Category Archives: Refugees

Tiny Baltics and France lead the way in EU relocation scheme

RIGA / TARTU — Under the EU relocation scheme Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have now accepted 455 asylum-seekers from Greece and Italy since the beginning of last year. Although France (2,702), the Netherlands (1,216) and Germany (1,099) have received the most asylum-seekers to date under the program, by accepting the 455 — mostly Syrian — asylum-seekers the three Baltic states have actually carried a greater burden given their size (only France accepted more as a percentage of its population).

The EU relocation scheme is supposed to relocate asylum-seekers from Greece and Italy to other EU countries. It just hit the 10,000 mark last week, with 150,000 more to go by 27 September 2017. If successful, and that is still a very big if, the EU program would relief the 60,000-odd refugees that are currently stuck in Greece and suffering under terrible winter conditions, as well as another 70,000 from Italy. But implementation is slow and there is a lot resistance from governments and voters, aside from logistical challenges.

That the Baltics are now leading the way in the EU relocation program is quite astonishing, to say the least. Resistance to the arrival of refugees from Syria has been strong and the Baltic governments only reluctantly agreed — unlike other post-communist states like Hungary, Poland and Slovakia — to be part of the relocation mechanism. And as recent as last August the European Commission was critical of the strict admission requirements that the Baltic governments set for war refugees from Syria and Iraq seeking relocation.

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Migrant population in Middle East more than doubles

BEIRUT — The number of migrants in the Middle East has more than doubled since 2005, according to a new report by the Pew Research Center.

Migrant workers, asylum seekers, refugees and internally displaced persons increased from around 25 million in 2005 to 54 million in 2015. This 120% increase is much higher than in North America and Europe (both around 20%) over the same period despite the arrival of 1.3 million asylum seekers in Europe last year, of whom many were from the Middle East. Forced and voluntary migration in the Middle East also grew at a faster pace than  in Africa (90% increase), the Asia-Pacific (26%), and Latin America and the Caribbean (77%).

The share of migrants of the region’s population grew from 7% in 2005 to approximately 13% in 2015. In other words, one-in-ten people currently living the Middle East is either an international migrant or displaced. The Pew Research Center based its analysis on data from United Nations agencies.

This growth of migration in the Middle East is mainly caused by two factors: conflict and economic opportunity.

About half of the Middle East's 23 million displaced migrants lived in Syria or Iraq in 2015Armed conflict in Syria, Iraq and Yemen has displaced millions. This forced displacement accounts for the majority (60%) of the growth of the migrant population. The aftermath of the invasion of Iraq and subsequent civil war, the war in Syria since 2011, the rise of Daesh and the various conflicts in Yemen since the Arab Uprising had (internally) displaced 23 people by the end of 2015, about half of them living in Syria or Iraq, followed by Jordan, Yemen, Turkey and Lebanon.

About six-in-ten of the Middle East's non-displaced international migrant lived in Saudi Arabia and UAE in 2015

Economic opportunity has attracted millions of migrant workers — mostly from countries outside the region — particularly to the oil-rich Gulf States: Saudi Arabia (10.2 million), United Arab Emirates (8 million), Kuwait (2.9 million) and Oman (1.8 million). But also Israel and Lebanon continue to attract migrants.

The figures from the Pew Research Center show how war and armed conflict have wreaked havoc on the region: the portion of migrants living in the Middle East that were not displaced fell from 78% to 57% in the past decade.

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European Commission critical of Baltic states for admission requirements asylum seekers

RIGA – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have drawn the ire of the European Commission over their reluctance to host refugees under the EU relocation programme, the LNT commercial TV channel reported Friday.

“There are only two criteria based on which someone can be refused asylum or relocation within Europe,” Kristīne Liepiņa, spokesperson for the European Commission Delegation in Latvia, told LNT. “One reason is that this person poses a threat to other people’s security, namely, to local society. And another reason, of course, is if this person poses a threat to international security.”

Yet to date Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have only accepted refugee families with children and educated refugees with foreign language skills and work experience.

The Baltic states between them are expected to accept 1,481 asylum seekers by the end of 2017 as part of the EU’s relocation scheme. All EU member states together agreed to take 160,000 refugees that are stranded in Greece and Italy by that date.

In its fifth report on the progress of the EU relocation and resettlement programme, the Commission wrote last month: “During the reporting period, a number of Member States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) have rejected relocation requests without providing substantiated reasons or on grounds other than those specified in the Council Decisions on relocation.” The previous, fourth report (June) also singled out the Baltic countries, among others, for “[…] lack of motivation of rejections of relocation requests [which] goes against the letter of the Council Decisions on relocation and the spirit of loyal cooperation.”

This is the first time, however, that a representative of the European Commission openly criticises the Baltic governments. So far the EU Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, Dimitris Avramopoulos, has only encouraged member states to do more. During the presentation of the last progress report he spoke of a “positive trend, but more efforts are needed.”

Latvia’s governing Unity party believes that the EU report is a testament to the fact that Latvia takes the application verification process very serious. “Our system of domestic affairs staff are doing their job well. […] The criteria should not be changed,” Lolita Čigāne (Unity), member of the Saeima and chairperson of the European Affairs Committee, told LNT in response to the criticism.

Ironically, the criticism comes at a time when all three Baltic countries have started accepting substantially more refugees. On Friday, Lithuania welcomed 11 Syrian refugees from Greece under the EU deal, bringing the total to 73 so far. Earlier last week, a court in Latvia granted five Iraqis refugee status and 12 asylum seekers from Eritrea and Syria subsidiary (temporary) protection. And two Syrian refugee families arrived in Estonia from Greece at the end of July.

The next progress report of the European Commission is expected in September.

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The lifesaving app that wasn’t

It sounded too good to be true: an app that let’s you save refugees in the Mediterranean from the comfort of your living room.

“Every person who has watched this tragedy unfold over the past two years will now have a chance to contribute to saving lives, even if it is giving a couple of minutes of their time on an app,” Christopher Catrambone, founder of Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), told Mashable.

Here is how it was supposed to work: The ISea app “crowd-sources the search of the sea for migrants by giving access to the satellite image of the sea to smart phone users.” It then lets you scour those satellite images to spot refugee boats in trouble and alert rescue teams to their location. Teams such as MOAS, which provides professional search-and-rescue assistance to refugees and migrants in distress at sea. MOAS collaborated with the Singapore-based Grey for Good to develop the app.

Yet one week after the launch of ISea, the first stories broke that the app did not live up to its promise. Users pointed out that the app displays the same image for every user. ISea was subsequently pulled from the AppStore. And Grey for Good turned out to be the pro bono arm of a global advertising agency.

Meanwhile, MOAS, which even without the app rescued more than 2,000 people in its first two weeks of its operations in the Mediterranean, has denounced Grey for Good and the ISea app. “We were dismayed to discover that real time images were not being used,” MOAS wrote in a statement following the revelations. “We have since discontinued our relationship with Grey for Good and spoken candidly about our disappointment to the media.”

So far 2016 has been the deadliest year on record on the Mediterranean: 2,888 migrants and refugees lost their lives, compared with 1,838 through the first six months of 2015.

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39,399 Estonians sign petition against “mass immigration”

RIGA – Yesterday the Estonian Conservative People’s Party EKRE submitted to parliament a petition against mass immigration. The petition demands a referendum on the government’s immigration and refugee policy, the Estonian Public Broadcaster ERR reported.

EKRE is in the opposition and with seven (of the 101) seats the smallest of the six parties represented in the Riigikogu, the Estonian parliament. Mart Helme, EKRE’s chairman, told ERR that his party had begun to collect signatures last summer, after the European Commission introduced its controversial refugee relocation programme.

Under the EU relocation scheme, Estonia, with 1.3 million inhabitants, is set to receive 302 asylum seekers by the end of 2017 – a fraction of the 160,000 refugees EU member states agreed to take from Greece and Italy over the next two years. To date Estonia has taken in 19 Iraqi and Syrian refugees from Greece.

Only last year, immigration exceeded emigration for the first time since Estonia regained its independence in 1991. According to Statistics Estonia, 15,413 persons immigrated to and 13,003 persons emigrated from Estonia in 2015. The majority of the migrants – 52% of the immigrants and 69% of the emigrants – were citizens of Estonia. Ukrainians, Russian and Finns are among the largest non-Estonian migrants.

Together with Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland and Denmark, the Baltic states have opposed the EU policy to distribute refugees – not immigrants – based on quotas. Given this opposition, the European Commission is now expected to present a final proposal for the reformed Common European Asylum System, next month, which will no longer feature quotas.

Along with the petition, EKRE’s parliamentary group submitted a draft bill that calls for a referendum on 23 April 2017. It would like to ask voters: “Do you agree that the Republic of Estonia participates in the redistribution of immigrants arriving in the European Union?”

The question is: which “redistribution” and which “immigrants”?

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Refugees could be returned from Latvia to their home countries: Interior Ministry official

RIGAMore refugees arrived in Latvia yesterday but Interior Ministry official says they could be returned home once conflicts are over.

A second group of refugees from Iraq and Syria – four families, a total of 15 people, including seven children – arrived in Latvia yesterday under the European Union’s refugee relocation programme, the LETA news agency reported.

Latvia is set to receive 481 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy by the end of 2017  as part of the EU’s relocation programme. In addition, the government has agreed to resettle another 50 refugees from outside the EU. The first six refugees – two families from Eritrea and Syria – arrived in Riga in February.

However, Interior Ministry State Secretary Ilze Pētersone-Godmane yesterday claimed that in the event of a halt in conflict, their refugee status would be reviewed and they may have to return to their home country, the Baltic Times reported. According to Pētersone-Godmane, the status of refugees who fled the Balkan wars during the 1990s is currently hotly debated in Germany. She asserted that according to German law they would have to return.

Pētersone-Godmane is correct that under the EU program there are no specific provisions about the exact status asylum seekers relocated from Greece and Italy will need to be provided by host countries. The Interior Ministry State Secretary is also right when she says that refugees may be returned to their home countries once conflicts are over.

Refugee (Geneva Convention) status versus subsidiary and humanitarian protection

Formally recognised refugees are judged to be facing a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership of a particular social group” and for these reasons are unwilling or unable to return to their home country. So-called “subsidiary protection” applies to those who do not qualify as refugees but would “face a real risk of suffering serious harm” if returned to their country of origin. Finally, rejected asylum seekers can be allowed to stay temporarily on “humanitarian status” to protect individuals such as the terminally ill or unaccompanied minors.

The table below illustrates the status of those granted international protection last year. The cross-country variance is striking: Germany granted 97 per cent of asylum seekers Refugee (Geneva Convention) status but Slovakia only six percent. The difference can be explained by different asylum policies, not the characteristics of asylum seekers themselves.

Typically, recognised refugees receive a temporary residence permit for three years, after which the government can indeed review the situation of the country of origin. (Those with “subsidiary” and “humanitarian” protection usually receive a one-year temporary residence.)

Yet it is unclear what debate in Germany the Interior Ministry State Secretary is referring to. The European refugee crisis of the 1990s displaced 2.5 million in the former Yugoslavia and its successor states. The 350,000 refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina who fled to Germany were only provided temporary protection status, because European neighbours were not willing to provide them long-term asylum. Their cases were also not individually reviewed, as is required under the Refugee Convention. This meant that they were immediately repatriated after the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement. Most, if not all, of the Bosnian war refugees returned, resettled in the United States or have become German citizens.

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Iraqi refugee family’s appeal rejected by Vilnius court

The Vilnius Regional Administrative Court yesterday rejected an appeal by an Iraqi refugee family who arrived in the Lithuanian capital under the European Union’s refugee relocation programme in December 2015, the Lithuania Tribune reported.

The family had appealed against the Lithuanian Migration Department’s decision in February to grant them subsidiary (temporary) protection instead of full-fledged refugee status.

Refugee status grants permanent residency whereas subsidiary protection provides only temporary residence, which can be revoked once the situation in the country of origin improves.

“The asylum seekers failed to provide sufficient arguments regarding individual persecution directed directly against them and their minor children,” the court motivated its decision to dismiss the case in a press release. Judge Arūnas Kaminskas told reporters that the Migration Department had adequately assessed the family’s situation in Iraq, according to the Lithuania Tribune.

The family of four was the first that arrived in Lithuania under the EU relocation scheme, through which EU member states will take 160,000 refugees that are stranded in Greece and Italy by the end of 2017.

Under the EU programme there are no specific provisions about the exact status (refugee or subsidiary protection) relocated asylum seekers will need to be provided by host countries.

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5 reasons the EU-Turkey deal won’t end the Syrian refugee crisis

After months of negotiations, the 28 European Union leaders and the Turkish government last weekend reached an agreement to slow the refugee influx from Turkey. In exchange for taking back Syrian refugees who crossed to Europe illegally, the EU will accept refugees from Turkey, along with 6 billion euros ($6.7 billion) and a renewed prospect for Turkey to join the EU.

Full article published in Dallas Morning News on 23 March 2016.

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Photo essay: Africa’s last colony


SMARA – The Sahrawis were displaced during the Western Sahara War (1975-76) by Moroccan forces and have been living in refugees camps near Tindouf, Algeria ever since. With most of the estimated 90,000 to 135,000 Sahrawis still living in the camps, their situation is one of the most protracted refugee crisis in the world.

The limited opportunities for self-reliance in the harsh desert environment have forced the Sahrawis to rely on international humanitarian assistance for their survival. However, the Sahrawi camps differ from most refugee camps in the level of self-organisation. Most affairs in camps are run by the refugees themselves, with relatively little outside interference. The five camps are governed by the Polisario Front, the government of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). SADR’s government in exile and administration are located in the Rabouni refugee camp.

A photo essay.

Boy helping out his parents who own a garage in the Smara refugee camp
Boy helping out his parents who own a garage in the Smara refugee camp
Torrential rains destroyed mud-brick homes, shops, hospitals, schools, and roads last October
Torrential rains destroyed mud-brick homes, shops, hospitals, schools and roads last October
Young Sahrawis learn to box
Young Sahrawis learn to box. The banner reads “Boxing school. Resist and win”.
Man crossing main road of the Smara refugee camp
Man crossing main road of the Smara refugee camp
Elementary school pupils heading home
Elementary school pupils heading home
"Long live the RASD [Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic]"
“Long live the RASD [Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic]”
Outskirts of the Smara refugee camp
Outskirts of Smara refugee camp where goats are contained in makeshift fenced boxes
"Long live the RASD [Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic]"
Monthly distribution of flour by the World Food Program
"Long live the RASD [Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic]"
Banner for divestment campaign in Western Sahara, which Morocco has opened up to foreign companies to mine for phosphate and harvest fish.
Tea time in a Sahrawi household
Tea time in a Sahrawi household
Sahrawis celebrating 40th anniversary of the proclamation of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic on February 26
Sahrawis celebrating 40th anniversary of the proclamation of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic on February 26
Stationary military parade by the Sahrawi People's Liberation Army on 40th anniversary of the proclamation of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, February 26
Stationary military parade by the Sahrawi People’s Liberation Army on 40th anniversary of the proclamation of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, February 26
President of the Republic, Secretary General of the Polisario Front
President of the Republic, Secretary General of the Polisario Front, Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, Mohamed Abdelaziz (left) speaks with the Minister of National Defence, Abdellah Lehbib.
Armored brigade of Sahrawi People's Liberation Army
Armored brigade of Sahrawi People’s Liberation Army
Soldiers of the Sahrawi People's Liberation Army
Soldiers of the Sahrawi People’s Liberation Army, men of all ages, who are mainly recruited from the inhabitants of the refugee camps
Entrance to the dilapidated Museum of National Resistance
Entrance to the dilapidated Museum of National Resistance, which tells the story of the struggle for independence of the Sahrawis, in the Rabouni refugee camp, seat of the Polisario Front government in exile.
Cemetery near the Smara refugee camp
Cemetery near the Smara refugee camp, where Sahrawis have buried their dead in the past 40 years
Sandstorm in the Smara refugee camp
Sandstorm in the Smara refugee camp

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Cholera outbreak hits refugee camps in Kenya

TORONTO – A cholera outbreak in the world’s largest refugee camp in Kenya has now killed at least 12 people and sickened over 1,500 amid rains linked to El Niño.

Health workers and humanitarian agencies fear cholera will spread to other camps and refugee settlements in East Africa when the rainy season starts next month.

Cholera, a water-borne bacterial illness transmitted through contaminated drinking water causes fever, vomiting and watery diarrhea, flared up in November in Kenya’s Dadaab and Alinjugar camps. The first victim was a boy who had played in contaminated water pools at the camps, which house 348,000 refugees and asylum-seekers, the majority who have fled violence in neighbouring Somalia.

In Dadaab and other refugee camps and settlements in the region, there have been outbreaks in 2011, 2013 and 2014, but were always isolated cases that could be stopped immediately.

Neighbouring counties in Kenya have also been effected by cholera, as well as next-door Tanzania. But, camps and other temporary settlements are at higher risk due to the limited drinking water and sanitation infrastructure.

“From Ethiopia to Haiti to Papua New Guinea, we are seeing the damage from El Niño, and we believe the impact on public health is likely to continue throughout 2016, even after El Niño winds down,” warned Dr Richard Brennan of the World Health Organization (WHO) last month. “To prevent unnecessary deaths and illnesses, governments must invest now in strengthening their preparedness and response efforts.” Doctors Without Borders (MSF) recently added cholera as one of the five epidemics to look out for in 2016.

The current El Niño from 2015 to 2016 is predicted to be the worst in recent years, and comparable to the El Niño in 1997-1998, which had major health consequences globally.

El Niño is a weather pattern caused by Pacific Ocean warming. It has brought massive droughts to parts of Eastern and Southern Africa, while countries around the Great Lakes region like Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda face unusually heavy rainfall and flooding.

Increased displacement in the Great Lakes region, including people fleeing conflicts in Burundi and Mozambique, has also put displaced peoples camps in neighbouring countries like Malawi at risk. “Clearly, places that are overcrowded are at higher risk,” said Dr. Dominique Legros, cholera focal point at WHO’s Department for Pandemic & Endemic Diseases in a telephone interview.

The cholera outbreak in Dadaab is now under control and has not reached other major refugee camps settlements in Kakuma (northeastern Kenya), Nairobi and Mombassa. An outbreak control team from the UN refugee agency UNHCR and partners has worked with the Kenyan Health Ministry and Department of Refugee Affairs officials to treat cases and stamp out the disease at the sprawling Dadaab complex with increased levels of chlorine, which kills cholera-causing bacteria, at water points in the camps. Better hygiene, especially the use of latrines and hand washing with soap, has been promoted through hourly public announcements. Each refugee also received 250-gram bars of soap with the latest food distribution, and this will continue monthly for several months, according to Mr. Duke Mwancha, spokesperson for UNHCR in Kenya.

Now the emphasis will be on prevention. In January, WHO approved a third cholera vaccine in order to increase its global stockpile. These vaccines can contribute to preventing outbreaks among populations living in high-risk areas, where usual control measures are not sufficient. The vaccine was pre-emptively administered in refugee camps in Tanzania after one outbreak.

“The vaccine is not the silver bullet, it is a new tool to help,” said Dr. Monica Rull, operational health advisor for MSF in Geneva. There is a limited stock of the cholera vaccines. It is mainly used during humanitarian emergencies when it is administered pre-emptively, as in Tanzania last year, or reactively to contain an outbreak, as is now being done in new refugee camps in Malawi. Both Dr. Rull and Dr. Legros emphasize that the vaccines are to be used in combination with traditional cholera control measures. “It’s vaccine and awareness raising and access to safe water and treatment of patients,” said Dr. Legros.

Cholera is a disease that spreads very quickly. “If you want to contain an outbreak […] you really need to detect it as soon as possible,” said Dr. Legros.

WHO will organize a regional meeting with the ministries of health, humanitarian agencies and political leaders in Nairobi next month to review the response to cholera outbreaks and how to prepare for future responses.

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