A Look Back in Time and Hope For the Way Forward

I remember almost viscerally when the media began to circulate images of a young lifeless toddler in 2015. He had washed up on the shores of Turkey, face down in his red t-shirt, shorts, and shoes. His name was Aylan Kurdi. It was reported that he was from Syria and had drowned on a boat traveling from the Turkish island of Bodrum to the Greek island of Kos. Aylan’s five-year-old brother, Galip, and his mother, Rehan, also drowned. His father, Abdullah, was the only family member to survive.

This image shocked the conscience of people all over the world and in particular, here in the United States. It was Labor Day weekend, and I was curled up safely camping with my own toddler boy.

A painting paying tribute to three-year-old Aylan Kurdi who drowned as he and his family were fleeing violence in Syria.  Photo by Thierry Ehrmann / CC BY

At the time, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) had been following the reports of increasing migrants traveling from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and parts of North Africa. Only weeks before, we had given our partners in Thailand some assistance as they sought to help a group of Rohingya refugees from Burma that were trying to reach Malaysia on a flotilla.

We recognized that the actual choices families across the globe were having to make – to choose the open sea as their only option for safety over staying on dry land – demonstrated the direness of these situations. At the time, we were also addressing migrant conditions within our own country, fighting against family detention at our southern border and advocating for the federal government to increase the refugee admission quota and budget.

After the picture of Aylan went viral, we received a call from Rev. Dr. Ilona Szent-Ivanyi of the Unitarian District in Hungary describing the situation in Hungary as untenable, with 2,000 to 3,000 people arriving at the Hungary-Serbia border every day. He told us that migrants were met with a lack of compassion from officials and that the government had organized 100 buses to take migrants to the Austrian border – 6,500 people were said to have left Hungary in one day. Conversely, civilians were showing great kindness and helping thousands of asylum-seekers at the Keleti railroad station.

At UUSC, we started calling groups on the ground in Greece, Hungary, Croatia, and Serbia, learning much about how communities were self-organizing and working around local governments to provide direct assistance and hope to weary migrants seeking a future for their families.

Together as a community, with the Unitarian Universalist Association, Unitarian Universalist congregations, and Unitarian Universalists we raised more than $600,000 dollars and mobilized action across the United States to help steer a more humanist foreign policy that would uphold the inherent dignity and worth of every human being. One that understands we cannot turn away from these events.

Our strategy evolved as the situation evolved. As migrants made their way across the Balkans, and as borders began to shut, UUSC catalyzed the efforts of local actors working alongside refugees. You can read more about our approach here. I was heartened to hear the stories and to visit with these partners as they grouped together for a regional convening last fall.

I’ve just landed in Budapest where we’ll be meeting with our partners in the coming days. I find myself curious and excited, and most of all hopeful. The impact our partners have had is vast, ranging from fighting unlawful cases that attempted to break down asylum systems to providing baby sanitary kits to arriving mothers.

I’m hopeful about our journey and look forward to sharing more.

Partner Lessons for Refugee Protection Learned along the Balkan Route

It has been more than three years since the first wave of Syrian migrants fleeing the civil war travelled across Europe searching for safety. After many of the states on the route closed their borders in 2016, numbers of migrants transiting through the Balkans dropped; yet, significant numbers of refugees have been stranded in Balkan countries, and thousands continued to use the Balkan route to seek refuge. While many human rights funders focused their response to the crisis on neighboring countries, UUSC doubled down on our investment in the Balkans where our research identified a clear opportunity to make an impact on people’s lives.

This week, I will be traveling with fellow UUSC staff to Hungary, Serbia, and Croatia to hear  from our partners about the current situation facing refugees and to share results of the work we supported with a committed group of UUSC members.

It continues to be a challenging time for the region. Serbia is hosting thousands of refugees, many of whom try to enter Croatia or Hungary and are pushed back, often with violence. In Hungary, the recent victory of the Fidesz party was achieved on the back of a xenophobic and anti-civil society campaign. Newly re-elected Prime Minister Viktor Orban has promised to pass a law that would require any non-governmental organization (NGO) assisting migrants to obtain a government-issued license, creating a pretense for shutting them down. In Croatia, authorities have lodged criminal charges against human rights defenders for merely helping migrants contact the police to file asylum claims.

In the face of discriminatory policies and ongoing human rights violations in countries of asylum, refugees continue to seek sanctuary and build their lives as members of our shared community. Human rights organizations, including UUSC’s partners, continue their day-to-day work, winning battles on the way. They call attention to illegal border pushbacks, advocate for refugee victims of gender-based violence, and re-unify refugee families.

During our trip, we will be meeting with six organizations across the Balkans trail, and some of the individuals they have served. We hope to bring UUSC and its members closer to their work; and glean broader lessons for refugee protection and the human rights movement here in the United States. Watch this space for future dispatches.

Read more about the history, evolution and response to this crisis.

Syrian Refugee Crisis: Abandonment, Discrimination, and Response

The refugee crisis in the Middle East continues to swell as the civil war in Syria enters its seventh year. Ongoing atrocities of the Assad regime, including indiscriminate use of incendiary weapons and starvation siege tactics, as well as the escalating brutality of armed groups continue to displace millions of innocent people.

The length and severity of the conflict in Syria provoked an unprecedented wave of migrants seeking safe haven in neighboring countries. Several years ago, as the burden faced by some countries increased (particularly Greece, Italy, and Hungary), tensions arose in the European Union (EU). In September 2015, the EU Commission announced a plan to accept asylum-seekers from front-line Mediterranean countries under a quota system. The commitment consisted of relocating 160,000 people in need of international protection by September 2017. Failure to comply with the resettlement requirements of this plan would trigger a penalty of 250,000 euros (about $287,000) per migrant. As of September 2017, 17.3% of the target had been met.


Syria’s neighboring countries, in particular Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, are hosting the vast majority of the refugee population. However, none of these countries have fully ratified international agreements to protect refugees’ rights, and their governments have enacted discriminatory legislation against refugees, making it more difficult for them to obtain legal aid, work permits, education for children, and psychosocial assistance. This leaves refugees extremely vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

Despite the lack of protection and disproportionate numbers hosted by Syria’s neighboring countries, European governments sought a joint solution to prevent refugees from seeking protection in Europe. After the 2015 wave of refugees who arrived in Europe headed mostly for Germany and Sweden, the EU announced the closure of the Western Balkans route in March 2016, effectively trapping thousands of refugees in the midst of their journey. Major international donors pulled out of the region as the refugee flow was forcibly redirected, leaving few resources for those left behind. At the same time, the EU cleared the way for unlawful returns to Turkey declaring it a “safe third country,” despite its lack of refugee protections.

In February 2017, as part of their continuous effort to prevent migrants from reaching European shores, the EU agreed to give Libya’s government $215 million to stop migrant boats in the country’s territorial waters and set up refugee camps. Libya has also extended its “Search and Rescue” zone into international waters, restricting access to humanitarian vessels. As a result, last summer, groups such as Médecins Sans Frontieres, Save the Children, and Sea Eye suspended their rescue operations.

These impediments have not stopped the migration. In fact, hundreds of thousands of migrants still cross the Mediterranean from Africa into Italy every year, and arrivals via the old route of Macedonia and Serbia, or from Turkey via Bulgaria and Serbia, still happen every day. Since March 2016 the journey has only become more difficult, more expensive, and more dangerous.

The callous abandonment of goodwill toward refugees is visible outside of Europe as well. In the United States, President Trump has drastically lowered the refugee admissions cap and signed an executive order that barred entry to the United States to refugees from 11 countries, including war-torn Syria. The United States is also witnessing a surge in xenophobic and Islamophobic political rhetoric, and with it a rise in reported hate crimes against Muslims and other minorities.

Refugees, who face death if they are returned home, are confronted with terrible uncertainty and limitations on their rights every way they turn.

Balkans Migrant Route: County-by-Country Status

The situation along the Balkan route differs from country to country. For the first months of 2015, when migrants and refugees were allowed to pass through informal border crossings, the Balkan route started in Turkey, then went from Greece through Macedonia and Serbia into Hungary. A secondary route also beginning in Turkey formed through Bulgaria into Serbia and continued through Hungary. Upon crossing Hungary, refugees and migrants continued toward northern countries in Europe.

Map 1. The Balkan route, pre-March 2016, Source: Eurostat, Frontex


As of April 15, there are approximately 3,722 new refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants in Serbia, a decrease of almost 50 percent since last year. These individuals are mostly accommodated in camps set up by the Serbian authorities. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operate with the consent of the Commissariat for Refugees (CRS) inside the camps to provide basic necessities such as food, shelter, and medical care. Most people wait to enter Hungary based on an unofficial list.

Attempts to cross the Hungary-Croatia border occur regularly and are met with resistance that is sometimes very violent.


At the end of 2017, Hungary had 678 people in asylum proceedings and had granted 1,216 people protection. Since January 2018, only two people per day have been admitted, which Hungarian authorities deny. During the asylum procedure, asylum-seekers cannot leave the transit area, and NGOs are denied access. The process can last many months, and those who are denied asylum are sent back to Serbia. Those who are successful in their application are moved to an open camp.

Detention conditions in Hungary are unfit for the long stay of migrants and refugees. UUSC partner, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee argued the appeal of a case to the European Court of Human Rights, which found the country in violation of the prohibition of inhuman treatment. The European Court has also issued temporary measures ordering the transfer of applicants to more humane centers, but Hungary has not complied.

Migrants found outside the transit zone are regularly pushed back to Serbia through the use of beatings, pepper spray, and attack dogs. The Hungarian state has also deployed 3,000 additional “border hunters,” to support police monitoring the border.

NGOs in Hungary, including our partner the Hungarian Helsinki Committee have taken a firm stand for the protection of the human rights of refugees, assisting refugees and raising awareness of their plight, while initiating numerous successful strategic litigation cases against the government. As a result, the government has placed restrictions on NGOs’ work and many have been accused of being illegitimate foreign agents or advocates of potential “terrorists.” The government recently proposed legislation that would require NGOs assisting migrants to obtain a licence, thereby providing a mechanism that allows the government to shut these organizations down.

On April 8, 2018, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s coalition was re-elected. His administration has taken a hard-line approach to immigration that is often inflammatory and laced with islamophobic rhetoric. He now claims a mandate to handle the refugee situation and has refused to honor the quota set by the EU in addition to passing the anti-NGO legislation as the first order of business for the new parliament.


About 880 people applied for protection status in Croatia in 2017. Asylum-seekers are mostly accommodated in two centers in Zagreb and Kutina. NGOs have access to those centers.

Croatia has increased restrictions on refugees. In many cases, status has been denied because of alleged “security checks” conducted by police forces. The basis of these decisions are not disclosed to the applicant, and therefore cannot be challenged.

Croatian police have been responsible for a number of pushbacks against migrants seeking entry, some of them particularly violent. NGOs have began accompanying refugees and migrants to the police station to prevent their forced deportation and ensure their safety.

UUSC’s Response Strategy in the Face of Changing Political Context 

UUSC works in areas overlooked by traditional relief agencies where we know our efforts can spur solutions on the ground that center the needs and voices of affected people. Beginning in 2015, we responded to this crisis with a strategy to partner with organizations working on the front lines to support Syrian refugees across their entire journey, from first arrival in neighboring countries to successful resettlement in Europe or the United States. Key components of this effort included:

  • Emergency aid and resettlement support in Greece, Croatia, and Serbia: Working with partners including Are You Syrious and the Centre for Peace Studies to document human rights abuses, as well as offer medical aid, mental health support, and resettlement assistance to long-term refugees.
  • Legal access in Hungary, Jordan, and the United States: With partners such as the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and the Arab Renaissance for Democracy — Legal Aid we are providing legal assistance and awareness training, reunifying family members, and assisting refugees in navigating the resettlement processes, including how to challenge discriminatory treatment.
  • Advocacy in Europe and the United States: Together with our partners the Arab American Civic Council and Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, among others, we are raising public awareness and sensitivity around refugee issues, challenging xenophobic sentiments and legislation and upholding the inherent dignity of immigrant communities.

As discussed above, in just a few short years the circumstances facing refugees have changed drastically. Our current strategy responds to the fact that what were once “transit countries” are increasingly “countries of permanent stay.” UUSC is now supporting refugees in Greece, Croatia, Serbia, Hungary, and Macedonia to ensure:

  • Access to protection: Combating illegal border pushbacks, protecting right to asylum – primarily through monitoring, advocacy and legal aid.
  • Refugee integration: Community organizing and family reunification.

We also continue our efforts to support civil society and relationship-building, and organized a partner-led convening in Europe last fall to facilitate collaboration between our partners on the ground, as we support advocacy efforts and litigation to increase refugee admissions and resettlement in the United States.

Through this work UUSC strives to uphold the dignity and human rights of refugees, providing a compassionate response to a crisis that is as urgent as ever.

Collaborating to Serve Refugees in Challenging Times

This week UUSC organized a convening in Zagreb, Croatia of civil society organizations – many of them UUSC partners – serving Syrian refugees along the Balkan Route. Twenty-six representatives from 16 organizations came together to discuss how they can better coordinate their work, to problem-solve challenges that they face, and to expand their networks in neighboring countries in order to continue serving refugees. It was a privilege to provide the space and hear reflections and feedback from organizations on the front lines of this crisis, many of which experience scrutiny and harassment from their local governments. Because of those security interests we have chosen not to name specific participants.

On behalf of the UUSC family, Rachel Freed and I were grateful for the opportunity to spend time with this quality group of attorneys, case workers, and humanitarians striving to protect refugees in an environment where doing so is highly unpopular.

Participants of the UUSC Convening of Refugee Service Providers in the Balkans.

The groups who participated in the convening face extreme challenges: the closing space for civil society organizations in Eastern Europe, a rising tide of right-wing governments and factions, and general anti-immigrant sentiment throughout the region. When the Balkan Route closed in 2016, refugees headed for Western Europe were suddenly stuck in transit countries ill-equipped to serve the long-term needs of asylum-seekers. Further, both the refugees and the organizations providing services to them faced growing public hostility fueled by a misinformation media campaign similar to what we have recently seen in the United States. Governments are using increasingly aggressive, inhumane tactics to stop the tide of migrants, and there have been reports of border guards pouring water on freezing migrants in the middle of winter, using attack dogs, and other forms of violence and intimidation at border crossings.

As refugees wait for their claims to be processed they are often isolated from the rest of society in camps with varying degrees of accommodations and where their freedom of movement and access to services may be limited. In the camps, education opportunities for children are minimal, and psycho-social support is insufficient to deal with the trauma many have recently endured. The organizations who came together this week are among the only groups providing essential services ranging from legal assistance; protection against gender-based violence and the exploitation of unaccompanied minors; and mobile teams providing medical care. Case management is challenging and the formal systems of care and communication are insufficient. Gatherings, like the one held this week, help the organizations build their relationships—expanding informal networks which are frequently relied on to provide care in such a complex environment.

Participants break out in small groups to discuss the challenges they face and how they can problem solve and support one another.

As the rest of the world turns its attention to other crises, these 16 organizations continue on until the job of resettling and assimilating refugees is done. Much of the funding that was available at the height of the crisis has moved elsewhere and what remains often comes with conditions that challenge the integrity of the mission-driven service providers. As such, the financial support of UUSC members is particularly crucial and we appreciate the generosity so many have shown to ensure we’re able to make a positive difference where we can.

Read Danielle’s pre-trip blog post, Balkans Convening Aims to Offer Support to Partner Refugee Organizations.

Rights Reading

Our weekly roundup of what we’re reading in human rights and social justice! In honor of World Refugee Day on  June 20, this week’s wrap-up includes articles about how technology is helping to address the crisis, climate refugees in Somalia, and education access for refugee children.

The current humanitarian crisis is the largest since World War II. UUSC is dedicated to fighting for the human rights of refugees. Learn more about our partner organizations working in Croatia to provide humanitarian aid for and protect the rights of refugees.

Refugee hackathons and 3D printing: apps for the world’s displaced people, Tazeen Dhunna Ahmad, The Guardian, June 20, 2017

Although humanitarian aid provides refugees access to the essentials, like food, clothing, and shelter, refugees also need access to opportunities to improve their situation. This is where technology comes in and has helped “to transform conditions and empower more than 22 million refugees worldwide.”

The majority of refugees have mobile phones, which has made travel and global communication easier. However, it’s tech initiatives, like the ones Ahmad highlights in this article, that are really helping to create education and employment opportunities for refugees. Ahmad shares the story of, Admir Masic, a former refugee who is now an associate professor at MIT, who recently launched a global hub, Refugee ACTion Hub (ReACT), to provide refugees with education. 3Dmena, another tech partnership, is providing refugees with access to prosthetic limbs, “custom-built and cheaper” due to advances in 3D printing technology.

Hackathons and other tech-centric competitions provide refugees with an innovative platform to solve the problems their communities face and to find job opportunities – from solving water leakages on camps to employing refugees to take on a backlogged recycling system.

It’s rare to find stories about refugees that aren’t grim. Technology and the opportunities it brings for human creativity and collaboration can change the conversation.

Amid Drought, Somali Pastoralists Watch Their ‘Sources of Life’ Perish, Samuel Hall Research Team & Ashley Hamer, News Deeply, June 20, 2017

The number of climate refugees is growing, and is set to grow at a higher rate as the impacts of global warming accelerate. Despite this, efforts to address climate forced displacement have been lacking and even avoided, meaning climate refugees “remain on the fringes of humanitarian support.”

Due to drought in the Horn of Africa, over 739,000 people have been forced to leave Somalia since November. Most are pastoralists who have watched their livestock die of starvation and dehydration and who have no other means of livelihood. Climate forced displacement can have, and already has had, a global ripple effect of economic disparity and violence, namely because of the damage that displacement does to families and communities. Addressing the needs of climate refugees will not only save hundreds of thousands of lives now, but can curb the more widespread conflicts that will likely come in the future.

UUSC has highlighted climate refugees as a marginalized group who are not receiving the help they need, even within the sphere of humanitarian aid providers. This is why our Environmental Justice portfolio is focusing its resources on communities at high risk of climate forced displacement.

What we owe refugee children, Elias Bou Saab, Gulf Times, June 22, 2017

Fifty-one percent of the world’s refugees are children, and without access to education, there are concerns that this group will be a “lost generation” growing up without the skills needed to rebuild their communities or to thrive. Saab, former Lebanese education minister, points out the benefits education access has for children: “Education is also a vital instrument for combating violent extremism, which can capture the minds of young people with no hope for the future. And school attendance is essential for children’s welfare, because it gives them access to basic healthcare services and protects them from the horrors of child labour and prostitution.”

World leaders have recognized the need to educate refugee children, but efforts on the part of host countries to provide education haven’t been enough. Education access has been delayed by poor organization, violence, and strained resources. Saab signifies how important it is that governments and organizations meet their monetary pledges – which many have not – but also calls on them to step up their funding for programs that make remote and online education possible. No child should grow up without an education. Visit the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to learn more.

As Countries Fail to Support Refugees, UUSC Partners Step Up

UUSC is honored to work with our grassroots partners who dedicate themselves to defend and protect refugees across the world. Today, on World Refugee Day, we take a moment to celebrate two partnerships under our Rights at Risk portfolio. This celebration comes against a backdrop of record-high levels of global displacement—over 60 million people, among them nearly 20 million refugees—and increasingly hostile environments in which refugees can access protection and realize their fundamental human right to live in safety.

From violent border pushbacks to hate crimes to legislation that criminalizes their very existence, refugees today are under attack. Social movements demanding refugee rights are also threatened, making the work of UUSC partners all the more critical and worthy of recognition. Today, I wanted to highlight those who work in a place seldom mentioned in the headlines, but that have seen new waves of violence against refugees and new attempts to punish the act of “helping” irregular migrants with fines and jail time: Croatia.

Over the last year, UUSC partner organizations Are You Syrious (AYS) and the Centre for Peace Studies (CPS) have documented a troubling increase of unlawful expulsions and escalation of police violence against refugees who seek to cross into Croatian territory from Serbia. The refugees—mostly from destabilized Middle Eastern countries like Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq—have fled horrific war at home and journeyed across multiple countries, an exhausting and traumatizing experience.

Upon reaching the Croatian border, refugees have reason to believe they are finally arriving to a country that will protect them. Croatia is a member of the European Union and its asylum laws purportedly conform to European norms. What they find, however, is far from a hospitable reception. Our partners report that Croatian authorities confiscate property, commit severe acts of physical violence, and forcibly push refugees back across the border to Serbia, all in violation of international law. Serbia is not considered a “safe third country” by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees because their asylum procedures do not meet international standards.

Just last month, AYS and CPS spoke to a twenty-five-year-old man from Afghanistan who reported that he was apprehended by police and stuffed into a van with eighteen other people: “There was no air inside. They drove us to the ‘jungle’ across near the border with Serbia and made us sit and started to hit us. They used sticks and beat us with their heavy boots.” This is but one of numerous similar reports received by AYS and CPS of police violence and forcing refugees back to Serbia from inside Croatia, without giving them an opportunity to lodge claims for protection.

Such pushbacks are both immoral and illegal. The right to seek asylum from persecution is enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and is among the most important provisions in international law. The 1951 U.N. Convention relating to the Status of Refugees obliges States not to “refoule,” or return, a refugee to “the frontiers of territories” where life or freedom would be threatened.

As countries throughout the world shirk their obligation to offer refugees an opportunity to seek asylum, civil society actors have stepped up. CPS defends the right to seek asylum in Croatia by holding state institutions accountable working with and supporting asylum-seekers as they file complaints with police departments, Croatian ministries, and international bodies.

Likewise, AYS is a collective of committed activists who are growing a grassroots solidarity movement that breaks down social and cultural borders, in addition to physical ones. AYS decreases the social distance between Croatian people and refugees by activating volunteers for language instruction, cultural orientation, and public advocacy. This ultimately results in better quality of integration for those refugees that are able to access protection and remain in Croatia, as well as an informed public who demand better of their country.

The efforts of these vital organizations have not gone unchallenged by the Croatian government, who seek to criminalize not only refugees themselves, but anyone who stands in solidarity with them. Authorities have drafted amendments to the Croatian Foreigners Act that imposes hefty fines and subjects activists to criminal liability if they provide assistance to anyone in “irregular” status. CPS is now engaged in zealous advocacy to prevent the draft amendments from becoming law.

Acknowledging the difficult environment in which they work, and the countless, quiet ways in which they have improved the lives of refugees seeking to rebuild their lives in Croatia, UUSC is incredibly proud to support the work of Centre for Peace Studies and Are You Syrious. We honor them today, on World Refugee Day, and every day.