REFUGEE NEWS BRIEFINGS
1. Sri Lanka: authorities open closed camps
On 1 December, Manik Farm camp in the northern city of Vavuniya finally opened its doors. According to the Sri Lankan authorities, 130,000 ethnic Tamil civilians, who have been detained since late May, will now be able to come and go as they wish.
From August to late November, the authorities returned about 140,000 people to their home areas or to host families. For months, they were held in prison-like conditions, under army supervision and denied freedom of movement with very limited access to the outside world.
Those still in Manik Farm, the latest of these camps, are civilians accused of cooperating with the rebel Tamil group, the LTTE. They are believed to be principally from Kilinochchi, the former capital of the LTTE and Mullaitivu, theatre of the last battle between rebel and government forces.
"People are happy to be finally able to leave the camps. For the most part, they are looking for a way to join their close relatives. But few have the courage to return to their home villages, some of which have been almost completely destroyed or are still heavily mined and littered with unexploded devices", a local missionary who requested anonymity told MISNA news agency.
Displaced persons said nobody has received the promised government support of transport, food and money to join their relatives. Others speak of being told they must return to the camps within a week or lose their right to assistance during the final phase of relocation to their home villages.
UN agencies and the international community have repeatedly criticised living conditions and the heavy security in the camps. According to Human Rights Watch, more than 11,000 individuals, suspected of LTTE involvement, continue to be detained in these so-called 'rehabilitation centres'.
Fr Ken Gavin SJ, JRS USA Director, was in Sri Lanka for a week in early December attending a meeting with his fellow regional directors. Among the issues on their agenda were reconciliation and its role in the mission of JRS.
The choice of location was far from arbitrary. During the 25 years of conflict, both Tamil rebel and government forces were accused of committing serious human rights abuses. While life appears once again normal for the fishing families along the eastern Trincomalee coast, deep scars from natural disasters and war lie hidden just below the surface of daily reality. JRS advocacy should be seen not just in terms of promoting solidarity with the victims, but also facilitating reconciliation between victims and victors, said Fr Gavin.
2. Thailand: refugee children, falling between the gaps
"A more comprehensive approach to protecting refugee children needs to be encouraged in Thailand", Jennifer Titmuss, JRS Thailand Mae Sot Urban Refugee Project Director, told Dispatches on 11 December.
Ms Titmuss said JRS Thailand assisted more than 1,300 urban asylum seekers in the border town of Mae Sot last year, some of whom were children. Urban asylum seekers who are 'officially deported' back to Burma risk imprisonment, forced labour, extortion, torture or disappearance.
This is what happened to a former child soldier who approached JRS for support. Myat Zaw (not his real name) came to Thailand seeking safety, but was deported by the authorities and spent months detained in an army camp before he was able to escape and come back to Thailand.
Like many other asylum seekers in the country, he feared going to one of the many NGO-run safe-houses available to refugees. Myat Zaw contacted staff from the JRS Mae Sot Urban Refugee Programme who were able to provide him with financial support and advice; but options are limited for those in Myat Zaw's situation. Fortunately, he managed to get a place in a nearby refugee camp and hopes to gain access to a new registration process in the future.
A holistic approach
According to JRS Thailand, there are many reasons why asylum seekers find themselves in vulnerable circumstances. Their experiences have often made it hard for them to trust the authorities. They fear government spies in safe-houses or support organisations or being arrested and deported. Moreover, as the camps are officially closed to new arrivals, not everyone can be admitted.
While various organisations provide a range of services to refugees permitted to reside in the camps around Mae Sot, few international organisations assist the thousands of out-of-camp asylum seekers. Without a valid visa or work permit, they are formally considered illegal migrants by Thai authorities.
Protection issues confronting asylum seekers, such as Myat Zaw, need to be linked to other human rights mechanisms, such as the UN Children and Armed Conflict Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism. Referrals through this mechanism promote coordinated action among service providers and effectively expand the protection space for child asylum seekers and refugees.
For further information see http://jrs.net/news/index.php?lang=en&sid=5099
3. International: towards a mine-free world
On 4 December, the Cartagena Summit on landmines closed with the adoption of a detailed five-year plan of commitments on all areas of mine action including victim assistance, mine clearance, risk education, stockpile destruction and international cooperation.
According to a statement by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) on 7 December, the action plan provides a clear and concrete roadmap of what is required over the next five years to bring us significantly closer to a mine-free world. Civil society organisations and groups, the statement continued, are committed to remaining active and engaged to ensure the declarations are turned into meaningful actions.
In a statement sent to the Cartagena Summit on anti-personnel mines, Pope Benedict XVI said there are no ethical arguments to defend the production and use of the weapons, especially given that most victims are innocent civilians. The Holy See reiterated its appeal to all non-signatory nations to ratify the convention, highlighting China, India, the US and Russia as the most important states who have yet to sign.
Support to victims
Importantly, this time assistance to landmine survivors, their families and communities figured prominently throughout the Summit. However, ICBL warned, when it comes to delivering on promises made to victims, we are still only scratching the surface. Immense challenges remain in providing comprehensive and timely support to survivors and ensuring full respect for their rights.
Australia was the only country to make a specific mine action funding commitment of AUD 100 million over the next five years. Disappointingly, although many political declarations of support were made, no other country matched Australia's pledge. Reports on stockpile destruction were also disappointing. Ukraine, Belarus, Greece and Turkey have all missed destruction deadlines.
UPDATES ON JRS PROJECTS AND ACTIVITIES
5. Tanzania: JRS beneficiary wins award
On 3 December, Baruani Baruani Ndume was awarded the International Children's Peace Prize for his work with children in a Tanzanian refugee camp.
Now 16, Baruani has lived in the refugee camp for more than nine years since he fled violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. His radio show, Sisi kwa Sisi (Children for Children), is broadcast on Radio Kwizera in Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Tanzania.
Staff at Radio Kwizera and World Vision Tanzania encouraged Baruani to begin the show, offering technical and moral support. Before a broadcast, some 20 children go out into the camp and discuss the concerns of fellow children regarding education, services, food and protection issues.
Having lost his father before the war broke out in the DRC, shortly afterwards Baruani's mother died in an attack on their home by soldiers. Assisted in leaving the country, he was fostered by a refugee family in Tanzania. He was drawn to human rights work by the difficulties of life in the camps. Forced to live in crowded camps, he said, large families receive insufficient rations to get by and children, forced to take on heavy chores, find school too demanding.
In an interview with the PBS programme, NewsHour Extra, Baruani underlined the importance of programmes like Sisi kwa Sisi which bring children's issues to adults, such as the role of education.
Radio Kwizera, now a local community station
Radio Kwizera was established by JRS in 1995 in response to the effects of the genocide in Rwanda and civil wars in Burundi and the DRC. As the majority of Burundian refugees have decided to return home or apply for Tanzanian citizenship, Radio Kwizera has shifted its focus to becoming a community station, and its management was taken over by the Jesuit Province of Eastern Africa at the end of 2008.
Baruani has been the force behind several child rights programmes, including the right to education, promotion of girls' education and against sexual- and gender-based violence. Other roles held by Baruani include: speaker of the children's parliament, chairperson of Children Baraza and vice chairperson for Boys Association in Lugufu refugee camp.
The International Children's Peace Prize is presented annually to an exceptional child, whose courageous acts and thoughts have made a difference in countering problems affecting minors. The prize is an initiative of KidsRight Foundation, based in Amsterdam, and was launched during the 2005 Nobel Peace Laureates' Summit by Mikhail Gorbachev.
6. Central African Republic: new JRS education project opens
Following a needs evaluation of the school-age population in November, JRS began providing emergency pre-, primary and secondary schools for the nearly 600 children registered in a camp in the Central African Republic (CAR).
Since mid-October, approximately 2,400 refugees from the Ango Territory of the Bas-Uele Province in the Democratic Republic of Congo have arrived in Zemio, in southeastern CAR. Shortly after their arrival, prompted by the Zemio sub-prefect, a local support group was established, comprising refugee representatives, NGOs, local authorities and Christian churches. The committee negotiated with the local population for the provision of land to the refugees, organised the collection of funds and generally raised awareness of the circumstances of forced displacement.
To begin with, the local and refugee communities will construct 17 temporary classrooms, using materials provided by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and the UN children's fund (UNICEF). JRS will carry out periodic evaluation of the education services provided. In the longer term, JRS plans to implement strategies necessary for a quality education system.
Each class will contain as many as 55 students. Families will be asked to contribute approximately one euro to the cost of each child's education, from which the teachers will receive a monthly stipend of 15 and 35 euro. The parents will also assist JRS to construct temporary schools.
Skilled teachers already available
The total cost of the project from December until the end of January 2010 will be nearly 17,000 US dollars, of which UNHCR will pay three quarters and JRS one quarter. The project will also be supported by the UN World Food Programme which will distribute food and non-food items to the local and refugee populations and the UNICEF which will provide school materials.
The task awaiting the JRS team will be to offer an education based on the Congolese system, thus facilitating their eventual return home. The essential aspects of the curriculum necessary to start providing emergency education have already been put in place.
Fortunately, the refugee population in the camp is well qualified. Of the population present, 33 are teachers, 20 primary and nine secondary teachers, two primary directors and an assistant secondary school prefect. According to JRS CAR, they seem to be more than capable of undertaking the tasks awaiting them.
For further information on the humanitarian situation in the area see http://jrs.net/reports/index.php?lang=en&sid=5100
7. Indonesia: seeing the reality of displacement
In an attempt to reach out to the Indonesian population and promote understanding of why people flee their homes and the challenges they face, JRS Indonesia screened four films in mid-November.
In cooperation with a local Indonesian NGO, Kinoki, JRS Indonesia organised the screening of the films, Disarm and Unacceptable Harm on the effects of landmines on 12 November and A Well-Founded Fear and Hope two days later. The films were shown in Yogyakarta and attracted 100 or so people, including many students from the local university.
Those present were given an opportunity to compare the reality with recent media portrayals of migrants and refugees. The films, and JRS experience, demonstrate that refugee returnees face difficulties associated with the presence of landmines and other unexploded devices.
Until mid-2009, conservative estimates by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) put the number of asylum seekers stranded in Indonesia at approximately 2,400. In Indonesia, which has yet to ratify the 1951 Geneva Convention, refugee-related issues have drawn increased media and political attention recently, due to a six fold increase in the arrival of asylum seekers, who mainly using Indonesia as a transit country to Australia. They have fled serious human rights abuses, extreme poverty and landmine dangers at home. JRS aimed to put faces on these statistics and present some of their stories as they seek safety.
Recently two boats with nearly 330 ethnic Tamil Sri Lankans aboard were intercepted on their way to Australia. The criminalisation of asylum seekers who undertake these often perilous journeys is a worrying trend. Crucial issues, such as protection, are often omitted from political and media discourse and replaced by terms such as economic migrants before any refugee applications can be assessed.
Despite being promised that their applications would be processed by UNHCR and they would be resettled in Australia if found to be refugees, more than six weeks later the UN agency has yet to be granted access to Sri Lankans held in two detention centres in Indonesia.