JRS Dispatches No. 185
Twice monthly news bulletin from the Jesuit Refugee Service International Office
REFUGEE NEWS BRIEFINGS
SRI LANKA: FEAR OF RENEWED
Since December, there have been six major deadly attacks on military personnel in Sri Lanka. About 70 soldiers and sailors have been killed in those and other incidents. Rebel LTTE (known as the Tamil Tigers) supporters say more than 40 ethnic Tamils have been killed by the security forces in a series of attacks over the same period.
The Norwegian peace envoy Erik Solheim urged for renewal of peace talks stalled in 2003.
"There is no time to lose," he said.
The situation in Sri Lanka has been worsening since the assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar on 12 August last year in a gun attack, a Tamil, but a critic of the Tigers. Though the government accused the Tigers of the killing, they denied it. The government declared a national state of emergency. The Tigers boycotted the election that followed, in which hardliner Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected the president.
As the year ended, violence escalated and the government blamed the Tiger rebels for a string of attacks on soldiers. The latest high-profile casualty is Joseph Pararajasingam, a member of parliament for Tamil National Alliance - the Tigers' political allies - who was gunned down at a Christmas mass. While the government pinned the blame on the Tigers, Pararajasingam's allies pointed a finger at pro-government militias.
The targeting of civilians in counter-insurgency operations is becoming part of the escalating cycle of violence in the northeast. Not even places of worship have been spared.
"The government and the LTTE should immediately resume their peace talks and resolve their differences instead of engaging in increasing violence. Both sides should show a greater degree of flexibility to accommodate each other's conditions for the resumption of peace talks as each day of delay adds to the human costs of conflict", Mr Paul Newman, Regional Advocacy Officer, JRS Southeast Asia.
"With both the sides flexing their muscles, it looks like a tough task at the moment", added Mr Newman.
For further information see www.jrs.net/reports
INDONESIA: TSUNAMI ONE YEAR ON
On 26 December it was a year since the tsunami tragedy which cost the lives of almost 240,000 people across Southeast Asia and almost 160,000 in the Indonesian province of Aceh.
"Over the year JRS teams in the region have witnessed the many challenges faced by the tsunami affected populations and are impressed by the achievements of the survivors. But so much more remains to be done, and there have been enormous challenges and inevitably some mistakes made," said Ms Els Coolen, Advocacy Manager, JRS Indonesia.
"Despite the difficulties, advances are being made. We welcome the publication of the Indonesian government blueprint for the rehabilitation and reconstruction of Aceh. The plan requires non governmental organisations (NGOs) and the local population to agree to reconstruction programmes before their implementation in coordination with the BRR, the relevant government agency. This is already having a positive impact on NGOs taking a more participative approach", added Ms Coolen.
Countries and individuals around the world have shown great solidarity with the survivors. One year after the devastating tsunami, it is time to stop considering the people of Aceh as victims.
Among other activities in 2005, JRS built 74 houses, with 53 more in progress, out of 545 planned. JRS employed 179 assistant teachers, provided 427 students with scholarships and delivered more than 16,000 education materials to schools and its health team treated around 15,000 patients. Moreover, over 230 beneficiaries received training and basic finance to establish small businesses.
INDIA: BHUTANESE REFUGEES PROTEST AT THE BORDER
On 17 December Reuters news agency reported that some 60 people were injured when Indian police used batons to push back hundreds of Nepal-based Bhutanese refugees who were trying to enter India in order to return to Bhutan.
About 100,000 ethnic Nepali Bhutanese have been living in camps in eastern Nepal on the border with India since Bhutan's king stripped them of citizenship and forced them to leave after they campaigned for democracy in the early 1990s. Despite 15 rounds of bilateral negotiations, stalled since 2003, between Bhutan and Nepal on repatriation from which UNHCR has been excluded, not a single refugee has returned home.
On 15 December, around 1,000 Bhutanese refugees gathered on the India-Nepal border for a meeting to mark the Bhutanese National Day, but later allegedly tried to force their way into India.
The refugees have to travel through the Indian state of West Bengal to reach Bhutan from eastern Nepal. The skirmishes that ensued left about 60 people injured, some of them requiring hospitalisation.
The organisers of the rally denied they were violent. They described the meeting as peaceful but did admit that some of the refugees may have crossed the border unintentionally.
Following an attempt to return home in early August, UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, called on the refugees to stay in their camps where it can provide them with aid rather than get stranded on the border.
"Given the current situation in Nepal, UNHCR believes that resettlement opportunities for some Bhutanese refugees who have been in the country for the last 15 years, should now be seized", said Ron Redmond, UNHCR spokesperson on 13 January 2006, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.
ZAMBIA: CUTS IN REFUGEE RATION
According to IRIN, the UN news agency, Congolese and Angolan refugees in Zambia will face a bleak new year with the threat of a 50 percent cut in food rations in 2006 unless urgent funding is secured.
On 23 December, the UN World Food Programme (WFP), the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, and the government of Zambia appealed for US $8.5 million to provide food aid for up to 82,000 refugees.
Although WFP had a stable food aid pipeline for refugees up to December this year, the agency has received no contributions for 2006.
"Zambia, of course, is in the midst of a famine itself with an estimated two million out of 11 million people without food. Government resources cannot support its own people, so you can imagine where refugees come. At the same time, the government sees the food shortage as a potential security issue and is most concerned", said Fr Michael Gallagher SJ, Regional Advocacy Officer, JRS Southern Africa.
"From past experience, I would anticipate that a percentage of the refugee community will interpret 50% rations as a way of saying they are no longer welcome in Zambia", added Fr Gallagher.
From the 1970s Zambia has hosted refugees from neighbouring countries. Since the end of Angola's long-running civil war in 2002, UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration have organised the voluntary repatriation of over 63,000 Angolans. Many more have returned under their own steam.
C=D4TE D'IVOIRE: RECENT ATTACKS SIGN OF INSTABILITY, ONGOING SUFFERING IN COUNTRY
Nearly 300 heavily-armed assailants launched pre-dawn attacks against military bases in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire on 2 January, just five days after the interim Prime Minister presented his newly appointed government to the country. Despite being relatively isolated, the attacks cast fresh doubts over the hope that the new government will be able to fulfil its mandate.
At 5.30am following New Year's celebrations, sounds of artillery and rifle-fire echoed throughout the city of Abidjan, the economic capital of Côte d'Ivoire. Two military bases were targeted and one was seized by assailants though soon recaptured by government forces. By 10am, military spokesmen announced they had regained control of the situation. While officials reported 10 casualties and 34 arrests, including some loyalist troops, the identities of the assailants remain unknown.
Among the numerous speculations in the press surrounding the motive behind the attacks are theories of an attempted coup d'état or a mutiny of discontented loyalist soldiers.
Regardless of the actual motive, the fact that such attacks occurred draws attention to the instability underlying the political situation in the country. This volatility has been evident since the beginning of the crisis in September 2002 when the country was split in two following a failed coup d'état.
"Despite countless efforts at mediation and numerous signed peace accords, none of the parties implicated have demonstrated the political will to bring the conflict to a peaceful resolution. Instead, personal interests and aims at political power took priority, which created distrust among the actors. The resulting 'no war, no peace' situation of the past three years has sapped the confidence of the Ivorian people in their leaders", said Fr. Mateo Aguirre SJ, JRS West Africa Director.
However, the new transitional government, led by Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny, appointed recently on 8 December under a United Nations-backed peace plan has revived hopes for an end to the conflict. Made up of a representative balance of those involved in the conflict, the new government was formed after 24 days of difficult negotiations between the current ruling parties. The transitional government is mandated to oversee disarmament and reunification of the country in order to hold elections by 31 October 2006.
Mr. Robert Boedeker, JRS Côte d'Ivoire Director, made a call to the parties involved in the reconciliation to "put the needs of the Ivorian people before their own interests and to find the political will necessary to bring this situation to a peaceful end".
TANZANIA: GOVERNMENT PRESSURES RELUCTANT REFUGEES TO RETURN HOME
From its peak of 5,000 refugee returns from Tanzania to Burundi in August, the number had dropped to less than 500 a month by the end of December.
According to UNHCR, the UN refugee agency this is explained by cyclical factors as refugees are less willing to return home during the rainy season and wish to leave after they have harvested their crops to ensure they have enough food to last them until the next season.
Continued military activity of the Front national de liberation (FNL) rebel group and rumours in the camp that each person wishing to do so must present a receipt proving financial contributions to the CNDD-FDD are also discouraging refugees from returning home.
However, despite fears of persecution in Burundi, mounting pressure by Tanzanian officials is being placed on refugees to return. According to Radio Kwizera, a JRS-run refugee station, the Kibondo district commissioner in northeastern Tanzania, John Muzulikwao, told the refugees there on 5 December that he would close two of the three camps in the area in the next three months.
Muzulikwao's visit was followed by more restrictive measures such as stopping all refugees from working for relief organisations in the camp because, he said, jobs encouraged them to remain in Tanzania. He was acting in compliance with Tanzanian law banning all income-generating activities in the camps. In August, police destroyed all the shops in the camps.
Afraid of returning home and of staying, many refugees feel trapped. Many refugees have signed up for repatriation as a precautionary measure against sudden expulsion, as happened with Rwandan refugees in 1996.
GUINEA: ELECTION RESULTS DISPUTED AMIDST ONGOING INSTABILITY
For the third time in their country's history, Guineans went to the polls in local and regional elections on 18 December 2005. The process was marked by low voter turn-out and opposition parties' accusations of fraud. The results, announced on 29 December, handed an overwhelming victory to the ruling party, the Party of Unity and Progress (PUP), which won 31 of 38 urban councils and 241 of 303 rural councils.
Established by presidential decree earlier in 2005, the elections formed part of a package of reforms promoted by the Prime Minister Cello Dalein Diallo in an attempt to convince the international community of Guinea's commitment to democracy, good governance and human rights. Observers and diplomats in Guinea have noted numerous irregularities in the course of the election process but remarked that the event itself was largely peaceful and organized.
Immediately after the elections, the opposition parties denounced the polls as fraudulent. Following arrests during post-election demonstrations, the Union for Progress and Renewal announced it was withdrawing its 20 parliamentary members in protest at the election results, reported Reuters News Agency.
The elections appear at the end of a year fraught with growing unrest over deteriorating living conditions and political instability. The International Crisis Group reported in June 2005 that "the country risks becoming Africa's next failed state". During the past year the country's currency depreciated by over 50% and the cost of a 50kg sack of rice rose well-beyond what most Guineans earn in a month. Basic utility services like water and electricity are largely non-existent in the capital, Conakry, let alone in the rest of the country.
Additionally, concerns over the health of the aging president and uncertainty over his successors have fuelled fears of a coup d'état. Rumours of possible divisions in the military were heightened with the announcement of forced retirements scheduled to take place on 31 December, though as of yet no related problems have surfaced.
"There are many signs that living conditions are worsening for average Guineans. We had hoped that the elections would offer a chance to respond to conditions before they deteriorated any further. JRS is concerned that the situation may get worse before it gets better, especially for Guinea's rural inhabitants", Sr. Maria Irizar, JRS Guinea Director, told Dispatches on 13 January.
KOSOVO: EMERGENCY RELOCATION OF IDPS
On 9 January Camp Osterode in Mitrovica, northern Kosovo, was declared ready for temporary relocation of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) of the Roma-Ashkali- Egyptian (RAE) communities currently living in substandard camps of Zitkovc, Kablar and Cesmin Lug. This is a major milestone in efforts by the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo and its partners to solve the problems of those families originating from the Roma Mahala settlement, as it gives the IDPs an adequate temporary home.
The camp opened on 9 January to receive the RAE IDPs who were invited to be housed there temporarily until the ongoing reconstruction of their permanent homes in Mitrovica is completed. For those who do not originate from Mahala, other durable solutions are also currently being pursued.
Camp Osterode, recently vacated by the French peacekeepers, has been refurbished with generous contributions from several international donors. The Camp offers access to health and hygiene infrastructure, social supports, children's programmes as well as employment and training opportunities for the IDPs who can be temporarily housed there.
For several months now, health services at the three Roma camps have been reinforced. However, given the high lead contamination in the old camps, experts are of the view that serious health consequences for the residents cannot be effectively assisted through on-site medical interventions. Particularly, it was noted, medical treatment for lead toxicity cannot be begun with anyone who would return after treatment to the existing camps. Camp Osterode, on the other hand, would be a safe environment after treatment.
Camp Osterode is an interim facility developed to house some 560 individuals from 125 families currently living in three camps. Most of the IDPs are displaced from the Roma Mahala that was destroyed during the conflict in 1999. Reconstruction of the Roma Mahala has started.