Justice for Those Who Need it Most

This Thanksgiving, UUSC is most thankful for our supporters. While it feels trite to express gratitude on Thanksgiving, it’s true. Because of our supporters, we're helping thousands of refugees survive — supporting NGOs on the ground who are providing medical care, legal aid, and counseling to people who've lived through some of the worst violence imaginable. Closer to home, we've rallied thousands of people to oppose political efforts to scapegoat refugees. 

We're also partnering with grassroots organizations to advocate for fair wages and decent working conditions for tomato pickers in Florida and farmworkers in other states. And we're pushing to end the practice of detaining women and children from Central America in jail-like conditions. 

We're able to do all these things and so much more to alleviate suffering and secure justice because of your support. 

We’ve protected a number of refugees from harsh immigration practices, trained a number of volunteers in trauma counseling, and we’ve rebuilt a number of villages in disaster-stricken areas. The numbers matter, but what matters most is that over and over again, we go where people need us most, and do our best to give them what they need — whether it's help in an emergency or a voice in our government.

And while so many people hurt and cry out for justice, we are incredibly thankful there are people like you willing to help.

We hope that you’re able to enjoy the holidays and that you're proud of what you make possible as part of the UUSC community. And that you get some time to relax and recharge with family and friends. 

There's a good chance you'll be talking about the Syrian refugee crisis tomorrow, and it can be tough to stand up for such a maligned group of people. We put together a blog post of facts and perspectives to help you get through it. We hope it's useful. Let us know what you think.

UUSC’s Refugee Response

UUSC responds to the forced movement of refugees caused by humanitarian crises around the world. Our Rights at Risk Program addresses human rights violations against refugees and asylum seekers that are fueled by border restrictions, short-sighted immigration controls, and other nationalistic policies.

Our response to the Syrian refugee crisis examines critical areas along the Syrian refugee migration route where there is a lack of international protection, cooperation, burden sharing, and upholding the basic human rights of displaced people. So far, we have raised over $400,000 for the UUSC-UUA Refugee Crisis Fund

Our support will go directly to partners in host and transit countries to do the following:

  • Immediate response: Provide effective protection for refugees and access to legal avenues for relief in Europe (Hungary, Austria, Croatia, Serbia, and Greece). UUSC funding goes to partners in host and transit countries providing direct legal, medical, and social services to incoming refugees. UUSC also supports organizations focused on advocacy to bolster the crumbling European asylum system, promote safe routes of passage, and promote decent reception conditions and effective protection for new arrivals.
  • Intermediate work: Support capacity building for overburdened nongovernmental organizations on the ground in neighboring countries such as Jordan and Turkey that are working with vulnerable groups such as women, children and stateless refugees.
    • Support advocacy for medium- to long-term relief needs: education access, asylum policy and procedure, and ensuring positive public reception to resettlement.
  • Ongoing: In the United States, we will ensure that the U.S. government lives up to its international obligations to protect those most vulnerable in situations of conflict. 
    • UUSC plans to provide further funding to grassroots organizations in the United States working to safeguard the rights of incoming refugees and ensure their access to education, legal support, livelihood opportunities, and social services. UUSC will aim to partner with organizations in metropolitan areas where significant numbers of refugees are being resettled.

Take action

  • In light of the recent backlash against refugees and Muslims after the Paris attacks, we are asking our supporters to call Congress and urge them not to turn their backs on the millions of refugees seeking safe haven. 
  • Join our national justice-building conference call on December 3 to learn how you can advocate for Syrian refugess.
  • Use this UUSC-compiled list of talking points to inform your conversations with friends, family, and community members about the Syrian refugee crisis. 


National Justice-Building Conference Calls: Refugee Justice

Want to learn how you or your congregation can help Syrian refugees? Concerned about Central American mothers and children being traumatized by U.S. family detention facilities?

Join these conference calls to learn what you can do!

Call 888-585-9008 and use conference room #609-185-545.

Central American Mothers and Children in and outside of Detention

Thursday, November 19, 3:00–4:00 p.m. (EST)

Hear highlights of UUSC’s new mental health report documenting the abysmal care women and children receive while in detention. Find out how you can help these asylum seekers as they create new lives for themselves here in the United States. You will receive the latest advocacy updates and learn about vital needs from experienced local service providers.

Guest speakers:

  • Rachel Freed, Vice President and Chief Program Officer, UUSC
  • Amber Moulton, Researcher, UUSC
  • Jonathan Ryan, Executive Director, Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES)

The Syrian Refugee Crisis

Thursday, December 3, 3:00–4:15 p.m. (EST)

This informative briefing will cover current advocacy opportunities and provide an overview of the resettlement process. You’ll also hear about the pressing need to create a more welcoming environment in the United States for all Muslims, regardless of their immigration status.

Guest speakers:

  • Rachel Freed, Vice President and Chief Program Officer, UUSC
  • Jen Smyers, Associate Director for Immigration and Refugee Policy, Church World Service
  • Laura Griffin, Program Coordinator, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service
  • Catherine Orsborn, Campaign Director, Shoulder to Shoulder
  • Ranwa Hammamy, Ministerial Intern, Mt. Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church

Questions? E-mail Pamela Sparr at psparr@uusc.org. 

Torn Apart

Refugee Families Struggle to Reunite in Hungary

Refugees in Europe face no end to terrifying and exhausting challenges: the perilous journey across the Mediterranean, the uncertain legal asylum process, and worries about their loved ones still in danger in Syria, Afghanistan, or other major conflict zones. Reuniting with those family members requires a grueling legal procedure with no sure outcome. UUSC is partnering with the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights organization and pillar of civil society in Hungary, to provide crucial financial and legal assistance to refugee families who are struggling to reunite.

An Excruciating Ordeal

Exiled from their homes without knowing whether their children or parents have been been killed, tortured, or kidnapped in a civil war, many refugees endure intense trauma. Far from helping to alleviate this suffering, many governments have erected an elaborate series of bureaucratic hurdles to keep families apart.

Family reunification has become especially difficult in Hungary, where the government has been ruthlessly hostile to asylum seekers. Refugees cannot initiate the family reunification process within Hungary, even after they’ve been granted asylum. Rather, their family members abroad have to find a Hungarian consulate and lodge a claim. This is no small task for people still living in major conflict zones; there are no Hungarian consulates in Syria, Afghanistan, or Iraq. To begin the reunification process, family members have to make perilous and expensive journeys across closed and unsafe borders — in effect, become refugees themselves. The Hungarian state provides no assistance to these family members.

Family members must then prove that they are related. To do so, they have to obtain birth certificates, marriage licenses, and other legal documents from their governments. By requesting these materials, family members are essentially announcing to the authorities — of the countries they are trying to escape — that they intend to leave the country. This puts them in a terrifyingly vulnerable position.

For undocumented refugees, who never had legal papers to begin with, the requirement to prove family relation is exceptionally difficult. Many are forced to rely on DNA tests, which are often prohibitively expensive. And these tests do nothing for people trying to reunite with adopted children, spouses, and other family members without genetic connections.

In addition to the expenses of travel and testing, refugees in Hungary have to pay fees to begin the process and to secure translations of their documents into English and Hungarian. These fees are substantial burdens for people who have just journeyed thousands of miles on foot with only the clothes on their backs. Faced with these difficulties, many refugees are at the mercy of loan sharks and other unscrupulous lenders. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee reports cases in which refugees have been forced to take on ruinous personal debts to try to pay for their family’s safe transit to a Hungarian consulate and thence to Hungary; others have relied on insecure smuggling routes, where their family members’ lives may be at risk.

This exhausting and demoralizing process is not unique to Hungary. The requirement to prove relatedness is a huge barrier for many refugee families in the United States. Hungary, however, has made legal family reunification particularly onerous, especially for stateless refugees and those who have been displaced from multiple conflicts in the Middle East. Hungarian authorities grant entry only to family members with passports — an impossible requirement for undocumented refugees — and they do not recognize documents issued for Palestinian refugees by the Syrian state as a valid form of travel ID.

A Rights-Based Response

Humanitarian asylum is guaranteed to all refugees under international law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 16 also guarantees that every person’s family “is entitled to protection by society and the State.” Refugees have a basic human right in all countries where they reside to preserve the integrity of their families.

Through its partnership with the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, UUSC will work to protect this right. With UUSC support, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee will do the following:

  • Accompany refugees through every stage of the family reunification process
  • Cover travel costs and all fees associated with the reunification procedure
  • Provide legal counseling free of charge to families navigating the process

UUSC aims to reunite as many families as possible and help undo the traumatic separation caused by the world’s conflicts. This includes helping refugees preserve hope in the face of laborious and even dangerous bureaucratic procedures. Long term, UUSC and its partners seek to guarantee to all people the right to live in safety with the people they love.

Cold and in the Dark

Refugees wading waist-deep through rivers in the freezing cold. Parents desperately trying to hold their small children above the water. People spending the night in open-air camps as winter winds and cold rain pelt them from the sky. These are some of the shocking scenes unfolding at the border between Croatia and Slovenia right now. According to the Center for Peace Studies, a UUSC partner leading the Welcome Initiative in Croatia, volunteers working at the border with Slovenia and Serbia “are witnessing brutal winter conditions, lack of food and water,” and refugees are being left in the dark about their right to seek asylum and their future in Europe.

Conditions are deteriorating at an increasing number of migration bottlenecks springing up in Europe, as one government after another has ratcheted up restrictions on entry. Thousands of asylum seekers are stranded as a result. Refugees describe harrowing experiences of being shunted from one border to the next, with no governments stepping up along the way to provide security and protection.

How did the situation in the Europe go from desperate to disastrous in just a few days?

On October 16, Hungary sealed its border with Croatia, just as the Center for Peace Studies, a UUSC partner, had warned would happen. This diverted the entire migration route through the heart of Croatia and toward the Slovenian border. Refugees have been marched across Croatia by the authorities, only to be forced to wait for days in the open air as Slovenian authorities debate whether and how quickly to let them in. After 1,800 people were stranded for a night between Croatia and Slovenia last Monday, some movement north has now resumed, but it is unclear how long people will be let through. Meanwhile, similar bottlenecks are developing at the Serbia-Croatia border and elsewhere.

No governments along the migration route, apart from Germany and Sweden, are allowing refugees to resettle long term. Even Germany’s resolve to welcome refugees appears to be wavering under the threat of a political backlash. German authorities are planning to increase deportations of new arrivals who are found to be merely “economic migrants.” 

More Western governments, including the United States, must take up their share of the responsibility to resettle refugees and guarantee the human right to asylum. Otherwise, people across the migration route will remain trapped in a deadly humanitarian crisis, left stranded and stateless between the borders of various hostile governments.

UUSC is working with the Center for Peace Studies to build a different future for refugees in Europe. Now that the entire migration route has been diverted through Croatia, the need has become ever more urgent to provide shelter, direct aid, and legal and medical services to the thousands of people moving through this small Balkan nation. Every country has to work together to improve refugees’ lives, and there is no better place to begin than in the heart of the crisis created by the utterly failed response so far.

This article was written by Josh Leach, intern for UUSC’s Rights at Risk Program. 

A Partner in Hope

It’s hard for many to imagine the trauma of being driven from one’s home by violence and persecution, forced to leave family and friends and worry each day for their safety. It is still harder to fathom being turned away or criminalized at the borders of safe countries after making a perilous journey to reach them. Every day that European governments and the United States step up their border enforcement and refuse to raise their admission quotas, thousands of refugees suffer this fate.

UUSC is working with partners across the migration route in Europe to change this. The response begins in the Balkans, where UUSC is partnering with the Center for Peace Studies (known as CMS, its Croatian acronym) to support its new Welcome Initiative for Refugees. While pressing for institutional changes to uphold the right to seek asylum and freedom from persecution, the initiative will deliver essential support to refugees.

Why the Balkans?

The vast majority of refugees coming from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, and other major conflict zones hope eventually to get to Germany or Sweden, which have been relatively welcoming so far. To get there, however, refugees must pass through the Balkans and Hungary. The Hungarian government’s ruthless anti-refugee crackdown has made this increasingly difficult.

Hungary recently constructed a 109-mile fence along its border with Serbia, thereby sealing off a major entry and transit point for refugees. Those who still attempt to enter by scaling the wall now face criminal penalties. Some are told that, regardless of how grave their protection needs may be, they should have applied for asylum in the first country of arrival, and they are deported back to Serbia. Others are held in immigration jails and criminal detention centers within Hungary.

The Hungarian government claims it does not have room to welcome refugees into its society — but it apparently does have space enough for them in its prisons. Hungary is punishing these people for no other “crime” than that of seeking refuge.

People facing threats to their lives and the safety of their loved ones cannot be deterred for long, though. Since the Serbian border route has been closed, refugees are now moving instead through Croatia in order to reach the Hungarian-Croat border. The Hungarian government is meanwhile working feverishly to seal this other border as well. Until then, it is trying to move every refugee who arrives from Croatia across its territory as rapidly as possible. These refugees find themselves loaded onto locked trains and carted across Hungary without stopping. They are offered no legal process and no opportunity to register with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees along the way; in fact, their presence in Hungary is never officially recorded in any form.

Refugees in Croatia

Croatia has not generally been a destination for refugees, though it is safe. According to CMS, fewer than 5,000 people in total have applied for asylum there in the last 10 years. At the moment, thousands of refugees are moving through Croatia, but very few intend to stay.

This will change dramatically, however, once Hungary seals the Croatian border and effectively traps thousands of individuals and families. Furthermore, as EU member states finally reach a decision on their (woefully insufficient) response to the refugee crisis, Croatia will receive 1,614 refugees for resettlement — and possibly more in the years ahead, as the total refugee population in Europe continues to climb.

This new population of asylum seekers may be larger still if Hungary deports refugees to Croatia and if Germany and Sweden change their liberal admission policies due to anti-refugee backlash. This might lead them to send new arrivals back to the “first safe country” in Europe where they arrived, which is permitted under profoundly shortsighted EU asylum policy.

The Croatian asylum system is utterly unprepared to cope with this influx. Moreover, refugees are at risk of being excluded from Croatian society, especially the labor market, due to language barriers, administrative obstacles, lack of documentation, and difficulties in getting their degrees and qualifications recognized in Europe. CMS reports that of the 130 refugees they spoke to while researching the labor market for displaced people, only seven had any experience of employment in Croatia.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society will have to step in if refugees’ essential needs and human rights are to be protected in the face of EU member states’ intransigence.

Our new partner in Zagreb

CMS is a grassroots Croatian NGO based in Zagreb that focuses on social change and peace building. Its work encompasses direct aid, research, activism and policy change, civic education and awareness building about racism and xenophobia, and monitoring of Croatian police and military. 

As part of its response to the refugee crisis, CMS is spearheading the Welcome Initiative, a collaborative effort of 50 NGOs to address refugee resettlement and of provide immediate humanitarian support for refugees in Croatia. The initiative encompass five pillars:

  • Advocacy for changes in Croatian and EU asylum policy
  • Pro-refugee and anti-xenophobic activism
  • A media campaign to raise public awareness and sensitivity around refugee issues
  • Education in local communities
  • Direct humanitarian support

A new Refugee Support Center in Zagreb will provide an array of services — including legal aid, humanitarian support, psychosocial support, employment counseling, and a Croatian language program — to transiting and long-term refugees. The center will also offer special empowerment programs focused on women and families, children, and young men.

Through supporting the work of CMS, UUSC aims to provide immediate humanitarian aid, raise public compassion toward refugees, counteract the threat of xenophobic violence. and effect the revision of bankrupt EU asylum policies. Together, UUSC and CMS hope to reshape the deeply inadequate Western response to the refugee crisis and to build a world where every human being is guaranteed the right to safety and freedom.

This article was written by Josh Leach, intern for UUSC’s Rights at Risk Program.