A Win for Rights, But the Struggle Goes On

 

These rulings, like those that blocked the first order, come as a great relief to refugees, immigrants, Muslim Americans, and everyone who cares about our country’s values of individual rights and equal treatment.

Two key rulings by federal judges in Hawaii and Maryland last week have temporarily halted the implementation of the President’s second attempt at a “travel ban”—widely referred to as the Muslim Ban 2.0. These rulings, like those that blocked the first order, come as a great relief to refugees, immigrants, Muslim Americans, and everyone who cares about our country’s values of individual rights and equal treatment.

Under these rulings, refugees in the United States will be able to reunite with their family members without fear of being denied a visa purely because of their nationality, people who have applied for third-country refugee processing in Costa Rica will no longer be stranded in limbo, and some refugee children in Central America who have already spent months or longer waiting in deadly conditions will again board flights to safety.

Too close for comfort

As crucial as these rulings were, however, they should never have been the only thing standing between people and the loss of their rights. The first ruling came down only a few hours before the ban was set to go into effect. Refugees, visa applicants, and nationals of six Muslim-majority countries were left staring down a precipice of possible family separation and years of processing delays up until the last minute. This was far too close a call.

Neither ruling offers permanent relief from these fears. They are both temporary restraining orders and could be lifted on appeal. The administration has already made clear its intent to fight the rulings, and Trump has suggested that he may return to the, even more discriminatory, version of the first order.

Moreover, the ban, even if permanently blocked, has already had a chilling effect on the lives and prospects of refugees. Since January, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has stopped conducting new interviews with child refugees applying for the Central American Minors program (CAM), even though the executive orders were supposedly on hold. Asylum-seekers from Africa and the Middle East have been fleeing the United States for Canada in significant numbers, enduring a frigid and dangerous journey on their way, because of the U.S. government’s undisguised hostility to their rights. And none of these court rulings will affect the administration’s other executive orders and implementation guidelines that continue to target immigrants and asylum-seekers.

What did the courts decide?

In many ways, the refugee ban has been foiled so far because of the President’s own rhetoric. The courts did not have to look hard for evidence of discriminatory intent for the actions of this administration. In fact, they relied on the President’s campaign statements that he would seek “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” and that “Islam hates us.” Both cited Trump’s comments in interviews that he only stopped referring to a Muslim ban in public because “[p]eople were so upset when I used the word Muslim” that he decided to “talk […] territory instead of Muslim.” Further, administration officials have been quoted stating that the second executive order was meant to accomplish the same purpose as the first, even as the first was under a nationwide injunction because of its discriminatory purpose.

The second version of the order claims it does not discriminate. Instead, it offers a “national security” rationale for the ban (one that did not appear anywhere in the text of the first version), and which administration officials were not able to supply when asked for it at trial. These are strong indicators that the national security argument was a mere pretext. In fact, Maryland District Court Judge Theodore Chuang found that national security was “not the primary purpose for the travel ban.”

The administration claimed that people who come from six conflict-ravaged nations—Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen—pose a greater terror risk than others. (They make no mention of the role the United States itself has recently played in conflicts in more than one of these countries.) The administration’s argument is not only belied by a recent DHS report which found that country of origin has little determination on whether someone is likely to commit violence. It is also a betrayal of our national promise, violating one of our most important social values: that people should not be judged based on where they come from, but rather as individuals with worth and dignity.

One order down – an entire political agenda to go

The executive orders are so extreme that they may not survive the legal challenges ahead. However, the courts on their own will not be able to forestall every piece of a larger xenophobic agenda. There are signs, for instance, that the administration could still suspend the refugee program even if the rest of the executive order is not allowed to stand. The Maryland court, for one, while blocking portions of the executive order, did not extend its ruling to cover the refugee program. This choice is difficult to understand, given that the assault on the program was motivated by the same anti-Muslim bias (nearly half of refugees currently entering the United States are Muslim, and the vast majority coming from the same Muslim-majority countries targeted in the order).

UUSC will remain vigilant in the months ahead and pick up the work of resistance wherever other remedies are insufficient. Our organization was born out of the struggles of refugees and victims of persecution during World War II and we will continue to speak out against the politics of hate and all efforts to unwind the moral consensus that has emerged since those years. UUSC is in solidarity with all marginalized communities as we struggle for greater recognition of human rights.

Rights Reading

Our weekly roundup of what we’re reading includes a few select articles from the front lines of human rights that we don’t want you to miss. This week’s catch up on the recent rulings on Trump’s travel bans, human rights violations in Burma (Myanmar), and immigration in the United States.

Two Federal Judges Rule Against Trump’s Latest Travel Ban, Alexander Burns, The New York Times, March 15, 2017

 “This is a great day for democracy, religious and human rights. I am very pleased that the processing of my mother-in-law’s paperwork will not stop now but more importantly that this Muslim ban will not separate families and loved ones just because they happen to be from the six countries.” -Mr. Elshikh

Two federal judges, from Hawaii and Maryland, blocked the Trump Administration’s revised travel ban earlier this week. This is the second setback since Trump issued the new executive order banning travel from certain Muslim-majority countries. The first block was from a federal court in Seattle. The federal judges both argued that the travel ban was discriminatory and based on religion, making it unconstitutional. In addition, the lawsuits mention that the executive order harms the operations of various organizations, schools, and hospitals overseas.

Learn more about the effects these executive orders are having on immigrant families in our blog, DHS Memos Threaten Immigrants’ Rights, Families, and Safety.

Myanmar must ‘allow Rohingya to leave camps’, Al Jazeera, March 16, 2017

Former U.N. Secretary, General Kofi Annan, was appointed to lead a commission by Burma’s (Myanmar) current de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi to investigate tensions between Buddhists and Muslims in the country. The commission released a report stating that Burma must close internally displaced persons (IDP) camps that have been housing and trapping thousands of Rohingya, Burma’s Muslim minority, for the past five years. The Rohingya are not recognized citizens and are denied basic rights, including healthcare, education, and often, humanitarian aid. The report also recommends that the U.N. to run an independent investigation into the ongoing violence and persecution of that has been taking place over decades.

Today, UUSC President and CEO Tom Andrews, along with other human rights leaders, gave testimony on the humanitarian situation in Burma. Click here to watch the hearing and join our call for a Commission of Inquiry at uusc.org/truthforrohingya.

Donald Trump’s Crackdown On Undocumented Immigrants Is Silencing Exploited Workers, Dave Jamieson, Huffington Post, March 8, 2017

The Trump administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants may have opposite consequences than intended. Christopher Williams, a lawyer who works closely with undocumented immigrants states, “I honestly think it’s creating an incentive to hire more undocumented workers, because now they’re even more vulnerable to being exploited.”

In light of the recent raids, some workers are even denying back pay, afraid of providing their home addresses for fear of deportation. The increase in raids and deportations are creating unsafe working environments to an already vulnerable population.

 

Inspiration in the Face of Adversity: Partners in the Philippines

On November 8, 2013, Super Typhoon Yolanda devastated the Philippines, impacting the lives of roughly 16 million people. UUSC responded to the disaster immediately, and over the past three-plus years, we’ve supported 17 different partners in their long-term recovery efforts, with a focus on building community resilience to trauma and supporting sustainable livelihoods.

“It was clear to me that UUSC and our partners in the Philippines have achieved some extraordinary successes. I was able to see some of these results first-hand when I traveled to Biliran and Ormoc to see the work PKKK and RDI have been doing in their communities.”

As the country moves forward and UUSC’s support for Yolanda recovery winds down, I traveled to the Philippines last month for a series of impact-assessment meetings and site visits with our local partners. In total, 12 of our partners participated in the meetings, which took place in Cebu City. Following the meetings, I was also able to visit the communities of two of our partners: Pambansang Koalisyon ng Kababaihan sa Kanayunan (National Rural Women Coalition, “PKKK”) in Biliran and the Rural Development Institute (RDI) in Ormoc, as well as the Cebu offices of our partners, Visayas Primary Health Care Services (VPHCS) and PhilACTS.

A group shot with our partners, PhilACTS, RDI, Lihok Pilipina, VPHCS, National Association for Social Work Education, Inc., PROCESS, and the Tacloban Social Workers, on the second day of the impact assessment meetings.

Assessing the impact of a three-year disaster recovery program is not a straightforward task, particularly in the Philippines, where much of the population now lives in fear of President Duterte’s brutal and illegal drug war. Yet, during my time there, as I listened to our fearless partners and met the people in the communities in which they work, it was clear to me that UUSC and our partners in the Philippines have achieved some extraordinary successes.

For the most part, the greatest impacts of UUSC’s Philippines program seem to fall into four broad categories:

  • Engagement with local government units (LGU), resulting in derived real benefits.
  • A demonstrated ability to grow their projects, often in ways that highlight a fundamental sustainability in their approach.
  • Strengthened relationships across the country, as our partners became a community unto themselves.
  • An increase in partner capacity and the capacities of their communities to persevere in the face of great personal and organizational challenges.

I was able to see some of these results first-hand when I traveled to Biliran and Ormoc to see the work PKKK and RDI have been doing in their communities.

Pambansang Koalisyon ng Kababaihan sa Kanayunan

Utilizing a “household-based organizing” model, PKKK has helped women in rural communities organize themselves, strengthen their livelihoods, and advocate for support from LGUs. After the women organize themselves, PKKK helps them establish a revolving loan structure and once the newly-formed organization demonstrates its longer-term viability, PKKK provides it with a capital infusion. The women are then able to borrow money to support individual livelihood projects as PKKK assists them with advocacy to the LGUs for further support.

I met with two of these communities in the barangays (or villages) of San Roque and Enage, in Biliran. In San Roque, roughly 30 women formed the Fisherfolks and Farmers of Barangay San Roque Women’s Association (FFSWA). Organized into six “clusters” by livelihood type, FFSWA has a slate of officers as well as a grievance reporting mechanism.

When I met with FFSWA, we gathered in a meeting space donated by the LGU, and the women told of how the FFSWA (with PKKK’s assistance) had helped them strengthen and grow their livelihoods in the aftermath of Yolanda, as well as how the government has stepped in – a direct result of FFSWA and PKKK’s advocacy – to help. For example, in addition to donating their meeting space, one LGU (the local Department of Environmental & Natural Resources) had recently asked the FFSWA to manage and carryout a mangrove reforestation project in the area.

FFSWA’s meeting space, donated by the LGU.

Walking around San Roque, we stopped into a number of sari-sari (neighborhood variety) stores, which FFSWA members had started or supported using loans from the organization. Though small, these stores are vital to the community. The nearest shopping area outside of the village is a long drive away and the women running these stores seemed appropriately proud of the service they are able to provide and the income they generate for themselves and their families.

After seeing the work of PKKK and FFSWA in San Roque, we traveled with PKKK to barangay Enage, where we met with a women’s organization still in its nascent stages. These women told us both of their initial successes – they had already lobbied the LGU to donate a hand tractor for farming operations – as well as their long-term goals. Ultimately, the women of Enage hoped they could help each other prosper and someday, share their good fortune with neighboring communities. I was struck by how their generosity contrasted with the wave of individualism on the rise in the west.

One of the FFSWA women describing her fishing operation.

Rural Development Institute

Some of the women of Boroc explaining how they process turmeric.

The next day, we traveled to barangay Boroc in Ormoc, where we had the chance to see RDI’s work in action. Like PKKK, RDI’s focus is on organizing rural communities (mostly farmworkers) and helping them strengthen their livelihoods, in part through advocacy to LGUs. Unlike PKKK, however, RDI conducts a needs assessment and then provides startup capital to the community in the form of livelihood materials, such as goats, chickens, or seeds.

One of the most exciting developments in Boroc is an upstart turmeric processing operation supported by RDI. While not a part of RDI’s initial proposal, when RDI’s Executive Director noticed that the farmworkers were simply burning the invasive turmeric root, she helped them learn how to turn it into its more valuable form (powder), lobby the LGU for a blender to help with production, and then ensure that the powder found its way to market.

Before leaving Boroc, we had the opportunity to participate in an inspirational “Passing-On the Gifts” ceremony. Gathered at a nearby school, community members who had received the last round of livelihood materials (in this case a goat, a chicken, and some roots and seeds for planting) passed these items on to the next round of recipients, who would then use these materials to support their own livelihoods before passing them on to the next group of recipients in a few months. To me, this was sustainability in action and it spoke of the promise of RDI’s work and the future of the rural communities in Ormoc. Making the ceremony even more meaningful was the knowledge that UUSC had also attended the first such ceremony in this same location.

“When it seems like we are living in especially dark times here in America, rather than despair, we should look to our partners in the Philippines – and elsewhere in the world – for inspiration and a reminder of what is possible in the face of adversity.”

As UUSC winds down its work in the Philippines, we are confident that we have supported strong partners who have done – and will continue to do – important and impactful work for marginalized communities. From the growth of CRM to the strengthening of disaster-resilient livelihoods, UUSC’s partners have made a real difference in many people’s lives after Yolanda. When it seems like we are living in especially dark times here in America, rather than despair, we should look to our partners in the Philippines – and elsewhere in the world – for inspiration and a reminder of what is possible in the face of adversity.

One of the goats being passed along at the “Passing-On the Gifts” ceremony in Boroc.

A Coordinated Campaign to Stop Crimes Against Humanity

Internally displaced persons camp on the Burma/Bangladesh border
Internally displaced persons camp on the Burma/Bangladesh border, February 2017.

There is now ample evidence documenting grave human rights abuses in Rakhine State, Burma, most recently in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ February 2017 Flash Report. The UNHCR Flash Report recounts indiscriminate killings of men, women, and children, and rape of Rohingya women and girls by security forces, brutal beatings, among other atrocities that it says may amount to “crimes against humanity.” This report was preceded by and corroborates others from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Fortify Rights, and UUSC partner, the Burma Human Rights Network.

In the face of this evidence, the government of Burma (Myanmar) has almost uniformly denied abuses of the Rohingya and has used state-run media to spread propaganda discrediting witnesses. The government refuses to allow independent human rights monitors into the affected area to assess the situation. The two commissions ostensibly investigating the crisis, the “Advisory Commission on Rakhine State” and the “Investigation Commission on Rakhine State” have not proven up to the task, and lack both independent access to witnesses and freedom of movement, as well as have close ties to the Burmese military, which is accused of perpetrating the violence.

The government of Burma appears both unwilling and unable to fairly investigate allegations of human rights violations in Rakhine State. The Rohingya cannot wait any longer for justice and relief.

UUSC is participating in a coordinated advocacy campaign to demand that the UN Human Rights Council, at their March meeting, pass a resolution mandating a Commission of Inquiry that would examine human rights violations, establish facts, and assess alleged crimes under international law in Rakhine State, including abuses against Rohingya Muslims and other Muslims as well as Rakhine Buddhists. It is the government’s responsibility to investigate human rights abuses there, but as they have failed to do so, the international community must act.

UUSC and its partners join with a growing swell of voices – including 40 Burmese civil society organizations, Fortify Rights Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, and Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to calling for a Commission of Inquiry now.

Add your name to this effort and urge Secretary Tillerson to join our call at uusc.org/truthforrohingya.

Crimes Against Humanity Escalate in Burma

[March 9, 2017: This post was updated to reflect accurate numbers of people killed, from 86 to 1,000].

Rohingya Muslims, an ethnic and religious minority population in Burma (Myanmar), are one of the most persecuted groups in the world and are currently facing extreme violence at the hands of the Burmese military.

In northern Rakhine State, on October 9, 2016, militants attacked three police outposts, armed with mostly sticks and knives, killing nine police. This triggered retaliatory attacks by the Burmese military that have included killing of civilians, including children and babies, mass rape, and a scorched-earth practice that has destroyed over 1,400 homes, mosques, and other Rohingya-owned structures. The military has claimed that this is simply a “clearance operation” against terrorists, but it has indiscriminately and disproportionately harmed large numbers of civilians. The horror is compounded by the fact that the military has barred journalists and independent human rights monitors from the area and have restricted humanitarian aid – including food and healthcare – to people living in the IDP camps.

Map of Burma (Myanmar), Rakhine State highlighted in red.Rohingya activists and the international community have argued that these most recent atrocities are part of a long-standing campaign against the Rohingya that has been called “crimes against humanity,” “ethnic cleansing,” and even “genocide.” Indeed, the International State Crime Initiative has documented the process of genocide unfolding in Rakhine State.

Since October, attacks have included state-sanctioned violence such as:

There are also reports of security forces restricting humanitarian aid, including from the World Food Program, from Rohingya IDP camps where there are no other sources of food. An estimated 3,000 children in these areas already suffer from severe acute malnutrition and will likely die without this support.

In light of this violence, 66,000 people have fled across the border to Bangladesh, where they continue to face inhumane treatment. There have been reports of refugees shot, beaten, and robbed while trying to cross the border. Those who make it often find themselves in the cramped makeshift homes of earlier refugees or struggle to survive on the roads and in the woods with no shelter.

UUSC is working directly with our grassroots partners on the ground in Burma, as well as Rohingya leaders and other allied groups who are documenting the atrocities, calling for an independent investigation into the human rights abuses and providing food and aid to those in desperate need. In early February, UUSC staff joined a broad coalition of human rights organizations in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to discuss a joint international strategy to respond to the situation. We are now jointly calling for the U.N. Human Rights Council to pass a resolution to mandate a Commission of Inquiry comprising international experts to examine all human rights violations, establish facts, and assess alleged crimes under international law in Rakhine State against Rohingya Muslims and other Muslims as well as Rakhine Buddhists.