Dispatches is a fortnightly e-mail bulletin of the JRS International Office. It features refugee news briefings and project updates from our people in the field.


  Australia: outsourcing asylum not the solution

 
Despite the small numbers of refugees who arrive each year, the Australian government plans to outsource asylum to poorer neighbours (AU News)

 

Sydney, 12 October 2010 – JRS questioned the construction of regional processing centres for refugees as the sole answer to the rising number of asylum seekers coming to the Asia Pacific region.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced plans for building a processing centre, possibly in the nearby nation of Timor Leste. The plans were announced prior to the elections in August, and partly as a response to this rising number of asylum seekers arriving to Australia by boat, pushing several migration detention centres beyond capacity. This week, Australia's Minister for Immigration, Chris Bowen, visited Timor Leste to begin discussing requirements for building such a centre.

But, according to JRS Australia Director, Sacha Bermudez-Goldman SJ, a regional processing centre will not solve this immediate capacity problem. It would take months if not over a year or more to build such a facility.

While accepting that there is a need to find mechanisms to ensure that asylum seekers are able to receive international protection, Fr Bermudez-Goldman questioned the selection of Timor Leste, a small recently independent state with its internal issues and problems.

If the purpose of a processing centre is to find the most equitable way to receive and determine the claims of asylum seekers in the region, it would seem that Australia would be a better candidate.

"Surely Australia with many more resources would be better placed than Timor Leste to process asylum claims for the region", said Fr Goldman.

"While in principle processing centres are needed for immediate health, identity and security checks, there are a number of unknowns. What happens, for example to those whose cases for refugee status are rejected? Will Timor Leste be responsible for returning them to their countries of origin? Will they have the right to appeal their cases? Will these cases be heard by Australian judges, and who will provide legal representation?", continued Fr Goldman.

Moreover, Fr Goldman expressed concern that such a processing centre could become a de facto detention centre, as is the case of the centre at Christmas Island. In such a situation, people can be kept in detention for indefinite periods of time; there are people who now have been on Christmas Island for 14 months or over.

JRS, in cooperation with many other asylum seeker and refugee advocacy groups, continues to call for an end to this practice of long periods of indefinite detention for so many people, including families with small children and unaccompanied minors.

Detention

The immediate difficulty facing the Australian government is the overcrowding of the country's detention centres; Christmas Island has been over capacity for a long time now: four more boats arrived in the past week bringing the total number to close to 2,700 detainees.

The main detention centre was originally built for 400 and has been modified several times to include additional accommodation. Back in April, some of the detainees began to be moved to detention centres on the mainland, but these too are coming close to capacity now. The government is under a lot of pressure to find alternative sites for accommodation.

"There is no simple or quick solution to this issue, but as long as we continue to identify people who arrive in Australia by boat as a problem, not as people who have a problem, and try to exclude them from coming to our shores, it is difficult for us to talk about cooperating with a regional protection framework. In reality, what we are doing is looking after our own self interests", added Fr Goldman.

"Attitude is a powerful force in determining and guiding our motivations. Our attitude towards asylum seekers and their plight needs to change from an approach that asks 'what is this (welcoming asylum seekers) going to cost us/how is this going to affect us' to an approach that emphasises that 'these are human beings, our brothers and sisters, who need our compassion and care'", Fr Goldman said.


Europe: protection must have priority in EU relations with Libya, JRS says

 
About 80 irregular boat migrants from various African countries, including about a dozen women, were drifting at sea for at least 48 hours before the Bovienzo, an Italian Guardia di Finanza patrol boat, intercepted them on the evening of May 6, 2009. © 2009 Enrico Dagnino

 
Border control must never be at the cost of human rights.  

Valletta, 8 October 2010 – JRS Europe has emphasised the urgent need for protection of migrants and asylum seekers upon the recent agreement between the EU and the Libyan government on a Migration Cooperation agenda.

The conference, held on 5 October in Brussels, focused on migration issues in Libya and their support and cooperation with the EU. The EU agreed to increase financial support to Libya to 60,000 million for the period of 2011-2013, and to open an EU office in Tripoli, the capitol of Libya. Libya is home to an estimated 1.5 million refugees.

In response to the agreement, directors from JRS offices around Europe confirmed their deep conviction in a meeting at the Mount St Joseph Retreat House in Mosta, Malta, that, unless and until Libya and other countries of transit are truly able and willing to provide effective protection, asylum seekers must urgently be given access to procedures and protection in Europe.

"Persons in urgent need of protection now have nowhere to turn to, as Libya has no national asylum system. Just as worrying are the consistent reports of harsh treatment and severe abuse of migrants caught staying in the country illegally or trying to leave without the necessary permission. Their needs must be given priority by the EU Commission", said JRS Europe Director Michael Schoepf SJ.

"It's not long ago that Tripoli expelled the UN High Commissioner for Refugees", added Br Schoepf.

"Otherwise we violate core European and Christian values", JRS Malta Director, Joseph Cassar SJ, pointed out.

Border control costs lives

According to JRS offices in Europe, border management must never block access to a fair refugee recognition procedure. The number of asylum seekers arriving in Malta has decreased to a trickle over the past few months, prompting calls for increased border controls to ensure that arrivals are kept to a minimum.

"But even if Malta had difficulties in dealing with asylum seekers, closing European borders is the wrong answer", emphasised Br Schoepf.

"Border control must never be at the cost of human rights. Instead we invite the Maltese government to join efforts to change the EU legal framework. The Dublin II regulation must be amended in order to ensure more solidarity among EU states so that other countries accept more asylum seekers who have come to Europe via Malta", said Br Schoepf.

The meeting also discussed the detention of migrants in Europe. As a recently published JRS study clearly shows, detention makes migrants vulnerable. This practice is even more questionable as alternatives to detention exist.


Haiti: situation still critical

 
Aproximately 11,000 displaced families living under constant threat of forced eviction, Automeca camp, Port-au-Prince, Haiti (Peter Balleis SJ/JRS)

 
An estimated 15,000 people have been evicted so far and 95,000 people remain under serious threat of eviction from private land.  

Washington DC, 6 October 2010 – Nearly ten months after the 12-January earthquake, Haitians are still living in a state of emergency, with a humanitarian response that appears paralysed, according to a report by the NGO Refugee International.

The US NGO called on funds to continue being directed towards humanitarian assistance until real alternatives are available. Moreover, incentives need to make available for livelihoods programmes, for displaced persons to move permanently out of the camps.

Camp inhabitants, the report says, continue to protest against their living conditions and threats of evictions. Gang leaders are intimidating the displaced. Sexual, domestic and gang violence in and around the camps is rising, the report read.

Action is urgently needed to protect basic human rights. Living in squalid, overcrowded and spontaneous camps for a prolonged period has led to aggravated levels of violence and appalling standards of living.

Despite the miserable conditions in the camps, the residents express increasing fears of being evicted with nowhere to go. An estimated 15,000 people have been evicted so far and 95,000 people remain under serious threat of eviction from private land. Even when there is no threat of evictions, many landowners refuse to allow any improvements to be made to the camps on their land, such as installation of lighting or better latrines.

Displaced women

While gender violence has always been a problem in Haiti, there has been a significant increase since the earthquake. The number of teenage pregnancies and failed street abortions are extremely high in the camps. Moreover, agencies including JRS continue to receive reports of women and girls forced to exchange sex for food, especially since the general food distributions stopped in April.

Although most camp inhabitants have established resident committees, some of which have appointed security committees, they lack basic equipment, training and funds. In some camps these committees are positive and enhance security; in others they are corrupt and abusive, made up of gang members who are the cause of insecurity.

Despite recent advances in policing of the camps, only a small fraction of inhabitants benefit from community policing beyond the camps. Since July, UN Police Force has set up an IDP unit which currently has around 200 officers who are now providing a 24-hour security presence in six of the largest camps. Unfortunately, UNPOL currently has no translators, so they cannot communicate with the camp residents, and is in need of more vehicles and other equipment to increase its presence.

For more information see JRS Haiti campaign


International: UN head calls for new responsibility-sharing deal

 
More than 800,000 people are in need of resettlement to third countries, yet developed states continue to tighten policy towards refugees, Mae Sot, Thailand (Anna Samson/JRS)

 
Camps built to provide short-term assistance, become places in which violence and poverty are endemic.  

Rome, 8 October 2010 – At the end of the 61st annual executive meeting of the UN refugee agency, the High Commissioner, António Guterres, called for a "new deal" to help developing nations who shoulder the weight of 80 percent of the world's 40-plus million forcibly displaced persons.

Voluntary return, local integration and third-country resettlement are the only solutions for millions of refugees throughout the world.

Mr Guterres told the governing committee of the need for a new deal of responsibility sharing. International solidarity, he said, would improve protection and assistance for the refugees and internally displaced people. It would also complement efforts by agencies assisting refugees in making repatriation more sustainable and supporting local integration projects.

The annual five-day ExCom meeting reviews and approves UNHCR programmes and budget, advises on protection issues and discusses a wide range of other topics.

2009, Annus horribilis

According to António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 2009 was the worst year in two decades for the voluntary return of refugees. In his speech opening the meeting, Guterres spoke of his concern about the increasing number of permanent refugees around the world.

Speaking to Misna news agency on 5 October, JRS International Communications Coordinator, James Stapleton, was concerned by the increasing the number of refugees forced to live in marginalised communities and camps without hope for the future.

"Camps built to provide short-term assistance, become places in which violence and poverty are endemic. The doors of the international community seem to be closing exactly when they are needed most", said Stapleton.

Refugees are increasingly moving to urban areas instead of camps. Without assistance, they face even greater difficulties, including xenophobia and they compete with marginalised communities for employment and services. Consequently, states are closing their doors preventing the arrival of other persons in need of protection. However, the doors in the north are closing more quickly.

Stapleton supported the appeal by Guterres, to resettle larger numbers of refugees in the north. Presently, 800,000 refugees are in need of resettlement. While the US accepts 80,000 per year, and Europe only a few thousand, the vast majority live in dangerous circumstances.



Chad: Darfuri refugee children to attend secondary school

 
With the construction of the new JRS schools, some 300 children are set to benefit, eastern Chad (Alix Nijimbere/JRS)

 
JRS West Africa has established primary schools in the camps, providing, among other things, a sense of normalcy and dignity for the children and their families.  

Abeché, 11 October 2010 – Refugee camps in eastern Chad held their first literacy examinations this summer.

The successful candidates, of the 58 refugee children who sat the exam, will attend the new JRS-supported secondary schools in Djabal and Goz Amir, and follow the Sudanese secondary school curriculum. Notably this programme was the first in Chad to have involved Sudanese observers from the education ministry.

Recently, the two countries opened their borders after an end to hostilities. The change has made many hopeful that problems concerning education of refugees will be resolved, offering humanitarian organisations an opportunity to look for a new way of assisting the refugee children.

The new schools are modelled on projects in Kounoungou and Milé camps which began in October 2008. JRS expects to enrol 300 adolescent students at Djabal and Goz Amir camps, and 200 community primary school teachers. As girls are often excluded from education, JRS seeks to recruit and retain girls in the secondary school programme.

When the new school opens, JRS plans to: offer remedial classes for students who fail the entrance exam; a variety of evening classes for adults in the camps; and, in cooperation with the UN children’s fund (UNICEF), in-service training to teachers.

Education creating stability

Over the last five years, more than 250,000 people have fled the western Darfur region of Sudan and sought safety in eastern Chad. Consequently, insecurity, violence and military recruitment continue to plague the refugee camps, creating a particularly an unstable environment for children.

In response, JRS West Africa has established primary schools in the camps, providing, among other things, a sense of normalcy and dignity for the children and their families.

The secondary school project has included not only teaching in schools, but physically building them as well. JRS has directed the building of two blocks of classrooms in Djabal and Goz Amir as well as renovated the buildings. According to JRS, general attendance rates at these schools have been high and exam results at the end of the year were encouraging.

Students also receive Sudanese textbooks, making re-integrating into their home education system easier if they should return. Moreover, the Sudanese education ministry has agreed to recognise the final-year secondary school qualifications received by the refugees, facilitating their access to the university at home.


Zimbabwe: food aid helps children stay in school

 
A JRS-supported student takes vegetable seed home to supplement his family’s food supply. (Munyaradzi Chirove/JRS)

 
Without you I would have dropped out of school before grade five.  

Harare, 12 October 2010 – More than six years after JRS Zimbabwe began assisting displaced and extremely vulnerable children, the number has rapidly increased. From 45 children in receipt of food aid in 2004, JRS is now making it possible for nearly 300 children to attend school. Without this food assistance, the children would almost certainly be forced to engage in harmful alternative survivial techniques.

Drought, poor agricultural opportunities and a bleak economic climate spells hardship for the poorest citizens of Zimbabwe. With unemployment of approximately 85%, most people find it difficult to sustain their families and live in abject poverty. Some families, particularly in drought-affected areas, are dependent on charity.

The children, from 11 rural schools, receive a comprehensive survival package. JRS provides a ration of maize, cooking oil and multi-purpose soap for each child, to ensure they can come to school clean and fed. In order to support the development of subsistence agriculture in the home to supplement their diet, JRS also distributes vegetable seeds.

In addition, JRS provides practical support to the students by providing them with school uniforms. Refugees at Tongogara camp in Zimbabwe are offered JRS-sponsored sewing courses. Upon completion of the courses, they can earn an income by making school uniforms which are later purchased and distributed by JRS.

Providing opportunities

The results of this support programme have been impressive. School attendance rates are stable. In the past, some children would attend for one month, then the rains would come and they would have to work at home for a month. They miss school to get food. The programme is breaking this cycle; it is building a more stable lifestyle for the children.

A letter to JRS Zimbabwe by a 13-year-old student captures the importance of education to these children. "My performance has improved and I can now attend school on a daily basis". Another child told staff: "without you I would have dropped out of school before grade five".

The benefits of the project have also been recognised by teachers. One secondary school teacher told JRS: "when we were in a dire situation, you were there to help us…we are greatly indebted to you".

With continued donor support, JRS will continue to assist Zimbabwe's most vulnerable children with a chance to better their lives and opportunities through completing their schooling.

In the words of a final year student: "I find myself in a situation which I had never hoped for, had it not been for JRS. To think that I find supplies of whatever basic need I may have for the advancement of my education…it seems to be such a miracle".

Lacking social support

Children in Zimbabwe receive very little support, mostly due to the death of parents and guardians. The most vulnerable children often cannot afford necessities such as food, soap and clothing or school fees which provide the luxury of an education. Without income or emotional support, children face a difficult choice: school or work.

The consequences of terminating their education can be severe. Many children believe life across the border is the answer to their problems, as evidenced by the high rate of unaccompanied minors crossing into South Africa. This opens these children up to a range of other dangers, including labour exploitation, human trafficking and police harassment.

NGOs working with minors in South Africa's towns that border Zimbabwe, speak of boys and girls living and ‘working' the streets, focused on earning money as opposed to returning to school.


Belgium: JRS receives prize for work in Syria

 
Iraqi women supported by the JRS Vartan Centre, Aleppo, Syria (Peter Balleis SJ/JRS)

 
"The diversity of the religions and circumstances of those in St Vartan, and how they support each other to cope with suffering, danger and poverty, highlights the richness of people and of God", said Magda Toutounji.  

Brussels, 14 October 2010 – Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga presented the Caritas Internationalis Deckers Foundation Prize to the JRS Syria project, the St Vartan Deir Community Reception Centre, based in the northern city of Aleppo.

Established nearly 100 years ago, the JRS team in the St Vartan Deir convent began operating there in November 2008 when thousands of Iraqis fleeing conflict and violence at home started arriving in Aleppo.

Since then, JRS has offered informal educational, recreational and psychosocial assistance, as well as small business loans, to nearly 500 forcibly displaced Iraqi children, adolescents and women, as well as marginalised Syrians. Two hundred and fifty children attend classes to prepare for public school examinations and 120 more children participate in recreational activities at the centre.

According to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), approximately 290,000 displaced Iraqis live in Syria, of whom 30,000 are in Aleppo. Many Iraqis survive on meagre resources and face difficulties finding employment and gaining access to social services. Moreover, families frequently remain scarred by the violence they witnessed at home.

Community for all communities

The centre is a place where Christians and Muslims, boys and girls, and Iraqis and Syrians can mix freely. It is a place where community cohesion can be strengthened, irrespective of whether the Iraqis eventually return home voluntarily or integrate into their new host societies.

"The diversity of the religions and circumstances of those in St Vartan, and how they support each other to cope with suffering, danger and poverty, highlights the richness of people and of God", said Magda Toutounji, team member who accepted the prize on behalf of JRS at the end of the Caritas Justice and Poverty summit, in Brussels on 14 October.

Every three years, the Deckers Foundation Award is given to person(s) or organisation(s) of exceptional merit working in the area of emergency and development assistance, and aid to migrants. The winning organisation receives 75,000 euros to be dedicated to the selected project.

"The prize money will help St Vartan implement new projects for refugees in Syria. Our education activities and psychosocial services are trying to help them integrate into their local communities and rebuild their lives", added Ms Toutounji.

This year's Justice and Poverty summit began with speeches by the Honduran Cardinal, Rodríguez Maradiaga, and European Council President, Herman Van Rompuy, followed by discussion on Caritas policy proposals as part of its Zero Poverty campaign.

Following the discussion, the Cardinal facilitated a workshop on political and moral responsibility, focusing on putting human dignity at the centre of the debate on social justice.

Caritas Foundation International-Deckers was established at the bequest of Philip Deckers in memory of his brother Charles Deckers, murdered with three White Fathers in Tizi-Ouzou (Algeria).


Italy: Writing Doesn’t go into Exile award presentation

 
Italian actor, Valerio Mastandrea, being interviewed by RAI TV journalist Giovanni Anversa.

 
The Power of a Bureaucratic Stamp in the Hands of Men, was judged among 150 short stories and picked for its ironic tone and capacity to describe the paradoxical effects of a society that is increasing closing in on itself.  

Rome, 15 October 2010 – Students from cities throughout the country looked beyond their textbooks today, seeking to learn more about issues relating to refugees in Italy.

Approximately 700 upper secondary school students gathered south of the capital, a part of the Rome built by the former dictator and fascist Benito Mussolini, at the fourth annual prize giving ceremony of “Writing Doesn’t go into Exile” project, promoted by JRS Italy.

These students work on projects relating to refugees and human rights throughout the school year, but today were able to discuss their work with their peers from schools throughout Italy.

Recognition for writing

While "Writing Doesn’t Into Exile", attempted to offer a space for students to discuss issues relating to refugees, the event also showcased the work of Lorenza Pacini, from Vittorio Veneto Liceo in Milan.

Seventeen year old Pacini, in her penultimate year of school, was named winner of the fourth annual literary competition. Her story, "The Power of a Bureaucratic Stamp in the Hands of Men", was judged among 150 short stories and picked for its ironic tone and capacity to describe the paradoxical effects of a society that is increasing closing in on itself.

A jury of writers, journalists, refugees and teachers read her story. Her prize was presented by JRS Italy Director, Giovanni La Manna SJ, and the spokesperson for the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in Rome, Laura Boldini. Winning the competition gives Pacini the opportunity to make a film relating to refugees with JRS Italy that will be featured on the JRS International website in the near future.

But Pacini wasn’t the only feature in today’s events. Two actors, Ascanio Celestini and Valerio Mastandrea, spoke on the role of culture and art in building a society open to differences and sent a message against racism and all forms of intolerance.

All information and material relating to the JRS schools project, as well as the essays by Pacini and the nine runners up, will be available on JRS Italy’s website.

  JRS DISPATCHES is sent from the International Office of the Jesuit Refugee Service, Borgo Santo Spirito 4, 00193 Rome, Italy. Tel: +39-06 68977468; Fax: +39-06 6897 7461; Email: dispatches@jrs.net; JRS online: http://www.jrs.net; Publisher: Peter Balleis SJ; Editor: James Stapleton; Translation: Carles Casals (Spanish), Edith Castel (French), Simonetta Russo (Italian).

JRS Dispatches No. 288
Editor: JRS Dispatches