refugees

 

  • ‘Dutch citizens feel a major disconnect from politics’

    The special theme of the 2018 State of Civil Society Report will be ‘reimagining democracy’. The report will explore how citizens and civil society organisations are working to build more participatory forms of democracy, and how civil society is responding to the citizen anger and sense of disconnection that is driving more extremist and polarised politics in many countries. Ahead of publication, we’ll be interviewing civil society activists and leaders in countries experiencing these trends. Here, CIVICUS speaks to René Rouwette, Director of Kompass, a civil rights organisationin the Netherlands. Kompass seeks to make human rights accessible to all and strives for ordinary people to exercise as much influence on laws and policies as large companies. It brings people together around projects on racism, refugees and ethnic profiling, among other issues.

    1. How would you describe the state of democracy in the Netherlands?

    The Netherlands scores very high on the international Democracy Index. Still, I am concerned about specific developments affecting democracy in the Netherlands. Many Dutch people do not feel represented in Dutch politics. Citizens feel a major disconnect from politics, especially towards the European Union as well as at the national level. Political parties are losing members and are increasingly unable to recruit new ones, and many people who are still involved are actively seeking a political job rather than trying to challenge their parties, and change their country or the world. As local newspapers are disappearing, there is hardly any awareness about local politics either.

    Many unhappy voters have turned to the right and the extreme right. And at least one such extreme right-wing party, the Freedom Party, is highly undemocratic. Its leader, Geert Wilders, is actually the party’s only formal member, which means he is the only one who can make decisions regarding the topics the political organisation will tackle and the positions it will take. This is a true anomaly among Dutch political parties.

    The political landscape is polarising.  After years of consensus politics, the left and right in the Netherlands are increasingly apart. People are locked up in echo chambers, so they resist any information that does not conform to their beliefs and show very little interest in finding common ground. Parties at the centre of the political spectrum are struggling, and are increasingly accommodating language from the extremes, and especially from the extreme right. The landscape is highly fragmented. A record number of 81 contenders, many of them single-issue parties, registered to compete in the national elections that took place in March 2017. Thirteen of those parties made it to Parliament, making it very hard to reach consensus.

    A major issue of current democratic tension in the Netherlands is focused on referendums. Over the past few years, referendums were introduced at the local and national levels. Almost all votes so far have resulted in wins for anti-establishment forces. In the first national referendum that took place the Netherlands, in April 2016, two-thirds of voters rejected the European Union accession treaty with Ukraine. As a result, the ruling coalition decided to put an end to referendum opportunities at the national level. People are now angry about the government’s unwillingness to follow up on the referendum results as well as about the decision to suspend referendums.   

    1. Has the practice of democracy in the country changed (for better or worse) over the past few years?

    More than with democracy, I think that the problem in the Netherlands is with human rights. 

    When talking about human rights in our country, you always have to start by saying that the Netherlands is not China, and that we are doing better than Rwanda and Uganda. There is a general feeling that human rights are something for other countries to be concerned with and it all comes down to issues of such as the death penalty and torture. But that is not what Eleanor Roosevelt and her colleagues meant when they drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Human rights are about many other things as well, including housing, schooling, education - a minimum standard for basic rights, in every country. 

    The Dutch mind-set towards human rights is actually very contradictory, as Dutch people also tend to be pioneers and innovators. I think it is very un-Dutch to consider the human rights status quo as good enough, and to settle for an increasing mediocrity. While holding firm to the feeling that human rights are an issue for other countries, it is worth noting that Rwanda is now scoring better in terms of women’s equality and Uganda now scores better in terms of human rights education than the Netherlands. While the Netherlands is actively involved in bringing human rights to other countries, Dutch school kids score very low in terms of their knowledge of human rights.

    At the same time, human rights have increasingly become an issue of political contestation. Political parties right and centre have openly criticised human rights and human rights treaties. They have even fought the Dutch constitution on this. The new government, established after the latest elections, is now investigating how to get rid of refugee treaties. A coalition of Dutch civil society organisations (CSOs) has recently concluded that in the past five years the human rights situation in the Netherlands has deteriorated. The victims of this deterioration have been not only refugees and Muslims living in the Netherlands, but also ordinary Dutch citizens. Human rights are about rights for all; the power of human rights is that they are all important. There are no left-wing human rights and right-wing human rights. Let us stick to that.   

    1. In which ways have the recent elections altered the political and ideological landscape? Has the political conversation deteriorated as a result of the challenge posed by Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party?

    There is a major international misconception that the extreme right lost the Dutch elections. This is wishful thinking. In reality, Geert Wilders’ party increased its presence in the Dutch Parliament, from 12 to 20 seats. Moreover, a new extreme right-wing party, the Eurosceptic and nationalistic Forum for Democracy, also won two seats in the Dutch Parliament. Leftist parties have become very small in comparison to their past selves.

    At the same time, parties at the centre have increasingly accommodated language from the extreme right, so the public conversation has definitely changed for the worse. Even in the left, among social democrats, there are voices calling for ignoring refugees’ basic rights. The Christian-Democratic Party is obsessed with winning back political power, and references to exclusion have therefore become vital to their political strategy. It is going to be hard – not to say impossible – for these parties to return to their traditional positions and, in fact, to their core ideologies. But of course that there are still some good people with a heart for human rights within those parties, and we should work with them to make things better.

    1. What is progressive civil society doing, and what should it do, to resist the rise of authoritarian, isolationist populism?

    The major current challenge for Dutch civil society is to bridge differences and to start working together. In the past, many CSOs have focused on competition rather than cooperation, and on their own cause rather than the general cause. I have a feeling that this is changing, and that is for the best. CSOs can all contribute to a cause from their own experience and skills, as long as we share an agenda. An interesting trend in Dutch civil society, as well as at the international level, is that new CSOs tend not to focus exclusively on themes anymore, but rather on specific skills and assets. As a civil rights organisation, for instance, Kompass focuses on using lobbying experience and techniques to advance human rights. There is another new organisation in our country that focuses on litigation. We need to cut internal discussions short, and start working on outreach. 

    It is important to note that CSOs are setting the agenda again: that civil society is being able to frame issues rather than just respond to issues put forward by other actors. We have some things to learn from the (extreme) right, who have managed to communicate a clear message through their own media, as well as through the mainstream media. It is important for us to take a position, and not appear as indifferent.

    At the same time, it is important to avoid taking a high moral ground. Actively seeking polarisation will bring us nowhere. The election result was clear, and the fact that so many people abandoned progressive and left-wing parties needs serious consideration. Parties that criticise human rights treaties like the Geneva Conventions and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights now have a majority in Parliament; it is important to take stock of this. Polarisation might be useful to bring together very leftist or progressive groups, but it will alienate many others, even those in the centre. It is important to find a common ground: to persuade rather than accommodate or win discussions.

    What we can learn from commercial lobbying is how to build political support among parties that do not necessarily agree. In the past, some CSOs were of the opinion that they had a role in raising problems, but that it was politicians’ job to come up with a solution. That approach just does not work in the current political setting and climate. We do not need to create moral upheavals, but to propose concrete solutions and actions. The reason why companies are spending such enormous amounts of money on lobbying is that it works. We need to learn from what they are doing.

    • Civic space in the Netherlands was recently downgraded from ‘open’ to ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that rates the conditions for civil society in every country in the world. This downgrade was influenced by increasing infringements of protest and expression rights and a rise in hate-inducing and harmful speech during the election.
    • Get in touch with Kompass through theirwebsite orFacebook page, or follow @KompassNL on Twitter

     

  • ‘Opaque laws, erratic application of rules and lengthy bureaucratic processes cost lives during a humanitarian response'

    CIVICUS speaks with Jeremy Wellard, Regional Representative for Asia of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA).ICVA is a global civil society network that advocates for principled humanitarian action, enhanced recognition of the vital role of civil society by governments and international organisations, and high-quality partnerships among humanitarian stakeholders. Established in 1962 by a small coalition of civil society organisations (CSOs) focused on refugees and migration, ICVA has grown into a diverse network of CSOs operating at global, regional, national and local levels. It promotes a rights and needs-based approach and maintains its historical focus on forced displacement while also addressing other areas of concern related to crisis-affected populations.

    1. What are the immediate needs that civil society seeks to respond to in a humanitarian crisis?

    Humanitarian response takes place in the aftermath of natural disasters, conflict or forced displacement of people and is focused on meeting key lifesaving needs, which may include protection, health, water and sanitation, shelter and food, communications, education and livelihoods services. Often imagined as a short-term response to crisis, in fact humanitarian action can continue in some protracted settings for decades. Recent examples from the Asia region include the Nepal earthquake of 2015, the Marawi conflict in the Philippines throughout 2017 and the most recent displacement of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh, beginning mid-2017. In Asia, humanitarian CSO actors are facing a particular set of challenges, particularly when working in countries where strong government leadership is present. In discussing these, it should be noted that perspectives may not always be applicable to humanitarian action in other contexts.

    Humanitarian action by civil society generally takes two main forms. On one hand, there is the response by locally based individuals and actors, which are either part of the community, home-grown organisations or organisations already based in the country and delivering ongoing programmes. On the other hand, there is response by international actors seeking to meet needs that cannot be met by existing in-country structures. Because of their proximity to those affected by a crisis, locally based civil society organisations (CSOs) are often first to respond and have the best idea of the critical needs after an emergency. This gives them a unique advantage; however, this very closeness to those affected, and the fact that responding CSOs are often part of these communities themselves, also adds challenges regarding their ability to meet humanitarian needs. International CSOs play a complementary role, supporting and strengthening the work of local actors and, where necessary, delivering services or providing expertise at a scale beyond what most local actors can manage.

    1. How are challenges in humanitarian response exacerbated when there is contestation of and restrictions in the space for civil society?

    Whilst acknowledging that there are many challenges that come with operating within an increasingly diverse humanitarian landscape, particularly due to the changing roles of United Nations (UN) agencies and other actors, it is governments, both as host and donor, who exercise the most influence in curtailing the space for CSOs to operate. For CSOs, these difficulties are often manifested through increasingly burdensome regulatory environments; reduced availability of donor funding; limitation on access to affected populations; provocation and stigmatisation in the media; and in the worst cases, intimidation, threats and attacks on humanitarian actors and infrastructure. In one recent example from Asia, a combination of these factors led to the near-complete shutdown of civil society action in affected areas. In cases where governments remain strong yet access to certain populations is denied due to deliberate government policies or military action, the very core tenets of humanitarian action are challenged by this inability to respond effectively.

    The Asia region has recently experienced a growing number of crises where civil society actors have been denied access to a population in need. It is concerning to continue to hear of cases where CSO staff seeking to deliver humanitarian aid are themselves attacked and persecuted for these efforts, forcing CSOs to choose between the safety of their staff or meeting the needs of the communities they are trying to serve.

    I would summarise the main challenges currently faced by humanitarian CSOs in three points: the erosion of humanitarian space, negative perceptions of CSO action and uncertain regulatory environments.

    Traditionally, humanitarian space has been regarded as a unique space, with protections and advantages enshrined in the humanitarian principles of humanity, independence, neutrality and impartiality. These principles, anchored in international humanitarian law, are recognised by all UN member states, as they have ratified the 1949 Geneva Conventions, and include rules on the rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian aid and the freedom of movement of humanitarian personnel. Humanitarian CSOs work on the understanding that their adherence to humanitarian principles facilitates access and acceptance, allowing humanitarian workers to carry out their work in a protected space, separate from development, environmental, peace and other areas of work.

    However, these days there are very few purely humanitarian CSOs. In Asia it is hard to find a CSO delivering humanitarian aid that is not also delivering programmes in areas such as development, rights or disaster risk reduction. A key challenge for these CSOs is having governments understand these dual roles. Adding to this, the complexity of the environment is increasing. For example, there is presently a concerted effort by the UN and World Bank to align humanitarian action more closely with development and peace action. However, this brings associated risks for this principled approach. Within a broadly shrinking space for civil society, we must remain aware that any blurring of the boundaries between humanitarian action and other fields may also threaten to weaken or remove such protections.

    Second, a central argument for strengthening CSOs is that humanitarian action is more effective when the complementary capacities of a range of actors are brought to bear. Stronger government leadership does not necessarily translate into better services, particularly where government policies deliberately or otherwise make it difficult for governments themselves to deliver effectively to all people affected by a crisis. Civil society’s actions in a humanitarian space can fill the gaps where services break down or there is insufficient capacity within existing mechanisms. To help explain this to governments and other actors, ICVA promotes the use of the Principles of Partnership, which were developed in 2007 as a means to try and promote understanding of strong, complementary partnerships between all humanitarian actors.

    Unfortunately, rather than being seen as a necessary complement to government action, the humanitarian work of CSOs is often seen as an interference or a front for the wide range of religious, political, social and rights agendas CSOs are rooted in. CSOs will argue that when delivering a humanitarian response, they put other considerations aside in order to negotiate access and ensure that services can be delivered. However, CSOs need to acknowledge that governments may not automatically understand or appreciate this critical distinction.

    In some cases, the actions of CSOs have given reason for deepening mistrust of motives and in a number of countries the resulting vilification of high-profile CSOs in the media has added public support to government actions to curtail their humanitarian work. CSOs may be specifically targeted due to their closeness to certain populations, their willingness to negotiate access with non-state actors or their perceived alignment to the political or religious views of their donors. In a recent South Asian response, approval of access was initially granted to, and then quickly withdrawn from, a number of faith-based CSOs due to concerns voiced by parts of the government that these organisations had links to what they considered were dangerous or undesirable religious or political groups. In another example, anti-terrorism policies were used as a reason to place CSOs under surveillance, raid offices and intimidate staff. In some cases, governments have refused registrations, cancelled visas and work permits, or evicted organisations entirely.

    Finally, it should be noted that a strong regulatory environment can either facilitate humanitarian action or introduce new challenges for CSOs. Often, as regulations are strengthened to limit CSO action in other areas, they also limit flexibility and responsiveness in humanitarian settings. This is particularly so because often government registration or approval processes do not tend to distinguish between different types of CSO action. From a humanitarian perspective, regulation is not necessarily a bad thing if it clarifies how to gain access, but it must be matched with reasonable and responsive triggers for flexibility and speed, and include overall clarity from governments regarding the provision of lifesaving aid. Currently in Asia, as governments develop disaster law frameworks, improve customs and border protections and strengthen visa processes, a wider set of possible restrictions can be brought to bear. Opaque laws, erratic application of new rules and lengthy, bureaucratic government processes, which are frustrating to CSOs at the best of times, cost lives and livelihoods during a humanitarian response. Some actors are working to promote open discussion between CSOs and governments around regulations that may impact on humanitarian action, so mutually agreed checks and balances can to be put into place.

    One way in which CSOs in Asia are attempting to address this is by engaging more in disaster preparedness work, alongside government, UN, military and other actors. CSOs tend to have stronger links with governments at local levels, or at the level of national disaster management agencies, than at the political level, and therefore can engage on technical matters. There have been many positive examples in Asia. However, one challenge to engaging primarily at technical level is that a major crisis is always politically charged. Different government ministries will be engaged in these situations, with Ministries of State, Foreign Affairs, Home Affairs, Security and Disaster Management and the Prime Minister’s or President’s office all becoming involved in decision making regarding CSO action. In a recent refugee crisis, the need for CSO action was widely acknowledged, yet opaque and complex criteria for registration of new CSO projects and the involvement of an increasing number of government ministries delayed the delivery of aid significantly. Project approvals were valid for just a few months, processes changed on a daily basis and government directives on approved activities forced CSOs to operate outside their areas of expertise. The unintended result was that the small number of local organisations that had approvals to operate bore the responsibility for delivering more and more projects, with some reports of organisations scaling up over 10 to 50 times in budget and size within weeks. I recall that six weeks into the response, one small organisation that previously specialised in providing long-term psychosocial support to refugees was delivering over 10 different project streams ranging from water, sanitation and hygiene to education, but had received no new funds to perform its core functions.

    1. What challenges do civil society actors encounter in coordinating with other responders and with government agencies?

    In practice, response to even major disasters or crises is now almost always led by national governments. Increasing government leadership in coordination of both national and international humanitarian response can be seen as a positive step, if states have capacity and comply with international law, but also can present new challenges to the independence of humanitarian CSOs. For example, in more extreme cases, some governments are pushing for complete control of disaster relief distribution, requiring increasing portions of financial and material aid to be channelled through their mechanisms and refusing access to CSOs that do not comply. Thankfully this is not yet the norm and, in most cases, governments will model the international system and form some equivalent of a humanitarian country team, disaster management team or similar, including representatives of UN, emergency services, military and other actors. Yet despite their impact and expertise, CSOs are not always seen by governments as necessary contributors and find their opportunities to engage directly with these decision-making forums restricted, particularly at the national level. CSO engagement therefore is relegated through intermediaries such as the UN. ICVA is currently working to promote awareness of the important role of CSO forums of collective representation in national-level coordination mechanisms and there have recently been positive trends of increased CSO representation in some countries, which now need to be modelled and shared as best practice.

    1. What support does civil society need in responding in such contexts?

    There is need for increased dialogue with governments to show how principled humanitarian action in an independent and protected space can be complementary rather than confrontational. Governments by nature tend to represent some parts of the population more than others, and this is more the case when the government is more authoritarian or military-backed, as is often the case in Asia. Humanitarian CSOs, on the other hand, act to serve all parts of the population, particularly those who are excluded due to political, religious or cultural prejudices, intra-communal violence or otherwise.

    Ideally humanitarian civil society could work with governments with the Humanitarian Principles and Principles of Partnership as a starting point. For this to happen, states intent on showing strength and reinforcing their sovereignty need to also remember their responsibility to protect all people, citizens or otherwise, in times of crisis. They should not be able to have their cake if they also intend to eat it.

    As a network, we are grappling with these issues and would like to learn from CSOs in other sectors facing similar challenges. We are open to ideas, suggestions and collaboration to cope with trends that affect us all in a fast-changing and increasingly complex world.

    • Get in touch with ICVA through theirwebsite, or follow @ICVAnetwork on Twitter

     

  • ‘The idea that a certain group does not belong in a country is instrumental in enabling discrimination and persecution against it’

    CIVICUS speaks toSusannah Sirkin, director of international policy and partnerships and senior advisor with Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). Founded in 1986, PHR uses medicine and science to document and call attention to mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. PHR’s work focuses on the physical and psychological effects of torture and sexual violence, the forensic documentation of attacks on civilians, the unnecessary and excessive use of force during civil unrest, and the protection of medical institutions and health professionals working on the frontline of human rights crises. Sirkin oversees PHR’s international policy engagement, including its work with the United Nations, domestic and international justice systems, and human rights coalitions, and is also responsible for managing and multiplying PHR’s strategic partnerships globally.

    1. What is the current situation of the Rohingya people in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and in the refugee camps in Bangladesh?

    The situation is absolutely desperate and devastating, both inside Myanmar, as far as anybody can tell, and in Bangladesh, as the world is able to see on television. Essentially, what we have witnessed over the past six months – although this has been building up for years – is what the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) has referred to as possible genocide, and what most organisations concerned with international law and human rights have denounced as crimes against humanity. Dozens of Rohingya villages have been burnt to the ground, forcing people to flee on long journeys through the jungle to reach a very precarious situation in Bangladesh. People fleeing have been pursued and attacked with guns and other weapons not just by the military but also by civilian members of the Burmese population.

    In Bangladesh, refugees are living in incredibly overcrowded, under-resourced, and dangerous camps – it’s hardly fair to even call them “camps,” although the situation has improved a bit over the past couple of months. More than 620,000 Rohingya, about half the population, have so far fled Rakhine state, and they have nowhere else to go. So they are forced to stay on a very small piece of land in one of the poorest and already most densely populated countries in the world. There have already been outbreaks of infectious diseases, and given the problems of overcrowding and lack of basic hygiene and sanitation, which my own team at Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has recently reported, it is possible for infectious diseases to spread rapidly and with lethal results.

    Essentially, the world has witnessed the virtual destruction of a culture, a community and a portion of the Burmese population. Myanmar and Bangladesh have recently reached an agreement for the Rohingya to return to Myanmar, but nobody really believes such an agreement can be implemented under the present circumstances. In the first place, refugees shouldn’t be sent back to Myanmar unless citizenship and basic rights are guaranteed. In the second, the provisions in the agreement involve Rohingya providing documents according to citizenship laws that don’t recognise them as citizens. This is obviously hugely problematic. What’s more, they have no homes to return to, as their villages have been burned, their lands and cattle seized by their non-Muslim neighbours, and many in their families and communities killed. There have also been very serious reports of mass rapes of women and girls, as well as killings of babies and young children, so the situation couldn’t be worse on any count.

    2. Why is the Rohingya minority being specifically targeted?

    There’s a long history of discrimination and persecution of minority groups in Myanmar, not only of the Rohingya but also of the Chin, Kachin, Karen, and Shan minorities. PHR has documented the persecution of ethnic minorities in Myanmar for a decade, and other human rights groups have done it long before us.

    Historically, it has been a problem for people who are not Burmese to live in Burma or Myanmar. There is a hyper-nationalist strain among both the population and the country’s leadership, and, on top of this, the country has lived for decades under a military dictatorship that persecuted not only the political opposition but also ethnic and religious minorities.

    Myanmar has failed to recognise diversity and human rights for all its population. The Rohingya, a Muslim minority in a country that has a Buddhist majority, have long been deprived of their citizenship and treated as if they were illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Many Rohingya have lived in Rakhine state for several generations, well over a hundred years, and belong in Myanmar as much as anybody else. However, in the latest census they were not counted among Burmese minorities but rather as foreigners lacking the protections that citizens receive under the law.

    The idea that a certain group does not belong in a country is instrumental in enabling discrimination and persecution against it. A few years ago, PHR released a report on the burning of Muslim homes in Buddhist-dominated areas of Myanmar. We documented a well-known massacre in the town of Meikhtila, where police and security officials stood by and watched as local population burned houses and people alive. These actions had long been encouraged by racist and anti-Muslim rhetoric, fuelled by a few very charismatic Buddhist monks that had much influence with the population.

    Before the 2015 crackdown and subsequent crisis, more than one million Rohingya lived in Myanmar, most of them in Rakhine state. Their relationship with their Buddhist neighbours had been tense for quite some time, and outbreaks of violence had been relatively frequent in the past. The current crisis broke out in August 2017, when government forces were attacked by militants and a “clearance operation” was launched by Myanmar security forces in response. Mass expulsion of the Rohingya has since been executed under the pretence of a counter-insurgency operation, with the local population joining in burning villages and killing people. This looks like a very well-coordinated effort between officials and citizens, which is very disturbing.

    In present Myanmar, the situation is compounded by the denial of human rights on multiple levels. We have recently seen a frightening crackdown on the freedom of expression in the country, and for some time the area in northern Rakhine State has been closed off to journalists. For some years now, it has been very difficult for humanitarian aid to reach the area. When a government shuts down access in such way, one can only fear the worst, because it strongly suggests that they are trying to hide something.

    3. Has progressive and human rights-oriented civil society in Myanmar and Bangladesh done anything to respond to this crisis? If so, what challenges have they faced?

    There have been efforts by very courageous individuals and organisations inside Myanmar, especially those representing minority groups, as well as human rights and humanitarian organisations. But it is extremely dangerous, if not impossible, to be an independent civil society voice inside Myanmar right now. For the Rohingya in Rakhine State, speaking up means sure death, and there is no access even for journalists to document what is going on in the area. So, unfortunately, even the most courageous members of civil society have been silenced by persecution.

    In Bangladesh, there are a number of efforts underway, particularly by the humanitarian community, to help the refugees. But it’s not the best possible situation in terms of humanitarian response, either. The fact that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was not designated as the lead agency has been viewed negatively, although there has been strong coordination between the International Organization for Migration and UNHCR. In any case, the refugee influx has been overwhelming and the early response was insufficient. Moreover, this is happening in a challenging environment, and we need to understand that such an influx of refugees can be nothing but overwhelming for a country like Bangladesh – which makes an adequate international response all the more important.

    4. You mentioned that the area where the atrocities are occurring is closed to journalists and civil society. What challenges have PHR and similar organisations faced in documenting the abuses?

    The number one challenge is that human rights groups can’t get into Myanmar. It is therefore extremely difficult to do what we are supposed to do in terms of properly and independently documenting and assessing the facts inside the country where the crimes have occurred. The prohibition not only applies to human rights civil society organisations – representatives of the UNHCHR and the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar have also been barred from visiting the country. On the other hand, entry was allowed for the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, who was able to interview survivors and confirm reports of atrocities.

    As we lack access to Myanmar, we have instead documented what has happened to this people by interviewing them in Bangladesh. Thankfully, human rights groups and humanitarian organisations have had access to refugee camps, and this has been critical to documenting the plight of the Rohingya and their current humanitarian situation, and reporting on it. Doing this in the middle of a huge humanitarian crisis poses specific challenges. We are basically interviewing survivors who are desperately in need of trauma recovery, medical care, shelter, food, water, sanitation, and information about their missing family members. We have interviewed people who lost everybody in their families and are the sole survivors; people who have seen their homes burned to the ground, who had family members raped and shot dead, who were shot at even while crossing the river to get to Bangladesh. Documenting these kinds of human rights violations is certainly challenging for the person that is being interviewed, but it is also challenging for the one doing the reporting, because the need is so intense and the trauma is so acute – and we are a medically-based organisation, after all.

    5. What support should the international community offer to resolve this crisis?

    First, what most urgently requires a response from global governments is the humanitarian crisis unfolding on the ground in Bangladesh, in order to meet the most desperate needs of the refugees.

    Second, there is a need for governments of the most powerful countries with influence on the Myanmar government – including China, which has consistently supported the government – to exert pressure so Myanmar immediately stops persecuting this population and gives them the citizenship and associated guarantees that they are due.

    It is important to note that there have been high expectations regarding the role of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who is now Myanmar’s nominal head of state, and her apparent lack of concern and acknowledgment of what her government has been doing have been very concerning. On one hand, we need to understand that she has limited control over the country’s military forces enacting the brutal campaign against the Rohingya. On the other hand, however, the international community needs to send Suu Kyi a strong message, since so much of the Burmese population views her as a leader and a hero, and her voice could change the tenor of this crisis – it could turn the population away from prejudice, discrimination, and persecution of the Rohingya and other minorities.

    Third, there needs to be credible efforts to establish accountability and justice. This is critical, given the seriousness of the crimes that have been committed. Unfortunately, efforts to refer the crimes in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court for assessment have been blocked by China, among others.

    Finally, it is also crucial to confront the flaws of the repatriation agreement, so that anybody who chooses to return to Myanmar is able to do so safely and with guarantees for all their human rights, including the right to reclaim their land, property, livelihood, and employment, as well as to practice their religion freely and safely. On the other hand, those who choose not to go back need to be guaranteed the right to claim asylum and find safe haven in another country. Policy-wise, the biggest challenge will be defining what will happen to these people who have fled in such high numbers.

    This will not be an easy crisis to solve. Global politics are not looking particularly good at the moment. World leaders and the Security Council have many other crises to deal with, including the North Korea situation, Iran, Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, and so on. Many of us are worried that people are going to forget about this particular crisis unfolding in a remote part of the world, so it is vital to continue to call attention to these serious human rights abuses and not let the world forget that this is an ongoing humanitarian crisis. As recently as last week, we’ve seen reports of outbreaks of diphtheria, and there are fears of a cholera epidemic, which will not be easy to contain. The long-term solution to this crisis will most definitely require continuous surveillance, reporting, and action by UN bodies, regional organisations, individual governments, and civil society.

    • Civic space in Myanmar is rated as ‘repressed’ in the CIVICUS Monitor, indicating serious restrictions in the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly, and expression.
    • Get in touch with PHR through their website or Facebook page, or follow @P4HR and @susannahsirkin on Twitter

     

  • ‘What is underway is the promotion of an unequal society’

    As part of our 2018 report on the theme ofreimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks to Silvia Stilli, spokesperson of AOI, the largest civil society platform in Italy, and director of ARCS, a civil society organisation that promotes active citizenship and participatory democracy. Well known for her active commitment in the peace movements of the 1980s, she has 20 years of experience in volunteer work, humanitarian aid and international cooperation. Silvia is particularly active on issues related to migrants and refugees, and recently made astatement on behalf of AOI on the denial of entry to Italy for the migrant rescue boat Aquarius.

    1. Italy’s March 2018 general election led to the formation of a coalition government by two populist parties, the Five Star and the League. What are some of the reasons behind this?

    The reasons for the current situation do not lie just in the last year, but in the last 10 years. Over the past 10 years, relations between political parties and civil society - which in Italy is very broad - have been getting looser and looser, so the opportunities for engagement have declined. There has been a distancing between political parties and civil society.

    During this time, civil society in Italy has become increasingly engaged on social issues, especially since the 2008 global economic crisis, and it has done so by acknowledging the strong interdependence between global challenges and domestic challenges, including in poverty and migration flows. There has been a convergence of the different parts of civil society, including movements that are mobilising to demand rights. Civil society has been mobilising to try to connect global, regional and national issues. Migration is not a standalone issue. It’s something that affects us domestically, but because of our geographic location in the Mediterranean region.

    While civil society has taken a joined-up approach, political parties, including progressive parties, were treating poverty and the economic crisis as purely economic issues requiring domestic responses. Citizens found themselves caught between these two completely different views of how to deal with the situation.

    Another element is the huge mobilisation that has happened around the Five Star movement, which brought together many people around the need for change. This was an entirely new movement that attracted a lot of interest and support. People mobilised without necessarily looking at the depth of their political views, their orientation and programmes. Let’s see if they will actually bring some change.

    2. How are these current changes in politics being experienced by civil society?

    As well as concerns about migration, Italian citizens have experienced concern about security - both personal security, because there have been terrorist attacks, and livelihood security, given the difficulty of finding jobs. These sort of uncertainties and perceptions of insecurity have created the idea among some citizens that the work traditionally pursued by civil society organisations (CSOs), even if done with the best of intentions, is not taking into account their fears and insecurities. This anxiety has somewhat detached citizens from groups working on social issues.

    Over the last two years, donations from citizens, be it voluntary contributions or allocations from tax deductions, have been decreasing. This was an alarming issue even before the election. However, overall, there has been no decline in citizen engagement, as seen for example in volunteering. This has been stable or even slightly increased, particularly among young people, who if anything are more inclined to engage through civil society than join a political party.

    But at the same time that citizens are giving less - including to the many groups that are active in providing support and services in Italy to communities and vulnerable groups, some of which have had services outsourced to them by municipalities, including those run by the League - there are more demands on civil society. So we see on the one hand some financial decline, and on the other hand increasing need.

    Civil society’s role is under discussion. The new message seems to be that civil society can only operate to implement policies established by the government. This is opening up a crisis because it was not the case until now.

    3. How have politicians and political parties cultivated support, and what have been the impacts on rights?

    The current confusion of citizens has happened because of the language that has been used, not just by the current government but by previous governments of both right and left. They started to use language revolving around security against migrants, border control and safety. They attack CSOs working on these issues, seeking to detach citizens from the so-called ‘do-gooders’ of civil society. The fact that the centre-left also spoke this language has confused many citizens, including the more progressive part of the citizenry who might naturally embrace tolerance and sensitivity towards social issues. The consequence is that some citizens have become disconnected from traditional values of democracy.

    What is underway, to some extent continuing some measures of the previous government, is the promotion of an unequal society. They are talking about reduced rights and privileges for whoever is different, especially foreigners and migrants, and not only those coming now by sea, but also those who are already in Italy.

    More broadly, a number of rights that have been expanded in recent years - on same-sex civil unions, abortion, living wills, access to services for a number of minority groups - are all now being undermined. Every day new ministers of this government are making declarations that undermine these and the victories civil society helped achieve in the past. The language used by the government and mainstream parties is more and more attacking minority groups, and the civil society that works with them.

    Recently a Five Star member of parliament posted a Facebook message saying that CSOs that are mobilising for migrants need to be got rid of, in effect calling for a ‘fumigation’ of Italian civil society. This is the kind of language that parts of the new government are using against civil society.

    There is also the ‘Soros effect’ in Italy. The Minister of Internal Affairs now wants to check the budgets of CSOs to see if they are getting money from George Soros and Open Society Foundations. The same minister wants to create a racial profiling of the Roma community, who in most cases are citizens of Italy and not foreigners. This profiling on the basis of race is something that previously wouldn't have been possible in Italy.

    Within this new coalition government, the party that most extremely speaks the language of security is the League, from which the minister of interior affairs comes. It joined the new government as the minority partner, but the latest polls show that its leader, who is being assertive about security, is gaining support.

    These changes have opened up a big crisis of cultural values and challenges, both for the Catholic and secular parts of civil society, which have both played a key role in promoting equality and access to rights. This new approach is disorientating a broad part of established civil society.

    4. How is civil society responding, both to demonstrate its value, and to help those being targeted politically?

    On 24 July 2018, several parts of civil society in Italy collectively organised an ‘email bombing’, all sending an email to the coastal guard. This initiative was joined by millions of citizens. This was a huge mobilisation to request that the coastal guard disregard instructions to devolve the management of migrants to the Libyan coastal guard. This was the first time since the election that we witnessed such a massive mobilisation.

    After a very difficult period when civil society groups in Italy have faced defamation, smear campaigns and accusations, not only from political parties but also from citizens, this event was positive and shows negative trends being challenged, with citizens offering a massive mobilisation in support.

    Italian civil society is almost unanimously aligned on one point: that basic and fundamental human rights cannot be denied, and so they do not support the closure of ports and the blocking of ships and their return to Libya. In the case of the Aquarius, the response has mostly been to point to international treaties and norms, and to call for opening ports in the name of safe ports. Libyan ports clearly don't meet the definition of safe ports.

    Civil society is asking that humanitarian organisations can continue to work with the coastal guard and others involved at sea, as was the case in the past. There have been a number of judicial decisions that back the actions of civil society rescue ships. When rescue ships have been blocked, judges have determined that the ships have been in compliance with international norms, especially the Law of the Sea, and that this definitely overrides the state’s ability to block them.

    Civil society is trying to mobilise different actors within Italy - not only civil society groups, but also local authorities and parts of government, such as those that deal with health and education, and is calling for a more integrated and strategic approach, at least at the national level, looking into rescue at sea and also best practices in integrating communities. It is also calling for changes in foreign policy and development cooperation policy, to look at the complexities and dynamics of countries and regions that migrants come from, and how best to stabilise these and prevent people from needing to migrate: to take a more joined-up approach, at least at the Italian level, but this should also be the approach at the European level.

    Civil society points to the need for a strategic policy at the European level on this issue. On this, if not on the issue of the closure of ports, there is an alignment of civil society and government views.

    5. What else could Italian civil society do to respond, and what are its support needs?

    Although Italian civil society is now well connected and belongs to European and international networks, it has probably started late in engaging meaningfully in those networks. At the beginning, it was often enough to belong, but not be really actively engaged. We then realised the importance of using these channels to engage, such as to bring to wider attention what is happening with migration in Italy that some other parts of Europe might not be experiencing as we are: to raise awareness of the real challenges and struggles. It is crucial for Italian civil society to open up further to regional and international networks. Within key European civil society networks there is recognition of the need to bring forward a new narrative on migration and the integration of migrants in Europe, which could point to the positives of these, and not only the economic argument, but also the benefits of social and cultural growth for Europe. There is a need to invest in this as a medium and long-term political strategy. This is one of the most crucial things that Italian civil society should be doing together with broader European networks to change views of fear about insecurity and instability.

    The second thing we need to do is work with new generations, including in schools and informal spaces, to find channels to engage them in ways that interest them, and invest in their understanding of today’s dynamics so they can be the drivers of change in future. We need to promote more volunteering abroad and the hosting of volunteers in Italy, and exchanges among students and young people who have come from areas of crisis.

    Third, we need to work more with parliament, since there has been a major turnover of those who sit in parliament. There are new people who may not be much aware of the issues and so endorse populist narratives. We need to talk with them and influence them.

    Fourth, we need to work more strategically with the media, to push for a better narrative and try to work through the media to shape opinion.

    Finally, it’s important to highlight critical issues about civil society as well as positive ones. The fact that the credibility of civil society has been undermined, creating a decrease in donations and contributions, has prompted civil society to work more on our self-evaluation tools, to be critical, honest, self-assess how we have been doing things, and move towards more transparency and giving more feedback to citizens, including through participatory budgets and more transparent reports. Not only is it necessary for citizens to know where their money goes, but it is also the right way to respond to attacks.

    Civic space in Italy is rated as ‘open’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch withAOI andARCS through their websites or follow@AOIcooperazione and@ArcsCultSol on Twitter.

     

  • "Born a refugee, I dream of a place called home"

    By Mohammed Eid

    This story was facilitated by CIVICUS. 

    I am a refugee, born to a refugee family. I was granted that status on the day I came into this world. I was not aware of what had happened before then. I did not fight any battle, I did not threaten anyone. I did not even choose my own race or ethnicity. I just came to this world to find myself a displaced person.

    Being a refugee means I am a stranger on every spot on this planet. Some see me as a burden on the people of the hosting country. I drink their water, I eat their food, and I breathe their air. Day after day, their resources are less and less because of me, the alien person who came from outside. Maybe that explains why I never had access to education or healthcare, and I will never have access to work in the future.

    Read on: Open Democracy

     

  • COVID-19: ‘Refugees paid a heavier price during a crisis that many believed impacted on us all equally’

    CIVICUS speaks about the situation of climate refugees and increasing challenges under the COVID-19 pandemic with Amali Tower, founder and executive director of Climate Refugees. Founded in 2015, Climate Refugees defends the rights of people displaced and forced to migrate, including across borders, as a result of climate change. It documents their cases to shed light on protection gaps and legal voids and advocates for human rights-based solutions and the creation of legal norms and policies that protect people affected by climate-driven migration and displacement.

    Amali Tower

    Your organisation is called ‘Climate Refugees’, although the term is currently not supported by international law. Why is that? Do you think this is something that should be officially recognised?

    You’re right, the concept does not exist in international law, but drivers of migration are increasingly intertwined, as has been the case in the context of refugee flows and internal displacement resulting from conflict and persecution. It’s no different in the context of climate migration, except that for so many millions, this isn’t purely an environmental issue – it’s a justice issue. For many populations dependent on the land, climate changes have impacts on survival and livelihood, with impacts beyond the individual, to the family, community, local livelihoods, business and so on. If climate is a factor that contributes to migration, it is likely after years of causing deep losses and suffering, intertwined with economic losses and impacts as well as political ramifications. For instance, we can see this playing out among subsistence farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, Central America and many other regions. In this context, someone displaced by the impacts of climate change is also displaced by economic and political factors because the political situation and economic systems in many of these countries are deeply embedded in the environment.

    Further, it’s important to remember that climate change impacts and climate migration and displacement aren’t future risks. They are a reality for many right now, and that reality is playing out in some of the most fragile places in the world for the most impoverished and vulnerable populations who had very little to role in contributing to climate change in the first place.

    This is why we approach this as an issue of equality and justice. Coming from a refugee protection background where I interviewed and provided services to countless refugees fleeing conflict and persecution, based on the legal definition, I’m wholly aware of the controversy and backlash this may cause. I agonised about this decision, but ultimately, I couldn’t reconcile the definition with years of testimonies from people fleeing multiple drivers, who referred to years of environmental devastation at home more than to the war we all knew was ongoing.

    So ultimately, I settled on the term ‘climate refugees’ to provoke conversation. To emphasise the political responsibility of climate change. To raise awareness of its ability to impact on, one might even say persecute, some people more than others. To contribute, provoke and challenge policy. To highlight the needs by giving voice to those affected and to help seek their legal protection. Ultimately, to present this as an issue of equality.

    There’s a lot of discussion, and some might even say confusion, in the migration field about terminology. There is no consensus on appropriate terms so there are many terms being used, like climate-induced migration, environmental migrants and others.

    I think we have to be cautious to not simplify the message. Nor be too clinical in our terminology about the underlying issues and very real suffering millions are bearing. We need to help policy-makers and the public understand there are mixed drivers in complex situations. Refugees have often moved as a result of conflict and drought – just look at Somalia. Others may move to seek safety and better livelihood opportunities, as we are seeing in Central America.

    We need to make clear that the line between ‘forced’ and ‘voluntary’ migration is often misunderstood, if not false.

    In sum, we use the term ‘climate refugees’ to draw attention to the political responsibility of rich countries, certain industries and others to ensure fairness, compensation, protection and equality on many levels, because the solutions must also be multi-faceted.

    What kind of work does Climate Refugees do? 

    Climate Refugees is a research and advocacy organisation that generates field reports and engages in policy-making to view climate change through a human lens and help include and amplify the voices of communities whose livelihoods and security have been impacted on and who have been displaced or forced to migrate. The climate change conversation can otherwise remain largely abstract and clinical, rather than focused on its impacts on real human beings and entire communities.

    Alongside producing field reports from climate displacement hotspots, we provide education and raise awareness of the impacts of climate change on human mobility right now and in ways not necessarily always explored, through two publications: SPOTLIGHT: Climate Displacement in the News, which, as the name implies, is a roundup of global news and expert analysis of climate change impacts on migration, human rights, law and policy, conflict, security and so on, and PERSPECTIVES: Climate Displacement in the Field, which includes features on a variety of topics related to climate-induced migration and displacement, featuring expert commentary and stories from people on the move.

    Our aim with these publications is to be informative and provide stories from people on the move and expert analysis through a climate justice lens that highlights the disproportionate impacts of climate change on marginalised and disenfranchised populations who are the least responsible for climate change. I think a large part of why I formed this organisation is to have the conversation I think many of us want to have – that this is primarily an issue of justice and equality and our solutions need to keep that focus front and centre.

    Have climate refugees been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and associated restrictions? What is being done about it? 

    The COVID-19 pandemic provides a good example of rights violations increasing during a crisis – and an emphatic disproof of the assertion that ‘we are all in this together’. Refugees and migrants certainly paid a heavier price during a global pandemic that many believed impacted on all human beings equally. Social distancing is hard to achieve for displaced persons who live in crowded settlements, whether formal or informal, urban or rural, refugee camps or crowded migrant housing. Refugees and migrants were denied the freedom of movement, the right to health and the right to information to a higher degree than other populations and experienced more impediments to access their rights.

    It’s not about pointing out any one country, because the point is that vulnerable populations that we should have been further protecting in a pandemic actually became more vulnerable just about everywhere. In Lebanon, refugees were held to tighter curfew restrictions that even impeded access to health treatment. Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar refugee settlement in Bangladesh were forced into an encampment and denied their rights to communication and right to health. Many countries where migrants are grouped in crowded housing, like Malaysia, detained migrants. The USA denied asylum-seekers the right to seek asylum and violated the principle of non-refoulement, returning them at the border with no hearings, deported COVID-positive asylum-seekers, and in the process, also exported the virus to Haiti and Central American countries. The USA also continues to detain thousands more people, mostly from Central America, who are fleeing climate change impacts in addition to violence and persecution, denying their freedom of movement, and arguably in some cases, denying rights to seek asylum, due process and the right to health.

    As cyclone Amphan was about to hit the Bay of Bengal in May 2020, at the height of the pandemic, we saw populations in affected areas being relocated ahead of the disaster, which saved lives, but also meant that social distancing could not be enforced during displacement, and vulnerability to the virus became a major concern.

    I am afraid the situation will be no different as the climate crisis worsens. It will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable populations in the world, and once again, a situation where it should be pertinent to think that ‘we are all in this together’ will make us realise that some of us l have the means to escape the worst of the impacts of climate change while some will limited social protections and many others, already in extreme poverty and on the margins of society, will fall in deeper and will have no escape from multiple levels of impacts.

    Is the issue of climate displacement receiving enough attention? Has any progress been made in shaping an international legal framework to protect people who are displaced by climate change?

    We’re certainly seeing more media attention paid to climate change impacts, including migration. But as the issue becomes part of everyday conversation, there’s also a chance that important nuances are lost. I would say some advances have been made in the area of climate displacement – that is, displacements as a result of disasters like floods and storms. We have data that tells us how many people are displaced each year by disasters – an average of around 25 million – and the nature and type of these displacements are less murky in terms of causal factors.

    But climate migration is far trickier, since drivers of migration, whether internal or across borders, are increasingly intertwined. And when there are multiple drivers it’s hard to disentangle what role a single driver plays, or how much of the resulting phenomenon – in this case migration – can be attributed to one cause, namely climate change. Science and technology in the area of climate attribution are improving, increasingly enabling experts to determine just how much climate change is a factor in every situation. But generally speaking, in many parts of the world the environment is also an economic and political issue, so at this point it’s fair to say that climate change is certainly contributing to migration.

    That said, much of the discussion of a legal framework is stalled in conversations that revolve around migration being largely internal, as well as doomsday displacement projections. The international system is hesitant to push conversations that will securitise migration even further and states are reticent to take on commitments that increase migrant or refugee protections even further.

    So for now, advancements are limited to non-binding commitments by states in the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, which includes some measures dealing with environmental migration across borders. The Platform on Disaster Displacement is a state-led initiative doing good work on the protection of people displaced across borders by disasters and climate change.

    Earlier this year, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Committee also looked at the case of an individual from Kiribati who claimed to be a ‘climate refugee’. He took his case to the human rights body on the basis that the denial of his asylum claim by the government of New Zealand violated his right to life under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The UN found that countries may not deport individuals who face climate change-induced conditions that violate the right to life.

    What else should be done so that the problem is not only recognised but also mitigated? 

    Some fear that talking about a looming migration crisis due to climate change runs the risk of fuelling current hostility and xenophobia towards migrants and refugees. I definitely see the point and acknowledge that risk, but I also think it’s equally true that to those who are xenophobic towards migrants and refugees, what drives their migration is not the issue. So we have to be careful to find that delicate balance when we talk about these things, because we truly don’t know how it will play out, but what we do know is that the trajectories and outlooks are generally not so great, there’s a lack of political will, and the conversation isn’t too focused on a human rights framework that protects affected communities, including migrants. So on this latter point, it’s not about being an alarmist about the numbers – it’s about sounding the alarm about our need to do better to fill some vital gaps in rights and protections.

    There’s a lot of focus on what we shouldn’t call people, how we shouldn’t frame the issue, but not enough focus on how we should protect vulnerable populations.

    Countries that are already struggling with extreme poverty are now struggling with extreme weather, and there is an inherent unfairness at play here in not recognising that climate change was not created by all equally, and nor will the impacts of it be felt by all equally.

    A lot more could be done in the way of adaptation. Adaptation is very costly, and the countries bearing the burden of climate change impacts now don’t have the capacity to also bear those financial costs. Many regional experts tell us that much of the international finance and response directed at them is focused on climate mitigation, rather than climate adaptation.

    We need to build community resilience to withstand the effects of climate change, and in some contexts, this might also mean building up stronger public and governance institutions and strengthening capacities to withstand the complex stresses that climate change impacts are placing on societies.

    Adaptation can entail innovation, infrastructural development and social changes, all of which can be very costly, and adaptation planning needs to respect human rights and enable choices, including the choice to migrate, which may not necessarily present as a totally voluntary choice. The point is that safe pathways for migration, when conditions don’t allow people to stay, are part of how we safeguard the human rights of climate change-impacted populations.

    Are there enough connections being made between advocacy efforts on behalf of migrants and refugees and climate activism?

    From my vantage point, it feels like there are few connections between these two movements and I feel like there is great potential for stronger advocacy together. For example, just broadening the climate migration conversation to discussions of a movement, rather than being largely a research and policy conversation, would be a welcome step to engage the public in something that I fear many feel is too large to understand, let alone address. 

    At the same time, there are many who are concerned and interested and desire to be a part of the solution. So we keep in mind that, yes, we are trying to inform policy, but we also want to make information more easily accessible to engage and bridge that movement with the public to approach this as an issue of climate justice because that’s how we see it.

    Get in touch with Climate Refugees through theirwebsite, Instagram andFacebook page, and follow@Climate_Refugee and@TowerAmali on Twitter.

     

  • Five years since genocide, the world must act to ensure justice for Rohingya

    In marking the five-year commemoration of the genocide committed against the Rohingya in 2017, 384 civil society organisations reaffirm our commitment to continue to stand in solidarity with and seek justice for the Rohingya, to ensure the full restoration of their rights in Myanmar, and to end the impunity of the Myanmar military. The plight of the Rohingya must not be forgotten.

     

  • Freedom of association for migrants --- joint statement at Human Rights Council

    Joint tatement at the 44th Session of the UN Human Rights Council

    Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants


    Madame President; Special Rapporteur,

    This is a statement on behalf of CIVICUS, Solidarity Center, and the International Service for Human Rights.

    We welcome the Special Rapporteur’s report. For the marginalised in society, including migrant workers, the freedom to act collectively offers protection against discrimination, exploitation and poverty. When the right to association is open to migrant workers and refugees, they can organize to uphold their interests in their workplaces and communities, influence public opinion and hold public officials accountable.

    We share your concern that hostility towards migrants and those who defend their rights has given rise to restrictive laws and practices that undermine the human rights, safety and dignity of migrants.

    A report released by CIVICUS and Solidarity Centre last October revealed serious challenges for migrant workers in exercising their freedom of association, including the threat of deportation for speaking out.

    Migrant workers in Malaysia reported that intimidation and pressure from their employers often prevents them from organizing, and that they can be coerced by agents or their employers not to join unions. In some cases, their working contracts deny their participation. Two-thirds of migrant workers surveyed in Kenya say harassment or pressure from employers is a major barrier to exercising freedom of association.

    COVID-19 has dramatically exposed the importance of freedom of association rights for migrant workers and refugees. They must have the right to speak out and organize collectively to ensure health and safety at work, especially as they are disproportionately represented in “essential sectors” such food processing, agriculture and health services in many countries.

    Defenders of migrants’ and refugee rights play a crucial role in supporting migrants, elevating their voices and providing humanitarian assistance. We are seriously alarmed at the harassment of individuals and civil society organizations supporting migrants, including migrant workers, in the EU and the US; including criminalization of their activities; and barriers to registration and funding. Such attacks can be a matter of life or death for those whose rights and freedoms they defend. 

    We call on all States to heed the recommendations of the report to recognize and protect migrants’ right to freedom of association, to stop the misuse of smuggling and trafficking laws to target migrant rights defenders and to create an enabling environment for civil society organizations, including those working on migration and migrants’ rights issues.

     

  • Joint Letter to Human Rights Council: Upholding international law in South Sudan

    To Permanent Representatives of member and observer States of the United Nations Human Rights Council

    RE: Renewing the mandate of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan and addressing the need for accountability for past and on-going crimes under international law and human rights violations in South Sudan

     

  • Leaders Must Put Migration Back on Global Agenda

    By Danny Sriskandarajah

    There was much excitement at 2016’s special United Nations summit on migration and refugees. This was the first such summit of world leaders and the declaration at the end of it committed to finding a new and more comprehensive approach to human mobility, to be agreed in the form of a new Global Compact in September 2018.

    Read on: Diplomatic Courier 

     

     

     

  • Malaysia: Migrants and refugees excluded from poverty figures and neglected by policymakers

    Statement at the 44th Session of the UN Human Rights Council

    Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty


    Thank you, Madame President; Special Rapporteur.

    CIVICUS and North South Initiative welcome the strong report of the Special Rapporteur on his country visit to Malaysia, which highlights the plight of millions of people including migrants, refugees and stateless people who are systematically excluded from official poverty figures and neglected by policymakers.

    We share his concern that migrant workers in Malaysia are set up for exploitation by unscrupulous recruitment agents and employers, a harsh immigration policy and a lack of enforcement of labour protections. Refugees and asylum seekers exist in extremely precarious conditions unable to work or enroll in government schools. Civil society groups have been calling for a single entity to manage migrant workers to ensure better protection of their rights and reduce the risks of them becoming victims of corruption. 

    CIVICUS research has shown has that migrants and refugees in Malaysia want to participate in the societies they call home. But they continue to face barriers and restrictions in exercising their freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association, all but ensuring ongoing perilous and precarious conditions.

    Migrant workers and refugees say that among the challenges they face in speaking out include, a lack of access to information, fear of being fired, detained or deported and harassment or intimidation. The right to assemble in the 2012 Peaceful Assembly Act does not extend to foreigners including migrant workers and refugees – in contravention of international human rights law and standards. Refugee and migrant workers also face various restrictions in exercising their freedom of association.

    Since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged earlier this year there has been a crackdown on migrant workers. The UN has noted increased xenophobia and hate speech against them by individuals affiliated with the government and human rights defenders have been threatened for supporting migrants. 

    We call on the government of Malaysia to immediately take steps to implement the recommendation of the special rapporteur for a comprehensive new approach to migrant and refugee policies that provides them protection, guarantees their civic freedoms and enables a route out of poverty and precarity. We also urge the government to make public the final report and recommendations by the Special Committee on Foreign Worker Management setup by the government.

     

  • Open Letter to President of Kazakshtan about 30 Uzbek refugees

    8 September 2010

    To
    H.E. President Nursultan Nazarbayev
    President of Kazakhstan
    Ak-Korda, President Residence
    Astana
    Kazakhstan

    Your Excellency,

    I write as the Secretary General of CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, an international alliance of civil society with members and partners in over a hundred countries. Together with the undersigned partners, we are deeply concerned about the imminent decision of the Kazakhstan government on whether to extradite 30 Uzbek refugees to their country of origin. In their country, these individuals have been accused of involvement in terrorist activities, and will be at a serious risk of torture and inhumane treatment upon extradition.

     

  • POLAND: ‘If lots of tiny actions are performed by many people, we can achieve big things’

    Magdalena DemczakCIVICUS speaks with Magdalena Demczak, co-founder and director of Akcja Menstruacja (Menstrual Action), about the work her organisation is currently doing to help Ukrainian refugees.

    Menstrual Action is the first Polish civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at supporting people experiencing menstrual poverty. It is estimated that limited access to menstrual products, most often for economic reasons but also due to lack of adequate hygiene conditions or education affects around 500,000 people in Poland.

    What made you decide to start helping refugees?

    What made us decide to start helping refugees was the fact that we felt so helpless when watching the news, that we felt the need to help in any way we could.

    At the beginning it was very hard for us to plan our actions because we had no idea what would happen. We were all a bit in shock at such an extraordinary situation. But we took immediate action: we supported checkpoints, raised funds and collected products that were sent to Ukraine directly, and also to the Polish-Ukrainian border. We also supported local Polish families who are hosting Ukrainian families and sites across Poland where Ukrainian refugees can seek information and legal assistance. In these locations there are people who speak Ukrainian and provide translation services.

    What are the key needs you are seeing among refugees?

    People escaping war in Ukraine are arriving in Poland with their hands empty. Right now, refugees are mostly women and their children carrying small bags, since men aged 18 to 60 are banned from leaving: they must stay to defend their country. They are not bringing much – they are just trying to escape, so all they typically have is some clothes, documents and essential medicine.

    They obviously need all kinds of things. First of all, they need shelter and transportation to get there. They also need food, clothing and baby products, among other things. As women make up a large proportion of refugees, there is also a lot of need for all kinds of feminine-care products. Women’s biological cycles – from periods to pregnancies – don’t stop because of a war. There is a massive need for period products, especially menstrual pads, because it’s very easy to forget all about pads when a war erupts and you must flee your country.

    How is Polish civil society, and Menstrual Action more specifically, working to help refugees?

    Polish civil society, and individual Polish citizens, are doing amazing things. There are lines after lines of cars at the border to pick anyone in need of transportation, willing to take them to any Polish city, free of charge of course. Hundreds of thousands are giving out rooms in their homes to Ukrainian refugees, for free and for as long as needed. There are so many amazing people and organisations out there helping refugees.

    Unfortunately, we are aware that the war in Ukraine may last a long time and even after it ends, it will take time to rebuild cities so that people can come back. This means refugees may have to stay in Poland for quite a bit. So a more systemic approach is needed.

    Since the early days, Menstrual Action has been shipping sanitary products to refugees; a few days ago, for instance, our volunteers brought 180 kilograms of sanitary pads to the Polish-Ukrainian border. Quite a few of our volunteers are now working directly at the border, not because we sent them but because they chose to go.

    But we are now ready to undertake more long-term actions. We have talked to local manufacturers of period products to buy directly from them, and we will distribute these products in various locations and communities, as well as to CSOs working with refugees. While normally we would focus on period poverty, in such an extraordinary situation we are also supporting wider groups of refugees by providing adult diapers and other sanitary products such as toilet paper.

    As an organisation, we have the capacity to provide sanitary and menstrual products. Our contribution saves other charities money that they can better spend on other humanitarian needs. Sending goods to the border can be a logistics nightmare, so if by shipping them ourselves we can save others a significant amount of money they can invest elsewhere, we feel that our work is done.

    The actions of any specific organisation will always be too small to fulfil the needs of millions of people fleeing a war. But if lots of tiny actions are performed by many people, I believe we can achieve big things.

    Have your existing capacities and resources from your ongoing work proved useful?

    Our network has proved vital. We have intensively used our connections with menstrual product manufacturers, suppliers and other charities. We regularly support hundreds of Polish schools with menstrual products, but this year we were able to send out those packages earlier than usual to make room in our warehouses and gather menstrual products to be distributed among Ukrainian refuge centres around Poland.

    Before the crisis, we started a project called Pad Sharing, which connects donors with people who need menstrual products. If you are poor and having your period, and you had to choose between food and pads, you would get food, right? So we partnered with Rossmann drugstore, put up a form for people in need to enter their name, an address to locate the closest Rossmann store, an email address and the required product and amount. We receive the form and forward it to a donor who gets the list of products needed and does the shopping. When they are done, the person in need gets a call that their order is ready for pick-up at the Rossmann drugstore of their choice. We are just intermediaries and the person who needs help remains anonymous during the whole process. We have so far supported 2,200 people this way.

    This project became vital in the current situation. We translated the Pad Sharing form into Ukrainian and shared it online. We emphasised that, due to the extraordinary situation, people can request anything from the pharmacy, not just menstrual products. We don’t provide medicine but can refer them to other organisations that do. We are aware of refugees’ needs, and so are our donors.

    Have you seen any evidence of non-white refugees being treated differently?

    I’ve seen many clips of Black people waiting at the border and read several allegations that some were refused entry into Poland. But I’m a white woman who currently isn’t even living in Poland but in the UK, so I’m extra-privileged. I didn’t cross the border, I wasn’t there and I don’t pretend to speak for non-white people or to know about their personal experiences.

    Some people have pointed out that the current attitude towards Ukrainian refugees differs from how other refugees have been treated, including Afghan refugees trying to cross to Poland from the Belarusian border. We are aware that the reaction may have been different, but Menstrual Action did help Afghan refugees at the time – we contacted and connected various organisations to help Afghan refugees.

    There is a Polish organisation called Black Is Polish, established by Black Polish women from various backgrounds, which is helping Black people and other people of colour escape Ukraine. There’s been a lot of disinformation on social media. For instance, it has been said that only people with Ukrainian passports could cross the border. This is not correct: anyone can seek refuge in Poland. This disinformation was very harmful to people of colour trying to escape Ukraine.

    I won’t deny we Eastern Europeans have many racism issues, but I wouldn’t want this to detract from the biggest issue we currently face: war in Ukraine and Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime. There is a disinformation war going on. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Relations has even said that Russia didn’t invade Ukraine. Russian-funded trolls are trying to instrumentalise racist incidents that have indeed happened on the border to put Ukraine on the ‘bad side’ and to justify the Putin regime and its war of aggression.

    What could people internationally be doing to help?

    The first thing they should do is follow the news through reputable sources. They must be aware of circulating disinformation and fake news. Before clicking ‘retweet’, ‘like’ or ‘subscribe’, you must think why you are getting this piece of news, where it is coming from, what the intentions are behind it and who would benefit if you spread it. Would it be beneficial for struggling people, or would it benefit the Putin regime? The international community must stay aware and cautious because it’s very easy to get lost in the news if you live far away from Ukraine.

    If you have money to donate, you should support legitimate organisations helping people inside Ukraine who cannot escape and those who chose to remain there to fight for their country. We still have an international donations systems to receive donations from anywhere around the world.

    People in other global regions are not taught a lot about the history of the Soviet Union, its beginnings and its end, and the establishment of countries such as Ukraine and Belarus. So if you can, try to learn this part of history and to understand why this part of the world looks the way it does. It’s very important to understand how the past influences the present and to make sure the worst of history does not repeat itself.

    Civic space in Poland is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Akcja Menstruacja through itswebsite andFacebook andInstagram pages. 

     

  • REFUGEE RIGHTS: ‘My status doesn't represent me’

    Abdul Aziz MuhammatAs part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their human rights work, their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to Abdul Aziz Muhammat, a Sudanese refugee who became an advocate for refugee rights while experiencing long-term detention at the Australian government detention centre on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. In January 2019 he was awarded theMartin Ennals award for his tireless work on behalf of his fellow detainees.

    How did you become a refugee, and why did you end up detained on Manus Island?

    I am from the Darfur region of Sudan. In 2013, as today, Sudan was undergoing civil conflict, famine and drought, so I fled to Indonesia, where I boarded a boat bound for Australia. When I finally made it, I was sent, along with many others, to an offshore detention centre on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. This is a notorious holding space used by Australia to detain those seeking refuge. Australia’s policy of detaining and processing refugees on Manus Island has resulted in the systematic violation of the rights of several hundreds of people. I was forced to stay there for four years. I was granted refugee status in 2015 but stayed on Manus Island until 2019 when I was granted asylum in Switzerland.

    What were the main challenges you faced while detained on Manus Island?

    The detention centre was deliberately designed to make our lives there as bad as hell, designed to take our humanity away and replace it with cruelty and inhumane treatment, and designed to push us as hard as possible, mentally and physically. For instance, you wouldn’t receive proper medical treatment if you were sick, physically or mentally, but rather people would point fingers at you or tell you to go back to where you come from. I personally went through a lot of physical and mental challenges.

    It is extremely difficult to summarise the situation, because it really is beyond human understanding. I am afraid people without a personal experience of detention in a place like that wouldn’t ever understand how detention destroys the lives of vulnerable people, both physically and mentally.

    The situation was so bad that nobody who would be able to bear witness – human rights researchers, social workers, civil society organisations – was allowed to enter the island. So I tried to expose the cruelty and inhumanity faced by refugees on Manus island. Over time, I sent a journalist over 3,500 WhatsApp messages documenting the conditions of the detention camp. These were later turned into a podcast, The Messenger, that was published by the Guardian in 2017.

    I started doing advocacy back in 2013. As soon as the authorities realised, the harassment started, and never stopped. It began with physical abuse, then torture, and when I got sick either physically or mentally, I didn't always get treatment. Even when I did, all there was was a doctor whose job description seems to have been to be as bad as they could. Between 2013 and 2015 I was in a desperate need of medical treatment, physically and mentally. Within a month I lost six kilos and I nearly died, but I managed to pick myself up again. I realised that I could not rely on these people to help me or treat me, so I decided to look after myself and treat myself.

    I started to read about psychology and psychiatry and how they deal with anxiety, stress and post-traumatic stress. Reading and researching helped me to cope and to learn how to look after myself as well as to look after friends in similar situations. I became a sort of therapist or counsellor to them, helped them out of their mental crises by detecting their negativity and replacing it with positivity – in other words, by trying to raise hope. I know it's not good to give people false hope, but I just tried to be there for them, to talk to them and try to remain positive, and tell them that we would get out of there sooner or later but in the meantime we just needed to stay positive.

    What were the main restrictions on people’s ability to organise or speak up while detained on Manus Island?

    Restrictions were all over the place. In a prison, the main rule for prisoners is ‘say nothing, do nothing, stay quiet’. You are an animal in a cage – you only move when the cage is opened for you, you only eat or drink when you are given food or water, and you only speak when you are told to. A separate world is created, with its own rules, structures, authorities and boundaries that you are not supposed to cross, and if you do cross them you are subjected to a variety of punishments. Social workers, the case managers, advised their clients in the centre to not speak about their situation if they wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. Otherwise, you would remain in detention for a very, very long time, as your process would be delayed and your name would be put on a blacklist. These were the kinds of verbal threats that we got.

    When you are immersed in a world like that, you always think of alternative options. If you cannot dismantle the system, then you may try to manipulate it so that you are seen as complying with the rules even if you are not taking them seriously. I wanted to test the limits and check what the punishment for breaking rules would be, if it would be applied or not, so I took the risk to become an advocate and started speaking up about the situation. I knew that I was going to be punished but also wanted to be a role model for others follow, so that if we all spoke up together we would be heard and our situation would improve.

    Unfortunately, due to our differences in cultural backgrounds, some of my friends refused to follow. I also blame the system for this, because it is deliberately designed to create passivity through fear. However, we did manage to highlight the core problems and shift public opinion from a negative to a positive perception of refugees. The Australian government proposed a law that would criminalise whistleblowers further, but despite this, many other people felt encouraged to speak up when they saw us, speaking up about our situation while incarcerated.

    What were your demands to the Australian government?

    We were not in a position to present our demands to the government directly. We were just people who had fled their homelands and were looking for a safe place to call home, and that would give us the opportunity to make a contribution to society. When we came to Australia we were just like every other asylum seeker. We did not want to get in any confrontation with the government or even talk about them and their policies. But when they sent us to Manus Island, they forced us to speak up and organise. As a result, we managed to learn resilience and the ability to think out of the box and to act despite our lack of resources.

    We had one very clear message to the Australian government. We basically asked, ‘If you don't want us in your country, why do you rescue us from the sea in the first place? If you don’t want us, please stop taking us to Manus Island; there are other countries that are willing to take us’. We made it very clear to the Australian government that we did not want to come to Australia after what we had been through, and we wanted them to hand us over to the United Nations’ Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which is designed specifically to deal with the problems of refugees.

    How did the Australian government respond to your demands?

    The Australian government was getting heat from all sides. The international community pointed fingers at Australia and Australian civil society pointed fingers at their government claiming this was cruel and inhumane treatment and accusing them of being fascists. In response, the Australian government claimed this was not actually happening in Australia but in Papua New Guinea – according to them, this was happening on Papuan territory and the Australians were only providing them with the logistics. Truth is, though, that Australia still acts like a coloniser and the Papuan government complies with whatever they say regarding the detention centre.

    As Australia claimed they were not responsible, we ended up facing the authorities of Papua New Guinea, who had no idea how to deal with us. They said they knew nothing of the situation we were denouncing, and that they didn’t even have access to us or the authority to make any decision regarding us – they were waiting for the Australian parliament to decide what to do and where to send us. So we basically kept being sent back and forth and never got any response from either side.

    As our demands were ignored by both governments, we found ourselves fighting not only for our freedom but also for something more basic, our human dignity. We were human beings who had been turned into numbers but fought back to turn ourselves back into human beings, so that then we could start thinking about freedom. That is when we thought, ‘What if we demand our fundamental rights, like proper medical treatment? We are talking about Australia, a Western democracy with top-notch medical services – why can't we just access equal medical services as Australian citizens?’. Still, the government kept ignoring us.

    We then realised that if we were not able to get to the Australian authorities, we might still be able to use social media to challenge the government’s arguments. And so we did.

    Did you get any support from civil society in Papua New Guinea, Australia or other countries?

    To be honest, civil society in Papua New Guinea had no idea what they were dealing with, of what was going on. Civil society groups there are dealing with other crises – healthcare, insecurity, unemployment – that from their perspective are much worse. They just don’t have the time or resources to look into Manus Island.

    As for Australian civil society, there has been a significant change over the past few years. Today, with the help of Australian civil society, we are managing to get our message around Australia. When we started talking about Manus Island in 2013, one organisation, Refugee Action Coalition in Sydney, got in touch with us and connected us with many other civil society organisations. At the beginning, the position of civil society wasn't very clear or unified. Many thought their argument was weak because this was happening outside Australian territory. But we worked hard to shift their views, and now Australian civil society has a stronger, vocal position, and every time they get into an argument with the government they win it. We are very thankful to every individual and organisation in Australian civil society who contributed to spread the word about Manus Island.

    Alongside Australian civil society, we succeeded in having the Medevac Bill passed in February 2019. This law gave us refugees not quite full access to our fundamental rights, but it gave us something rather than nothing. The newly-elected Conservative government is now desperately trying to repeal the Medevac Bill, but thank God we have managed to buy some time until November.

    Are you aware of groups in Australia that oppose refugee rights?

    I cannot say there are civil society groups organised to oppose refugee rights, but there are indeed politicians in parliament and in government who do. They claim that Australia has one of the best asylum processes and that the people on Manus are not refugees. They tell people: ‘these people are coming to take your job, to steal your welfare, they are criminals’. These are the politicians. There are just a minority of Australian society, but they are always there. There are always people who oppose your rights, and they do it by putting forward arguments that may not even be connected to what you're fighting for.

    Do you think that people outside Manus recognised the work that you were doing?

    Although I did a lot for my friends inside Manus and for many people elsewhere, while I was on Manus I never felt that my voice was being heard or my work recognised, up until February of this year, when I was given the Martin Ennals award. I am very thankful to everyone who stood beside me and shared my story and demands. I don’t have an academic background and I started from the grassroots, where I faced many challenges, but never thought that I should stop. I just want to keep doing the work that I’m doing. I’m not doing it for credit, but because this is who I am, and it’s what makes me feel good about myself. I want to represent the voice of refugees, because our voice is either completely missing or misrepresented by some organisations.

    Over time, I witnessed some organisations working day and night on behalf of refugees, while others are fighting for their own interest or to further their own political agenda. Sometimes people contact you and ask you a comment, or to participate in an event, they use you for their fundraising and you never hear from them again, until they run out of funds and they come back to you. So it is important to tell apart those who are advocating or speaking on behalf of the missing voices of refugees or migrants because that is what they believe in, and those who are trying to get some gain out of it. It is important to identify those who do it out of their humanity or because they feel that something needs to be done.

    Sometimes other people take credit for the work I do, fail to see me as my own advocate, or think I am going to put their work in jeopardy, and for that reason they keep undermining me. But they won’t stop me – I’m here to make unheard voices heard. All the while I’m dealing with a huge amount of trauma, as I spent six years incarcerated in a detention centre, in a parallel world with its own rules and restrictions, where people are kept under control and their humanity is taken away.

    What difference did the Martin Ennals award make to you and your struggle?

    Winning the Martin Ennals award gave me purpose, and a lot more. I never in my life thought that one day I would be coming to Europe, and particularly to Geneva. It was not even part of my dream, and it happened because of the Martin Ennals award. Above all, this award meant recognition, not just of the work I’ve done, which I wasn’t doing to be recognised anyway, but most importantly of the situation of refugees and asylum seekers in Manus Island, in Nauru, in Australia and around the world. It meant that despite what we've been through, or maybe because of it, we get to represent our own voice, to speak for ourselves and make the world know what is happening.

    The award finally shone a light on the crisis on Manus Island. Not long ago, the Australian government came to Europe to talk about their successful migration policy. They didn’t speak about the atrocities they have committed and the suffering they have caused to kids, men and women who have been mentally and physically destroyed. But as a result of this award people are beginning to understand what happened. It was a crime against humanity. I’m not a lawyer or a legal expert, but you don’t have to be one to see that locking up thousands of people for years and torturing them mentally and physically is well beyond the law, and any government that does that is acting above the law.

    What are the next steps for you?

    I want to continue amplifying the voices of migrants and refugees and to make people understand that we are equal human beings, you and me, that there is no difference between us. I want to advocate for refugees and migrants globally, not just in one place, because as we can currently see in Europe, some countries are acting beyond all limits, turning into evil. Italy and Hungary, for instance, have even passed laws to criminalise people who are saving the lives of others. So what I want to do next is help empower these embattled human rights defenders.

    I also want to make people stop judging people based on their status. If you look at my status, my migratory status, I am a refugee. But my status doesn't represent me. I am Aziz, and I want people to treat me as Aziz – Aziz who has the ability and capacity to stand up and speak and participate and share his story, Aziz who also can be part of the community he is in, not Aziz the refugee you feel sorry for. 'Refugee’ and ‘migrant' have almost become offensive words, and it is our duty to change that, to prove to the world that they are not, and to remind people of history. It's not long ago when the world turned upside down in the First and Second World Wars, when many people became refugees and were not treated the way that we’re treating people right now. The fact that you were not there at the time is no excuse for ignorance. The history is there; if you can read, you can learn what happened. I will use the Martin Ennals award to share my story and other stories of struggle and resilience on Manus Island. I will use my personal testimony to give people the facts.

    What support do refugees and refugee advocates need from the international community and international civil society?

    We want the international community to understand fully that we are human and include us in the conversation and in decision-making. By talking about us, or representing us, be it from a legal or an academic perspective, you are not helping the victims, those actually experiencing torture and trauma. What we want is for the trauma and the torture to stop, and for that to happen, we need people who have been through the experience to come and testify, to be heard by the international community.

    We want civil society to also include the voices of refugees and migrants in roundtable discussions, where they could convey the message that people do not choose to be refugees, but they are forced to. If I can take part in the discussion, I will say what is in my mind, I will tell what I have been through, and I will be a strong voice on behalf of people who remain in places that are out of sight, out of mind – where no one knows of their existence. I will be their voice. It will encourage them to stay strong, resist power and fight hard, even inside a detention centre, if they know a refugee is sitting at the table and speaking on their behalf.

    Including refugees at the table provides legitimacy to civil society. When civil society speaks up, governments always undermine them by pointing out, 'You were not there, how do you know?'. In order not to be pushed into the corner that way, they need to bring in refugees or migrants that speak for themselves and who can say ‘yes, I was there, and I know how horrible that place is’.

    To stay true to its mission, civil society needs to question its own motivations and scrutinise everything from that perspective, even human rights institutions and refugee agencies and staff. Many people view international institutions and civil society organisations as a source of employment rather than a platform to serve others, to help people that are in need of help. There is so much to be done in order to improve human rights and democracy around the world. We need everyone’s contributions, the only way we can do it is together.

    Get in touch with Aziz onFacebook and follow him onTwitter

     

  • ROHINGYA REFUGEES: ‘We want to go back home in peace’

    Maung SawyeddollahCIVICUS speaks about the situation in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh and youth activism with Maung Sawyeddollah, founder and executive director of the Rohingya Students Network, a global network of Rohingya students and young people based in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

    What is the Rohingya Students Network and what does it do?

    The Rohingya Students Network is a global interconnected network of Rohingya students and young people. I founded it in December 2019 and it now has members in all 33 camps in Cox’s Bazar. We operate through WhatsApp and we arrange weekly meetings with all members to work towards our objective, which is to ensure the life, liberty and security of the Rohingya people.

    We do two kinds of work. We work on community development by organising activities such as skills training and youth workshops. And we advocate for our people by talking to international media and working alongside the International Court of Justice (ICJ). As bringing justice to our people is very important for us, we help by collecting materials such as victims’ testimonies. We also oversee the overall situation of our people and collect data to share with our members.

    We are bringing a case against Facebook because we believe Facebook used the genocide in Myanmar for business. We would normally send a letter to Facebook and ask them for help to fund Rohingya education camps. But they refuse to compensate for what they did, and so we had to take the legal way. Facebook is responsible for many human rights violations in Myanmar, so now we are legally pursuing the matter. We are getting help from Victim Advocates International, an organisation of lawyers.

    What is the education situation in refugee camps?

    The situation is bad. There are several schools in the camps but they all have a very dated system. One of them is the Rohingya Learning Centre. But all they do is give Rohingya students biscuits! Kids tell us, ‘We go to the Learning Centre to get biscuits, not to get education’.

    There’s a lack of learning centres and qualified teachers inside the camps, even though we’ve been living here for five years. Teachers just teach basic things such as A is for apple, B is for ball. Our kids aren´t getting the quality education they deserve.

    Have there been any changes in the situation of Rohingya people?

    I would say there hasn’t been any change to our situation since 2017. It’s true there have been meetings about the Rohingya and many organisations and groups have issued statements regarding our situation. However, all these meetings and statements have brought no positive outcome. The solutions offered to end the conflict still equal zero.

    There have been some minor improvements though. For instance, the USA has declared the Rohingya situation as genocide. The case has made some progress in the ICJ and the International Criminal Court. But still, solutions haven’t gone past an initial stage. Our crisis is a complicated one. 

    The long-term scenario is complex. We left our country, Myanmar, in 2017 and are still facing systematic violence there. We were a minority and had to leave because of the violence towards us. We are now living in Bangladesh but continue to fight in various arenas to get the justice our people deserve.

    There are many factors we need to consider to get our rights back. We can say there’s a civil war happening in Myanmar. There are two parallel governments competing to rule the country: the military government and the National Unity Government.

    In Rakhine State – where Rohingya people are from – there are powerful groups such as the Arkan Army, which are also a challenge because they prevent people from getting back to their homes. These are challenges we need to address. And who knows, maybe someday we can get back home.

    What challenges do you face when doing your work?

    The threats and dangers are constant. For every single activity we want to do, there is some kind of opposition. A big part of society is opposed to the kind of work we do. We are respected by the government of Bangladesh and allowed to do our work freely, although I think they are now changing their minds. I think our Going Home Campaign, which we launched a few weeks ago, will make our relationship a bit harder.

    There is also the fact that we continue to demand our rights, and many people speak up online and advocate for our rights, but the audience that we really need to listen to us, those responsible for the persecution we suffer, and those we need to sort out our situation, are sitting in government chairs in Myanmar and won’t address our demands because they simply don’t want us.

    What international help do Rohingya people need?

    We need as much international help as we can get. We need the international community to pressure the government of Myanmar so that they accept all of our demands for basic needs and rights. We need them to accept Rohingya people in Myanmar.

    What we expect from the world is to help us create the right conditions to put pressure on Myanmar’s power holders, the main stakeholders to solve this crisis. There are many ways they can help us. For instance, as the USA helped us by declaring our situation as genocide; other big powers should do the same. We need the world to speak out and stand together with us. We want to go back home in peace!

    Civic space in Bangladesh is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Follow@NetworkRsn and@M_Sawyed on Twitter. 

     

  • Sign on! Global Civil Society Declaration on Climate-Induced Migration

    At the conclusion of International Civil Society Week 2017 (ICSW) on December 7th, more than 700 civil society leaders and activists from over 100 countries have called for climate change to be formally recognised as a primary driver of migration. The call comes just days after Donald Trump announced that he is withdrawing the United States from the United Nations Global Compact on Migration. 

    Add Your Voice! Sign on Today

    The Global Civil Society Declaration on Climate Induced Displacement was first presented to delegates of ICSW, held in Suva, Fiji, by global civil society alliance CIVICUS and the Pacific Islands Association of Non Governmental Organisations (PIANGO). This is the first time in more than 20 years of convening that ICSW was held in the Pacific region, where rising sea levels are already displacing communities.
     The declaration calls on the international community to commit to protecting the human rights of all persons, regardless of their migratory status and fulfill the objectives of the Paris Climate Agreement.  

    “The UN global compact process is a critical opportunity to develop a consensus position on how the  international community should promote rights-based migration and protect refugees,” said Danny Sriskandarajah, Secretary General of CIVICUS. “We are urging policymakers to protect the rights and dignity of individuals who are being forced to move, and promote the cultural rights of the communities affected,“ Said Sriskandarajah.

    Organisations which have contributed to the declaration include the Pacific Islands Association of Non-Governmental Organisations, the Pacific Islands Development Forum, Oxfam Pacific, 350.org, ACT Alliance and CIVICUS, among others. 

    WHAT YOU CAN DO

    Add Your Voice! Sign on Today

    Spread the word

    Share the message on social media:

    .@Pacific_2030, @PIDF01, @oxfampacific, @350, @ACTAlliance, CIVICUS & many others, launch Declaration on Climate Induced Displacement. Read the full declaration and sign on here: http://bit.ly/2B6eVDI

    More than 700 civil society leaders and activists from over 100 countries call for #climatechange to be recognised as a key driver of #migration! Join the call here: http://bit.ly/2B6eVDI #ICSW2017

    I just joined others around the world in signing on to the Climate Declaration! You can too: http://bit.ly/2B6eVDI

    .@CIVICUSSG calls on policymakers to protect the rights & dignity of individuals who are being forced to move, and protect the cultural rights of the communities affected. Join the call http://bit.ly/2B6eVDI 

    Rising seas and extreme weather are leading many to have no option but to abandon their homes! Sign on to the Climate Declaration and call on policy makers to protect climate refugees http://bit.ly/2B6eVDI

    Find out more:
    Check out these stories by journalists and delegates attending ICSW. 

    Al Jazeera: Ex-New Zealand PM: Manus refugees deserve humanity
    Open Democracy: Climate refugees need global protection – with or without the US
    Inter Press News: Migrants Deserve Dignity” says CIVICUS While Trump Pulls out of Proposed Migrant Compact
    Open Democracy: Climate refugees need global protection – with or without the US
    Reuters: Where is the justice?' ask climate 'refugees', sidelined from global deal
    Fiji Times: Call for solidarity on migration
    Radio New Zealand: Climate-induced migration critical issue for Pacific NGOs

    Want to know more about what happened at International Civil Society Week 2017? Visit the live blog archive. 

     

  • The two borderless challenges of our time: Migration and climate change

    Civil society response to the Zero Draft of the UN´s Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration 

    There are over a quarter billion migrants and refugees in the world. Over 5,000 died last year on their dangerous journeys. The United Nations has been moved to act. 

    Governments are currently negotiating a Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. The agreement is meant to protect the rights of those displaced and help address the root economic, environmental and social drivers that are compelling people to leave their communities and countries. 

    Last week, the UN released its draft agreement and will have until December to negotiate the final details. A key area where the document falls short is on commitments to tackle the primary causes of migration. A stated aim of the Global Compact is to “mitigate the adverse drivers and structural factors that hinder people from building and maintaining sustainable livelihoods in their countries of origin”. However, the current text lacks actionable commitments to control the numerous man-made forces underlying global mass migration. 

    The reasons are different for every migrant and diaspora, but we know that natural disasters are the number one cause of internal and international displacement. With rising sea levels, desertification and extreme weather events, climate action must be a part of any meaningful agreement. 

    "Climate induced displacement is upon us. Coastal communities are being evacuated and relocated the world over.” Said Emele Duituturaga, Executive Director of the Pacific Islands Association of Non Governmental Organisations. “Here in sea locked countries of the Pacific Ocean, disappearance of our island homes is imminent". 

    To protect the growing number of climate migrants, a necessary starting place for the compact is to  reaffirm the importance of the Paris Climate Change Agreement and accelerate efforts to limit global average temperature rise to 1.5°C, instead of the more conservative and ambiguous target to keep the world “well below” 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Missing just one of these targets will lead to millions of people being displaced.  The United Nations´ climate science panel (The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) gauges that the half a degree gap in warming “amounts to a greater likelihood of drought, flooding, resource depletion, conflict and forced migration”. Climate models show us that the additional 0.5°C would  further raise sea levels by 10 centimeters and cut crop yields by half across the tropics.

    From Fiji to Trinidad and Tobago, from Bangladesh to Morocco, civil society groups are calling on their governments to make climate mitigation a fundamental pillar of the Global Compact on Migration. Over 400 civil society groups at International Civil Society Week (Fiji, December) signed a joint declaration on climate induced displacement,  outlining key demands for the Global Compact. Among other recommendations, we are urging the UN to address the causes and consequences of migration, including:

    • Recognize that communities must have key human rights like food, water, housing and health protected to reduce the necessity of migration.
    • Commit to protect those who are most vulnerable to climate displacement.
    • Ensure that those most vulnerable to climate displacement are able to participate in the design and governance of the Global Compact. 

    The upcoming multi-stakeholder consultations on 21 February and 21 May at UN Headquarters will provide civil society with the opportunity to raise the ambition of the Global Compact and to help ensure meaningful action is taken to reduce the man-made causes of migration and incorporate key recommendations put forth in the joint civil society declaration.  

     

  • TURKEY: ‘Civilian refugees should not be used as political bargaining chips’

    Bassam AlahmadCIVICUS speaks with Bassam Alahmad, co-founder and executive director of Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ), about the Turkish plan to return one million refugees to Syria.

    STJ is a civil society organisation (CSO) dedicated to documenting human rights violations to contribute to the prospects for justice, as well as training human rights activists and building capacity in areas including digital security and civic engagement.

    Why is the Turkish government making plans to return a million Syrian refugees to Syria?

    We do not know the exact reason behind the plan to return a million Syrians to Turkish-administered regions of Syria. But there are several possible reasons we can think of. First, Turkey will hold general elections next year, and every time elections approach, the ruling Justice and Development Party will try to draw attention outside Turkey in any way possible – by attacking other nations, creating problems with neighbouring countries or groups of people – to hide domestic failures.

    Second, the decision may be part of a wider strategy by the Turkish government concerning its engagement with northeast and northwest Syria, which aims to decrease the presence of Kurds and other populations who it doesn’t view as ‘Turkey’s allies’ – people that Turkey does not like having at its borders. To achieve this, Turkey will make claims that these populations are ‘terrorists’.

    The decision announced to return a million Syrians from Turkey back to Syria therefore hits two birds with one stone. It would allow the Turkish government to show its domestic opposition that it is tackling the ‘problem’ while also using Syrians against Syrians in the northeast and northwest parts of Syria.

    To sum up, there is no specific reason we know of, but we can assume that demographic engineering in northeast and northwest Syria and Turkey’s domestic politics are all at play.

    How has this announcement impacted on Syrian refugees in Turkey?

    This policy has really affected Syrian refugees in Turkey. Every single day there is at least one case of assault against a Syrian person – sometimes more. Incidents of racism and cases of deportation and violence at the border, and even of murder, have been verified. Hundreds of organisations and media outlets have verified racist attacks against Syrians.

    Why are these attacks happening? Because the Turkish government is telling people that it has already spent too much on Syrians, and Turkish citizens are resenting it. The Turkish government is also telling people that it has freed areas in Syria from terrorists and they are now safe for return, so Turkish citizens are increasingly putting pressure on Syrian refugees to leave. Turkish public opinion turning against Syrians makes them vulnerable to racism and deportation.

    The discourse that Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is disseminating is affecting Syrian refugees very negatively. And the problem is that it is not true. The United Nations, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, Amnesty International and many others have all said that Syria is not safe.

    How do you assess Turkey’s immigration policy?

    Many countries and organisations say that Turkey should be thanked for its treatment of Syrian refugees; however, Turkey’s 2016 agreement with the European Union was a really bad one, because as a result Syrian refugees were trapped or detained in Turkey so that the Turkish government could receive money for hosting them.

    Syrian refugees and asylum seekers have been used as political game pieces ever since. Following this agreement, in which Europeans agreed to pay money to Turkey to keep Syrians from advancing through Greece and further into Europe, there have been multiple instances of disagreements between Europe and Turkey leading to threats against refugees.

    This is not good. You can’t keep using civilian refugees as political bargaining chips, using them against Turkey, or against the Kurds in northeast and northwest Syria, or against the Americans in northeast Syria. But the 2016 agreement gave the Turkey government leverage to use refugees as a political card, and they have used it. And by the way, Turkey is not the only country using refugees this way, and Syrian refugees are not the only refugees who have been used. Afghan, Iraqi and other refugees have had similar experiences, but this is especially true for Syrian refugees.

    Do you think the attitude of the Turkish government points to a broader European pattern?

    Of course, the Turkish refugee policy has a lot in common with refugee policies around the world. I do not want to say that all European governments treat refugees the same way as the Turkish government, but occasionally there are similarities.

    In particular, we all saw how European governments treated Ukrainian refugees – this was good. But they don’t treat Syrian refugees the same way. European countries gave Turkey money to keep Syrian refugees in Turkey, while they opened their doors to Ukrainian refugees.

    We do not want to paint all the Turkish and European politicians and policies with the same brush, but there are patterns of racist refugee policies and racist attacks against refugees that are important to recognise.

    How has Syrian civil society responded to the announcement by the Turkish government?

    Unfortunately, the civil society response has not been unified. Many Syrian CSOs that do not have employees or offices in Turkey have published reports about this plan; however, Syrian CSOs in Turkey have not been able to speak out, for a number of reasons. In some cases, organisations are politically aligned with Turkey and welcome these policies. But many others want to speak out against these policies – the racism, the deportations, the military actions against Syrians within Syria – but they are unable to for security reasons.

    In other words, some people don’t want to speak up because they are essentially in agreement with Turkish policies, while others would want to but cannot because it is dangerous, as they are in Turkey, where speaking out may result in deportation or arrest. There are also some Turkish organisations that address these issues, but many do not have the interests of Syrian refugees in mind.

    It is key for Turkish organisations to speak out and insist that Syria is not safe for refugees to return. There has been limited discussion about Turkey’s rights violations against Syrians, and this should not be the case. Both domestic and international civil society should speak out against violations occurring in Turkey and committed by Turkey.

    Civic space in Turkey is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Syrians for Truth and Justice through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@STJ_SYRIA_ENG and@BassamAlahmed on Twitter.

     

  • VENEZUELA: ‘Venezuelans are not emigrating in search for better opportunities, but to save their lives’

    CIVICUS speaks to Alicia Pantoja, co-founderVenezuela 3of Manos Veneguayas. Based in Montevideo, Uruguay, Manos Veneguayas is a civil society organisation (CSO) run by Venezuelans that offers support to Venezuelans arriving in Uruguay. It works in alliance with other organisations and with the contributions of Uruguayan citizens and Venezuelans living in Uruguay. Since 2014, 2.3 million Venezuelans have fled their country, escaping from political repression, scarcity of food and medicines, street violence and a lack of opportunities. While some countries in Latin America have rejected Venezuelans at their borders, others – notably Uruguay and other Mercosur member states – have maintained an open-doors policy. More than 8,000 Venezuelans have now become legal residents in Uruguay. 

    How do you see the situation in Venezuela, and how is it driving migration?

    I think the situation in my country is critical: literally, people are starving to death. Malnutrition has increased; there are more and more cases of children who are nothing but skin and bones. Older people are dying, and children in hospitals are dying as a result of completely preventable infections, just because hospitals are contaminated. I see a very tough future. It will be difficult for this generation that is growing up in Venezuela today to have the strength to push the country forward.

    It is no secret to anyone that Venezuelans are not migrating in search of better opportunities; they are migrating to save their lives. From 2014 to the present, the quality of life in Venezuela has deteriorated to unimaginable levels. For those of us who still have families there, this is very hard. When you are at home at night and the telephone rings, your heart stops. You always fear that call in which you will be told that so-and-so died, or so-and-so has been killed.

    Instead of trying to get other countries to open their arms to receive a massive influx of migrants from Venezuela, something needs to be done to change the situation that is causing people to flee their country. But in the meantime, we at Manos Veneguayas are trying to help Venezuelans arriving in Uruguay.

    How does your organisation help?

    Since November 2016, Manos Veneguayas has been active as a support organisation for Venezuelan migrants in Uruguay. We are a team of nine founders and nearly 40 volunteers. We have autonomy in our decision-making, but we receive support from other organisations. Two long-established CSOs, the Instituto de Estudios Cívicos (IEC) and Idas y Vueltas, help us. IEC lends us their headquarters and supports us at each event we organise. With Idas y Vueltas we have learned to work together. They continue to work on supporting all migrants more generally, while we focus on Venezuelans. Of course, although we are an organisation of Venezuelans working for Venezuelans, we serve all migrants who arrive at our doors looking for a helping hand. We do not deny anyone our help.

    Initially our idea was to provide emotional support. People were arriving who ignored lots of important things about this country, such as that summers are hot and winters are cold. They had no idea what it is like to live in a country with four seasons. Newcomers did not even know how to dress for the low temperatures or how to protect themselves from the sun, and they often did not have the right clothes either. Many had arrived with nothing, so we collected and distributed necessities such as warm clothing.

    The initial idea was to help newcomers adapt to Uruguay, so that they felt that they were not alone throughout the migration process. As the main urgency for new arrivals is to get a job, the first thing we did was create a jobs bank, which we named Clasificados Veneguayos.

    At first, we tired ourselves out hunting for job offers online, but we soon got lucky when at one of our first job fairs a newspaper did a great interview with us, which was widely disseminated, putting Manos Veneguayas on the radar of many businesspeople. After that, offers began arriving directly to us, and we now have a database with hundreds of resumes that we provide to potential employers. And while many people come to us with requests for domestic help, we try to get people jobs within their professional areas of expertise. But our priority is to make sure that at least one member of each household receives an income, and we think that all jobs dignify. We give talks so that newcomers learn about their rights regarding healthcare and work, and we help them prepare a resume or get ready for a job interview. We also provide them with support so that they can obtain their legal papers.

    We have done a survey, mostly through Facebook, to better understand the needs of Venezuelans arriving in Uruguay. For those who are arriving right now, housing is an additional problem on top of finding work. Increasing despair is causing whole family groups to leave Venezuela, making the process all the more difficult. In the past, the head of the family, usually a man, often came first, stayed in a residence and focused on working, so three or four months later they would be able to provide the required deposit to rent a small apartment so that he could bring his wife along to work, and eventually rent a bigger place together. But now it’s families of four or five people arriving, and residences and even rental rooms are out of their reach. Legally, rental collaterals can only be obtained after being employed for a minimum of three months. Otherwise, you need to pay a lot of money up front, and in the case of recent Venezuelan migrants, if I told you that one per cent are bringing a sizeable amount of money, it would be an exaggeration. Shelters are overflowing because not only are Venezuelans currently arriving, but also Cubans and Dominicans.

    The Venezuelan exodus has sparked some cases of discrimination and xenophobia in the region. Have you experienced this in Uruguay?

    A sociologist who I spoke to recently told me about some cases. But I think they have been isolated cases. I have been in Uruguay for four years and I have not personally seen any kind of discrimination based on skin colour or nationality.

    Of course, there are people who think that Venezuelans are coming to take job opportunities from Uruguayans. But that is obviously not true: there is simply a range of offers that fit some people and not others. While there are many Venezuelan professionals working as Uber drivers, waiters, vendors and delivery people, there are also professionals employed within their area of expertise: nurses, physiotherapists, engineers, even some architects who have been able to validate their college degrees. In fact, the migration of Venezuelan professionals has been very important for Uruguay, since it has allowed the country to tap into a high-quality pool of professionals while not investing a cent in their training.

    We know that as far as migrants are concerned, it is common for the reputation of the whole national group to be put into question as a result of the actions of just a few individuals. If one Venezuelan makes a mistake, it will be said that all Venezuelans are dishonest or unreliable. Therefore, we are very careful in helping people prepare to find a job. When people arrive and tell us that they are desperate and want a job no matter what, we ask them to identify their own limits, because they need to commit to whatever job they get; they cannot stay in a job for two weeks and then leave. Something similar happens with the rhythm of things. In Venezuela, if you stand still you risk being ran over. In Uruguay, everything happens more slowly, and Venezuelans are not used to it. So we try to calm down all those young people who come here with this attitude of wanting to swallow the whole world, because in Venezuela they were eating air. We need to calm them down and show them that this is a wonderful country that has opened its doors to us, but that we also need to move at its pace.

    Do you think Venezuelan migrants are here for good, or do they plan to return to Venezuela some day?

    This is one of the things we always discuss among ourselves. There are some who consider that their life is here now, and they are here to stay, but a high proportion of us are of the view that we are here to learn, because our plan is to go back and help rebuild our country. I want to go back, and I believe most people think that this is just temporary, that our country is going to move forward and will eventually need us. In the meantime, the best we can do is try to leave a deep mark in this country that has hosted us, so that tomorrow they can say that Venezuelans have indeed played their part.

    Civic space in Venezuela is rated as ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with Manos Veneguayas through itsFacebook page.

     

  • Worker’s rights activism and human rights activism must be linked

    Shawna Bader-Blau, executive director of the Solidarity Center, the largest worker rights organisation based in the United States speaks to CIVICUS about challenges facing workers, Solidarity Center’s work and the response of professional NGOs to worker’s rights. Follow her on @Shawna_SolCntr

    1. What do you see as the biggest challenges for workers in 2017? What are the key drivers behind these challenges?

    Workers around the world are confronting serious challenges to whether they can exercise their rights and work with dignity. Among them are labour markets and systems that generate, rather than alleviate, poverty; and governments that fail to protect workers, either through omission or deliberate act. In addition, weak legal environments—national and international—tend to reward exploitative supply chains, permit human trafficking, allow discrimination to flourish and generally disenfranchise workers. Lastly, the toxic spread of xenophobia, racism, misogyny and fear marginalizes millions of migrant workers and refugees—further disenfranchising people whose jobs do not lift them from poverty, afford them safe workplaces or uphold their dignity.

    I see four key drivers behind these challenges. One is downward pressure on wages along global supply chains combined with greater barriers to workers exercising their fundamental right to freedom of association—to organize and promote their issues, protect their wages from eroding and exercise their rights. Another driver is the increasing informalization of work and the gig economy, which limits wages, workplace protections and workers' ability to improve either, as well as strips workers of the benefits that come with full-time jobs. A third is the fact that governments around the world—to attract investment—are taking deliberate actions to weaken worker rights or simply not enforcing laws designed to protect workers. The last would be widening inequality coupled with resurgent authoritarianism, closing space for people to have a voice on the job and in their community, and curtailing worker and human rights.

    2. How is the Solidarity Center and its network responding to these challenges?

    The Solidarity Center stands with workers as they defend their right to freedom of association, supporting them as they organize, advocate and build worker voice. Our work is explicitly pro-equality, anti-racist, pro-migrant, class conscious and inclusive. We support freedom of association as a foundation of democracy and ensure the centrality of worker self-organizing and leadership across our efforts. In addition, we see justice and rule of law as an alternative to exploitation and arbitrariness—a leveler of inequality of power and wealth—and are putting greater emphasis on developing legal capacity among our partners and supporting innovative legal processes at the national, regional and international levels.

    With our partners, we are building a grassroots movement for work with dignity and respect for workers’ human rights. We work with 400-plus labour unions, pro-worker nongovernmental organizations, legal-aid groups, human rights defenders, women’s associations, advocacy coalitions and others to support workers—in garment factories, home service, seafood processing, mining, agriculture, informal marketplaces, manufacturing, the public sector and beyond—as they exercise their rights, including organizing for safer work sites, demanding living wages and improving laws (and the enforcement of existing laws) that protect working people, and fighting exploitation and abuse. We are, quite deliberately, building broad alliances with other organizations fighting the forces of repression and all forms of discrimination and violence against people, communities and the environment.

    Specifically, we provide training and technical expertise that can help workers take on societal ills such as child labour, human trafficking, unfair labour laws, infringement of women’s rights, dangerous workplaces and the exploitation of the vulnerable. We focus on supporting women as they challenge the systems and organizations that deny them voice. We also work to ensure that the rights of migrant workers and refugees of any category are respected, and help connect them to protective networks. In addition, we implement legal-assistance programs, including the training of paralegals, to help workers recover stolen wages or benefits illegally denied them, and we push to broaden legal norms, protections and cultural space for the freedom of association necessary to sustain a vibrant civil society

    3. What are your thoughts on global protections for the rights to protest and strike?

    The right to strike goes part and parcel with the rights to freedom of association and assembly. It also is established international law, supported by ILO core conventions and international human rights conventions, and specifically covered in the constitutions of at least 90 countries.

    The right to strike is a collective mechanism through which workers speak truth to power, whether to rectify poor wages and working conditions at a factory, or to push back against government policies that perpetuate poverty, discrimination or persecution. In many cases, going on strike is one of the only ways workers can hold ruling or corporate elites accountable, protest injustice and serve as a check the concentration of power. It is a civil liberty that we all should strive to protect.


    4. Are you satisfied with the response of professional NGOs (working on development and human rights matters) on workers’ rights issues? If not what could be done to improve the situation?

    No. For a long time, worker rights and human rights have been seen as different issues, by both human rights NGOs and the global labour movement. Because of that, we are all far less effective in confronting the current global human rights crisis perpetuated by the resurgence of authoritarianism, the crackdown on the public sphere and the greatest expansion of multinational and investor rights in modern human history. These three trends have created a perfect storm for workers and citizens, greatly impeding their ability to stand up for their rights, improve their lives and livelihoods, and expand democracy.

    An increasing number of human rights advocacy groups have begun to take on worker issues, looking to improve corporate respect for rights. Very often, however, NGOs fail to involve workers, the major stakeholder, in the process or leave worker rights, including freedom of association, off the table while focusing on a company’s “social responsibility.” At the same time, they fail to involve unions or labour advocates, who have 30 years of experience with corporate social responsibility efforts—including many mistakes—in campaigns. They could easily avoid some of the pitfalls the labour movement has already encountered.

    Worker are up against powerful forces. And while they are the first line of defense against workplace exploitation, it will take a global network of worker rights defenders—NGOs, human right activists, trade unions—to oppose the stifling of civil society, staunch the erosion of workplace rights and protect human dignity and freedom.

    5. Are there any particular mobilisation strategies that you are focusing on in light of current political trends when human rights and social justice concerns appear to be taking a back seat?

    The Solidarity Center has joined with labour unions and women's rights activists to push for an end to gender-based violence at work. In addition, we are supporting safe migration policies and building networks to support migrant workers and refugees. We also are seeking out new ways to help informal-economy workers access and exercise their rights. And, of course, we will not rest until freedom of association for all workers is a given. That is our core challenge in this era of closing space for civil society.

    6. What advice would you give to the CIVICUS alliance?

    Worker rights activism and human rights activism must be linked if we are to push back the forces that drive inequality, poverty and injustice. There is no time like the present to begin.

    Find our more about Solidarity Center via their website and Twitter.