stating that it had cut social benefits to refugees by almost 50 percent, and that family reunification would be out of the question for now.

Then, the government announced it would go back on its (measly) promise to resettle 1,000 refugees, and declared plans to further cut funding for refugee integration, criminally charge asylum seekers for asserting their protection needs, and increase criminal charges for begging.

Included in these proposals--many of which have been adopted--is a provision allowing authorities to confiscate asylum seekers' jewelry (exempting engagement and wedding rings and watches) to offset the cost of providing them shelter. This proposal appears to still be under discussion. 

From the international legal perspective, these measures place Denmark in breach of its obligations to shelter and provide for those in need. The 1951 Refugee Convention gives anyone who manifestly fears for his or her safety at home the right to seek protection elsewhere. It also prohibits safe countries, such as Denmark, from returning refugees to a place where they might be tortured, targeted for killing, or put through something even worse. Physicians for Human Rights has an intimate understanding of the situations the majority of refugees in Europe are fleeing in SyriaAfghanistan, and elsewhere. Without belaboring the point, let's just say these countries are far less than safe. 

Denmark's new provisions also appear to violate the rights to integrity, dignity, and personal property, all enshrined in the Danish Constitution -- though in a country where political leaders have protested the obligation to provide shelter even for the stateless, the existence of legal imperatives may not be much of a deterrent to this kind of callous policy-making.

In fact, the public debate in Denmark is more focused on how the country is being invaded by undeserving "migrants" looking for an easy life than about the security crises that are causing people to flee in the first place. Despite the fact that news media report daily on the conflicts and collapse of the rule of law in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria -- just to mention a few -- the thousands who flee are somehow still seen as resource-poor individuals trying to move their families to a place with better social benefits.

This conflation of migration and refugee flows is common. Most mainstream media, in Europe and around the world, continue to refer to the people flooding into Europe as "migrants," despite ample evidence to the contrary. In an October New York Times article about a four-year-old boy who had been abducted from a refugee camp, and subsequently found dead, the problem was summarized as one related to "migrant children." Yet, a child abducted from a refugee camp might reasonably be assumed to be, well, a refugee. 

And then there is the puzzling notion, propagated in online commentary and punditry, that refugees in Europe already have money and should not be entitled to social assistance in Europe. It is certainly true that compared to the millions who can't afford to leave, the hundreds of thousands of people who make it to Europe probably were the wealthier ones in their country of origin. But rather than proving refugees in Europe to be mercenary, this information does just the opposite: when the need to leave is shared by everyone, not just the poor, you know a country is unsafe.

Of course, Denmark is not alone in its active discouragement of asylum seekers. This summer, Hungary constructed a razor wire fence on its border with Serbia to deter refugees from passing through the country. Slovenia threatened to do the same, but settled on daily quotas for entry instead. However, in early November, Slovenian television reported that the government had purchased a border fence. And in November, the European Union agreed to pay Turkey €3 billion for assistance in returning refugees to Syria at the Turkey-Syrian border. 

To be sure, some European governments -- notably Germany and Sweden - have declared a willingness to welcome a larger number of refugees. This is laudable and should serve as inspiration for better policies everywhere. Instead, however, the initiatives and openness of these governments are being undermined by the institutionalized inhumanity displayed by their neighbors. Indeed, the toxicity with which many European governments are treating asylum seekers challenges the very idea the European Union was set up to protect: that everyone is better off when inequalities are less pronounced. 

This latest Danish bill which would to strip asylum seekers of the last thing that reminds them of the home they would prefer not to have left in the first place -- their grandmother's necklace, a friendship ring reminding them of happier times -- is not only illegal, it is inhumane. I have never been more ashamed to be Danish.

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to reflect the status of the proposed provision regarding confiscation of valuables.