Inter Press Service » Migration & Refugees News and Views from the Global South Sat, 13 Feb 2016 08:49:07 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Violence Is a Preventable Disease Tue, 09 Feb 2016 15:55:00 +0000 mairead-maguire Mairead Maguire, a peace activist from Northern Ireland is a 1976 Nobel Peace Laureate ]]>

Mairead Maguire, a peace activist from Northern Ireland is a 1976 Nobel Peace Laureate

By Mairead Maguire
BELFAST, Feb 9 2016 (IPS)

The World Health Organization has said that ‘Violence is a preventable disease’ and people are not born violent, rather we all live in cultures of violence. This can be changed through nonviolent peacemaking and the persuit of ‘just peace’ and nurturing of cultures of peace.

Mairead Maguire

Mairead Maguire

In Northern Ireland for over thirty years we faced violence from all sides, as we lived in a deep ethnic/political conflict. This violence only ended when everyone acknowledged that militarism and paramilitarism could not solve our human problems, and only through unconditional, all inclusive dialogue and negotiations could we reach a political agreement based on nonviolence, forgiveness, compromise and cooperation. We spoke ‘to our enemies’ and made peace with them, because we recognized that without peace nothing is possible, and with peace, everything is possible. We also began to tackle the root causes of our violence, by painstakingly making policy changes. Today in Belfast, while it is good for all its citizens to live in a city at peace, we all acknowledge that our peace process is a work in progress and we must continue to work on justice, forgiveness and reconciliation.

This is a time when, I believe, Europe is at cross-roads and hard choices regarding policies and priorities have to be made. Today’s refugees and migration challenge has shown the best and the worst of European values, often beamed via television onto our screens. The best have been the compassionates response of some spiritual leaders such as Pope Francis and the people of Italy, government and political leaders, such as Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, and millions of ordinary citizens across Europe, moving to help in any way they can the refugees, and migrants who have arrived from war torn countries.

The worst has been the fearology fuelled by negative forces which has resulted in an increase in racism, islamophobia, hate crimes and speech, and fascism in some European cities, hitherto known as cities of cultural diversity and tolerance. The stream of refugees andmigrants from Africa, Middle East and Asia, will continue pouring in to Europe, and the question is: what is the role of Europe and its citizens? I hope that Europe will continue to demonstrate compassion and offer to host those who are so desperate they had to flee all they loved in order to save their lives, or for a better life elsewhere.

The consequences of NATO/US policies of invasions and occupation is the destruction of Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen, to name but a few. A real question now to be asked by Europeans is: Do you want to continue being part of the perpetual wars of US and its most belligerent states of UK and Israel, and the militarization and nuclearization of Europe to continue?

All across the European Union (UE) young Europeans are travelling to other EU countries and further afield, trying to find jobs, and many continue to immigrate overseas. Austerity cuts, imposed by many European Union (UE) governments, are driving people deeper into poverty. In spite of this lack of jobs and falling In to poverty for many families, political leaders insist on governments policies, supporting foreign wars instead of human security of EU citizens, health care, education and the environment.

The British government has implemented austerity cuts which have devastated social services for many poor families and it is currently promising the renewal of the UK nuclear trident missile (these nuclear weapons, although on European soil, are in the control of the US government). This is all done in the face of millions of citizens protesting nuclear weapons and calling for a nuclear weapons free Britain and World.

Many governments in Europe are in denial that they are in a crisis but unless courageous policy reversals are implemented and more funding put into human security by dealing with unemployment and poverty, things will not change for the better for our societies in the forseeable futre. But we do not need austerity cuts, we live in a very rich world it’s just that we have got our priorities wrong!

Billions of Euros spent by NATO and Europe hosting war exercises, increases fearology, prepares people mentally for enmity and war, and lines the pockets of the rich, of arms manufacturers and war profiteers. In November 2015, while the worlds political leaders, and media, focused on the refugee crisis and the violence of illegal groups of Daesh (Islamic state) and other fundamental Islamic extremists, almost unknown to the civil community, as it was little reported, one of the great threats to the survival of humanity was taking place in Northern Europe, across three European states. Some 36,000 military troops, 200 fighter aircrafts and more than 60 warships carried out NATO’s biggest war games in 13 years.The military troops were from over 30 states.

They were carrying out war exercises preparing to fight together in battle groups if necessary in a war, which should it come to pass, would be a horror of horrors and one of the greatest crimes against humanity, a nuclear/conventional war on European soil, and spreading quickly across the world. The NATO (led by the US) has fought many illegal wars. They argue that it is necessary to fight terrorism and that it must defend its members from threats from the Middle East and North Africa.

The cold war propaganda against Russia continues and NATO by its expansionist and aggressive strategy has brought Europe to a situation similar to that of the Cold War causing a new dangerous confrontation with Russia.

I believe Europe (and indeed the world) must now ask the tough questions and make hard, brave and courageous choices: ‘Do we continue down the road of re-arming Europe and the World, and building a culture of militarism and war, creating enemy images and demonizing other countries and their leaders, implementing ‘regime change’ through bogus ‘right to protect’ military intervention, or do we choose to start disarming our conscience, hearts and minds, dismantling our weapons, ending militarism and war and implementing International law?’

Europe and the world needs a New Vision of Unity and Demilitarization of Regions, with power devolved to communities where people feel empowered and true democracy can be established. A demilitarized world is something we can all work together to build.

It is not an impossible dream, but begins with each one of us, choosing to live lives of nonkilling and nonviolence and building friendships between peoples and regions in order to cooperate as the human family on the problems we all need to deal with such as environment and poverty. We have imagination and genius and with confidence and trust in ourselves and each other, we can move away from nationalism and war, towards regional solutions built on demilitarized societies of peaceful co-existence ¬ we can and we must learn to live together in all our diversity. Peace Demilitarized and Devolved Democracy is possible and is a human right for all.


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Women of Haitian Descent Bear the Brunt of Dominican Migration Policy Fri, 05 Feb 2016 02:49:07 +0000 Ivet Gonzalez Two women selling fruit, grains and vegetables in the Little Haiti street market in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. They allowed their picture to be taken but preferred not to talk about their situation. Fear is part of daily life for Haitian immigrants in this country. Credit: Dionny Matos/IPS

Two women selling fruit, grains and vegetables in the Little Haiti street market in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. They allowed their picture to be taken but preferred not to talk about their situation. Fear is part of daily life for Haitian immigrants in this country. Credit: Dionny Matos/IPS

By Ivet González

A middle-aged woman arranges bouquets of yellow roses in a street market in Little Haiti, a slum neighbourhood in the capital of the Dominican Republic. “I don’t want to talk, don’t take photos,” she tells IPS, standing next to a little girl who appears to be her daughter.

Other vendors at the stalls in the street market, all of them black women, also refuse to talk. “They’re afraid because they think they’ll be deported,” one woman whispers, as she stirs a pot of soup on a wood fire on the sidewalk.

That fear was heightened by the last wave of deportations, which formed part of the complicated migration relations between this country and Haiti – the poorest country in the Americas, with a black population – which share the island of Hispaniola.

According to official figures, the Dominican Republic’s migration authorities deported 15,754 undocumented Haitian immigrants from August 2015 to January 2016, while 113,320, including 23,286 minors, voluntarily returned home.

“This process has a greater impact on women because when a son or a daughter is denied their Dominican identity, the mothers are directly responsible for failing to legalise their status,” said Lilian Dolis, head of the Dominican-Haitian Women’s Movement (MUDHA), a local NGO.

“If the mother is undocumented then the validity of her children’s documents is questioned,” she told IPS.

“And in the case of Haitian immigrant women, it’s not enough to marry a Dominican man even though the constitution grants them their husband’s nationality,” said Dolis, whose movement emerged in 1983. “That right is often violated.”

The latest migration crisis broke out in 2013 when a Constitutional Court ruling set new requirements for acquiring Dominican citizenship.

The aspect that caused an international outcry was the fact that the verdict retroactively denied Dominican nationality to anyone born after 1929 who did not have at least one parent of Dominican blood, even if their births were recorded in the civil registry.

This affected not only the children of immigrants, but their grandchildren and even great-grandchildren.

Tens of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent were left in legal limbo or without any nationality, international human rights groups like Human Rights Watch complained.

In response to the international outrage, the Dominican government passed a special law on naturalisation that set a limited period – May 2014 to February 2015 – for people born to undocumented foreign parents between 1929 and 2007 to apply for citizenship.

Antonia Abreu, one of the few street vendors who agreed to talk to IPS about the harsh reality faced by Haitian immigrants in the Dominican Republic, at her street stall where she sells flowers in the Little Haiti neighbourhood in Santo Domingo. Credit: Dionny Matos/IPS

Antonia Abreu, one of the few street vendors who agreed to talk to IPS about the harsh reality faced by Haitian immigrants in the Dominican Republic, at her street stall where she sells flowers in the Little Haiti neighbourhood in Santo Domingo. Credit: Dionny Matos/IPS

But only 8,755 people managed to register under this law.

At the same time, the authorities implemented a national plan for foreigners to regularise their status, from June 2014 to June 2015.

Under this plan, 288,466 undocumented immigrants, mainly of Haitian descent, applied for residency and work permits. But only about 10,000 met all the requirements, and only a few hundred were granted permits.

Since August, the police have been carrying out continuous raids, and undocumented immigrants are taken to camps along the border, to be deported to Haiti.

“Most Haitian women work outside the home; very few can afford to be homemakers,” said Antonia Abreu, a Haitian-Dominican woman who has sold floral arrangements for parties, gifts and funerals in the Little Haiti market for 40 years.

Abreu, known by her nickname “the Spider”, said “women sell clothes or food, they apply hair extensions, they’re domestic employees and some are sex workers. Many are ‘paleteras’ (street vendors selling candy and cigarettes) who suffer from police abuse – the police take their carts and merchandise when they don’t have documents.”

“Those who work as decent people have integrated in society and contribute to the country,” she told IPS.

Among the unique mix of smells – of spices, open sewers, traditional foods and garbage – many women barely eke out a living in this Haitian neighbourhood market, selling flowers, prepared foods, fruit and vegetables, clothing, household goods and second-hand appliances.

The small neighbourhood, which is close to a busy commercial street and in the middle of the Colonial City, Santo Domingo’s main tourist attraction, has been neglected by the municipal authorities, unlike its thriving neighbours.

No one knows exactly how many people live in Little Haiti, which is a slum but is virtually free of crime, according to both local residents and outsiders.

Most of the people buying at the market stalls in the neighbourhood are Haitian immigrants, who work in what are described by international rights groups as semi-slavery conditions.

The street market is also frequented by non-Haitian Dominicans with low incomes, in this country of 10.6 million people, where 36 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, according to World Bank figures from 2014.

A Haitian immigrant in the rural settlement of Mata Mamón in the Dominican Republic, where she works as a ‘bracera’ or migrant worker in agriculture. Haitian women who work on plantations in this country are invisible in the statistics as well as in programmes that provide support to rural migrants, activists complain. Credit: Dionny Matos/IPS

A Haitian immigrant in the rural settlement of Mata Mamón in the Dominican Republic, where she works as a ‘bracera’ or migrant worker in agriculture. Haitian women who work on plantations in this country are invisible in the statistics as well as in programmes that provide support to rural migrants, activists complain. Credit: Dionny Matos/IPS

“Undocumented immigrants can’t work, study or have a public life,” Dolis said. “They go directly into domestic service or work in the informal sector. And even if they have documents, Haitian-Dominican women are always excluded from social programmes.”

In this country with a deeply sexist culture, women of Haitian descent are victims of exclusion due to a cocktail of xenophobia, racism and gender discrimination, different experts and studies say.

“They are made invisible,” said Dolis. “We don’t even know how many Haitian-Dominican women there are. The census data is not reliable in terms of the Dominican population of Haitian descent, and the UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) survey is out-of-date.”

The activist was referring to the last available population figures gathered by the National Survey on Immigrants carried out in 2012 by the National Statistics Office with UNFPA support.

At the time, the survey estimated the number of immigrants in the Dominican Republic at 560,000, including 458,000 born in Haiti.

The lack of up-to-date statistics hinders the work of Mudha, which defends the rights of Haitian-Dominican women in four provinces and five municipalities, with an emphasis on sexual and reproductive rights.

The movement is led by a group of 19 women and has 62 local organisers carrying out activities in urban and rural communities, which have reached more than 6,000 women.

Mudha says the Dominican authorities have never recognised the rights of women of Haitian descent. “They’ve always talked about immigration of ‘braceros’ (migrant workers), but never ‘braceras’ – that is, the women who come with their husbands, or come as migrant workers themselves,” Dolis said.

Since the mid-19th century Haitians have worked as braceros in the sugarcane industry, the main engine of the Dominican economy for centuries. But today, they are also employed in large numbers in the construction industry, commerce, manufacturing and hotels.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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“A Fair Day’s Wage for a Fair Day’s Work?” Thu, 04 Feb 2016 14:45:42 +0000 Francesco Farne According to the Italian Ministry of Labour and Social Policy estimates, three out of four Bangladeshi workers in Italy work in the tertiary sector. 23,3% of them are employed in the hotel, restaurant and catering sector.  Credit: Simba Shani Kamaria Russeau/IPS

According to the Italian Ministry of Labour and Social Policy estimates, three out of four Bangladeshi workers in Italy work in the tertiary sector. 23,3% of them are employed in the hotel, restaurant and catering sector. Credit: Simba Shani Kamaria Russeau/IPS

By Francesco Farnè
Rome, Feb 4 2016 (IPS)

“During the first months in Italy, I always prayed for rain. I spent hours checking the weather forecast” said Roni, a 26 year old graduate from a middle-income family in Bangladesh. His father, a public servant and his mother a home maker, Roni had to sell umbrellas on the streets of Rome for more than a year before finding a summer job by the sea at a coffee shop, popularly known as a ‘bar’ in Italy.

In a recent interview with IPS, Roni explained that in 2012, he left his country, like many other Bangladeshis, in search of better opportunities in Europe. “I decided to leave for economic reasons; it was impossible to get a job in Bangladesh, even though I am a University graduate. I had heard that many friends and relatives made a fortune in Italy and wanted to be like them”, said Roni.

According to ISTAT 2015 (Italian National Institute of Statistics) estimates, there are more than 138.000 Bangladeshi nationals legally residing in Italy – a 9 % increase compared to 2014. Like Roni, many in the Bangladeshi community play a significant role in the Italian economy as part of the labour force. In particular, 75.6% of Bangladeshi workers in Italy are employed in the service sector.

Additionally, more than 20.000 Bangladeshi entrepreneurs were registered as business owners in 2013, according to the “Annual report on the presence of immigrants – The Bengali Community” issued by the Italian Ministry of Labour and Social Policy.

Roni describes the process of getting a visa as very complex. “There are two kinds of visas, one for agricultural workers and one for all the others. The former is quite easy to obtain and costs less, about € 8.000, while for the latter, the one I obtained, a sponsor residing in Italy is required and the cost is over € 12.000.”

“I paid my sponsor directly, and he completed all the required documentation”, he continued, “and once he obtained the nullaosta (clearance), I could apply for my visa at the Embassy of Italy in Bangladesh. I was lucky as it took only three months for the documents to be ready. Many other people have to wait much longer and deal with and pay two or three in between agents to connect them with the sponsor.”

Although it is widely known that the Bangladeshi migrants look out for each other, Roni says that getting support from the established Bangladeshi community has been a challenge. “Since the day I arrived, I sensed a lack of solidarity, fraternity and belonging within my national community. [Those] now in a position to help others seem to forget that once they were the ones in need. It looks like they forget their immediate past and think they are not like this anymore and therefore don’t want to do anything with them”, said Roni.

“No one helped me with my job search nor gave me any indication on where to buy umbrellas to sell, nor helped me with the language, as I did not speak Italian. My sponsor just helped me find a place to sleep – a room shared with nine other strangers I had to pay for myself – and that’s it”, he continued.

After 18 months of search, Roni has now found a job in a restaurant and is much happier. In addition, he has a contract which will enable him to renew his residency permit.

He earns more than €1000 per month, enough to send some money home. Roni explained that remittances are an integral part of his “mission” here in order to help his family back home, since his father retired. As he needs over €400 per month for his own survival in Italy, he is able to send home between €400 and €600 per month. His family uses the money for subsistence and for rent.

Indeed, after China, Bangladesh is the second country of destination of remittances from Italy, amounting to €346.1 million in 2013 (7.9% of all remittances), according to the Annual report by the Italian Ministry of Labour and Social Policy.

When asked for details of his contract, Roni revealed that even though he is contracted for six hours of work each day, he works for 10 hours or more for the same wage, and, days of leave or sickness do not count as working days.

Roni claims he is paid less than other workers with different nationalities. Although Roni’s terms of employment appeared to be better than those of other migrant workers, it nevertheless disregards many of the employment rights regarding remuneration, sick-leave, and weekly working hours outlined in the many directives set out by the EU Commission.

“This is not only about bad bosses exploiting migrants”, said Roni, “we, as migrant workers have to stand up for our rights and stop accepting these humiliating conditions. As long as there is another migrant willing to accept unfair conditions, my attempts to fight for a better contract and for workers’ rights will be in vain.”

“I think government policies to protect workers are good”, he continued. “It is not a matter of policies, it is how they are implemented to make sure that laws are respected. In fact, after government officials carried out an inspection at my workplace, we were immediately hired, gaining formal access to basic welfare and social protection measures.”

Roni concluded by making an appeal to his own people: “let’s help each other and put our strengths together. Do not forget to help the newcomers, as it will pay off! I myself had helped two Bangladeshi nationals hosting them at my place and paying the rent for them. They will repay me as soon as they get jobs. Solidarity will lead to a win-win situation and it is the only way to improve our condition.”

Roni is just one of the many faces representing the migration crisis Italy is facing today. With the weakest suffering the worst consequences of the crisis, from a policy perspective, there is no doubt that an integrated EU approach will be the only effective way to face the issue. This is especially true when attempting to ensure implementation and enforcement of the social welfare laws, human rights and labour rights laws.

At both the national and local level, Italian institutions, as well as non-governmental organizations, have a key role to play. They must raise awareness and enhance understanding of these issues. Workers must be aware of their “labour and employment rights, social and welfare rights, and where to seek assistance”, as stated by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in its publication “Protecting the rights of migrant workers: a shared responsibility”.

All of this can significantly help create long-lasting legislative changes that are needed in the employment sector to ensure that migrants rights are protected. Finally, Italian institutions and civil society organisations should demand stricter controls by the authorities to ensure that existing laws are actually enforced and implemented, as suggested by Roni.


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UN Fighting Losing Battle Over Global Humanitarian Crises Wed, 27 Jan 2016 15:35:17 +0000 Thalif Deen Syrian mother and child near Ma'arat Al-Numan, rebel-held Syria.  Credit: Shelly Kittleson/IPS

Syrian mother and child near Ma'arat Al-Numan, rebel-held Syria. Credit: Shelly Kittleson/IPS

By Thalif Deen

As the global refugee crises continues to worsen by the hour, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is quick to point out that when he took office in January 2007, the international appeal for funds for humanitarian emergencies was only about 4.0 billion dollars annually.

“Now, we need more than 20 billion dollars,” he said last week, underlining the tragic turn of events worldwide: over 60 million people either displaced internally or who have fled their home countries becoming refugees virtually overnight.

And there are about 40 countries – out of the 193 UN member states – which are engulfed in “high-level, medium-level and low-level crises and violence,” he added.

A new study by Oxfam International, titled “Righting the Wrong,” says tens of millions of people receive vital humanitarian aid every year, but millions more suffer without adequate help and protection, and their number is relentlessly rising.

“Far too often their suffering is because their governments cannot, or intentionally will not, ensure their citizens’ access to aid and protection.”

In addition, says the study released January 26, international aid has not kept pace with the rising tide of climate-related disasters and seemingly intractable conflicts, and promises to help affected people reduce their vulnerability to future disasters and lead their own humanitarian response have not yet been kept.

As a result of the growing crises, the United Nations and several of its agencies continue to put out appeals for funds with monotonous regularity, but the responses are few and far between.

Ban said some donors are cutting 30 to 40 percent of their funding. “This is an understandable situation. But it is not a zero-sum game”.

“Development aid and humanitarian aid, there must be an additional budget and money for those people. This is what I have been urging.”

The largest single funding appeal is for Syria – amounting to over $3.2 billion for 2016 – as it struggles with a five year old conflict where more than 220,000 have been killed, 7.6 million displaced and nearly 4.0 million described as refugees.

The UN children’s fund UNICEF has appealed for $2.8 billion to provide assistance to about 43 million refugee children worldwide; the World Health Organisation (WHO) is seeking $76 million to meet the health emergencies arising from El Nino which has triggered disease outbreaks and water shortages affecting about 60 million people in seven high-risk countries: Ethiopia, Lesotho, Kenya, Papua New Guinea, Somalia, Tanzania and Uganda.

At the same time, the World Food Programme (WFP) is appealing for $41 million to feed nearly 2.5 million people facing hunger in the Central African Republic.

Last week the UN launched an $885 million plan to meet the needs of 30,000 Yemenis fleeing their war-ravaged country into Somalia—with more expected in 2016.

And the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Organization for Migration, along with 65 other non-governmental organizations (NGOs), last week appealed for $550 million for food, water, shelter and medical care for refugees making their way to Europe.

In Syria, both government and rebel forces have blocked humanitarian access to parts of the country depriving food and water to nearly 181,000 residents in besieged towns and villages, while 4.5 million Syrians live in”hard-to-reach” areas.

UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said using starvation as a tool of war is a clear violation of international humanitarian law and constitute war crimes.

The Oxfam study says the international humanitarian system—the vast UN-led network in which Oxfam and other international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs), the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement, and others play key roles—is not saving as many lives as it could because of deep design flaws that perpetuate an unsustainable reliance by aid recipients on international donors.

Despite these flaws, much has been accomplished in the past 70 years.

“Courageous aid workers have saved thousands of lives and provided vital services such as health care, water, and protection to millions. “

“But today’s system is overstretched, and humanitarian assistance is often insufficient, late, and inappropriate for the local context,” warns Oxfam.

Addressing the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, US Secretary of State John Kerry said in order to create a stronger and more sustainable funding base for UN humanitarian appeals, “we are seeking commitments to regular contributions from at least 10 new nations.”

“In tandem with that effort, we will seek at least a 30 percent increase in financing for global humanitarian appeals, from $10 billion in 2015 to $13 billion this year,” he added.

Asked for a response, Oxfam America President Ray Offenheiser told IPS Kerry’s comments about the United States renewed focus on strengthening the international response to the global refugee crisis show critical leadership and Oxfam welcomes them.

The refugee crisis is being brought on by the seemingly intractable conflicts raging as well as increasing natural disasters and climate change, which is being further exacerbated by this year’s Super El Nino.

We must also work together to address the root causes of the refugee crisis and invest more in making sure communities are better able to respond when disaster strikes.

Oxfam has been calling for the international community to meet appeals, resettle refugees, and allow refugees to work and do more to support countries hosting refugees.

We need to look beyond the issue of resettlement, which is vitally important, to holistically address what we can do to improve the situation for refugees and their host communities.

In terms of employment, the international community needs to do more to work with countries to develop policies that allow refugees to support themselves financially and contribute to the economy of their host community. It is in everyone’s best interest for refugees to be able to find stable and legal employment – not only is it their right to work, it will lead to more successful and stable communities.

In its study, Oxfam asks: “How do we right this wrong?”

By shifting more power, resources, and responsibility from the international actors—UN agencies, wealthy donor countries, large INGOs, and the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement—to local actors, including Red Cross/Red Crescent local chapters, national governments, national NGOs, local NGOs, community-based groups, and other civil society organizations.

It’s a huge task, admits Oxfam. But today, only a small fraction of funding is given directly to local actors.
More often, local humanitarian aid workers take direction from the international humanitarian community, which tends to relegate them to the role of subcontractors, rather than equal partners.

This role leaves the local actors in no better position to prevent or respond to the next crisis.

In addition, donors and national governments are investing too little in prevention and risk reduction efforts that could diminish the need for humanitarian response, Oxfam said.

The writer can be contacted at

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Mexico Creates First and Second-class Migrants Mon, 25 Jan 2016 23:00:27 +0000 Emilio Godoy A group of Central American migrants walking along a trail in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, on the border with Guatemala, at the start of their long journey across Mexico on their way to the United States. Credit: Courtesy Médecins Sans Frontières – Mexico

A group of Central American migrants walking along a trail in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, on the border with Guatemala, at the start of their long journey across Mexico on their way to the United States. Credit: Courtesy Médecins Sans Frontières – Mexico

By Emilio Godoy
MEXICO CITY, Jan 25 2016 (IPS)

The Mexican government’s decision to grant humanitarian visas to Cuban migrants stranded in Costa Rica contrasts sharply with the poor treatment received by the tens of thousands of Central American migrants who face myriad risks as they make their way through this country on their long journey to the United States, social organisations and activists complain.

Although migrant rights activists put the greatest blame on the United States, complaining that Cuban immigrants are given privileged treatment across the border, they also accuse Mexico of fomenting the differences.

Washington “promotes the irregular migration of Cubans,” activist Danilo Rivera told IPS from Guatemala City. “They have double standards, and Mexico plays into their interests. It contradicts the goal of achieving orderly, safe migration flows.”

“Mexico isn’t coherent, because it’s a country that produces migrants itself,” said Rivera, with the Guatemala-based Central American Institute for Social Studies and Development (INCEDES).

INCEDES belongs to the Regional Network of Civil Organisations for Migration (RROCM), which studies these issues and works with governments on immigration policies.

The 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, known as the “wet foot-dry foot policy”, grants Cuban immigrants U.S. residency one year and a day after they reach the country, regardless of whether their entry was legal or illegal.

Mexican Migrants in the U.S.

Tens of thousands of undocumented Mexican migrants also head to the United States. The Mexican authorities bitterly complain about the poor treatment this country’s citizens are given across the border, while they provide similar treatment to Central American immigrants here, human rights activists argue.

In a study published Jan. 20, the Center for Migration Studies of New York (CMS) reported that the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States fell to 10.9 million in 2014, from 12 million in 2008.

Six million of the undocumented immigrants in the country are from Mexico. But CMS Executive Director Donald Kerwin said the Mexican-born undocumented population was about 600,000 smaller in 2014 than in 2010.

The report also said that between 1980 and 2014, the population of Mexican-born legal residents grew faster than the number of undocumented Mexicans.

The previously little-known route taken by Cubans from Ecuador to the United States drew international attention in November, when nearly 8,000 Cubans found themselves stuck at Costa Rica’s border with Nicaragua, after the government in Managua refused to let them in the country.

A solution to the crisis was negotiated and the governments of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico agreed to put an initial group of 180 of the migrants on a charter flight from Costa Rica to Guatemala – thus avoiding Nicaragua – as part of a pilot plan that got underway on Jan. 12.

The next day, the 139 men and 41 women were taken by bus to the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, on the border with Guatemala.

With the special humanitarian visas issued by the Mexican government’s National Migration Institute (INM), the Cubans were able to cross the country on their own, without being stopped by the migration authorities.

After the success of the test flight, the four governments involved in the negotiations agreed in a meeting in Guatemala to carry out more flights, after Feb. 4.

The possibility of issuing humanitarian visas is provided for in Mexico’s 2011 National Migration Law. The permits can be granted for a duration of 72 hours to 30 days, in cases where migrants are victims of a natural catastrophe, face danger in their country of origin, or require special treatment due to health problems.

In November, the last month for which official data is available, Mexico granted 1,084 humanitarian visas: 524 to Hondurans, 370 to Salvadorans, 146 to Guatemalans, 43 to Nicaraguans, and one to a Costa Rican.

That same month, the authorities in Mexico detained 73,710 Guatemalans, 53,648 Hondurans, 31,997 Salvadorans and 1,427 Nicaraguans, and deported 64,844 Guatemalans, 47,779 Hondurans, 27,481 Salvadorans and 1,188 Nicaraguans.

An estimated 500,000 undocumented migrants from Central America cross Mexico every year in their attempt to cross the 3,185-km border separating Mexico from the United States, according to estimates from organisations that work with migrants.

“No one cares about Central Americans migrants; they’re rejects from poor, violence-stricken countries,” Catholic priest Pedro Pantoja told IPS.

“Political negotiations, and a state of servitude to the United States, were behind the way the Cuban migrants issue was handled. The Cubans have everything in their favour; the Central Americans have nothing,” said Pantoja, the director of the Belén Posada del Migrante migrants’ shelter in Saltillo, the capital of the northeast Mexican state of Coahuila, which borders the United States.

The activist also complained about the “unequal response” by the Central American governments, which showed solidarity with the Cuban migrants while being “so insensitive, distant and utilitarian” towards migrants from Central America itself.

On their way across Mexico, Central American migrants face the risk of arbitrary arrest, extortion, theft, assault, rape, kidnapping and murder, at the hands of youth gangs and people trafficking networks, as well as corrupt police and other agents of the state.

Defenders of migrant rights have asked Mexico to issue humanitarian visas to minimise these risks.

And in an August report, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ Rapporteur on the Rights of Migrants also urged the government to issue humanitarian permits.

“We have called for a stop to the deportations. Mexico needs to make progress towards protecting migrants in transit, using safe-conduct passes to keep them from going through dangerous areas and to help them to avoid criminal groups. But the United States does not want the border area to become the impact zone,” Rivera said.

Activists blame the Southern Border Plan, implemented since August 2014 by the Mexican government with U.S. support, for the offensive against undocumented immigrants. The plan included the installation of 12 naval bases on rivers in the area, and three security cordons using electronic sensors and other security measures to the north of Mexico’s southern border.

So far, the United States has provided 15 million dollars in equipment and assistance, and an additional 75 million dollars in aid are in the pipeline.

The flow of Cubans without visas through Central America and Mexico to the United States is not likely to let up, even though in December the Ecuadorean government once again began to require a letter of invitation and other requisites to enter the country, after giving Cubans free access since 2014.

In September, the Costa Rican government reported that it had detained 12,000 undocumented Cubans in the previous 12 months.

Migrant rights activists plan to demand a response from Mexico regarding its double standards towards immigrants.

“We are not going to sit still. We’re going to demand that the INM (National Migration Institute) be held to account,” said Pantoja, a member of the INM’s Citizen Council, made up of representatives of civil society and academia.

Immigrant rights organisations will meet Jan. 25-28 in Chiapas and the neighbouring state of Tabasco to study the phenomenon and monitor migration flows and the performance of the local authorities.

They will also question the INM during the Citizen Council’s March session.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Iraq’s Civilians Continue to Bear the Brunt of Instability: UAE Paper/Newswire Fri, 22 Jan 2016 19:55:28 +0000 Katherine Mackenzie By Katherine Mackenzie
ROME, Jan 22 2016 (IPS)

At least 18,802 people were killed in Iraq and another 36,245 were injured; this is the number of civilians killed in violence over the past two years and it is staggering.

The figures given are most likely an underestimate and are casualties incurred from January 1, 2014 through October 31, 2015, according to a report by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) and the United Nations Human Rights Agency (OHCHR). About half of the deaths reported took place in Baghdad alone.

Emirates News Agency carried a commentary from the Gulf Today looking at the new United Nations report on Iraq and the instability rocking the region.

“The reason is that the figures capture those who were killed or maimed by overt violence, but ignores the fact that countless others have died from lack of access to basic food, water or medical care,” said ‘The Gulf Today’ this week.

“Around 3.2 million people have been internally displaced in the country since the beginning of 2014 when the dreaded Daesh group took over large parts of the country. As is known now, the Daesh terrorists engaged in numerous inhuman activities including killings in gruesome public spectacles, beheading, bulldozing, burning alive and throwing people off the top of buildings.

“Child soldiers who tried to flee were mercilessly murdered by the terrorists, while continuing to subject women and children to sexual violence, particularly in the form of sexual slavery.

“As per the UN report, an estimated 3,500 people, mainly women and children, are believed to be held as slaves in Iraq by Daesh militants who impose a harsh rule marked by gruesome public executions.

“Such horrors were what led to Iraqi refugees attempting to escape to Europe and other regions. Ramadi has been touted as the first major success for Iraq’s US-backed army since it collapsed in the face of Daesh’s advance across the country’s north and west in mid-2014,” said the paper.

“But, as per indications, clearing the city of militants and explosives could take weeks. The discovery of more civilians than expected trapped among the ruins, after what the survivors say was a deliberate effort by fighters to use them as shields, suggests future battles against Daesh could be more complicated.

It said, “Ramadi, where nearly half a million people once lived, sadly has witnessed widespread destruction. The heartless terrorists continue to kill, maim and displace Iraqi civilians in the thousands and create endless suffering. Many of the actions by Daesh militants surely amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

“The perpetrators of such deeds should be made accountable and pay for the extreme cruelty they committed,” concluded the newspaper.

“The violence suffered by civilians in Iraq remains staggering,” said the UN report. “The so-called ‘Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’ (ISIL) continues to commit systematic and widespread violence and abuses of international human rights law and humanitarian law. These acts may, in some instances, amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and possibly genocide.”

The report compiled by UNAMI and OHCHR is based largely on testimony given by the victims. Some of these people were survivors and witnesses of human rights violations. Among those giving the accounts were internally displaced people.

“During the reporting period, ISIL killed and abducted scores of civilians, often in a targeted manner,” the report notes. “Victims include those perceived to be opposed to ISIL ideology and rule; persons affiliated with the government, such as former Iraqi security forces (ISF), police officers, former public officials and electoral workers; professionals, such as doctors and lawyers; journalists; and tribal and religious leaders.”

The report adds that “others have been abducted or killed on the pretext of aiding or providing information to Government security forces. Many have been subjected to adjudication by ISIL self-appointed courts which, in addition to ordering the murder of countless people, have imposed grim punishments such as stoning and amputations.”

“ISIL continued to subject women and children to sexual violence, particularly in the form of sexual slavery,” the report said.

The UN indicated that concerning reports have also been received of unlawful killings and abductions perpetrated by some elements associated with pro-Government forces.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein indicated that the civilian death toll may be actually much higher, and called for urgent action for those freely committing the violence to stop it.

“Even the obscene casualty figures fail to accurately reflect exactly how terribly civilians are suffering in Iraq,” he said. “The figures capture those who were killed or maimed by overt violence, but countless others have died from the lack of access to basic food, water or medical care.”

“This report lays bare the enduring suffering of civilians in Iraq and starkly illustrates what Iraqi refugees are attempting to escape when they flee to Europe and other regions. This is the horror they face in their homelands,” Said the Human Rights Commissioner.

Mr. Zeid also made an appeal to the government to undertake legislative amendments to grant Iraqi courts jurisdiction over international crimes and to become party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.


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Declining Oil Prices May Undermine Development and Humanitarian Aid Mon, 18 Jan 2016 13:49:34 +0000 Thalif Deen By Thalif Deen

The sharp decline in oil prices in the world market -– the lowest in nearly 13 years –- is expected to have a devastating impact on both developed and developing nations.

As the price of oil hit a new low of less than $30 per barrel last week — compared to $110 in 2014 — the economic realities are gradually coming into play.

As the New York Times put it, the long slide in oil prices means “oil rich nations are not so rich anymore.”

And predictably, the so-called “oil-rich nations” of a bygone era may vanish from market vocabulary.

The world economy is already suffering from a slowdown in China and the appreciation of the US dollar– resulting in rising anxieties in global markets.

Meanwhile, the decline in oil prices is also expected to drain the $7.2 trillion in sovereign-wealth funds, mostly built on oil and natural gas revenues, held by oil-producing countries, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

With the lifting of US sanctions on Iran – the world’s seventh largest oil producer in 2014– there will be a further glut in the market, forcing prices down with negative consequences on the global economy.

Closer home, UN agencies which depend heavily on Western industrialized nations for core and non-core “voluntary contributions” are preparing for the worse.

Asked for a comment, UN deputy spokesperson Farhan Haq told IPS that while Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon understands the economic realities that member states face, “it is crucially important for nations to continue to provide generously to development assistance and humanitarian aid.”

A new UN report, by a High-Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing, released Friday, says there will be a 15 billion dollar shortfall in funding for humanitarian emergencies in 2016.

Titled “Too Important to Fail – Addressing the Humanitarian Financing Gap,” the study warns of a growing gap between the increasing numbers of people in need of assistance and sufficient resources to provide relief.

Asked about declining aid, Ban told reporters last month he appreciates the difficulties and challenges facing many European countries.

“At the same time, I commend such compassionate leadership and generous support for many refugees who are seeking better opportunities and safety. “

“While I appreciate such difficulties, I ask the rich countries, the European countries, to increase their financial support and generous support for all these migrants and refugees, rather than diverting their already earmarked development aid.“

Ban said he realizes there is a limit to resources. “So inevitably, they may have to temporarily divert and use this development money for humanitarian purposes but in the longer term, if this kind of trend continues, it will only perpetuate this bad balancing between humanitarian and development.”

In its report, the high-level panel makes several recommendations, including the following:

— Reclassifying the eligibility criteria of the World Bank’s International Development Association (IDA), so that funding follows people in need — and not countries– to enlarge opportunities to middle-income countries (MICs).

— A far higher proportion of official development assistance (ODA) to be directed to situations of fragility and protracted emergencies, and oriented towards building resilience and reducing fragility.

— Tripling IDA’s Crisis Response Window and expanding the funding capacity for emergencies in other development finance institutions.

— A voluntary sign-up by governments to a “solidarity levy” mechanism to fund humanitarian aid.

— And channelling Islamic social finance and other instruments to humanitarian causes.

“Our starting point was the stark facts and figures: 125 million people in need; a record $25 billion a year going to aid them; but, in spite of that, the needs continuing to outpace resources,” said the report’s co-chairs, Kristalina Georgieva of Bulgaria and Sultan Nazrin Shah of Perak, Malaysia.

“A gap of $15 billion is a lot of money but in a world producing $78 trillion of gross domestic product (GDP) it should not be out of reach to find. Closing the gap would mean nobody having to die or live without dignity for lack of money and a victory for humanity at a time when one is greatly needed.”

As this report points out, Ban said, more than 120 million people live in constant distress, without jobs, food, water, shelter or health care.

“If they were all in one country, I am told that it would be the eleventh largest country on earth. And it would be one of the fastest growing nations.”

“And if our world were a school, it would have few spaces for needy children – as you know we have 60 million children out of school.”

This is not an abstract analogy, the Secretary-General said, pointing out that three quarters of a million Syrian children last year were shut out of classes because “we could not fund their right to an education.”

The United Nations, he said, is working every hour of every day to address the complex root causes of crises. “We also rush to fight fires. So many fires are burning around the world.”

Ban said he was serving as Secretary-General of the United Nations at a time of tragic records.

Since the UN was founded, the world has the most-ever people in need of humanitarian assistance and the highest-ever amount funding appeals. “We also face the biggest-ever appeal shortfalls.”
And last year, he said, nearly half of the UN’s appeals were unmet.

But with oil prices taking a severe beating and world economies shrinking, the prospects for humanitarian and development aid in 2016 seem bleak.

The writer can be contacted at

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Plan to Overcome Costa Rica’s Cuban Migrant Crisis Takes Off Wed, 13 Jan 2016 21:17:44 +0000 Diego Arguedas Ortiz Some of the 180 Cuban immigrants who departed Jan. 12 from the Daniel Oduber aiport in northern Costa Rica, as they line up for the test flight, the start of a possible solution to the crisis that broke out in November 2014. Credit: Foreign Ministry of Costa Rica

Some of the 180 Cuban immigrants who departed Jan. 12 from the Daniel Oduber aiport in northern Costa Rica, as they line up for the test flight, the start of a possible solution to the crisis that broke out in November 2014. Credit: Foreign Ministry of Costa Rica

By Diego Arguedas Ortiz
Jan 13 2016 (IPS)

After a nearly two-month wait, a group of 180 Cuban migrants, of the roughly 8,000 stranded in Costa Rica in their attempt to reach the United States, continued on their way as a result of a complex logistical process that emerged from diplomatic negotiations involving several countries in the region.

The first pilot flight took off late Tuesday Jan. 12 from the Daniel Oduber airport in the northwest Costa Rican city of Liberia, headed for the capital of El Salvador. From there they continued by bus to Guatemala and on to the Mexican border.

“What the countries agreed to was a pilot flight….we are convinced that this will be successful, thanks to the meticulous efforts put into it,” said Costa Rica’s foreign minister, Manuel González.

The minister explained that officials from the countries in the region will meet again before Jan. 18 to evaluate the success of the first charter flight and decide whether to use the same system with the rest of the migrants trapped along the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua since November.

The migrants clapped and cheered when the 180 passengers to take the first charter flight were called by megaphone in the shelter. When the group, wearing light clothing and carrying small suitcases, arrived at the airport, some of them carried U.S. flags while others wore t-shirts with the Costa Rican slogan “Pura vida” – literally “pure life” but meaning anything from “full of life” to “this is living!”

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) helped with the logistics in order for a commercial airline to offer a charter flight, after a diplomatic effort involving Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Panama.

González said IOM support was sought because the countries of Central America have little experience in this kind of operation.

Officially, 7,802 Cuban migrants are stuck in Costa Rica, some of them since Nov. 14. Their aim is to get to the United States to take advantage of the U.S. Cuban Adjustment Act’s “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which guarantees residency to any Cuban who sets foot on U.S. soil.

“I’m looking for the American dream,” said one of the travellers, Yumiley Díaz.

“I left a one-year-old baby behind in Cuba; I can’t wait to get to the United States and apply to bring him over,” said the young secretary, who is travelling with her husband to Tampa, Florida. “The United States offers me that possibility. Once I’m legal there, I can ask to bring him in.”

After receiving temporary transit permits from the Costa Rican government, the Cubans ran into resistance from Nicaragua, which closed its border and refused to let them through.

One of the 180 Cubans on the Jan. 12 charter flight which took the first group of migrants from Costa Rica to San Salvador. From there they are heading on to their final destination: the United States. Credit: Foreign Ministry of Costa Rica

One of the 180 Cubans on the Jan. 12 charter flight which took the first group of migrants from Costa Rica to San Salvador. From there they are heading on to their final destination: the United States. Credit: Foreign Ministry of Costa Rica

The air bridge was set up so they could get around Nicaragua.

Most of the stranded Cubans are in northern Costa Rica, in shelters set up by the local authorities, who report that they are assisting 5,298 migrants. On Dec. 18, the country stopped issuing special visas allowing Cubans safe passage through the country, which is why some of the Cubans were not registered and cannot be located.

The migrants now have the possibility of continuing their northward journey by air, as part of a “forced solution,” said Carlos Cascante, director of the School of International Relations at the National University of Costa Rica.

The crisis revealed limits to the Central American Integration System, which failed to come up with a solution. “This reflects poorly on the regional integration process,” Cascante told IPS. To push for bilateral accords, Costa Rica suspended its political participation in the regional integration body.

The academic said the measures taken by the Nicaraguan government were aimed at “drawing attention away from” internal criticism and complications plaguing its plan to build a canal between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, in a year when general elections are scheduled for November.

With regard to the negotiated solution, Costa Rica’s foreign minister said: “This isn’t just an airplane ticket; it’s a package that includes getting from the shelter to the border between Guatemala and Mexico.”

All of the countries along the way to the United States require visas for Cubans, which makes it impossible for them to take a commercial flight. Guatemala opened a special consular office to serve the migrants arriving from Liberia, Costa Rica.

The Cubans themselves paid the 555-dollar air fare, as well as the bus tickets, departure tax, meals, and health insurance, said the IOM chief of mission in Costa Rica, Roeland de Wilde.

Children under 13 will get a discount, although only adults were on the pilot flight.

“These Cubans who are in Costa Rica with their documents in order are economic migrants here voluntarily. They began this long journey by paying their own way and they will continue to do so,” said the IOM representative.

Once they make it to Mexico, the authorities there will adopt their own measures to facilitate the migrants’ passage north.

“Mexico will process their information, and will give them a note granting them 20 days to regularise their situation or to leave the country. That is enough time to get to the U.S. border,” said de Wilde.

This convoluted route to the United States begins with a flight from Cuba to Ecuador, which in late 2015 adopted stricter new visa requirements for Cubans, changing what had been an exceptional openness to citizens from the socialist Caribbean island nation who face an otherwise restrictive international context.

From Ecuador, Cubans make a journey of several thousand kilometres by land and sea to reach the southern U.S. border, often paying people trafficking rings, a phenomenon that kept their passage through Central America largely invisible.

But things changed when the authorities in Costa Rica dismantled one of these networks on Nov. 10, shedding light on the true dimensions of the flow of Cubans through Central America.

Despite the first test flight, a full solution is not yet in sight. More than 7,600 migrants still remain on Costa Rican soil, according to the visa registry in the country’s migration office.

Use of the so-called Ecuador route has stepped up because of worries that the “wet foot, dry foot” policy may be eliminated or restricted as a result of the thaw between Cuba and the United States, which began in December 2014 and has included the reestablishment of full diplomatic relations.

From October 2014 to Dec. 1, 2015, Ecuador allowed Cubans to enter the country without a special letter of invitation. But this requisite was put back in place after the migration crisis broke out along the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Syria: Minding the Minds II Tue, 12 Jan 2016 19:03:04 +0000 Johan Galtung Johan Galtung is professor of peace studies, founder of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment and rector of the TRANSCEND Peace University-TPU. He has published 164 books on peace and related issues, of which 41 have been translated into 35 languages, for a total of 135 book translations, including ‘50 Years-100 Peace and Conflict Perspectives’]]>

Johan Galtung is professor of peace studies, founder of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment and rector of the TRANSCEND Peace University-TPU. He has published 164 books on peace and related issues, of which 41 have been translated into 35 languages, for a total of 135 book translations, including ‘50 Years-100 Peace and Conflict Perspectives

By Johan Galtung
OSLO, Jan 12 2016 (IPS)

Baher Kamal, in … And All of a Sudden Syria!: “The “big five,” the United Nations veto powers, have just agreed United Nations Resolution 2254 of 18-12-2015, time to end the Syrian five-year long human tragedy; they waited until 300,000 innocent civilians were killed and 4.5 million humans lost as refugees and homeless at home, hundreds of field testing of state-of-the-art drones made, and daily U.S., British, French and Russian bombing carried out.” No Chinese bombing.

Johan Galtung

Johan Galtung

One term in the resolution, road map, already spells failure. There is another reason: missing issues. But something can be done. Roads twist, turn and may be far from straight. Traveling a road is a linear, one step or mile-stone after another, process, by the map. The West loves linearity; as causal chains, (falling dominoes,) from a root cause; as deductive chains from axioms; as ranks from high to low.

However, is that not how the world is, moving in time, causes-effects, axioms-consequences, rank, power, over others? Are roads not rather useful? They are. Is there an alternative to a road map? There is.

One step after the other in time is diachronic. An alternative would be synchronic; at the same time. Let us call it a cake map.

A cake is served, cut in slices, each party takes a slice, waits till all are served to start together. By the road map, first come first served first to eat. Or, highest rank eats first, down the line. The cake map stands for togetherness, simultaneity, shared experience. Not necessarily good: it was also used by the West to carve up Africa.

The cake is an issue; the slices are aspects. How it is defined, how it is cut, who are invited is essential. Basic to the cake map is equality among parties and slices: all get theirs at the same time.

For the Syria issue the Resolution lists the aspects on the road:
• 25 January 2016 (in two weeks) as the target date to begin talks;
• immediately all parties stop attacking civilians;
• within one month: options for a ceasefire monitoring mechanism;
• within 6 months “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance”;
• within 18 months “free and fair elections–by the new constitution”.

Kamal mentions many actors and crucial problems with this agenda. The focus here is on the linearity: ceasefire-governance-constitution-free and fair elections. Why stop attacking civilians who can become or are combatants? Why should actors agree to a ceasefire before their rights are guaranteed in a constitution? Why non-sectarian “governance” in a sectarian country? Each step presupposes the next. The “peace process” can be blocked, at any point, by any one party. Like a road.

Proposal: On 25 January, appoint four representative commissions– one for each of the four aspects–with mechanisms of dialogue for all six pairs and plenaries. Then report on all aspects on the agenda.

Back to the cake, “Syria.” Does “Syria” exist? Once much of the Middle East, the name was used for the French “mandate” carved out of the vast Ottoman Empire from 1516 to 1916 when ended by Sykes-Picot. A commission on the Ottoman period, exploring millets for minorities, is indispensable. So is a commission on the Sykes-Picot trauma, also with Turkey as a member; hopefully with UK-France-Russia apologizing.

We have seen it before. The US was a major party to the conflict and the UN conference manager 2013-14. There are now more parties: Jordan has identified up to 160 terrorist groups (Kamal), probably not counting state terrorists. And today the UN is the conference manager.

This column at the time (27 Jan 2014) identified seven Syria conflicts:
1 Minority/majority, democracy/dictatorship, Assad/not Assad in Syria;
2 Sunni/Shia all over, also with “Sunni Islamic State Iraq-Syria ISIS”;
3 Syrians/minorities “like Turks and Kurds, Maronites and Christians”;
4 Syria/”those who, like USA and Israel, prefer Syria fragmented”;
5 Syria/Turkey with “neo-Ottoman expansionist policies”;
6 USA-UK-France/Russia-China “determined to avoid another Libya”;
7 Violent perpetrators of all kinds/killed-bereaved-potential victims.

All seven are still there. They have become more violent, like the second, between Saudi Arabia–also financing IS–and Iran. But the resolution focuses on the first and the last. All parties mentioned should be invited or at least consulted publicly. Last time Iran was excluded, defined as the bad one; this time IS(IS), today called Daesh.

A process excluding major process parties is doomed in advance.

However, imagine that the cake is defined as, “the conflict formation in and around Syria”; that the slices are the seven conflicts indicated with one commission for each; that around the table are the actors mentioned, some grouped together. The Resolution aspects are on their agendas; with commissions on the Ottoman Empire and Sykes-Picot.

What can we expect, what can we reasonably hope for, as visions?

“Mandate”, “colony”: there is some reality to Syria (and to Iraq). The borders are hopeless and should be respected, but not for a unitary state. For something looser, a (con)federation. Basic building-blocs would be provinces from Ottoman times, millets for smaller minorities, and cantons for the strip of Kurds along the Turkish border. The constitution could define a national assembly with two chambers: one territorial for the provinces, and one non-territorial for nations and faiths with some cultural veto in matters concerning themselves.

There is also the Swiss model with the assembly being based on territorially defined cantons, and the cabinet on nations-faiths: of 7 members 3 speak German, 1 Rheto-roman, 2 French and 1 Italian (4 Protestant and 3 Catholic?). Not impossible for Syria. With the Kurds as some kind of Liechtenstein (that is where con-federation enters).

In addition to parallel NGO fora. There is much to articulate.

Assad or not? If he is excluded as punishment for violence, there are many to be excluded. A conference only for victims, and China?

Better see it as human tragedy-stupidity, and build something new.

The violent parties will not get what they want. The victims can be accommodated peacefully in this looser Syria. Moreover, the perpetrators should fund reconstruction proportionate to the violence they wrought in the past four years. As quickly as humanly possible.

Syria offered a poor choice between a minority dictatorship with tolerance and a majority dictatorship–democracy–without. Violence flourished, attracting old suspects for proxy wars. “Bomb Syria” was the panacea, after “bomb Libya”. What a shame. Bring it to an end.

*Johan Galtung’s editorial originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 11 January 2016: TRANSCEND Media Service – TMS: Syria (Minding the Minds II)

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Once Auctioned, What to Do with Syrian Refugees? Tue, 12 Jan 2016 15:23:51 +0000 Baher Kamal A young Syrian girl sits on a broken chair by her tent in Faida 3 camp, an informal tented settlement for Syria refugees in Bekaa Valley, Lebanon.  Credit: UNICEF/Alessio Romenzi

A young Syrian girl sits on a broken chair by her tent in Faida 3 camp, an informal tented settlement for Syria refugees in Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. Credit: UNICEF/Alessio Romenzi

By Baher Kamal
MADRID, Jan 12 2016 (IPS)

Few months ago, an unprecedented “humanitarian auction” was opened in Brussels at the European Commission, shortly after watching the image of the three-year old Syrian child that the sea threw up on the Turkish shores. The “auction” was about deciding upon the number of Syrian refugees to be hosted by each EU country. Germany won the largest batch.

Before taking a final decision, some less rich European countries, like Spain, rushed to argue: “We are trying to get out of the crisis; we have a much too high percentage of unemployed people; also a huge public deficit…,” Spanish authorities, for instance, would try to explain their reluctance, with a more diplomatic wording.

The EU decision was also subject to a wave of political controversies. Some conservative political leaders, like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, would strongly alert against this “tsunami” of Muslims threatening to attack “our Christian civilisation”. And some figures, like US multimillionaire Republican pre-electoral runner Donald Trump, would even call for prohibiting the entry to the US of all Muslims.

Labour Factor

Meanwhile, labour market experts would argue that the so-called “natural selection” process would solve the problem –i.e, that the market forces would hire those skilled refugees as non-expensive manpower, while the non-skilled ones would necessarily end up as undocumented, illegal migrants, therefore easy to repatriate.

But such an argument has never been enough to calm the panic that several politicians and many media outlets induced among European ordinary people.

Another factor these experts take into account is the fact that the European population is steadily ageing, without the needed demographic replacement, a problem that is translated in more pension takers and less tax payers to replenish the retirement budget.

All this, of course, comes aside of Europe’s humanitarian convictions, those that moved the EU to act in view of the massive arrival of refugees.

It was when the EU, led by Germany, decided to offer economic assistance to less rich “reception” countries (6,000 euro per refugee) that the most reluctant ones accepted the deal. This way, Spain, which agreed to host 14,000-16,000 refugees, hailed some weeks ago the arrival of the first 14!

Big Hell

Meanwhile, the mainstream media disseminated tens of dramatic footage and tragic stories about those kilometres-long barbed-wire barriers built by some East European states; the “Calais jungle” in France; the hundreds of refugees stranded at frontiers; the arrival of cold winter, or the daily death of tens of human beings on Greek shores.

Then came the brutal, inhuman, execrable killing of French civilians on 13 November 2015 by Jihadist Islamist terrorists; the immediately previous attacks against unarmed population in Lebanon, and the even previous ones in Tunisia, and, later on, the horrible New Year’s eve assaults in Cologne, Germany, not to mention the daily murdering of innocent people in Egypt, Iraq and Syria, among others.

This created serious problems at home for several European rulers, like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, apart from feeding more fears among European citizens.

A Turkish Warehouse

All of a sudden, a “solution” was found: the EU asked Turkey to keep the Syrian refugees in its territory or at its borders, preventing them from passing to Europe, against the payment of 3,000 million euro and the promise to unfreeze the deadlocked process of negotiations with Ankara for its potential integration in the European club.

In other words: to transform Turkey in a “storage room” or “warehouse” of Syrian refugees, until…


Meanwhile, it would be necessary to recall some facts:

The current number of Syrian refugees exceeds 4,5 million – according to the United Nations refugee agency, (UNHCR); This figure does not include the around 7,5 million internally displaced persons, i.e. refugees at home. The total would make over 50 per cent of the Syrian population (23 million.)

The number of Syrian refugees “auctioned” in Europe would represent barely one fifth of their total.

The number of Syrian refugees to be effectively allowed to stay in Europe is expected to come down to less than 15 per cent of those 4.5 million plus.

The remaining ones. i.e, 85 per cent of the 4.7 million Syrian refugees are currently spread out in the Middle East, Arab, poor and/or troubled countries, like Lebanon (with more than one million refugees, representing one fifth of its total population); unstable Iraq, and Jordan, where the Za’atri camp now represents the fourth most populated “city”;

The largest portion of humanitarian aid and assistance comes either from a short-funded UN agencies or civil society organisations.

That the Europeans themselves were also refugees during and after World War II, with numbers that exceeded those of Syrian refugees;

UNICEF’s humanitarian work began in the aftermath of World War II — and by the mid 1950’s millions of European children were receiving aid. Seventy years later, refugees and migrants are entering Europe at levels not seen since World War II. Nearly 1 in 4 are children.

And Now What?

What to do now with the total of 4,5 million Syrian refugees?
The five biggest military powers on Earth (US, UK, France, Russia and China), on 18 December 2015 adopted United Nations Security Council’s Resolution 2254 (2015) endorsing a “road map” for peace process in Syria, and even setting a timetable for UN-facilitated talks between the Bashar al Assad regime and “opposition” groups.
The whole thing moved so rapidly that the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has already set the 25 January 2016 as the target date to begin talks between the parties.

The “road map” talks about many things, including the organisation of “free and fair” elections in 18-months time.

No explicit mention, however, to the fate of the 13 millions of refugees and displaced at home Syrians who do not know what to do or where to go.


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Loneliness and Memories, Syrian Refugees Struggle in Safe Spaces Mon, 11 Jan 2016 07:41:10 +0000 Silvia Boarini 0 Syrian Government to Allow Aid, Loosening the Stranglehold on Madaya Fri, 08 Jan 2016 22:25:56 +0000 Katherine Mackenzie Photo: OpenStreetMap and MapQuest

Photo: OpenStreetMap and MapQuest

By Katherine Mackenzie
ROME, Jan 8 2016 (IPS)

The Syrian government says it will allow humanitarian aid into the besieged rebel-held town of Madaya, according to the United Nations, following reports and horrific pictures of residents starving to death. Aid is expected to reach the area by Monday, but for some it is too little and too late.

The plight of Madaya’s citizens only came to the world’s attention when residents somehow managed to get video out to Britain’s independent television network, ITV. The images of skeletal children and babies rocked the world’s conscience. The report said many were reduced to eating dirt and grass. Some, it said, had eaten cats and dogs.

“The people of Syria are on their knees. The economy has collapsed, essential infrastructure like water and power networks are hanging by a thread, and on top of that a very cold winter is bearing down,” said the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). “12 million people inside Syria are in dire need for help.”

The United Nations and ICRC was granted access yesterday but the operation isn’t expected to happen before Sunday or Monday. The ICRC in Syria said details are still being sorted out. The United Nations World Food Programme, WFP, said it expected food convoys to make it to the area by Monday.

The ICRC said its priority, with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, is to bring assistance to 500,000 people living in besieged or difficult to reach areas, such as Madaya, Zabadani, Foua and Kefraya.

“Almost 42,000 people remaining in Madaya are at risk of further hunger and starvation. The UN has received credible reports of people dying from starvation and being killed while trying to leave. On 5 January 2016, a 53- year old man reportedly died of starvation while his family of five continues to suffer from severe malnutrition,” a UN statement said on Thursday.

The UN said it had government permission to access Kefraya and Foah in the north of the country besieged by rebel forces while Madaya and Zabadani are besieged by government forces.

Up to 4.5 million people in Syria live in hard-to-reach areas, including nearly 400,000 people in 15 besieged locations who do not have access to the life-saving aid they urgently need.

Medicins Sans Frontieres, (MSF), called the noose around Madaya, “a total stranglehold siege.” It said, “Around 20,000 residents of the town are facing life-threatening deprivation of the basics for survival, and 23 patients in the health centre supported by MSF have died of starvation since December 1. MSF welcomes reports that the Syrian government will allow food supplies into the area, but urges that an immediate life-saving delivery of medicine across the siege line should also be a priority, and calls for sick patients to be allowed urgent medical evacuation to safe places of treatment.”

Of the 23 people who died, said MSF, six were under one-year old, five were over 60, and the other 12 were between five and 60. It said this shows the situation is affecting all age-groups.

The last aid trucks took in medical and humanitarian supplies to the village in October, and then some people were evacuated in December but there has been no new humanitarian access since despite repeated requests.

“Up to 4.5 million people in Syria live in hard-to-reach areas including nearly 400,000 people in 15 besieged locations who do not have access to the life-saving aid they urgently need,” said the U.N. statement. “The ongoing conflict continues to hamper the humanitarian response and freedom of movement is restricted by the presence of armed actors and landmines.”

The new head of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNHCR, said on Thursday that with record numbers of refugees and displaced people worldwide there needs to be greater diplomatic effort to find solutions to conflicts and abuses driving people from their homes.

“UNHCR is navigating extraordinarily difficult waters,” said Filippo Grandi at his debut press conference after taking office on January 1. “We owe it first and foremost to the forcibly displaced themselves, but we also owe it to States…States are desperately looking for solutions to situations involving refugees,” he declared, and stressed: “Even under more desperate circumstances we have to think of solving displacement.”

Grandi stressed that countries which host especially large numbers of refugees, such as Lebanon, now home to over one million Syrians, need better help. He also highlighted resettlement, humanitarian visas and family reunification as tools which can allow refugees to find safety in other countries, “not through trafficking but by what we call legal pathways.”

Aid agencies are stretched with no respite in the streams of people leaving conflict areas and seeking assistance. WFP said on Wednesday that it has sufficient funding to provide food assistance to 526,000 vulnerable Syrian refugees in Jordan for the first five months of the current year.

“This is the first time since December 2013 when we managed to receive enough funding to secure assistance over the next five months,” said Shaza Moghraby, WFP’s spokesperson in Jordan.


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… And All of a Sudden Syria! Tue, 05 Jan 2016 11:21:54 +0000 Baher Kamal By Baher Kamal
MADRID, Jan 5 2016 (IPS)

The “big five” – i.e., the most military powerful states on earth (US, UK, France, Russia and China) have just agreed that it would be about time to end the Syrian five-year long human tragedy.

Baher Kamal

Baher Kamal

Before reaching such a conclusion, they waited until 300,000 innocent civilians were killed; tons of bullets shot; 4.5 million humans lost as refugees or homeless at home; hundreds of field testing of state-of-the-art drones made, and daily US, British, French and Russian bombing carried out.

So, with these statistics in hand, they on 18 December 2015 adopted United Nations Resolution 2254 (2015) endorsing a “road map” for peace process in Syria, and even setting a timetable for UN-facilitated talks between the Bashar al Assad regime and “opposition” groups.

They also set the outlines of a “nationwide ceasefire to begin as soon as the parties concerned had taken initial steps towards a political transition.”

“The Syrian people will decide the future of Syria,” the Resolution states.

The UN Security Council also requested that the UN Secretary-General convenes representatives of the Syrian Government and opposition to engage in formal negotiations on a political transition process “on an urgent basis”, with a target of early January for the initiation of talks.

“Free and Fair Elections”

The “big five” then expressed support for a Syrian-led political process facilitated by the United Nations which would establish “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance” within six months and set a schedule and process for the drafting of a new constitution.

Furthermore, the Security Council expressed support for “free and fair elections, pursuant to the new constitution, to be held within 18 months and administered under United Nations supervision,” to the “highest international standards” of transparency and accountability, with all Syrians — including members of the diaspora – eligible to participate.

And they requested that the UN Secretary-General report back on “options” for a ceasefire monitoring, verification and reporting mechanism that it could support within one month. They of course also demanded that “all parties immediately cease attacks against civilians.”

The road-map says that within six months, the process should establish a “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance,” with UN-supervised “free and fair elections” to be held within 18 months.

The whole thing moved so rapidly that the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan di Mestura, has already set the 25 January 2016 as the target date to begin talks between the parties.

All That Is Fine, But…

… But the resolution gives no specific answer to a number of key questions:

To start with, the Syrian National Coalition (SCN) has dismissed the whole idea as “unrealistic,” Deutsch Welle reported. The Coalition objects to a fact that the Security Council’s Resolution carefully “omits”: what future President Assad has.

According to Deutsch Welle, the SNC expressed annoyance that the UN language talked of ISIS terrorism but not of the “terrorism” of the Assad government. Russia has called for the transition to leave the question of governance up to the Syrians, while France and at times the US have demanded Assad’s immediate ousting as a condition of the deal.

If so, which “opposition” should sit to talk with the Syrian regime? While the US, UK and France support what they decided to consider as “rebel” or “opposition” groups, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia would have different criteria.

In this regard, it was decided to work out a mechanism for establishing which rebel groups in Syria will be eligible to take part in the peace process. For this purpose, Jordan, which was tasked with listing terrorist organisations in Syria, has reportedly presented a document that includes up to 160 extremist groups.

Even though, would President Bashar al-Assad be able to run for office in new elections?

How will the UN monitor the requested ceasefires, and control so many different sides involved in the armed fighting, including the US, UK, France and Russia? And what if the ceasefires do not work? More Syrian civilians to die, flee, migrate? How to control DAESH and so many diverse terrorist groups operating there? What to do with those millions of Syrian refugees, scattered in the region, mainly in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey, while hundreds of thousands of them are being “trafficked” by organised crime bands, reportedly including DAESH itself?

And last but not least, which Syria will exist at the end of the 18 months which has been fixed as a target to hold free, fair elections?

Will it be the current Syria or a new, refurbished one after cutting part of it to establish a brand new “Sunni-stan” that US neo-con, neo-liberal, Republican “hawk” and former George W. Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, has recently recommended to create on the territories to be “liberated” from DAESH in Syria and Iraq?

Too many key questions without and clear answers. And too may gaps for this road-map to gain credibility. Unless the idea is to implement a Libyan-style solution, that’s for another Western-led military coalition, under NATO’s umbrella, to attack Syria, let Assad be murdered, and leave the people to their own fate. Exactly what happened in Libya in 2011.


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Disunity, the Hallmark of European Union Foreign Policy Thu, 31 Dec 2015 14:42:20 +0000 Emma Bonino

Emma Bonino is a leading member of the Radical Party, former European Commissioner and a former Italian Foreign Minister.

By Emma Bonino
ROME, Dec 31 2015 (IPS)

The appalling crisis ravaging the Middle East and striking terror around the world is a clear challenge to the West, but responses are uncoordinated. This is due on the one hand to divergent analyses of the situation, and on the other to conflicting interests.

Emma Bonino

Emma Bonino

The roots of the conflict lie primarily in the Sunni branch of orthodox Islam, and within this the fundamentalist Wahhabi sect embraced by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies generally. Both the Islamic State (Daesh) and, earlier, Al Qaeda, arose out of Wahhabism.

The West has historic alliances with the Gulf area, but apparently nothing has been learned from the 3,000 deaths caused by the attack on the Twin Towers in New York. Turkey plays by its own rules, while Russia does not hesitate to resort to any means to recover its position on the global stage, and is only now showing concern about the so-called foreign combatants that Turkey is allowing into Syria. In truth, there is very little common ground.

Consequently, all reactions are inadequate, including the bombing of territory occupied by the Islamic State – whether motivated by emotion or based on reason with an eye to the next elections – by countries like France or the United Kingdom, which wants to demonstrate in this way to the rest of Europe that it is an indispensable part of the EU. Bombings take place, only to be followed by public recognition that aerial strikes are insufficient because there are no more targets to be hit from the sky without guidance from troops on the ground.

The fact is that while the impossibility of achieving victory by air attacks alone is repeated like a mantra, the bombings continue. At the same time, every Arab medium complains daily that these are acts of war waged, once again, by the West against the Arab world.

Doubtless for this reason, the British government has not only increased its military budget but also given the BBC more funding for Arabic language services. The battle in hand is above all a cultural one; arguments are needed over the medium and long term, in addition to attempts at overcoming the contradictions.

The first step is to admit that there is no magical solution; only partial and complex solutions exist. The first measure must be to oblige Sunni Muslims, the Gulf monarchies and the Muslim Brotherhood – the sources of funds and material support for Islamic State combatants – to assume responsibility for their roles. Secondly, we in Europe must take serious measures to address our own shortcomings, by reinforcing our security.

EU counter-terrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove recently appealed for an agreement to unify the intelligence services of European countries, to no avail. European governments do not want a common intelligence service, they do not want a common defence system, and they do not want a common foreign policy. Some are only willing to commit their air forces to the fray.

In the meantime, we lurch from one emergency to another, managing only to agree on improvised, temporary measures. For instance, now we have forgotten all about the immigrants, as if they had ceased to exist. Vision is lacking, not only for the long term but even for the medium term.

Now European governments are focused on Syria, leaving aside the conflicts in Libya and Yemen, and are not giving needed help to our Mediterranean neighbours threatened by serious crises: Tunisia, Morocco and Jordan. Lately, oil facilities in the Islamic State are being bombed and the tanker trucks used for black market oil exports are being attacked. As is well known, during the first Gulf War bombing of oil wells brought about an ecological disaster and history is repeating itself in the territories occupied by the Islamic State. Meanwhile the attacks on ground transport are blocking supplies of provisions to Syria, where food is already scarce.

For its part, Italy has done well in choosing not to participate in military interventions that risk being counterproductive and that no one believes are effective, as shown by other scenarios from Afghanistan to the Lebanon. But this does not exempt Italy from making greater efforts toward a common European intelligence service and a broader and more efficacious immigration policy.

In a nutshell: the European Union should formulate and apply its own foreign policy in line with its own interests and reality, and dispense with the policies of the United States, Russia, or other powers.

Translated by Valerie Dee

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Displacement Climbs, No Respite Near in 2016 Mon, 28 Dec 2015 08:48:28 +0000 Katherine Mackenzie Thousands of refugees make the perilous journey each day for a better life in Europe and 2015 is set to be a record year for refugee numbers. Governments, Aid Organisations and NGO's struggle to  help them. Credit:  I.Pritchett/UNHCR

Thousands of refugees make the perilous journey each day for a better life in Europe and 2015 is set to be a record year for refugee numbers. Governments, Aid Organisations and NGO's struggle to help them. Credit: I.Pritchett/UNHCR

By Katherine Mackenzie
ROME, Dec 28 2015 (IPS)

Nearly a million people have crossed the Mediterranean as refugees and migrants so far this year, and conflicts in Syria and elsewhere continue to push up levels of human suffering. This makes 2015 likely to exceed all previous years of forced displacement, according to a new United Nations High Commission for Refugees report.

UNHCR’s Mid-Year Trends 2015 Report, referring to the period from January to end June, and looking at displacement across the globe from fighting and persecution, shows markers firmly in the red in each of the three major categories of displacement – Refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced persons or those who must take refuge within their own countries.

The global refugee total, which a year ago was 19.5 million, had as of mid-2015 passed the 20 million threshold to 20.2 million for the first time since 1992, says UNHCR. Asylum applications were up 78 per cent to 993,600 over the same period in 2014. And the numbers of internally displaced people jumped by around 2 million to an estimated 34 million, the agency added in its report.

The staggering numbers from the first half of this year suggest that 2015 will see global forced displacement exceeding 60 million for the first time. Worldwide that means that one person in every 122 has been forced to flee their home.

“Forced displacement is now profoundly affecting our times. It touches the lives of millions of our fellow human beings – both those forced to flee and those who provide them with shelter and protection,” High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said in the report.

The International Organization for Migration said last week the number of migrants and refugees crossing into Europe by land and see this year illegally has hit the million mark.

This is four times the the total number from last from year.
Most crossed by sea, with more than 800,000 travelling from Turkey to Greece. Half are migrants from Syria.

Eleven more migrants drowned last week, adding to the IOM toll of 3,695 people this year dying or missing at sea.

Seven people last week were rescued by Turkish coast guards after the craft went down, apparently en route from Kusadasi in Turkey to the Greek island of Samos.

Beyond UNHCR’s startling numbers there are some indicators that show key areas are worsening. For instance, voluntary return rates…that is people who feel they can return home safely are down and at the lowest level in three decades. The agency uses this as a barometer of the global state of conflict. For example, a year ago 107,000 people wanted to voluntarily return as compared to 84,000 this year in the same period.

Some 839,000 people in just six months fled, in real terms this means an average rate of almost 4,600 being forced to flee their countries every day, said UNHCR. The war in Syria and its effect on the region continues to be generating the most numbers of displaced people.

Pressures on host countries are growing. With infrastructures being stretched there is a great danger that resentment of refugees will increase and their situation become politicized. This is not a new consequence and can be a worrying trend. But too, the first half of 2015 was also marked by extraordinary generosity. Turkey is the world’s biggest hosting country with 1.84 million refugees on its territory as of 30 June.

Pope Francis appealed for peace and reconciliation in conflict zones around the world in his traditional Christmas Day message from Rome. He said he prayed for the success of recent UN resolutions for peace in Syria and Libya.

The Pope also cited the acts of terrorism in France, Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia and Mali, which he condemned. Thousands flocked to St. Peter’s Square to see the address which the Pope makes every year to the city and is broadcast across the world.

Lebanon, a host to refugees for decades, still is a temporary home to more refugees in comparison to its small population. UNHCR counts there are 209 refugees per 1000 inhabitants in Lebanon. Ethiopia is hit most in the pocketbook as it pays most in relation to the size of its economy with 469 refugees for every dollar of GDP. In the end those carrying the responsibility for looking after and hosting refugees are those countries bordering conflict areas, and many are in developing countries.

But the numbers of people reaching Europe by boat via the Mediterranean is only partly reflected in the report mainly because the surge of people escalated in the second half of this year and are still outside the months this report covers. Still, in the first six months of 2015 Germany was the host of the newest asylum claims – 159,000, close to the entire total for all of 2014. The second largest host was the Russian Federation with 100,000 asylum claims, and those were people fleeing trouble in the Ukraine.


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Accord Calls for First Global Conference on Peace Tue, 22 Dec 2015 07:49:30 +0000 Vasu Gounden Vasu Gounden, ACCORD's Chief, addresses high level expert group on climate and migration.

Vasu Gounden, ACCORD's Chief, addresses high level expert group on climate and migration.

By Vasu Gounden
DURBAN, Dec 22 2015 (IPS)

On 21 November 2015, during ACCORD’s 2015 Africa Peace Award celebration, I made a call for the United Nations to convene the first ever UN Global Conference on Peace.

The call was made during the presentation of the Africa Peace Award to the African Union Commission (AUC), in recognition of its central role in contributing to peace and promoting development in Africa. The award was made at a gala dinner by the Chairperson of ACCORD, Madame Graca Machel, and received on behalf of the AUC by Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Chairperson of the AUC.

Over the past few months, our television screens and social media have again exposed us to the graphic nightmares currently plaguing humanity. Terrorism, violent uprisings, and devastating conflicts now afflict several parts of the world, with no corner of our planet immune to either these challenges or their consequences.

Conflicts throughout the world have multiplied in complexity and intensity. The previous paradigm of warfare, where two nations fight one another across borders, is no longer the norm. Today internal conflicts around a number of grievances dominate, and are complicated by the rapid expansion of amorphous groups of radicalised and militant individuals.

As evidenced by the current challenges in Syria and Iraq, Libya, Nigeria, Yemen and Ukraine, the consequences of the violence are devastating and will scar these societies for generations to come. Our global community can no longer afford to pursue exclusively military-oriented responses, nor can states afford to remain indifferent to situations that are beyond their immediate concerns or borders. We need a new paradigm for peace.

With an exponentially growing population, unprecedented urbanisation often into unplanned cities, destabilising climate change, a shaky global financial system, growing unemployment, mass migration, and expanding wealth inequality, our planet is in a race against time to create a sustainable future and prevent these global challenges from accelerating and entrenching global instability.

As our work on climate change has shown, challenges such as these can trigger conflict and so even adaptation measures need to be conflict sensitive. While humanity is equipped with unprecedented technological advancements and incredible demographic opportunities to build a better future, we must channel the collective expertise of our global community to find sustainable and transformative pathways forward. The need for sustainable global peace is urgent and the stakes are rising as the challenges deepen. The choice of inaction could close the door on the future for which many strive. We must act quickly!

Collective political dialogue is the only true pathway to begin addressing inter-connected challenges in a sustainable and holistic manner. Over our 23-year history and through engagements with governments, armed groups, civil society, and regional, continental, and multi-lateral bodies, ACCORD has found this maxim to be true.

Our global systems for peace have grown more fragile and stressed just as our conflicts and challenges have evolved with ever increasing complexity. Our dialogue must focus on strategies to resolve current crises, prevent future deterioration, and ensure that peace and prosperity finally take root equitably and sustainably. Further, an urgent need exists to promote critical reflection, earnest debate and mutual solidarity amongst all people. We must underpin these efforts by shepherding a collective shift from an exclusive focus on ‘national interest’ to a collective focus on ‘global responsibility’. There are no easy answers, and no nation on its own has the solution for the challenges of today and more importantly the challenges of tomorrow.

Since its inception the United Nations has convened a number of World Conferences. However, to this day there has not been a UN-sponsored World Conference focused explicitly on peace. Bringing the entire community of humanity under one forum to deliberate earnestly has in the past contributed to tangible landmark global commitments from governments, the private sector and non-state actors alike. Our institutions and processes often limit discussion but a global conference creates a space where all are placed on an equal footing. Many of the current achievements on human rights, social development, climate change, and gender were built on the fresh foundations created by global conferences and dialogue. Such foundations create paradigm shifts, which then lead to practical outcomes.

It is our hope therefore that the Republic of South Africa, in collaboration with other African nations and under the auspices of the African Union, can propose to the UN General Assembly to host the first ever UN Global Conference on Peace in 2019 in Durban, on the 25th anniversary of South Africa’s democracy.

In advance of such a UN Global Conference on Peace and to support a global debate on peace we intend to assemble a multi-disciplinary gathering of experts from around the world in 2017, two years prior to the UN gathering.

As we face our future together we remember that South Africa’s peaceful transition was the result of collective global action and the struggle and outcome gave inspiration and courage to many. Unanimous and collective opposition to apartheid, from Africa and beyond, were critical in supporting the emergence of a peaceful and democratic South Africa against expectations and great odds. We therefore call the entire world to join once more in a free and peaceful South Africa, in the same spirit of collective unity, to begin charting a way forward to deliver global peace.

Now is the time!


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UN Seeks Hefty 20 Billion Dollars for Humanitarian Needs in 2016 Fri, 18 Dec 2015 20:19:42 +0000 Thalif Deen By Thalif Deen

The world’s refugee crisis – triggered mostly by conflicts and persecutions – will continue to be one of the biggest problems facing the United Nations next year.

With almost a million people having crossed the Mediterranean as refugees and migrants so far, 2015 is likely to exceed all previous records for global forced displacement, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) warned in a new report released Friday.

But 2016 could be even worse — if the Syrian conflict continues unabated and new political trouble spots arise, primarily in the Middle East and Africa.

“As we enter 2016, the world needs to aim for a new global compact on human mobility. Demonizing and scapegoating these people based on their religion, ethnicity or country of origin has no place in the 21st century,” says Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The United Nations is appealing for a staggering 20 billion dollars in funds to meet next year’s humanitarian needs — five times the level a decade ago.

But donors have been exceedingly generous, says Ban, “but we will likely enter 2016 with a funding gap of more than 10 billion dollars — the largest ever. “

The increased funds will be needed largely to feed, shelter and provide medical care to millions of refugees fleeing conflict zones, including Syria, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan.

But the devastating conflict in Syria, now into its fifth year, has been described as “the main driver of this sea of humanity on the move.”

According to the UN, about 60 million people are now homeless as a result of armed conflict, instability and persecution, and more than 125 million people will need humanitarian assistance in 2016.

The 20 billion dollar target for 2016 seems phenomenal in comparison to the UN’s regular budget of 5.57 billion dollars for 2016-2017 and its peacekeeping budget totaling 8.2 billion dollars for 2015-2016.

Since the crisis is expected to continue into 2016, the World Humanitarian Summit meeting in May 2016 in Istanbul is expected to be “a critical moment to address systemic funding problems, and agree on concrete steps to better prepare for and respond to crises.”

The UNHCR study, titled ‘Mid-Year Trends 2015’, says the global refugee total, which a year ago was 19.5 million, had as of mid-2015 passed the 20 million threshold (20.2 million) for the first time since 1992.

Asylum applications were meanwhile up 78 per cent (993,600) over the same period in 2014. And the numbers of internally displaced people (IDPs) jumped by around 2.0 million to an estimated 34 million.

A consequence of more refugees being stuck in exile is that pressures on countries hosting them are growing too – something which unmanaged can increase resentment and abet politicization of refugees, the study said.

Despite such risks, the first half of 2015 was also marked by extraordinary generosity: on an absolute basis, and counting refugees who fall under UNHCR’s mandate (Palestinians are under the mandate of the UN Works and Relief Agency or UNRWA), Turkey is the world’s biggest hosting country with 1.84 million refugees on its territory, as of 30 June.

Lebanon meanwhile hosts more refugees compared to its population size than any other country, with 209 refugees per 1,000 inhabitants.

And Ethiopia pays most in relation to the size of its economy with 469 refugees for every dollar of GDP (per capita, at PPP), according to UNHCR.

Overall, the lion’s share of the global responsibility for hosting refugees continues to be carried by countries immediately bordering zones of conflict, many of them in the developing world.

Europe’s influx of people arriving by boat via the Mediterranean is only partly reflected in the report, mainly as arrivals there have escalated in the second half of 2015 and outside the period covered by the report.

Nonetheless, in the first six months of 2015, Germany was the world’s biggest recipient of new asylum claims – 159,000, close to the entire total for all of 2014. The second largest recipient was the Russian Federation with 100,000 claims, mainly people fleeing the conflict in Ukraine, according to the report.

Speaking at a high-level event marking the 10th anniversary of the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), the secretary-general said the fund was a breakthrough in providing fast and predictable funding for early action at times of global crisis.

Over the past decade, the Fund has been an essential component of the UN’s humanitarian response – and it has enhanced the credibility of the United Nations, he added.

Among the CERF’s key strengths is its flexibility and speed. CERF resources are not earmarked for specific countries or crises, but can be deployed quickly wherever needs are greatest.

“Whether a crisis is sudden or protracted; whether it is in the news or not, CERF funds are allocated only on the basis of need,” Ban noted.

Within 11 hours of the earthquake in Haiti, trucks were unloading life-saving aid. And within 48 hours of Nepal’s recent earthquake, people were receiving timely life-saving assistance.

Since 2011, Ban said, the CERF has allocated more than 200 million dollars to humanitarian efforts in Syria and neighbouring countries. “And the CERF continues to deliver in the face of new challenges.”

Currently, the Fund is one of the earliest and largest supporters of early response in countries such as Ethiopia, Malawi and Honduras that are being affected by the El Niño phenomenon, which is one of the strongest in decades.

The world has changed radically over the past decade. But despite the generosity of donors, the gap between humanitarian needs and the resources available to meet them is growing every year, the secretary-general declared.

The writer can be contacted at

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Alaa Arsheed: A Refugee’s Sweet Sound of Success Fri, 18 Dec 2015 11:12:55 +0000 Francesco Farne and Valentina Gasbarri Alaa Arsheed, Syrian refugee and violinist, and Gian Pietro Masa, experimental electronic musician,  during their live peromance at the inauguration of Fornasetti's Calendarium exhibition.  Credit: Fornasetti / IPS

Alaa Arsheed, Syrian refugee and violinist, and Gian Pietro Masa, experimental electronic musician, during their live peromance at the inauguration of Fornasetti's Calendarium exhibition. Credit: Fornasetti / IPS

By Francesco Farnè and Valentina Gasbarri
ROME, Dec 18 2015 (IPS)

“In Beirut I was like a bird in a cage, I felt like a prisoner. Today, I have the chance to let my dreams come true, make a living with my music, realizing my dad’s project: open a new Alpha – my family’s cultural center, destroyed during the war- to share Syrian culture and help my people in Europe,” Alaa Arsheed, a Syrian refugee, told IPS.

Alaa, 29-year old and an accomplished violinist has become living proof of the positive effects migration can have on host countries, especially in countries like Italy where structural problems related both to the financial and migration crises have changed the course of present political history.

In the past century Italy has gone through mass emigration, internal migration and mass immigration. According to ISTAT (Italian National Institute of Statistics) almost 4 million non-EU migrants live in the country in 2015. The flimsy boats filled with human cargo and often sink in in the Mediterranean leaving many adrift in the cold sea, and some perish.

About 3 per cent of the world’s refugees arrive in Italy says the Report on International Protection in Italy 2015, released by The National Association of Italian Municipalities (ANCI) , Caritas Italiana, Cittalia, Migrantes Fundation and the The SPRAR project (Protection System for Refugees and Asylum Seekers), in partnership with the Ministry of Interior and The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The report says by the end of 2014 there were 33 on-going wars, 13 crisis situations and 16 UN missions. The humanitarian crises in the Middle-East pushed nearly 19.5 million refugees to flee their home country, 38,2 million were internally displaced people (IDPs) from war and persecution and 1.8 million were asylum seekers. As a consequence, the number of migrants reached 59.5 milion people.

According to the last figures from the Italian Ministry of Interior, in 2015 about 120,000 migrants arrived in Italy. The vast majority of people are refugees and migrants from Syria, followed by Afghanis, Pakistanis and Iraqis. The countries of origin for people crossing from Libya include Eritrea, Gambia, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan. 2,900 migrants have lost their lives in the Mediterranean during their dangerous journey.

Alaa Arsheed says he was drawn by the magnetism of Italy and Italian people while he was looking for a better life and a place where he could have the “right of having rights.” He describes how music, and art in general, helped him overcome many of the difficulties he faced since he left Syria and why he is convinced that Italy is such an inspiring place where he loves to live. An Italian friend of his, Marta, a painter, put him in contact with Barnaba Fornasetti. Barnaba is the son of the internationally renowned Italian designer Piero Fornasetti, and CEO of the Fornasetti Design company. Barnaba, like his father, is an artist and also a skilled DJ.

Audience attending the live music perfomance at the inauguration of Fornasetti's Calendarium exhibition.

Audience attending the live music perfomance at the inauguration of Fornasetti’s Calendarium exhibition. Credit: Fornasetti / IPS

When Barnaba met Alaa, he immediately recognized talent and saw the potential for an artistic collaboration. He invited Alaa to play his violin during the inauguration of his exhibit in Milan. It was an artistic collaboration as the experimental electronic musician Gian Pietro Masa and Alaa, played together in a long session, coordinated by musician and composer Roberto Coppolecchia.

“Art can be a powerful tool for integration, and music, in particular, it is a language that speaks directly to your inner soul, no matter what your religion, nationality, political affiliation, sex or age is,” said Alaa.

“I was born in As-Suwayda, in the Daraa province in southern Syria, where the so called ‘Arab spring’ started in February 2011,” said Alaa. His family owned an art café called Alpha which was the only free cultural space where artists could gather in the city. Alpha’s motto was “Art for All,” he said and then quoted Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”

Since its foundation, more than 140 art exhibitions, music, and literary events took place in Alpha, bypassing government censorship. “That was our way to protest, peaceful, based on art and free from religious and political influences. Once, we revisited Voltaire’s quotations in a visual art exhibit,” he said.

Late in 2011, Alaa, like many other Syrians, was forced to leave his country in the face of the civil war. He was able to bring just his violin and a few things with him. He moved to Beirut, where he lived teaching and playing music. Six months ago, he had a meeting that changed his life forever. While teaching violin to Palestinian refugees in a camp, he met Italian actor and UNHCR ambassador Alessandro Gassman, while he was in Lebanon filming a documentary about “art in times of war” called “Torn – Strappati.”

Alaa was involved in the making of this documentary, which was presented at the 72nd Venice International Film Festival, and he features playing his violin. For him, this instrument has become the symbol of how music can heal the pain of a generation of young Syrians.

His talent, and the visibility that Gassman and UNHCR gave to his him, the Fabrica Communication Research Group offered Alaa a music scholarship in Treviso, a city located in the North-East of Italy. “In Italy I found an inspiring, friendly atmosphere and I was also able to realize one of my professional dreams: publish my first album, sham, which means “Damascus” in the Aramaic language,” he said.

Eventually, he asked for asylum in Europe and today he lives in Italy. “I miss my family and my hometown,” and he said he still plays music with his brothers and sister who play the violin, viola and cello, via Skype. They want to play together as a string quartet in Italy someday.

Alaa is now working on a project, in partnership with Fabrica, that he says will make his parents happy and proud of him. As Alpha was destroyed during the war, he would like to rebuild this cultural space in Europe where it would be a landmark for plenty of refugees with the aim of preserving and spreading Syrian culture, as he said, “Art is stronger than everything.”


 From the left: Gian Pietro Masa, Alaa Arsheed, Barnaba Fornasetti, CEO, Fornasetti design company, and IPS Director General Farhana Haque Rahman at the inauguration of Fornasetti’s Calendarium exhibition. Credit: Fornasetti / IPS

From the left: Gian Pietro Masa, Alaa Arsheed, Barnaba Fornasetti, CEO, Fornasetti design company, and IPS Director General Farhana Haque Rahman at the inauguration of Fornasetti’s Calendarium exhibition. Credit: Fornasetti / IPS

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Human Rights in Turkey: Is Turkish Press Freedom in Danger? Fri, 18 Dec 2015 11:07:01 +0000 Lorena Di Carlo By Lorena Di Carlo
MADRID, Dec 18 2015 (IPS)

The last week of November marked another phase of an ongoing shift in the Turkish Government´s approach to human rights issues – Two important events highlighted the ongoing attack freedom of press is suffering in Turkey. First two prominent Turkish journalists were arrested after publishing a story claiming that members of the state intelligence agency had provided weapons to Syrian rebels; second, lawyer and leading human rights defender and Tahir Elçi, President of the Diyarbakir Bar Association in south eastern Turkey, was killed in crossfire while making a press statement on Saturday 28th of November.

The Government´s reaction has fueled concerns about a sweeping media crackdown, which escalated just before the country´s national elections in November 1st. Since the Justice Development Party (AKP) was re-elected, under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, conditions for media freedom have gradually deteriorated even further.

The present government has enacted laws expanding the state´s capacity to control independent media. The government has now an increased authority to block websites and the surveillance capacity of the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) has been strengthened. Journalists are currently facing unprecedented legal obstacles, while courts´ capacity to persecute corruption is circumscribed by references to “national security.” To regulate various media outlets, authorities are making use of the Penal Code, criminal defamation laws and an antiterrorism law.

As a direct result of mass protests in the summer of 2013, the Turkish government tightened its control over media and the internet even further. Followed by corruption allegations in December the same year, the government intensified its control over the criminal justice system and reassigned judges, prosecutors, and police in order to exercise a greater control over the country´s already politicized freedom of the press.

In 2013, during a corruption scandal revealed through leaks to social media of phone calls implicating ministers and their family members, the Turkish government reacted by shutting down Twitter and YouTube for several weeks and introducing an even more restrictive Internet Law than the one already in existence. However, the internet sites were reopened after the Constitutional Court had ruled against the Government measures.

Cumhuriyet, “The Republic”, is Turkey´s oldest up-market daily newspaper. Since AKP´s rise to power it has distinguished itself for an impartial and occasionally courageous journalism. In 2015 the newspaper was awarded the Freedom of Press Prize by the international NGO Reporters Without Borders for its stand against the Government’s mounting pressure on free speech. Shortly after that, Cumhuriyet’s editor-in-chief, Can Dündar, and the newspaper’s Ankara Bureau Chief Erdem Gül, were arrested and may face life imprisonment for a story claiming that Turkey´s secret services through convoys of trucks across the border were sending arms to Islamist rebels in Syria. Detailed footage depicted trucks allegedly delivering weapons and ammunition to rebels fighting the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

Despite its opposition to the Assad government the Turkish government has denied assisting Syrian rebels and by extension contributing to a consolidation of IS. Cumhuriyet’s accusation created a political storm in Turkey, enraging President Erdogan, who declared that the newspaper´s editor-in chief, would “pay a high price” for his “espionage.”

Dündar defended his paper´s action by stating: “We are journalists, not civil servants. Our duty is not to hide the dirty secrets of the state but to hold it accountable on behalf of the people.”
According to the Turkish Interior Ministry, the convoys were actually carrying humanitarian aid to the Turkmen community of neighboring Syria and the Cumhuriyet articles were accordingly politically motivated defamation. Right before appearing in court Dündar declared: “We come here to defend journalism. We come here to defend the right of the public to obtain news and their right to know whether their government is feeding them lies. We come here to demonstrate and to prove that governments cannot engage in illegal activities and defend such acts.”

The Secretary General of Reporters without Borders, Christophe Deloire, stated that “if these two journalists are imprisoned, it will be further evidence that Turkish authorities are ready to use methods worthy of a bygone age in order to suppress independent journalism in Turkey.”

Reporters without Borders, ranks Turkey as the 149th nation out of 180 when it comes to freedom of press, denouncing that there is a “dangerous surge in censorship” in the country. Reporters without Borders has urged the judge hearing the case to dismiss the charges against the two journalists as a case of “political persecution.”

The arrest of the two journalists has caused distress within the European Union. Europe is currently struggling with social problems and political crises due the influx of Syrian refugees and needs Ankara´s help to solve the crisis. Nevertheless, Turkish journalists have urged the EU to avoid making any compromises and in the name of freedom of speech, and as part of the efforts to combat the threat of IS totalitarianism, EU has to react to the Turkish Government´s intentions to control and manage independent information and reporting.

In the case of the lawyer, Tahir Elçi, was speaking to the press, pleading for an end of the violence between nationalist Kurds and the Turkish security forces. His death, considered an assassination by many, has f escalated tensions in Turkey´s Kurd dominated regions, where curfews have been imposed in several communities.

While Elçi, and other lawyers in the south eastern province of Diyarbakır were denouncing the damage caused to the historical patrimony during combat between the YDG-H Militants—a group related to the armed Kurdish group PKK—and the police. The incident was confusing. Video footage shows Elçi, hiding behind a man holding a pistol, as the sound of gunfire rings out from both ends of the street, a moment later the lawyer is seen lying face down on the ground. Officially it was claimed that Kurdish militants opened fire, which was returned by security men. Elçi´s last words before the attack had been: “We do not want guns, clashes or operations here.”

The HDP (People´s Democratic Party), an opposition party with Kurdish origins, declared that Elçi´s death was a planned attack and blamed the ruling AKP party. “This planned assassination targeted law and justice through Tahir Elci. … Tahir Elci was targeted by the AKP rule and its media and a lynching campaign was launched against him.” The HDP did not hesitate to remind that on October 19th, a warrant was issued against Elçi charging him with “propaganda for a terror organization.” The reason was that he during a CNN television program had stated that “PKK is not a terrorist organization… Although some of its actions have the nature of terror, the PKK is an armed political movement.”

Turkey´s Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, declared that it was unclear whether Elci was caught in a crossfire, or was assassinated, though he stated that: “The target is Turkey. It’s an attack on peace and harmony in Turkey.” On the same note Erdogan said the shooting was a clear indication that Turkey was right in “its determination to fight terrorism.”


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Cubans Want to Know When They Will Feel the Effects of Thaw with U.S. Wed, 16 Dec 2015 17:54:34 +0000 Patricia Grogg A group of women wait their turn to buy rationed food that is sold at subsidised prices, at a government shop in Havana, Cuba on Nov. 21, 2015. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

A group of women wait their turn to buy rationed food that is sold at subsidised prices, at a government shop in Havana, Cuba on Nov. 21, 2015. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Patricia Grogg
HAVANA, Dec 16 2015 (IPS)

While the normalisation of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba is moving ahead, and the U.S. and Cuban flags have been proudly waving in Havana and Washington, respectively, since last July, the year gone by since the thaw has left many unanswered questions.

“You shouldn’t ask me, because in my view, nothing has changed,” one slightly angry middle-aged man told IPS while waiting his turn in a barbershop. In a nearby farmers’ market, a woman asked, loudly so that everyone could hear, why a pound of tomatoes cost 25 pesos (nearly a dollar).

Many Cubans feel that they don’t have much to celebrate this Dec. 17, the first anniversary of the day Presidents Raúl Castro of Cuba and Barack Obama of the United States took the world by surprise with their decision to reestablish diplomatic relations, severed in January 1961.

People who got excited about the idea that their daily lives would begin to improve after more than half a century of hostile relations are ending the year with public sector salaries that do not even cover their basic food needs.

The Cuban press reported that Marino Murillo, minister of economy and planning and vice president of the Council of Ministers, admitted at a recent session of the provincial legislature of Havana that the overall economic indicators in the capital had improved, but that this has not yet been reflected in the day-to-day lives of local residents.

The thaw has, however, had a positive impact on tourism, by giving a boost to emerging private enterprises like room rentals and small restaurants, options chosen by many visitors interested in getting to know Cuban society up close.

According to official statistics, in the first half of 2015 this country of 11.2 million people was visited by 1,923,326 people, compared to 1,660,110 in the first half of 2014. Visitors from other parts of Latin America can be frequently heard saying that they wanted to come to Cuba before the “invasion” of tourists from the U.S.

People from the United States can only travel to Cuba with special permits, for religious, cultural, journalistic or educational purposes, or for “people-to-people” contacts. Experts project that 145,000 people from the U.S. will have visited the country this year – 50,000 more than in 2014.

Two primary school students walk by a group of foreign tourists in a plaza in Old Havana. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Two primary school students walk by a group of foreign tourists in a plaza in Old Havana. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

The ban on travel to Cuba for the purpose of tourism and the embargo that Washington has had in place against this socialist country since 1962 are among the pending issues to resolve in the process of normalisation of ties promoted over the last year by official visitors to Cuba who have included Secretary of State John Kerry, two other members of Obama’s cabinet, and three state governors.

“Beyond a number of grandiloquent headlines, everything remains to be done,” Cuban journalist and academic Salvador Salazar, who is earning a PhD in Mexico, told IPS. In his view, only the first few steps have been taken towards “what should be a civilised relationship marked by talking instead of shouting, and debating instead of attacking.”

Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Democracy in the Americas, concurred that after 55 years of hostile and dangerous relations, the governments of the two countries are learning how to respect each other.

“…[I]f 2015 was about both governments learning to treat each other with dignity and respect, 2016 has to be about building on that progress and using diplomacy to create lasting benefits for both countries in order to make the changes we are seeing irreversible and the further changes we want inevitable,” she told IPS by email.

In September, a binational commission created after the official restoration of diplomatic relations and the reopening of embassies defined the issues for starting talks aimed at clearing the path towards normalisation, including communications, drug trafficking, health, civil aviation and maritime security.

Human rights, human trafficking and demands for compensation by both sides were other questions on the agendas outlined by the delegations from the two countries. The list also includes immigration, an issue that has been discussed for years in periodic talks held to review progress on agreements signed in 1994 and 1995.

The talks about the agreements aimed at ensuring “safe, legal and orderly” immigration are not free of tension, given the Cuban government’s frustrated demand for the repeal of the U.S. Cuban Adjustment Act’s “wet foot, dry foot” policy and other regulations that according to authorities here encourage illegal migration.

Washington has reiterated that it will not modify its immigration policy towards Cuba. The anniversary of the start of the thaw finds some 5,000 Cuban immigrants stranded at border crossings in Costa Rica without any apparent solution, in their quest to reach the United States by means of a route that takes them through Central America and Mexico.

John Gronbeck-Tedesco, assistant professor of American Studies at Ramapo College in New Jersey, believes the Obama administration is doing its part to clear the way towards reconciliation, and says the talks held so far have calmed the “anti-normalisation rhetoric.”

But the academic says he does not yet see a climate favourable to the lifting of the embargo, which can only be done by the U.S. Congress, “especially” given the fact that 2016 is an election year.

According to the Cuban government, the embargo has hindered this country’s development and has caused 121.192 billion dollars in damages over the past five decades.

“I think that before Congress takes up the matter, however, the significant issue of debts still owed will need to be settled more clearly,” added the analyst, referring to the question of compensation that the two countries began to discuss in a Dec. 8 “informational” session in Havana.

“The U.S. has a price for Cuban American property and investments lost (nationalised) due to the revolution, and Cuba has a number in mind regarding the economic harm caused by the embargo. These debts are as politically symbolic as they are materially real for both interested parties,” added Gronbeck-Tedesco, without mentioning specific figures.

In an interview with the press published Monday Dec. 14, Obama reiterated his interest in visiting Cuba, although only if “I get to talk to everybody”.

He said that in his conversations with Castro he has made it clear that “we would continue to reach out to those who want to broaden the scope for, you know, free expression inside of Cuba.”

The two leaders have spoken by phone at least twice and met in person for the first time on Apr. 11, at the seventh Summit of the Americas in Panama. And on Sep. 29 in New York they held the first official meeting between the presidents of the two countries since the 1959 Cuban revolution.

*With reporting by Ivet González in Havana.

Edited by Verónica Firme/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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