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: a few select articles from the front lines of human rights that we don’t want you to miss. This week, we are highlighting ways to get involved in the #May1Strike, the Nepal Earthquake anniversary, and the anniversary of the Rana Plaza Factory Collapse.

 Immigration rights demonstrators rally in downtown Los Angeles 11 years ago.

How to Join the ‘Day Without Immigrants’ on May Day, Ariana Rosas Cardenas, The Nation, April 28, 2017 

 “When workers, immigrants, women, Muslims, black and brown, indigenous, queer and trans communities face exploitation, criminalization, incarceration, deportation, violence and harassment, we strike.”

This year’s May Day, an annual worker’s day strike held on International Worker’s Day, is expected to have the biggest turnout in over 10 years. Not only are immigrants and workers participating, but Native Americans, refugees, LGBTQ, and people of color are all joining to protest the Trump administration’s threats and attacks on minority communities.

Hundreds and thousands will be missing work, school, and shopping to show the impacts these combined communities and movements can have and to defy the hate and criminalization they are facing. This article highlights different events that are happening all across the United States.

Together with the Unitarian Universalist Association, UUSC has launched a joint campaign, Love Resists, to resist hate and create more welcoming communities. We’ve posted some more ways you can participate in May 1 events here!

Nepal’s earthquake disaster: Two years and $4.1bn later, Narayan Adhikari, Al Jazeera, April 24, 2017

It has been two years since the Nepal Earthquake, and only 5% of the houses that were destroyed have been rebuilt. The Nepal Earthquake destroyed close to 824,000 homes, which means over 800,000 families are still waiting for their homes to be rebuilt. Despite over $4 billion being donated and pledged for reconstruction efforts, only 12% of these funds have been used. A lack of government coordination and understanding, low participation among local groups, and overall lack of transparency have all contributed to slow recovery.

The article emphasizes that “the international community can bring about more lasting change by directing their support towards citizens and local organisations committed to solving the root problems of corruption and lack of information.”

UUSC is proud to be part of this international community that brings lasting change. We work with grassroots partners that are empowering survivors and protecting their rights as they rebuild their homes and lives. Read more about our work with two of these organizations!

It Has Been Four Years Since the Rana Plaza Factory Collapse—How Much Has Changed?, Michelle Chen, The Nation, April 24, 2017

Four years ago, Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza factory collapsed, killing more than 1,000 workers and fueling an outrage for labor reform needs in the garment industry. Despite this outrage, labor reforms have been slow to make. After hundreds went on strike at one of the manufacturing centers in Ashulia, labor activists and factory workers have been fired and accused of various acts by the same government that promised reforms and protections four years ago.

Wage theft and proper working conditions are some of the basic demands workers are asking for. Activists and workers that speak out are being punished, and at the end of the day, workers feel that large companies are only looking to make a profit. These workers currently only making $67 a month, and the raise they were asking for is still far below a livable wage.

International pressure has allowed for some regulations and improved working conditions, but without continued public pressure, workers are losing their right to organize – a detrimental effect on equal rights and protections. Without the ability to organize, there is also no structure to hold owners and bosses accountable.

The Good Buy, UUSC’s online store, recently published a blog with resources on how you can get involved in the Fashion Revolution campaign, a new movement to wake up people to the continued injustice in the garment industry.

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. This week, we are focusing on Climate Justice, as Climate Justice Month comes to an end.

How a Tiny Alaska Town Is Leading the Way on Climate Change, Joe McCarthy, Global Citizen, April 18, 2017

 School in Kivalina

“By 2100, as many as 13 million people living in coastal regions of the US and hundreds of millions more people throughout the world could be displaced by climate change.”

Kivalina, Alaska is a small village in Northwest Alaska, with a population of 420 indigenous people. Located 70 miles above the Arctic Circle, Kivalina is one of the most affected communities of climate change. The temperature increases have doubled in Alaska compared to the United States, and the Arctic Sea has evaporated by half in the last 35 years. In just 10 years, Kivalina will no longer be a place people can inhabit.

The people of Kivalina are mobilizing and planning. They are known to be self-reliant and have a lot of experience working with their communities and government. The article highlights more of the history of Kivalina and some of the work our partner, Alaska Institute for Justice is doing.

How a Warming Planet Drives Human Migration, Jessica Benko, The New York Times, April 19, 2017

There are obvious environmental consequences to climate change, but the effects are manifold. Climate change leads to droughts, floods, food and housing insecurity, and famine. This then leads to both political and economic insecurity. While there is no official legal definition for what it means to be a climate refugee, in 2010, it was estimated that 500 million people would need to evacuate their homes by 2015 due to climate change.

The evaporation of Lake Chad has led to 3.5 million already being displaced. In Syria, 1.5 million were forced into cities because of a three-year drought in 2006. Other areas, such as China, the Amazon Basin, and the Philippines have also experienced the detrimental effects of climate change, displacing and even taking lives.

On April 29, We March for the Future, Bill McKibben, The Nation, April 19, 2017

Climate justice is being threatened by the Trump administration, but the reality is, climate justice has been a decades-long battle with each administration. The current climate-justice movement is being led by communities, farmers, scientists, and indigenous people. Those that are marching march for a multitude of reasons: pipelines, the labor movement, fracking, solar panels to other sustainable measures.

The United States is facing setbacks with the current administration, but the rest of the world is showing hope. Solar panel prices have dropped, wind energy is being used, and other countries are investing in renewables. People continue to march, protest, and resist in other ways, defining what the new normal is.

Check out related blogs and articles for climate justice month

Three-part series on composting, The Good Buy, April 18, 2017

5 Ways to #Resist this Earth Day, Green Peace, April 18, 2017

Making a Deeper Commitment to Climate Justice Month, UUSC, April 19, 2017

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. This week, we are highlighting the ways that the Trump administration’s policies are affecting an already vulnerable immigrant population.

Jeff Sessions Prepares DOJ For Crackdown On Unauthorized Border-Crossers, Elise Foley, Huffington Post, April 11, 2017

With the ultimate goal of detention, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is preparing harsher policies for undocumented immigrants with non-violent criminal offenses. Despite these non-violent offenses, such as illegal re-entry and document fraud, Sessions evoked dangerous and harmful imagery, using words such as “war zones, beheadings, depravity and violence, drug cartels, killing innocent citizens” to describe these non-violent offenders these policies are aimed at, criminalizing undocumented immigrants and painting them in a dangerous light.

Some of the policies cover prosecution for those harboring or transporting immigrants, felony prosecution for re-entry and multiple misdemeanors, and tighter border controls. There was no mention of how these policy rollouts would be funded or what other resources this would take.

Read more about criminalization and the harmful effects it has on minority communities here.

How Police Entanglement with Immigration Enforcement Puts LGBTQ Lives at Risk, Sharita Gruberg, Center for American Progress, April 12, 2017

LGBTQ immigrants are especially vulnerable to the new administration’s executive orders on immigration enforcement. The LGBTQ community already interacts with local law enforcement due to discrimination, profiling, and higher rates of violence and intimate partner violence. The executive orders have called for deportation of undocumented immigrants, many that are seeking asylum here because their lives are in danger. “LGBTQ people face widespread persecution in much of the world, with 76 countries criminalizing people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity and expression.” Deportation in these cases can result in death.

Mixing local law enforcement and immigration enforcement increases the danger that LGBTQ people face. LGBTQ immigrants will be less likely to come forward in instances of violence, discrimination, and domestic violence for fear of deportation. Their lives are more at risk both here in the United States because they are less likely to come forward and their lives are also threatened for fear of deportation.

Read a blog post about a UUSC staff member’s experience meeting an LGBTQ asylum-seeker in detention here.

Trump Plan Would Curtail Protections for Detained Immigrants, Caitlin Dickerson, The New York Times, April 13, 2017

“A decision to simultaneously abandon detention standards could have disastrous consequences for the health and safety of these individuals.”

The Trump administration is cutting back on already low standards and protections for immigrants being held in detention centers. For over 15 years, basic standards, such as regular suicide checks, ensuring translation is provided, and adequate medical care, have always been met. However, even these basic services are now at risk under the new administration. A regulatory office that oversees these protections and standards is being closed.

The Office of Detention Planning and Policy, which created policies to prevent sexual assault and protect pregnant detainees will also be shut down. A report released by a Homeland Security inspector just last month, cited health and safety concerns and even found that violent and non-violent offenders were sharing spaces.

UUSC partner, Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC), filed a complaint calling for a federal investigation into reports of sexual abuse, assault, and harassment in immigration detention facilities. Read more here.

Rights Reading

Our weekly roundup of what we’re reading includes a few select articles from the front lines of human rights that we don’t want you to miss. This week we are highlighting the importance of intersectionality – and some various groups that are leading this charge!

Protest groups to unite as “The Majority” for massive actions across the country on May 1, Aaron Morrison, Mic, March 23, 2017

woman holding an american flag during a protest 

Over 50 partners, comprised of refugee, LGBTQ, Black, Latino, immigrants, and other minority groups are coming together from April to May to launch protests all across the United States. These groups, known as The Majority, are calling the April to May events “Beyond the Moment,” inspired by Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech, in which he first addressed the importance of intersectional work rather than focusing only on civil rights.

Since the inauguration of Trump, there have been weekly protests around indigenous rights, climate change, women’s rights, refugee and immigrant rights, and other issues. The Majority emphasizes that supporters of the “Beyond the Moment” movement think and go beyond this  current administration in order to effect lasting change.

Among some of the groups that make up The Majority are Mijente and Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, UUSC partners doing amazing work.

Arab Americans lead the charge for US civil liberties, Massoud Hayoun, Al Jazeera, March 20, 2017

Arab American community leaders are working with other minority groups that are being threatened by the current administration. The working-class, people of color, women, and other groups are showing a united front in the midst of increasing threats and violence. Leaders in the Arab American community understand that social justice must be won in unity with other oppressed groups, as the struggles in one group are linked with another.

Trump’s presidency has stressed the need and importance of deepening and strengthening intersectional work. The administration has brought to light a history of this kind of work. One of several examples of intersectional work highlighted in this article is the work of Arab American Action Network (AAAN) in Chicago, an organization that works on racial profiling. AAAN works closely with teachers unions to make schools sanctuary schools for both undocumented and Black students.

As Rashad al-Dabbagh, founding director of Arab American Civic Council, a UUSC partner, states, “There’s no way we’d be able to survive without unity. That’s why it’s important to work together with all of our communities – Latinos, Asians, LGBT groups, African Americans, Indigenous peoples. Our struggles are linked. Right now, we’re at a point in history where we cannot afford to work alone.”

Read more about UUSC’s work with Arab American Civic Council here.

Texas UU coalition fights bills hostile to immigrants and transgender people, Elaine McArdle, UU World, March 28, 2017

Last February, on Legislative Action Day, 240 Unitarian Universalists from Texas met with legislators to advocate for reproductive, immigrant, refugee, and economic justice. This event was organized by Texas UU Justice Ministry (TXUUJM), a UUSC partner that organizes a statewide network of UU congregations.

One of the actions was to oppose a Sanctuary City Bill, which would affect immigrant communities. TXUUJM has a longstanding history of working with immigrant communities. TJUUJM has also been working with the transgender community and is working against a bill that prevents transgender people from choosing which bathroom they prefer to use. UUSC is proud of the wide-ranging and intersectional work that TXUUJM and other Unitarian Universalists are doing in Texas.

A Coordinated Campaign to Stop Crimes Against Humanity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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