Côte d'Ivoire + 5 more

JRS Dispatches No. 176

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REFUGEE NEWS BRIEFINGS

1. COTE D'IVOIRE: POLITICAL REFORMS NEED TO BE ENACTED

On 15 July President Laurent Gbagbo announced that he had legislated by decree a series of political reforms demanded as a prelude to disarmament by rebels in control of the north of Cote d'Ivoire.

On 18 July, a spokesperson for the New Forces rebel movement issued a statement welcoming the steps but said that the group was waiting to see the small print. Parliamentary opposition leaders said they were dismayed that the reforms had not been submitted to parliament for scrutiny and approval in the normal manner.

President Gbagbo used special powers available to him under article 48 of the constitution to legislate the reforms, agreed to at a peace summit with rebel and opposition leaders in the South African capital Pretoria at the end of June.

According to President Gbagbo the reforms related to the composition and powers of the Independent Electoral Commission, which is due to organise presidential elections on 30 October, and several laws concerning the right to Ivorian nationality and the rights of immigrants to Cote d'Ivoire from other West African countries, as well as the financing of political parties and the creation of a national human rights commission.

The Pretoria Two agreement, negotiated under the aegis of South African President and African Union mediator Thabo Mbeki, called for all these reforms to be on the statute book by 15 July.

If acceptable to the rebels, the way will be clear for some 40,000 rebel combatants to start heading for a series of agreed cantonment sites on 31 July, where they will remain until disarmed by UN peacekeepers between 26 September and 3 October.

However, under the terms of the June agreement, President Gbagbo must also disarm pro government militias by 20 August. Previous attempts to do so have failed as the militia leaders have accused the government of not respecting its reform commitments.

2. UGANDA: NUMBER OF ASYLUM SEEKERS ADMITTED INTO THE SYSTEM DROPS

In June, JRS Uganda reported a drop in the number JRS-assisted asylum seekers being admitted into the asylum procedure to 81 from 100 in May.

"Many applicants have informed us that the police refused to register their asylum claims (locally referred to as preliminary registration) as required by law in Uganda", Juliet Nandawula, Urban Programme Director, JRS Uganda, said to
Dispatches on 20 July.

The majority of asylum seekers interviewed by the authorities in June were from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Somalia. Other nationalities included applicants from Burundi, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya and Sudan.

Those from the DRC claim to fled from a variety of reasons, including conflict between government and rebel forces in eastern DRC, ethnic conflict, forced recruitment into rebel or government armed forces, general insecurity etc.

The majority of the clients interviewed were exhausted after having walked long distances and having slept rough for days. Many were ill, in particular children, and some were in immediate need of emergency support and medical attention.

Most Congolese, as well as the majority of Rwandans and Somalis, are recognised as refugees without an individual procedure to assess whether or not they would face persecution if sent back home and are subsequently sent to refugee camps.

"We anticipate that many will not be admitted or may not be in a position to live in the camps. So we have decided to set aside sufficient resources to provide food aid to some 200 cases per month, as well as the counselling services we provide to our clients", added Ms Nandawula.

3. USA: NGOS URGE GOVERNMENT TO ACT TO PROTECT RWANDAN REFUGEES

On 1 July JRS USA, in cooperation with a number of NGOs including the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants and Refugees International, raised their concerns to the US Secretary of State Dr. Condoleeza Rice about the forced repatriation of Rwandan refugees carried out by the governments of Rwanda and Burundi on 13 June. The organisations described the repatriations as a blatant
violation of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.

The NGOs said that they were shocked by what had happened. The government of Burundi, under pressure from the government of Rwanda, declared that the 8,000 Rwandan asylum seekers in Burundi were ineligible for asylum, designating them as illegal immigrants, and thereby clearing the way to forcibly expel them from Burundi.

"The government of Rwanda has justified its actions by stating that the asylum seekers were fleeing prosecution from the upcoming gacaca (local) trials. Testimonies collected in the field, however, indicate that many of the asylum seekers cited other reasons for their flight, including serious acts of intimidation and violence by Rwandan local authorities", said Ms Mitzi Schroeder, Policy
Director, JRS USA.

"We are gravely concerned that the recent forced repatriation has not only returned bona fide refugees to danger, but, if allowed to stand unchallenged, could set a dangerous precedent endangering the well-being of hundreds of thousands of people seeking asylum in the Great Lakes region", the organisations said urging the US government to act.

We urge you to insist that the Rwandan government provide guarantees that the safety and dignity of those returned from Burundi will be ensured, and that these guarantees be subject to effective international monitoring. We further urge you to meet immediately with representatives from the governments of Rwanda and Burundi to protest their actions and to insist that non-refoulement obligations
under the Refugee Convention toward all asylum seekers in the region be respected", the organisations added.

4. CAMBODIA: 100 MONTAGNARDS FORCED BACK TO VIETNAM

On 20 July over 100 ethnic Vietnamese Montagnards in Cambodia were forcibly returned to Vietnam. JRS Cambodia expressed its concern that they may face arrest, abuse and even persecution on their return.

Although the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency believes these individuals did not meet the requirements for refugee status, many NGOs have been calling for a re- screening of their asylum applications.

On 20 July, Refugees International, an international NGO, stated that many of these Montagnards have legitimate fears of being persecuted in Vietnam and should have received refugee status, thereby permitting them to remain in Cambodia or be resettled to another country.

The group which was sent back on 20 July was part of approximately 700 Montagnards who fled from the Central Highlands in Vietnam to Cambodia in 2004. According to reports by Human Rights Watch this ethnic minority is subject to harassment, land confiscation and other forms of discrimination. Vietnamese authorities have severely limited their Christian religious practices. Many Montagnards assisted the U.S. during the Vietnam War and thousands of them have previously been brought to live in the U.S. Indeed, the US government had offered to consider resettling the screened-out Montagnards as well, but the 20 July repatriation may preclude this.

Refugees International raised concerns that although the Vietnamese government pledged to allow UNHCR to monitor their return to Vietnam, there is no guarantee that UNHCR will get the access needed to interview the returnees independently and gauge how they are being treated. Experience suggests that such access will be closely monitored by the Vietnamese authorities.

5. INTERNATIONAL: UNHCR BUDGET SHORTFALL

From the 28 to 30 June, the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, held its Standing Committee Meeting in Geneva. The meeting, attended by government representatives of the UNHCR's Executive Committee and accredited NGOs and governments, is held three times a year, principally to discuss budgetary and protection aspects of UNHCR's work, as well as the five commitments it has
made to refugee women.

"In the budget debates, UNHCR highlighted that there is still an expenditure shortfall of 136 million US dollars for 2005 leading to cuts in refugee programmes. Such cuts obviously affect all of UNHCR's activities", said Ms Anne-Christine Bloch, JRS Geneva Representative.

"It was noted by many participants that the protection needs of refugees were not being met. Lower numbers of refugees were being afforded protection and the food crises in many refugee camps were negatively affecting the quality of protection provided", added Ms Bloch.

In the light of UNHCR's new policy of resettling some internally displaced persons (IDPs) in safe countries Argentina and the EU, among others, offered to provide IDPs with protection.

Positively, the discussion on local integration focused on the need to make a clear distinction between self-reliance of refugees and local integration. Many participants noted that economic self-reliance contributes to local integration but it is not sufficient. There is a need to provide a framework whereby refugees can be naturalised and assistance is provided to them to integrate into the social and
cultural fabric of their adopted societies.

UNHCR also presented a progress report on its implementation of the High Commissioner's five commitments to refugee women. The commitments were drawn up after direct consultations with refugee women. The commitments are an attempt to address the problems faced by refugee women on a daily basis. UNHCR was quite open in admitting its failure to make a lot of progress on the implementation of these commitments.

6. SRI LANKA: POLITICAL INSTABILITY STIFLING PROCESS

"Despite significant progress over the last three years, Sri Lanka finds itself at a crossroads. Stalled peace talks and recent feuding between rebel Tamil groups, has put substantial pressure on the December 2001 ceasefire", said Fr Vinny Joseph SJ, JRS Sri Lanka Director.

Following elections in April 2004, a more hard-line SLPF/ JVP government was elected. The tsunami disaster on 26 December 2004 raised hopes of rapprochement between the two protagonists. But the peace process is still limping. Virtual division of the country into Government controlled and rebel controlled areas complicated systematic delivery of aid. Resettlement and infrastructure development continued to suffer.

Moreover, in April 2005, a splinter of the LTTE, the LTTE east, clashed with LTTE, leaving a few hundred dead. The LTTE accused the military of having played a major role in evacuating the splinter rebel group. It has warned the government that this type of assistance poses a major threat to the already fragile truce and the stalled peace talks. This followed a number of other accusations of
attacks on the rebel LTTE forces earlier in the year.

On June 24 the Sri Lanka government concluded a deal on the distribution of tsunami funds with the LTTE. However, one of the left leaning government parties, the JVP, brought a case to the court concerning this deal. On 15 July, the Supreme Court suspended the agreement until its ruling, expected in September.

For further information see www.jrs.net/reports

7. INDIA: SRI LANKAN REFUGEES WANT TO RETURN HOME

Speaking to the JRS International and South Asians teams, Sri Lankan refugees repeatedly expressed their desire to return home. From the 22 July to 24 July, JRS International Director, South Asia Regional Director, JRS India Director and the JRS International Communications Coordinator visited 9 camps in southern and central Tamil Nadu state, in southern India.

On 22 February 2002 a ceasefire between the Tamil rebels and the Sri Lankan government was signed and negotiations on a final settlement began. Consequently many ethnic Tamil refugees began returning home. Some 6,000 have returned since 2002 with the assistance from the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency; while many more (up to 20,000) have returned unassisted. Refugees who return without the assistance of the UNHCR often face difficulties accessing support in Sri Lanka.

According to the refugees in many of the camps visited, if supported they would return home tomorrow. Nevertheless, they did say that recent reports from family and friends in northeast of Sri Lanka, cautioned them from returning at the moment. They spoke of insecurity and a belief that unless something is done, the ceasefire is in danger of breaking down.

Addressing each group Fr PS Amal SJ, undertook that JRS South Asia would be encouraging the UNHCR to restart their assisted voluntary return programme. Although some NGOs in the area have suggested that it is too dangerous to return, Fr Amal said that JRS would ensure that the refugees were in possession of all the facts. He said it was up to each family to decide what in their particular
circumstances was best for them and their families.

For further information see www.jrs.net/reports

UPDATES ON JRS PROJECTS AND ACTIVITIES

8. SOUTH ASIA: EMPOWER REFUGEES TO DEMAND THEIR RIGHTS

"The concept of citizenship in South Asian states doesn't leave any room for minorities. It just doesn't take the heterogeneous nature of South Asian societies into account. It is an attempt to marginalise difference. In India, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, majorities attempt to construe the nations in their own image", said Fr Aloysius Irudayam SJ addressing the JRS South Asian Annual Regional Meeting.

The JRS South Asian Annual Regional Meeting took place from the 17 to 20 July in Bangalore, in southern India. It comprised of four days of intense discussion on a variety of issues. Fr Robert Cutinha SJ, JRS Nepal addressed JRS staff on Spirituality and the JRS mission, where he told them that spirituality started with an analysis of their weakness and doing what the refugees needed not what the staff wanted. He said JRS needed to provide skills to the refugees to lobby for sustainable change.

JRS country directors and regional office discussed the challenges facing their work. On 20 July debates were held on humane face of JRS, education towards a new order, refugee rights and communication challenges. The Annual Meeting ended with a number of suggestions from JRS staff on how: refugees could be skilled, to enhance solidarity among refugees and to create a movement for change and finally how JRS could improve its communication and advocacy work.
For further information see www.jrs.net/reports

9. NEPAL: CONFLICT POSES A THREAT TO STABILITY IN THE REFUGEE CAMPS

"Nepal is engulfed by conflict, displacing as many as two million people. There has been increasing anti-social activities in the refugee camps over the last two years. Until and unless these young refugees are engaged in meaningful activities they pose a threat to the peace and harmony of the camp and to the host country Nepal", Fr Varkey Perekatt SJ, JRS Nepal Director, .told JRS South
Asia Annual Regional Meeting on 18 July.

He described the how the nine year rebel Maoist insurgency had affected the country throughout the last 12 months, aggravated by the inability of the main political parties to agree a way out of the present crisis. Presently Nepal is an absolute monarchy and consequently the population is denied an opportunity to determine their future. This Fr Varkey felt was fuelling the present crisis and
lending credibility to claims made by the Maoists.

The Bhutanese refugees have been in eastern Nepal for over 15 years. The present political instability has further diverted attention away from the Bhutanese refugee issues.

"Neither the Bhutanese nor the Nepali governments wish to commit themselves to accepting the refugees. The Bhutanese government has offered to allow less than 2% of the refugees the unconditional right of return, while the Nepali government does not seem serious about integrating the refugees into the local population", added Fr Varkey.

For further information see www.jrs.net/reports

10. WEST AFRICA: RETREATS BENEFIT STAFF

To mark the 25th anniversary of the organisation's establishment, Jesuit Refugee Service staff in West Africa attended a week-long spiritual and team-building retreat.

"The retreat offered an opportunity for our staff to reinvest itself in our work's mission. It also helped cultivate a shared sense of purpose and identity, which is just as important, especially for a region as young as this", said Fr Mateo Aguirre, SJ, JRS West Africa Regional Director.

In order to accommodate the different languages spoken by the staff, two retreats were offered, one for English-speakers in Gbarnga, Liberia, followed by another in French in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire. In all, 28 staff members participated in the two retreats, which ran from 13 July to 24 July.

Fr Christophe Renders, SJ, JRS Belgium director, led both retreats, during which he invited participants to deepen the relationship between their work and the JRS' mission.

"It's important to take time to place our day-to-day activities within a larger spiritual context, especially given the nature of our work. That's why the retreat focused on certain JRS foundational documents and was designed around the dynamics of the Spiritual Exercises", explained Fr. Renders.

Comments by the participants suggested the retreats also provided a valuable opportunity for team-building and intra-regional networking.

"I learned who is where and doing what in our region. Practically speaking, the retreat provided a variety of examples and strategies to improve the approach we take in our work", said Sr. Marie Agnes Soropogui, JRS Guinea Director.

Beyond the individual spiritual component of the retreat, these past two weeks allowed the numerous newly-arrived volunteers in Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire to develop a deeper understanding of the work of JRS. Six of the 11 staff in Liberia, as well as four Jesuit novices, have recently arrived.

"Ultimately, I hope it helped the participants to get a sense of what we aspire to do in JRS, and to renew their desire to accompany, serve and defend the rights of refugees and displaced persons", added Fr. Renders.