Tag Archives: migrants

Strangers in the Night:  Recovering the Risks of Friendship, Dr. Robert Zuber

30 Jul

Barbed Wire 2

Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light.  Helen Keller

Great perils have this beauty that they bring to light the fraternity of strangers. Victor Hugo

The language of friendship is not words but meanings.  Henry David Thoreau

This week at the UN “featured” what appears to be a growing rift between the increasingly abusive and defiant government of Burundi and the concerns of the international community; a lack of “positive news” (ASG Muller) on still-besieged areas in Syria with nothing even approximating positive news on Yemen or Gaza; and renewed violence in the Central African Republic which mourned a new round of peacekeeper casualties.

Given all this, and throw the DPRK into the mix, and it surely must seem like a policy cop-out to reference this International Day of Friendship, one of the UN’s “can’t we just all get along” moments that might well seem superfluous to the serious policy challenges on our plate, including those related to the vast human mobility which seems now to have stretched our resources and caring capacities up to and even past their limit.

So much of migration now is what the UN policy community refers to as “irregular,” what the rest of us might well refer to as “forced.”  People on the move less for economic opportunity or a fresh start but to escape horrific conditions of war and its remnants, of drought and its famines, of atrocities and their multiple scars. Families escaping bombs they neither built nor dropped; drought and food insecurity from climate change they did virtually nothing to impact; atrocities perpetrated against them based on culture and genetics more than on any active political resistance or military threat.

And, as we know, the uncertain path forward for many fleeing insecurity is lined with more of the same.  Securing adequate family sustenance can be every bit as much a challenge on the move as it was in the drought and conflict zones from which they fled.  Traffickers abound and prey on vulnerabilities of all kinds, offering false hope to persons otherwise verging on “no hope” at all.   Abuses at the hands of those ostensibly providing “protection” simply magnify the insecurity, especially for children cut off from any modicum of protection that families might otherwise have provided.  And that barbed wire at the end of what is often a long and life-threatening journey is perhaps the strongest sign of people once betrayed by much of global governance and the human family who have been forsaken yet again.

As we have noted often, and as has been carefully and compassionately documented in “Turning Strangers into Friends,” edited by Liberato Bautista on behalf of Churches Witnessing With Migrants (CWWM),  the “regular” migration that is the goal of UN policy deliberations can be fraught with its own dangers: hostility at airports and border crossings; icy stares from persons on the street who believe that any stranger represents a danger;  threats from states to deport even single parents from family units; employers all-too-willing to cheat or abuse employees on the assumption that legal systems are mostly disinterested in migrants’ rights.

And as Bautista and colleagues have summarized in their Talking and Doing Points issued prior to their recent Berlin consultation, these are only a few of the factors that compromise the safety and dignity of “uprooted peoples,” factors that demand good policy from institutions like the UN but also more consistent and person-centered hospitality from those who claim to value dignity for all. The UN is trying to do its part to overcome some residual state resistance to the establishment and dissemination of a Global Compact on Migration that will hopefully facilitate safer, orderly and more “regular” migration patterns.   A Compact-related consultation held at the UN this week, chaired ably by Mexico and Switzerland and featuring Special Representative for International Migration Louise Arbour, stressed a number of important points for the migration policy community including the right of voluntary return, the importance of protecting (and even expanding) remittances, the need for more accurate data on all aspects of human mobility, the value of providing proper “documentation” for migrants and rethinking restrictions on “dual citizenship,” the many cultural and capacity benefits of “diaspora outreach,” and the need to step up “conflict prevention” efforts to help stem the flow of persons who feel that they have no option but to flee bombs overhead and landmines under foot.

There was even welcome discussion of the importance of moving beyond “whole of government” to “whole of society” approaches to addressing migration’s opportunities and challenges.  This point had particular resonance for us. “Turning strangers into friends,” accompanying those in ways we would wish to be accompanied, is not only about having the right national and global policies, not only about having the most progressive words appear in our declarations and resolutions, but about having the proper dispositions in communities; about seeing ourselves, indeed our common survival, reflected in the often fearful eyes of those who now appear as strangers to us.

This disposition remains in distressingly short supply, both within and outside communities of faith.

Even in a city like New York, which prides itself on its many cultures and more recently its resistance to new US federal policies clamping down on migrants of all stripes, there is a need to up our game on the hospitality, “mercy” and friendship called for by the CWWM.  For too many of us, even now, the promise of diversity is only casually engaged.   We sample the food of migrants but rarely share their dreams.   We attend the festivals of migrants but are mostly absent from their logistical challenges and major life transitions.  We are tolerant of migrants’ presence but mostly stick closely (on and off our phones) to our smaller, like-minded circles.

With all due regard for the “compassion fatigue” that seems to be sweeping the planet, and with all blessings extended to those who put their safety on the line every day to care for the otherwise forsaken, hospitality and friendship for migrants must become a long-term commitment for more of the rest of us.  This is not some pious liberal call, but rather stems from a belief — abundant evidence for which emerges regularly from UN conference room — that the factors pushing people to risk the lives of their children to escape the carnage of their daily lives are likely to grow in number and intensity, at least for the time being.

So while we are urgently figuring out a plan to regulate the growing ranks of the  unregulated, while this clock counting down the deadline for our common survival is still ticking, we have urgent work to do ourselves, to do on ourselves.   We have to find better ways to keep our hearts open, to offer friendship and hospitality that is not about charity but about, as noted by Lester Ruiz, “the opportunity to live well together in the context of our shared differences.”   And we must learn how to accompany others recovering from a displacement they so often did not choose, in part as a means of learning how we would wish to be accompanied when it is our turn to face grave insecurity.

This is friendship in the best sense, the friendship that walks in as others are running out, that absorbs anxieties when others are pushing them away, and that elicits practical offers of hospitality beyond the boundaries of personal convenience.   This is the friendship I have been blessed to receive over and over in my life.  This is friendship worthy of our times, practices that can bring deeper meaning to policies directed towards that “fraternity of strangers” longing to find their way home.

Boat People:  The Security Council Considers Options for Safe Passage, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 May

On Monday May 11, the Security Council under the leadership of its current president Lithuania convened a briefing in chambers that managed to set a tone different from what some of us had feared prior to taking our seats.

Several Council members – including the UK and other members of both the SC and the European Union — had apparently been discussing a resolution under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, that would allow – in a manner still unspecified as of this writing – the boarding and/or destruction of vessels accused of smuggling migrants across the Mediterranean.

This resolution-in-waiting apparently has many measures still to be worked out, including the degree to which the ‘recognized’ government of Libya needs to be consulted, what protocols need to be established to guarantee that those boarding boats under whatever circumstances have their safety and security protected, etc.   It was also clear from conversations beyond the Council chamber that the European Union has been contemplating some type of ‘boarding policy’ with or without Council approval.

Certainly those working on security at UN headquarters understand both the challenge and responsibility of the large number of men, women and children who brave a long sea journey in substandard craft in an attempt to escape the grave humanitarian and security crises affecting Libya and at least some of its neighbors.  Italy has rightly won praise from the international community for its efforts to rescue damaged craft that have threatened even more mass casualties, but Italy is not the only destination for these overloaded boats. Moreover, concern has been expressed that ‘terror groups’ might well be profiting from what is deemed to be a lucrative trade focused on people who have some access to funds and feel that they have little choice if they are to protect their families from what seems to be endless violence in the post-Gaddafi era.  As more than one UN official has noted recently, no one would choose to subject their families to such a voyage if there were other, viable options to escape the misery and violence.

Behind this crisis is a robust, system-wide effort, led by the High Commissioners of Human Rights and Refugees, to highlight the plight of migrants and their humanitarian and human rights interests.   We have been to more UN events focused on migrants in the past two years than in the decade previously.  It is now widely recognized that migrants and internally displaced – on the move due to armed violence, water shortages, climate-related changes or other factors – represent a grave peace and security concern.  But more than that, such displaced persons – largely women and children – have humanitarian and human rights expectations that the international community is morally and legally bound to honor.  People don’t forfeit human rights protection simply because conditions force them on to boats to seek refuge elsewhere – this is true whether those boats are operated by smugglers in Libya or Carnival Cruise Lines.

Indeed, the Council briefing seemed to be an ample confirmation that the work of OHCHR and other key UN players to ‘institutionalize’ a growing concern for migrants has taken root.   The EU’s Frederica Mogherini, while soliciting support from the African Union and UN Security Council to “disrupt human trafficking networks,” took a careful and balanced tone in her remarks, noting the need to “do more to address root causes that push people to take dangerous risks.” She also called for a “unity government” in Libya, an aspiration which the Council has recently addressed on several occasions with full awareness of its high degree of difficulty.

Other briefers were a bit clearer than Ms. Mogherini in their articulation of the international community’s responsibility to protect the Libyan boat people.  For instance, SRSG Peter Sutherland –without citing the proposed resolution directly – called for “root solutions to root problems” that do not further isolate asylum seekers in poverty and violence.   He described trafficking allegations as largely a matter for law enforcement and urged the EU to work towards more “resettlement destinations,” “more visa options” for asylum seekers and, as noted, more law enforcement capacity in situations calling for such a response.

Mostly supporting this line of argument, the African Union’s Ambassador Tete António cited the many push factors – including armed violence, drug trafficking and chronic unemployment — that cause people to seek out the tiny spaces on these boats in the first place.  He also noted that much of the migration in North Africa is within region rather than outside of it, perhaps in part due to the high costs (as well as risks) of a sea voyage.  He urged the Council to embrace a larger picture of migrant needs and rights beyond the immediate and limited concern of boat trafficking in persons.

While none of the briefers took up the alleged value of a potential militarized operation in Libyan territorial waters nor the challenges and potential mis-steps of such operations in open waters, one came away from this briefing with a clear sense that numerous reservations existed both regarding militarized response and with regard to a single minded policy focus that cannot possibly, as Sutherland rightly noted, solve the migrant problem alone.

Perhaps this was the plan by current president Lithuania all along – create a briefing event that was much more about the rights and needs of previously neglected seafaring migrants than it was about stifling the economic benefits of their escape crafts’ recruiters and pilots. In either instance, the briefing seemed kinder and more humane than the controversial resolution that formed its backdrop.  Let us hope that the lives of often-desperate boat people are not put further at risk by ill-considered policy priorities designed principally to block income streams of alleged traffickers.

Care over Imprisonment: Alternatives to Detention of Migrant Children

5 Oct

Editors Note:   GAPW actively covered and, where possible, participated in the General Assembly’s High Level Segment on Migration and Development.   It was a particularly rich engagement, highlighting many critical security issues, including the increasing militarization of borders and criminalizing of migrants.  Tereza Steinhublova from the Czech Republic, who has had direct experience working with migrants in the UK, offers this analysis of an event focused on the needs of migrant children. 

In countries all over the world hundreds of thousands of people are being held in detention centers due to not having proper documentation or legal status in the country. This problem applies to migrants and refugees as well as asylum seekers. In many cases, people are detained for long or indefinite periods of time in cells, just as if they were criminals. They are not allowed to leave, and visits are limited.

The United Nations High Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development was held at the UN Headquarters in New York on October 3rd and 4th, 2013. On October 2nd the International Detention Coalition (IDC), with the support of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Government of Liechtenstein, held a side-event titled Expert Meeting on Alternatives to the Immigration Detention of Children. The meeting had two main areas of focus – the legal framework for protecting children who face immigration detention, and the discussion of suitable alternatives to child detention, including a specific example from Belgium.

In opening remarks, Ms. Jyoty Sanghera, Chief of the Human Rights and Economic and Social Issues Section of the OHCHR, explained that detention centers are often run by police or prison authorities who lack appropriate training. Moreover, detention facilities rarely provide the necessary protection migrants require, such as basic healthcare, access to psychological help and legal assistance with their cases. This becomes even more of an issue for vulnerable groups such as children, especially if they are unaccompanied, because they easily become targets of violence. Mr. Francis Crépeau, UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, provided a well-structured presentation on how child detention contributes to the violation of children’s rights as set out by the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).  Both Mr. Crépeau and Mr. Grant Mitchell, the Director of the International Detention Coalition, emphasized that the detention of children can never serve their best interests. Mr. Crépeau also explained the effects of detention on children through a legal lens, noting that unaccompanied children are sometimes detained in adult facilities due to an incorrect age assessment in the immigration procedure upon arrival.

While studying at the University of Kent I volunteered with the Kent Refugee Action Network, which provides mentoring for unaccompanied young asylum seekers. In some cases, even if the person had been living in the country for a relatively long period of time and was granted asylum, psychological trauma was still something they battled. In many cases the migration journey itself is very stressful and even traumatizing. Being placed in prison-like conditions can further contribute to emotional stress. (Even if children are detained together with their families, the family often becomes separated by gender.) These children can become targets of violence, including sexual violence, which has serious negative effects on their psychological and overall well-being. In addition, children who leave detention centers are rarely provided with adequate care and often end up destitute. For these reasons many groups, such as the IDC, have begun to push for alternatives to detention, which would decrease the suffering of people in transition.

If so much evidence exists that detention centers are an inappropriate response, why do states continue to detain migrants? Mr. Crépeau explained that states often justify the confinement of migrants mainly in security terms or as a deterrent. However, he also stressed that there is no empirical evidence that detention deters irregular migration or discourages asylum seekers. Mr. Mitchell explained that asylum seekers awaiting a decision are much less likely to flee and therefore detention is unnecessary. Unfortunately, in many countries migrants are both criminalized and stigmatized, which contributes to xenophobia and fuels the growth of extreme right-wing activity.

What are suitable alternatives to detention? All panelists agreed on the primary responsibility to care, with most emphasis placed on case management, guardians and open family units. Mr. Crépeau argued that the state needs to respect the basic rights of children, such as the right to education, adequate housing and medical care, which cannot be achieved in detention. He argued that in cases where whole families are detained, the family should be eligible for alternative measures such as a supervised release or required reporting. Mr. Mitchell noted that many states have taken positive steps towards the reduction of detention facilities, such as implementing new laws that prohibit child detention, listing Panama, Belgium, Japan, Mexico, China, Venezuela, Australia and Sweden as examples. Mr. Mitchell explained that many countries are being innovative in dealing with migrant children who are alone. In the Philippines, for instance, children are placed into the family welfare system while their case is being processed. Similarly, in the Netherlands, children are assigned guardians from NGOs who then provide them with basic care.

Mr. Bertrand de Crombrugghe (whose surname turned out to be the biggest linguistic challenge at the meeting!!) explained how Belgium has been successful in implementing the alternative system of ‘open family units.’ The units have received international recognition by the UNHCR, the Council of Europe, as well as some states. Belgium has been using this system for regular migrants since 2008, and in 2009 they extended it to include asylum-seeking families as well. The open family unit system involves the placement of families into individual houses intended for temporary stay while they await the resolution of their case. Unlike detention centers, family units allow the family the freedom of movement. Most importantly, families are in contact with supporting officers who provide assistance towards a tangible outcome to their situation – a legal right to remain or a voluntary return home. Families are also given other necessary support such as legal assistance and logistical and medical support.  Unaccompanied minors are placed into the care of a guardian who serves a similar purpose as the supporting officer, but also accompanies the child to necessary legal proceedings.

What some states fail to recognize is that alternatives to detention would not only benefit the migrants themselves, but also the state budget. Mr. Mitchell explained that alternative measures tend to be on average 80% cheaper than detention facilities. Mr. de Crombrugghe noted that family units bear a lower cost to the Belgian state than detention facilities. All panelists stressed the need for continuous development and dialogue on alternatives to detention.

Overall the event was very well organized and although technical difficulties prevented the screening of the short film titled The Invisible Picture Show, all panelists provided well-structured arguments on the need for alternatives to detention. It was motivating to attend such an event, especially since the numbers of migrants are at high levels and difficult matters such as this are often not given enough attention by the international community.

 Tereza Steinhublova