Rights Reading

Our weekly roundup of what we’re reading: a few select articles from the front lines of human rights that we don’t want you to miss.

1.“Why Are You Keeping Me Here?” Unaccompanied Children Detained in Greece, Kelly Lynn Lunde, Human Rights Watch, September 8, 2016

UUSC has long been active in advocating for the rights of women and children from Central America who are held in family detention centers in the United States. Kelly Lynn Lunde’s research report reminds us that the problem of children in detention is not limited to our country.

The over 3,300 unaccompanied asylum-seeking and migrant children arriving in Greece since January are routinely detained, and many are held for months at a time in protective custody.

In addition to being held for longer than the state-mandated limit of 25 to 45 days, these children are housed in filthy, sometimes rat-infested cells. When there isn’t enough room to keep them segregated from other inmates, children are put in the same cells as adults.

Similar to the actions of UUSC and other members of the Interfaith Immigration Coalition’s Diapers in Detention campaign protesting the abusive treatment of children in U.S. detention centers, Human Rights Watch (HRW) calls for the Greek government to provide suitable alternatives to detention for these children, and also demands that European Union member states do all they can to relocate asylum-seeking children out of Greece.

Read the latest news about UUSC’s continuing actions against refugee family detention in the United States here, and the work of UUSC volunteers and partner organizations in Greece here. A list of ways you can get involved in UUSC’s efforts to advance refugee rights worldwide is posted on our website, along with UUSC’s current action demanding that President Obama immediately release the mothers and children held at Berks Detention Center in Leesport, Pennsyvlania.

2. “Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s murderous approach to law enforcement must end,” Editorial, The Los Angeles Times, September 7, 2016

It’s only been two months since Rodrigo Duterte was sworn in as president, but since that time over 2,400 alleged drug dealers and users have been killed – “more than half of them by vigilantes,” as the L.A. Times reports. International public opinion against Duterte’s brutal violations of human rights are intensifying, and this editorial notes how, in addition to the trauma inflicted on Philippine citizens, there are implications for the strategic relationship between the United States and this important ally nation. The Philippines have joined in efforts to resist Chinese adventurism in the South China Sea, winning a complaint against China filed with an international arbitration court at the Hague. But Duterte’s murderous policies make it difficult for the United States to ally itself with a political leader that former Filipino President Benigno Aquino III once described as a “dictator in waiting.”

The L.A. Times calls for President Obama and his successor to withhold financial support for the Philippine National Police, who are used to support Duterte’s war on drugs. The editorial’s final sentence is one UUSC members and supporters will find familiar in calls for U.S. pressure to reverse abusive official policies of other allied nations: “U.S. tax dollars shouldn’t support law enforcement officials engaged in profound violations of human rights.”

UUSC has worked with partner organizations in the Philippines since Typhoon Haiyan struck the island nation in 2013. Read UUSC’s statement of solidarity with the people of the Philippines and the on-the-ground actions of our partner organizations in today’s human rights crisis here.

3. “Water is Life: Lawrence Visits Standing Rock,” The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, MSNBC, September 6, 2016

This video by MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell covers the story of Native American efforts to block construction of a crude oil pipeline in South Dakota, from a number of unexpected angles.

The story begins with Alice Brown Otter, a 12-year-old activist who ran 1,519 miles from Standing Rock, South Dakota, to Washington, D.C., to protest against the Dakota Access pipeline. The story takes a disturbing shift to images of attack dogs used against Sioux protesters. O’Brien reminds views of how dogs were used in similar ways against 1960s civil rights activists in the South.

Most significantly, O’Brien’s piece contrasts the way average Americans and the Sioux think about water. For us, water is an important element of the earth and the human body, but ultimately it is just a commodity. For the Sioux, water is sacred. They believe we are water, that water is life.

O’Brien’s closing statement celebrates the wisdom and spirit of a young woman-to-be: “We can only hope that 12-year-old Alice brown Otter doesn’t have to spend the rest of her life trying to teach us what she already knows. ‘Mni wiconi. Water is life.’”

Read about UUSC’s research and policy work on the human right to water in Defending the Human Right to Water: A Decade of Support for Global Water Justice, by Amber Moulton, and The Invisible Crisis: Water Unaffordability in the United States, by Dr. Patricia Jones and Amber Moulton, here. This fall, watch this site for additional research studies about water and other climate justice issues.

On the Ground in Greece

Delivering Aid with Dignity to Refugees in Europe

His name was Jawed, and he was screaming in pain when Latifa Woodhouse met him and his mother. His hands were swollen, bleeding, severely frostbitten. And he was just one of the thousands of refugees arriving on the shores of Lesbos, Greece, every day. Latifa and her husband, Colin — both longtime and deeply committed UUSC supporters and volunteers — met the family while volunteering for a week at Camp Moria in Lesbos, where UUSC is partnering with PRAKSIS, a Greek civil society organization, to support refugees fleeing their homes and seeking safety in Europe.

PRAKSIS: UUSC’s partner

Thanks to generous supporters who have donated almost $630,000 to the UUSC-UUA Refugee Crisis Fund, UUSC has established strategic partnerships with grassroots groups across the migration route in Europe. UUSC started working with PRAKSIS (which, translated from Greek, stands for Programs for Development of Social Support and Medical Cooperation) in December to deliver vital aid to refugees — from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere — who are arriving daily in Greece from Turkey.

Founded in 2004, PRAKSIS provides humanitarian aid in the form of medical care, legal assistance, social welfare, and psychological and financial support to socially vulnerable groups in need. To serve the vast influx of Syrian refugees — who have faced a dangerous journey across the sea, brutal weather and travel conditions, and exploitation by traffickers — UUSC teamed up with PRAKSIS to facilitate transportation of refugees from their arrival on shore to the refugee camps 40 kilometers uphill. UUSC’s support also enables the distribution of winterization kits for 536 babies, to help ensure they stay warm and healthy during the cold winter months.

When the Woodhouses — who served for 10 years as UUSC volunteer regional coordinators and presently are UUSC volunteer local representatives at the UU Congregation at Shelter Rock — began their humanitarian mission in Greece, they met PRAKSIS staff members by chance: walking through the camp, Latifa saw people wearing PRAKSIS jackets, introduced herself, and made the connection with Youta, a social worker, and Eva, and a teacher, who mostly work with Syrian refugee children at and around the U.N. compound at Camp Moria.

Navigating the refugee journey

When Latifa met Jawed and his mother, the mother was relieved to hear a familiar language — Pashto, her own. With Latifa’s help translating and navigating the unfamiliar camp, Jawed received initial treatment and pain relief at a health clinic and his family was set up in Camp Pikpa — for vulnerable children, disabled refugees, and those recovering from wounds, sickness, and the loss of loved ones. Not only that, Jawed’s mother was assured that a surgeon would provide necessary care for Jawed’s hands.

During their time together, the mother told Latifa the family’s story: They were an extended family of 22, traveling from Kunduz, Afghanistan, where they feared for their lives. They used all their money to pay a smuggler to get them to Greece; the trip to Turkey, over mountain ridges, took 22 hours, in brutal cold. Their elderly grandmother died on the trip. Jawed lost a glove and suffered severe injuries to his hands, and the whole family suffered frostbite. In Turkey, they were turned away from a doctor for lack of funds and insurance. They were directed by a smuggler to take a small rubber boat — that was over capacity — across the Aegean Sea to Greece. They had never seen water like that. They were one of the lucky families that made it to the shore of Lesbos.

That is the story of just one family among millions. The Woodhouses heard heartbreaking story after heartbreaking story. But they were struck by the strength and resilience they witnessed. “They are really amazing, strong people with a great hope for the future,” reflects Latifa.

The Woodhouses’ mission

“The refugee issue is very close to both of our hearts,” explains Latifa, the daughter of Afghan refugees herself. The Woodhouses saw the refugee situation unfolding — and worsening — in the Middle East and Europe and felt they must get involved. They raised money amongst friends, family, and community, including urging their congregation, the UU Congregation at Shelter Rock, to contribute $100,000 to UUSC’s refugee relief efforts.

With the funds they personally raised, Latifa, Colin, and their daughter Alexandra traveled to Lesbos in January, and they were joined by Diane Lombardy, a pediatrician. At Camp Moria, a processing center surrounded by tents hosting refugees going through registration, they got to work doing the following and more:

  • Helping provide and distribute aid, like clothing, firewood, and food
  • Creating vital camp infrastructure like walkways and irrigation, and making the medical tent and other areas accessible to wheelchairs
  • Translating and navigating language barriers (Latifa is fluent in Farsi and Pashto, and can converse in Arabic and Urdu)
  • Providing crowd control
  • Sharing information and connecting people to services

The Woodhouses worked with and alongside volunteers from around the world and with the refugees themselves, from sunrise to well past sunset. “During the past four days we have gone to the shore at night and welcomed the boats that have arrived in the dark. There is truly so much one can do,” Latifa wrote from the field. “Especially with my language ability, I have been everywhere. At the health clinics to translate for doctors. At clothing facilities to make sure every one is fitted properly. At the information booth to guide them to buy their tickets for Athens and how to register as they arrive from Turkey. It goes on and on. I have become everyone’s aunt and sister.”

“We must be involved”

The Woodhouses embody the values that UUSC puts into action every day. Martha and Waitstill Sharp, two of UUSC’s founders, carried out vital missions in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II, rescuing Jews, dissidents, and refugee children at great personal sacrifice. “There’s no better organization to take this work on than UUSC, given its history and legacy,” says Colin. “UUSC and the story of the Sharps inspired us. The similarities are incredible — this refugee crisis is global and it’s the worst since World War II.  We must be involved.”

With a shifting situation that changes daily, working with local grassroots groups that know the realities on the ground is essential. Europe has been further tightening its borders and shutting its doors to the refugees arriving on its threshold. Christen Dobson, program director of research and policy at the International Human Rights Funders Group, recently wrote: “Moria, the reception centre where asylum seekers were registered and received assistance and from which they were able to freely depart, has become a detention facility.”

The Woodhouses reported to their personal donors: “Refugees continue to arrive in Les[b]os every day, but now are regarded as criminals, locked up, and told they will be sent back to Turkey or their country of origin. For many, this is essentially a death sentence. . . . How can we force people to return to communities in ruin and homes in rubble? How can we send them back into the line of gunfire, brutality, and war? We cannot. We will, however, continue our efforts to bring compassion, love, comfort, and justice to the people who deserve no less.”

Indeed, this is why UUSC is committed to providing emergency aid, ensuring access to legal help and resettlement support, and advocating for necessary changes in policy and public perception of the refugees attempting to find safety and build new lives in Europe. Colin reflected on their time in Lesbos: “All we did was offer a little humanity.” Everyone deserves that. Asylum seekers are not criminals. And UUSC will continue to deliver aid with dignity to refugees throughout the Middle East and Europe.

What you can do

Rights Reading

International Women’s Day Edition

Our weekly roundup of what we’re reading: a few select articles from the front lines of human rights that we don’t want you to miss.

1. “Nurse Freshta Poupal: ‘I had women throwing their babies at me to safety,’” by Fariba Nawa, Women in the World/New York Times

“‘As a critical care physician, I’m accustomed to seeing traumatic things, but this situation is different,’ Hakimi said. ‘Being a refugee myself and seeing my own people with so much hope in their eyes crushed and devastated is something I can’t explain. It’s not all despair, but we can’t let this problem slide by and assume it will disappear. I think it will get worse before it will get better.’”

This article details how dozens of Afghan Americans, many of them women who were once refugees themselves, are working to help Syrian, Afghan, and Iraqi refugees arriving in droves on the Greek island of Lesbos. This is what solidarity looks like, and we’re truly moved by the work these volunteers are doing to support refugees in Greece. UUSC is also working in Lesbos, partnering with PRAKSIS (which, translated from Greek, stands for Programs for Development of Social Support and Medical Cooperation) to deliver much-needed support — including transportation and winterization kits for babies — to arriving refugees.

2. “Empowering Women Refugees,” by UNHCR (the U.N. Refugee Agency) Staff, UNHCR Tracks 

“Her family fled their home in Syria after violence engulfed their neighbourhood. They tried to make a life closer to the border with Jordan, but were driven to flee again after barrel bombs hit their home.”

This striking photo essay highlights the strength and resilience of women who have been forced from their homes, have sought safety elsewhere, and are slowly building new lives. Women face particular challenges as refugees — whether it’s increased risk of sexual violence and trafficking or fewer educational and job opportunities. That’s why in its work with partners throughout the world, including with refugees in the Europe and the Middle East, UUSC strategically attends to women’s rights and needs.

3. “Women Are The Ones Fighting The Tough Environmental Battles Around The World,” by Marlene Cimons, ThinkProgress

“But these three represent thousands of other women globally who are engaged in local battles against climate change and other environmental conflicts, often at significant personal risk and with great courage. These women understand that the struggle for environmental justice also is a fight for gender equality, land rights, economic and cultural rights, and food security, among other things, and that local activism can be a critical portal to the political process and policy decision-making. It seems fitting to recognize them on International Women’s Day.”

Highlighting the stories of three women environmental justice activists, this article outlines the ways that issues of environmental justice — including climate change, food sovereignty, and more — disproportionately affect women. And it also shows the amazing ways that women are taking action around the world to stand up for their rights. It reminds us of all the inspiring women we partner with to advance the human right to water — like Maureen Taylor of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization in Detroit, the members of the Tanzania Gender Networking Program, and many others.

4. “16 Courageous Women Standing Up to Violence,” by Kristin Williams, Yes! Magazine/The Institute for Inclusive Security and PRI

“‘Discrimination and inequality are so deeply rooted in our country,’ she says. ‘It doesn’t only affect me as an individual,’ but is the cause of Myanmar’s 68-year civil war, the longest-running in the world.”

In case you need a little more inspiration heading into the weekend, check out these short profiles of 16 women working to end violence. From Sudan to Myanmar (also known as Burma), Mexico to the Ukraine, these women are making vital change and getting us closer to a world in which all can realize their full human rights.

Rights Reading

Seeking safety and equity

Our weekly roundup of what we’re reading: a few select articles from the front lines of human rights that we don’t want you to miss.

1. “Flint and Haiti: A Tale of Two Rivers, a Tale of Two Crimes,” by Victoria Koski-Karell, Truthout

“These water crises, though distinct in important ways, can both be traced back to longstanding human-made systems that have simultaneously neglected and exploited low-income communities of color. As much as they are related to health, these human-made catastrophes are issues of social justice. . . . Whether in Haiti or Flint, all humans deserve the right to clean water and sanitation.”

This powerful op-ed outlines — and draws essential connections between — the toxic water crises that people in Flint and in Haiti are experiencing. And it also highlights the systemic racial discrimination implicit in the health inequities these water crises illustrate. This op-ed serves as an important reminder that Flint is not the only community facing a water crisis that is depriving people of their human right to water — there’s Detroit, there’s California’s Central Valley, there’s Haiti, and numerous other communities around the world. PS. Even the United Nations is calling out how the situation in Flint is violating fundamental human rights.

2. “Greece Tries to House Migrants as Other Gates Close,” by Liz Alderman, New York Times

“‘We’ve never seen it like this here,’ said Katerina Kitidi, a spokeswoman for the United Nations refugee agency, surveying the scene at the ferry terminal as women in head scarves huddled with children on a trash-strewn sidewalk near the sea while men stood in a snaking line for water and food. ‘With the borders shut, there is a big buildup of people and a definite danger of a bad humanitarian situation taking hold in Greece.’”

With more borders starting to close to refugees seeking safety in Europe, the number of refugees in Greece is swelling significantly. That’s why European leaders are calling for urgent support of Greece in the midst of the ongoing refugee crisis. It’s also why UUSC has been partnering with PRAKSIS (short for the Greek translation of Programs for Development of Social Support and Medical Cooperation), a Greek humanitarian organization, to welcome refugees as they arrive on the island of Lesbos, transport them to the refugee camp, and provide winterization kits for babies.

3. “Why a Single Question Decides the Fates of Central American Migrants,” by Eyder Peralta, NPR

“‘Many of the people who have been rounded up and will be deported, they already know their future,’ he says. ‘They’ll die of hunger or they’ll be killed by bullets.’”

This in-depth piece from NPR explores the legalities that Central American refugees — fearing for their lives, seeking safety in the United States — must navigate. In the wake of a string of raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and announcement of a U.S.-U.N. Central American refugee program, Rachel Gore Freed, UUSC’s vice president and chief program officer, said, “For those who do risk seeking asylum at borders, it still is the responsibility of the U.S. to ensure that international legal protection and screening standards are met by allowing children and families full, unobstructed access to legal counsel, minimal detention time with responsible, non-abusive treatment while there, and swift release to those who qualify for asylum claims.” To this end, UUSC partners with organizations like RAICES to ensure that asylum seekers are not being denied their human rights as they go through the asylum process and to educate people about the challenges these refugees face.

Syrian Refugee Crisis: Situation, Strategy, Partners, and Advocacy

As the conflict in Syria continues to rage unabated, the needs of refugees who have been displaced by the conflict remain acute. Yet despite the internationally-protected human right of these refugees to flee and seek asylum, host countries refuse to recognize them as full members of their societies, and many European nations have adopted closed border policies that intensifies the crisis. The need to respond compassionately to this situation is as urgent as ever.

Thanks to the generosity of so many people, we have so far raised more than $610,000 for the UUSC-UUA Refugee Crisis Fund. With these resources, UUSC is working with grassroots partners in Jordan, the Balkans and the United States, providing emergency aid, ensuring access to legal help and resettlement support, and advocating for necessary changes in policy and public perception.

The situation

Five years into Syria’s devastating civil war, half the country’s population remains displaced from their homes, with over 4.8 million Syrians forced to seek refuge abroad. While a partial ceasefire was brokered in February between Bashar al-Assad’s regime and some rebel groups, fighting continues among several other major parties to the conflict, including the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). As a result, hundreds of thousands of civilians caught in the crossfire continue to flee atrocities committed by state and non-state actors and the constant threat of violence from extremist groups.

In some respects, the situation for refugees is worse than ever before. Whereas earlier waves of Syrian refugees were generally able to cross the border and seek asylum abroad, newly displaced Syrians are encountering closed borders and tight restrictions on their movement on all sides. While Syria’s closest neighbors, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, had maintained a relatively open border in the early years of the conflict, all three have now effectively closed their borders to asylum seekers – due in large part to the failure of wealthier governments to step in to fill the gaps by adequately funding the humanitarian response and expanding their resettlement programs. Turkish border guards in some cases have actually gunned down Syrian asylum seekers who tried to cross the border.[1] The result is that more than 150,000 civilians fleeing ISIS are now trapped in the desert outside the Turkish border,[2] where they face the constant threat of airstrikes or of falling into the hands of armed rebel groups.

With no clear end to the violence in sight, the nearly five million Syrian refugees living abroad have effectively become permanent residents of the societies they inhabit. Host governments in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, however, continue to maintain the pretense that these refugees are merely temporary “guests” who should not be integrated into society or granted the full rights of citizens. Because of this, Syrian refugees are for the most part forced to live in the shadows. Denied formal permission to work and other basic rights, they must subsist on vanishing cash allowances from international organizations or eke out a living in the informal sector. The extreme financial vulnerability of refugee families has led to skyrocketing rates of child labor and other forms of exploitation, as well as to the loss of an entire generation of Syrian children from institutions of formal education.

The shameful conduct of host countries toward refugees, however, is only a foreseeable consequence of the policy choices of wealthier countries. At the start of this year, the European Union made an agreement with Turkey that has exacerbated the crisis. In exchange for returning refugees from Europe to Turkey and the nominal loosening of some of Turkey’s restrictions against refugees, European governments have effectively turned their back on the thousands of refugees trapped at Turkey’s borders or suffering exclusion in Turkish society.

After this bargain went into effect, Europe’s previously open reception centers in Greece and the Balkans were converted into closed detention camps, where refugees are effectively imprisoned while they await possible deportation to Turkey, and where violence against migrants is well-documented.

The United States, meanwhile, has done next to nothing to ameliorate the situation. The U.S. has resettled less than 2,000 Syrian refugees, despite a commitment to resettle 10,000 this fiscal year. What’s more, the U.S. is in the throes of a terrifying anti-immigrant and Islamophobic backlash that jeopardizes the safety of Muslims living in the U.S. and threatens to amend the current refugee program to include overt racial and religious discrimination.

The strategy

UUSC addresses human rights violations against refugees and asylum seekers that are fueled by xenophobic attitudes, short-sighted immigration controls, and nationalistic policies. In whatever context we work, UUSC commits ourselves to the principles that migration is not a crime and seeking asylum is a fundamental human right. UUSC continues to affirm this truth as it pursues a multifaceted strategy in addressing the crisis at home and abroad:

  • Emergency aid and resettlement support in Greece, Croatia, and Serbia: offering medical aid, mental health support, resettlement support, and more aid? to long-term refugees.
  • Legal access in Hungary, Jordan, and the United States: 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: raising public awareness and sensitivity around refugee issues, challenging xenophobic sentiments and legislation, and upholding the inherent dignity of immigrant communities.

The partners

Greece: ensuring decent reception conditions
UUSC has been partnering with the Greek non-governmental organization PRAKSIS to provide immediate transportation assistance and basic needs kits to newly arrived refugees and their children on the Greek island of Lesvos.

Serbia: providing comprehensive mobile assistance along the transit route
The Asylum Protection Center (APC), our partner in Serbia, enlists a team of aid professionals to provide a comprehensive array of services, including legal support, humanitarian aid, psychosocial counseling, and language interpretation, to long-term and transiting refugees.

Croatia: offering support for long-term resettlement
UUSC is partnering with the Center for Peace Studies (CPS), which spearheads the Welcome Initiative, a collaborative effort of 50 organizations to address refugee resettlement, to provide immediate humanitarian support, and to advocate for more welcoming policies at the national and international levels.

Hungary: facilitating family reunification
With our support, our partners at the Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC) are working to provide full financial and legal support for refugee families who have been torn apart by war and are navigating the family reunification process.

Slovenia: providing humanitarian protection at the Croatia-Serbia border

Magna Children at Risk, a UUSC partner, operates medical humanitarian projects — including medical, surgery, psychological, and nutritional programs for children and their families —in two refugee camps at the Croatia-Serbia border.

Jordan: challenging refugee exploitation through legal trainings and assistance
The Arab Renaissance for Democracy (ARDD) — Legal Aid is raising legal awareness and empowerment through trainings and research to help Syrian refugees in Jordan navigate the risks they face due to discrimination, lack of formal recognition, and heightened vulnerability to exploitation and abuse.

United States: promoting positive dialogue, refugee integration, and a more welcoming public policy
In Southern California, the Arab American Civic Council is launching, with UUSC support, a “Refugees Welcome” initiative that supports the resettlement and integration of Syrian refugees. The Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA) is working to improve public policy related to refugees in Massachusetts. In Indiana, UUSC is partnering with Refugee Exodus to provide critical care to Syrian refugees while also practically confronting anti-refugee political agendas that caused Refugee Exodus a loss of vital funding. In Toledo, Ohio, UUSC is partnering with US Together to help newly arrived refugee families resettle with dignity in the United States and build their new lives in this country.

The advocacy

Through national policy advocacy, an integrated communications plan, and mobilizing UU congregations and activists, UUSC has been working to increase federal humanitarian assistance for refugees, to increase the U.S. refugee quota, and to forestall any attempt from politicians to introduce religious or ethnic discrimination into the refugee program, and to promote a welcoming environment for all refugees and asylum seekers. 

Key highlights:

  • Releasing “Building Bridges: Refugee Support and Advocacy Toolkit” – a resource for congregations, student groups, and individuals to take action on refugee rights.
  • Launching the Refugee Rapid Response Network to mobilize quickly and effectively around national and state-level legislation on refugees and asylum-seekers.
  • Partnering with members and congregations to organize events such as the Monte Vista UU Congregation’s Refugee Welcoming Lunch, data parties with the Arab American Civic Council to develop a welcome guide for new Americans, and Know Your Rights trainings for Central American asylum-seekers with local congregations and RAICES.
  • Presenting in large-scale UU settings such as the Annual General Assembly and the Walking the Walk Justice Summit of the UU Justice Ministry of California and the UU Justice Arizona Network.
  • Mobilizing, through our work with the Ministerial Leadership Network and the Unitarian Universalists Ministerial Association, more than 600 Unitarian Universalist clergy to sign onto an open letter from faith leaders to Donald Trump calling upon him to retract his call for banning all Muslims from entering the United States.
  • Connecting Unitarian Universalists to interfaith initiatives and events to welcome refugees as part of the Refugees Welcome Coalition.

[1] https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/05/10/turkey-border-guards-kill-and-injure-asylum-seekers

[2] https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/05/27/dispatches-isis-advance-traps-165000-syrians-closed-turkish-border

Left Out

Refugees in Europe

Thousands of refugees have been stranded in Europe’s eastern border zones the past few weeks in increasingly abysmal conditions and with no hope of advancing on their journey. Why? Because they happen to come from the “wrong” country. UUSC is working with partners on the ground to ensure refugees’ right to seek safe refuge no matter their country of origin.

Refugees being left out

On November 17, four Balkan countries — Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia, and Croatia — began closing their borders to anyone who could not prove Syrian, Afghani, or Iraqi nationality. Thousands of people with extremely serious protection needs are being denied asylum as a result. Some of the excluded refugees are people who lost their legal documents in flight (an all too common occurrence when people are running for their lives). Others are children born in exile or people who have been displaced from multiple conflicts in the Middle East (including many Palestinian and Iraqi refugees who are coming from Syria).

Thousands of refugees entering Europe do not originate from one of the three “approved” countries (Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan) but have just as urgent a need for protection. These include Yemeni children who have fled Saudi bombs and forced recruitment into rebel armies in their native country, Iranian survivors of torture and persecution, and countless others from Pakistan, Libya, Eritrea, Morocco, and elsewhere. Such refugees are resorting to desperate measures to convey to the world the urgency of their plight: last week, one group of Iranian refugees sewed their own lips shut in protest.

Reports from UUSC partners on the ground

The result of blocking out thousands of desperate refugees has been foreseeably calamitous. A humanitarian crisis is unfolding at the small Greek village of Idomeni, close to the Macedonian border, where as many as 3,000 people have been stranded at facilities equipped to house only a fraction of that number.

Praksis, UUSC’s new partner, is one of a handful of organizations providing food and medical care to this population, so far in the absence of any help from the Greek government or the European Union (EU). Praksis recently reported to us the appalling conditions their staff are witnessing on the ground in Idomeni:

“Many people are sleeping and waiting on the ground, the camp extending to the fields nearby while temperatures during night drop below zero. To heat themselves, refugees put into the fire all kinds of litter and the atmosphere is covered by a choking black cloud.

“Furthermore, there is increasing tension between ethnicities, including a protesters’ blockade that delayed the crossings. Tension has culminated since the death of a 22-year-old Moroccan who climbed a wagon because he had no proper place to sleep and died of an electroshock from the electric wire of the railway infrastructure. Conflicts rise among those who can pass and those who cannot. Desperation and anger are taking over.”

Meanwhile, the Asylum Protection Center, UUSC’s partner in Serbia, reports witnessing a striking decline in the number of people entering the country via Macedonia the past few weeks, due largely to these draconian new restrictions.

Discrimination: illegal and immoral

Refugees have a universal right under international law to cross borders and fairly present their case for asylum on an individual basis. In the words of the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, to which all EU member states are party, every government must apply this right to asylum seekers “without discrimination as to race, religion or country of origin” (Article 3).

To exclude asylum seekers solely because of where they come from or what papers they carry is not only against the law — it is also deeply immoral. It leaves out of consideration thousands of refugees who are in imminent need of protection but who don’t come from approved countries. It tears apart families who are of mixed nationality. It further marginalizes stateless people, who are already uniquely vulnerable on the migration trail because of their lack formal recognition. Finally, as our partners at Praksis are already witnessing on the ground, discriminatory policies cruelly pit different ethnic groups of refugees against one another, despite the fact that they are all survivors of the same kinds of violence at home and are experiencing the same long journey to safety.

Immediate responsibility for these unjust policies falls to the Balkan countries that have implemented them, but other Western governments bear a portion of it as well. EU leaders have so far completely failed to condemn the border closures; nor have they yet managed to craft a coherent resettlement plan to equitably provide for refugees across its member.

Meanwhile, many U.S. politicians are deliberately contributing to a toxic anti-refugee rhetoric that makes draconian border restrictions like these possible. In the immediate wake of the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, more than two dozen U.S. states said they would not accept resettlement of additional Syrian refugees. In the past few weeks, the governors of Texas, Indiana, and Louisiana all directed state agencies to refuse resettlement support to any people from Syria who are referred by federal authorities, in violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution’s promise of equal protection under the law. Texas this week relented on its anti-refugee stance, but Indiana’s Mike Pence is continuing to defend his blatantly discriminatory policies.

UUSC’s response

UUSC upholds the right of all people to seek asylum across borders, irrespective of their place of origin or documented status. That is why UUSC is partnering with following organizations:

  • Praksis in Greece to ensure decent reception conditions for new arrivals
  • The Helsinki Committee in Hungary to reunite refugee families
  • The Asylum Protection Center in Serbia to provide comprehensive mobile aid across the migration trail
  • The Center for Peace Studies in Croatia to provide long-term resettlement support to refugees

In all aspects of its response, UUSC seeks to protect the rights of people on the margins of society, to decriminalize migration, and to ensure refugees have power over their own destinies.

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