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.
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.
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 arepushed back, often with violence. In Hungary, the recent victory of the Fidesz party was achieved on the back of axenophobic and anti-civil society campaign. Newly re-elected Prime Minister Viktor Orban has promised to passa 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 havelodged criminal charges against human rights defenders for merely helping migrants contact the police to file asylum claims.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 supportin 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Learn how to take action with UUSC’s soon-to-be-released Refugee Support and Advocacy Tool Kit. Contact Hannah Hafter, UUSC’s senior program leader for activism, at hhafter @ uusc.org if you would like to get on the distribution list for the tool kit.
“Fixing our broken food system won’t work if we only focus on one part of the problem. By adopting the following principles Darden can turn its citizenship ideals into meaningful action for customers, communities, farmers, the environment and thousands of Darden restaurant employees.”
This piece, coauthored by UUSC’s own Senior Program Leader for Activism Hannah Hafter, outlines the case for Olive Garden — and its parent company, Darden Restaurants — to adopt Good Food Principles. These principles call for fair working conditions, environmental sustainability, more humane treatment of animals, support for local economies, and better health and nutrition. UUSC is part of a robust coalition that is pressing the restaurant giant toward ethical practices through the Good Food Now! campaign. Join us! Sign the petition and share with your friends, family, and networks today.
“We recognize that their appeal for our assistance is made not only on the basis of sentiments but also on the basis of rights. They have been dispossessed of many things, but not of their human rights. Nobody — not Assad, not ISIS, not Putin, not Khameini, not the fascists of Europe — can deprive them of their humanity. Indeed, in their courage, and in their devotion to their children, and in their dream of democracy, they are giving us all lessons in humanity.”
This moving reflection from the son of Holocaust survivors draws heartfelt parallels between the refugee crisis of World War II and today’s refugee crisis. If you have felt desensitized from ongoing news coverage, read this and allow it to sink into your consciousness. It will breathe new life into your commitment to showing up and taking action to support Syrian refugees.
“In 2015, more than 1 million people crossed the Mediterranean to reach Europe. One in four of them was a child. Children on the move have specific vulnerabilities and protection needs, and their journeys — by sea or over land — pose significant risks for them and their families, as well as challenges for European countries where people are on the move and at final destinations.”
This powerful photo essay from UNICEF shares the story of Sajad, a young refugee living with disabilities whose family survived the harrowing trip from Iraq to Austria. It highlights the added difficulties that children and people with disabilities face when seeking safety and refuge in the midst of humanitarian crises. That’s why UUSC works with grassroots groups on the ground who are especially situated to meet the needs of people who are too often left out or overlooked by relief efforts.