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JRS Dispatches No. 214

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REFUGEE NEWS BRIEFINGS

ETHIOPIA: SUDANESE RETURN HOME BUT OTHER NATIONALS ARRIVE

On 28 March, the official repatriation of Sudanese nationals from the northwestern camp of Yarenja ended. The last convoy carried 494 refugees, bringing the total to 1,488 refugees returned to southern Sudan during this last round of repatriation. Yarenja, the smallest of five Sudanese camps in Ethiopia situated along the border with southern Sudan, is now empty awaiting transfer of assets to the local administration.

While the repatriation of southern Sudanese from the other four refugee camps in the country is underway, the number of Eritrean and Somali arrivals has not ceased to increase. An average of 250 to 300 Eritreans register per month in the northern camp of Shimelba, bringing the camp population to more than 18,000, as well as another 6,000 ethnic Ethiopians from Eritrea hosted elsewhere.

Furthermore, since fighting broke out between the Islamic rebels and the government forces of Ethiopia and Somalia, approximately 55,000 Somali refugees have sought protection in eastern Ethiopia. This situation was compounded when the Kenyan government closed its border with Somalia in February.

Most refugees have settled around the border regions of Dolo, Teferiber and Gode, while others have gone to the camp of Kebrebeyah. This camp already hosted about 17,000 refugees, mainly from southern Somalia. Screening of new arrivals by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and the government refugee agency (ARRA) has recently started.

Planning for the repatriation of Sudanese refugees began after the January 2005 peace agreement between the Sudanese government and the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA/M).

Since the UNHCR-assisted repatriation process in Ethiopia began in March 2006, approximately 12,300 refugees returned to southern Sudan, 7,691 of them since February 2007. Some 56,241 Sudanese refugees remain in Fugnido, Bonga, Dimma and Sherkole camps in Ethiopia.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: PAY TO LEARN

"The lack of state funding for primary education hinders the poorest and most vulnerable children from gaining access to their fundamental rights. Teachers are poorly paid or, in some cases, not paid at all. In turn, they look to parents to supplement their salaries. In the end, it is the children that suffer", JRS Grands Lacs Regional Advocacy Officer Nicolas Clemesac told Dispatches on 27 April.

In the resource rich area of Kisangani, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the local population attempts to scrape a living and forget the recent past of conflict and destruction.

To alleviate the situation, JRS supports a number of primary schools in the area. Assistance is provided to reconstruct the buildings, train the teachers and promote girls' participation. In this difficult post-conflict situation, attention is paid not to upset sensitive ethnic relationships. The schools cater for all, locals and displaced alike. However, the situation is not without obstacles.

"Poorly and unpaid teachers look to make a living. State funding for essential equipment and investment does not arrive or is insufficient. Unfortunately, parents are forced to make up the difference. On average, parents must pay one US dollar per month. For families earning between 25 and 30 US dollars a month, this charge is often too much", stated Mr Clemesac.

It is clearly stated in national and international law that children have the right to primary education. But the state lacks the resources to fulfil its commitments. JRS staff have seen how this situation has affected the relationship between pupils and teachers. Those who can pay are favoured and consider their teachers as the sellers of knowledge. The introduction of parental contributions has transformed the teacher-pupil relationship into an economic one.

Nevertheless, this is not the only obstacle. JRS staff also speak of the difficulties of establishing and receiving state recognition for new schools, a process fraught with bureaucracy. In the meantime, teachers are not being paid the full state salary of between 40 and 70 US dollars per month.

"We know a school that has been waiting eight years for this recognition. When a state obviously lacks the skills and resources to establish a public education system, what are the responsibilities of the international community? In Kisangani there are hardly any international organisations or NGOs. JRS is the only partner of the UN children's agency, UNICEF. Do there have to be armed groups in the area before Kisangani can be assisted?" added Mr Clemesac.

For more information (in French) see www.jrs.net/reports

PANAMA: INCREASE IN XENOPHOBIA AGAINST MIGRANTS AND REFUGEES

On 27 March, a fire completely destroyed what is known as 'Sector S' of the working class district of Panama City, Curundú.

Nearly 140 buildings were destroyed and approximately 600 others were damaged. Government sources accused local gangs of being responsible for the fire. Since the beginning of the year there has been an escalation in the number of robberies, kidnappings and assassinations in Panama.

The public and media believe there is a serious problem of insecurity in Panama - something which greatly influences government decisions. In response, the government established a plan to promote the security of its citizens, including emergency action against delinquency and gang violence.

A week after the arson attack, the police raided Curundú. They arrested a number of gang leaders and children, also allegedly gang members. The police arrested a number of individuals on similar charges in other parts of the city.

The national parliament increased sanctions on children involved criminal activities in an attempt to dissuade them from joining gangs, and politicians began debating the introduction of visas for Colombian nationals.

Although the government has denied it intends to introduce this measure, it has shortened the period of time Colombians can remain in the country as tourists. It has also increased the number of immigration personnel dedicated to locating undocumented migrants. JRS Panama told Dispatches that there are a lot of individuals in need of international protection among this population.

In the first three months of 2007, the national migration and naturalisation office deported a total of 324 individuals, including 166 Colombians.

"The message sent by the government is that foreigners are responsible for the increase in insecurity and violence, and that the only way to work with children is through the use of force", JRS Panama social researcher Kevin Sánchez told Dispatches on 18 April.

"A number of prejudicial media reports, national TV programmes and actions taken by the government are causing a significant increase in xenophobia and violent attacks on Colombians in Panama. It is important to avoid the false association between migrants and crime", Mr Sánchez said.

"JRS Panama is dedicated to working with the local population to provide the truth", Mr Sánchez added.

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC: JRS STAFF MEMBER ASSAULTED AND SHOT AT

On 22 April, the difficult situation on the northern border area between Haiti and Dominican Republic was given a violent reminder after an attack on one of the JRS communications officers, José Luis Fernández.

Mr Fernández, based in the northern Dominican border town of Dajabon, was assaulted and shot at while covering human rights violations against local community members. While he was taking photos of waste land, he was singled out, berated and violently dispossessed of his camera. As he fled, Mr Fernández was shot at by members of a local criminal gang but managed to get away uninjured. Throughout the ordeal, government officials looked on, not intervening to protect the JRS staff member.

The alleged assailants, two brothers, were in a black jeep with other known gang members. The gang is known by the authorities to be in possession of illegal weapons. One of the two brothers charged with the attack is believed to be responsible for more than one murder in New York.

In a statement to the local media, JRS condemned the attack and urged the authorities to investigate thoroughly not only this case, but also the illegal possession and flow of weapons in the area. It is important, the statement read, that the authorities act immediately before someone is killed.

The JRS project, Solidaridad Fronteriza, for which Mr Fernández works, operates on the Dominican-Haitian border where thousands of Haitian migrants and refugees cross over in search of protection in the Dominican Republic. JRS staff in the area record and report human rights abuses against the local population, migrants and refugees in the area. JRS also works with deported Haitians in Wanament on the Haitian side of the border. Teams there provide psychosocial and other support to rural Haitian communities.

NEPAL: 5,000 BHUTANESE REFUGEES TO BE RESETTLED IN AUSTRALIA

On 26 April, the Australian government announced that within two months it will begin resettling a sizeable number of Bhutanese refugees living in eastern Nepal.

The Australian ambassador to Nepal, Graeme Lade, discussed the resettlement of refugees with the prime minister of Nepal, Girija Prased Koirala. The ambassador expects the resettlement process to begin this July. He suggested the government of Australia is interested in resettling approximately 5,000 Bhutanese refugees hosted in camps in eastern part of Nepal.

Sources close to Prime Minister Koirala indicated he has no objections to the resettlement of refugees, but stressed that voluntary repatriation is the preferred option. The official position of the Nepali government is repatriation first and only then will other options be considered.

Last October, Ellen Sauerbrey, the US assistant secretary of state for refugee affairs asserted her country's interest in resettling up to 60,000 Bhutanese refugees. In March, the Nepali government informally responded giving the US delegation the green light to begin preparing the process. In mid-April, a US delegation visited the camps informing the refugees of their proposal.

Sixteen years ago, more than 105,000 ethnic Lhotsampa Bhutanese refugees fled to Nepal through a narrow strip of India, which separates the two countries. The refugees live in seven UNHCR-managed camps in two districts in eastern Nepal. Another 15,000 eke out their livelihood in India.

Both Nepal and Bhutan engaged in 15 rounds of bilateral negotiations to resolve the issue. Subsequently, a Joint Verification Team, comprised of officials from both countries, was established to determine whom amongst the refugees were forced to flee Bhutan. In December 2001, the Joint Verification Team completed the process for over 12,500 refugees from Khudunabari camp. The results of the process, made public in June 2003, only offered four percent of refugees the right of unconditional return, while a further 71 percent were offered the possibility of return subject to the fulfilment of stringent conditions, such as passing language tests, living in special housing, etc.

Following subsequent unrest in some camps, the Bhutanese government suspended the process, citing security concerns.

UPDATES ON JRS PROJECTS AND ACTIVITIES

KENYA: PUBLIC AWARENESS CAMPAIGN ON DARFUR CRISIS

During lent this year, a group of Jesuit scholastics from Hekima College in Nairobi decided to do something for their brothers and sisters in the western Darfur region of Sudan.

As part of their Lenten journey, they went out on the streets of Nairobi to talk to men, women and children about the problems faced by those caught up in the conflict in Darfur. At the same time, they sought to raise money to donate to JRS projects in the area.

On 19 April, the students came to the JRS Eastern Africa Regional Office with their rector. One of them explained how it felt trying to talk to people and being ignored. He compared his feelings to those of individuals who are forced to beg for a living but who are constantly brushed aside. However, not everybody reacted in the same way. The majority of people who were willing to listen and give money were women.

The Hekima students presented JRS with a cheque of 135,335 Kenyan shillings (almost 2,000 US dollars) as a contribution to JRS work in Darfur.

JRS Regional Director, John Guiney SJ, expressed his deepest gratitude to Hekima College and its students, not only for their contribution but also for raising public awareness about Darfur.

Fr Guiney explained that working in Darfur has been a real challenge. However, he added it has been a worthwhile effort because JRS staff are touching the lives of many people. For instance, JRS literacy programmes are offering many displaced women their first opportunity to educate themselves. He told Dispatches he hoped that initiatives like this one would inspire others to respond to the suffering of the people in Darfur.

At least 200,000 people are estimated to have died since the Darfur conflict began in 2003 between government forces, allied Arab militias and rebels seeking greater autonomy. More than two million people have been displaced inside Sudan and in neighbouring Chad, and 12 humanitarian workers have been killed since May 2006.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: PROJECT AGAINST SEXUAL VIOLENCE

Democratic Republic of Congo: new health project against sexual violence.

The number of reported cases of sexual violence increased from 2,077 in 2005 to 3,709 last year. Sixty-four of these cases alone were in the northeastern province of Lower Uele.This trend is on the increase, despite the normalisation of the security situation and work carried out by the international community and local NGOs in Kisangani to raise public awareness, strengthen the legal system and lobby public officials. The extent of sexual violence encouraged JRS teams to become involved in the struggle against this phenomenon.

In April, JRS decided to intervene in the Wanie-Rukula area (rural Kisangani) assisting four health centres. Kisangani, due to its profitable diamond mines and proximity to major rivers and airports, was one of the areas worst affected by the war and was pillaged by all sides.

The problem is complex. Sexual violence has health, psychosocial and legal consequences. Only a holistic approach will bring efficient results. In Kisangani, the UN Population Fund have adopted a multi-sectoral approach and regrouped all the organisations working against sexual and gender based violence.

In the Wanie-Rukula area, JRS joins a number of other organisations responding to the specific needs of the victims of sexual violence, choosing to focus on their health needs.

For more information see www.jrs.net/reports

WEST AFRICA: A REGION IN TRANSITION

The JRS West Africa regional office is undergoing a transition period at the same time as its Chad office continues to develop activities in the country's eastern region.

During the past few weeks, all the senior positions of the regional office began transferring to recently recruited volunteers. Mateo Aguirre SJ, regional director from 2001-2007 will be succeeded in July 2007 by Kapitula Nzanzu SJ. Joe Hampson SJ, West Africa finance and programmes officer changed positions on 12 April to become regional director of JRS Eastern Africa and was replaced by Begoña Penedo. Ashley Gagné will combine the region's communications and advocacy portfolios, taking over from Robert Boedeker and Gonzalo Sánchez-Terán, respectively.

This transition comes at an important moment for eastern Chad and the western Darfur region of Sudan where ongoing insecurity has displaced large numbers. Since September 2006, JRS staff in this region have faced many challenges as they open a series of projects in extremely difficult circumstances.

JRS Chad recently completed the series of teacher-training courses in 12 refugee camps in and around the eastern town of Abéché. The local teams also continue to develop education programmes in Goz Beida, just south of Abéché, as well as additional activities throughout eastern Chad.

The regional office has worked to support this development throughout the handover period. While a general adjustment period is expected, Mr Boedeker told Dispatches he expects the overall level of capacity to increase shortly after the new staff members take over.

"JRS West Africa is such a young region. Consequently staff had to spend a significant amount of time establishing regional structures here. Their successors are well positioned to build on their work and hit the ground running. I think our beneficiaries and staff in the field can expect to see great things in the coming months and years from this new team", outgoing JRS West Africa Director Mateo Aguirre SJ told Dispatches on 30 April.

JRS DISPATCHES is sent from the International Office of the Jesuit Refugee Service, CP 6139, 00195 Roma Prati, Italy. Tel: +39-06 689.77.386; Fax: +39-06 688 06 418; Email: dispatches@jrs.net; JRS on-line: http://www.jrs.net; Publisher: Lluís Magriñà SJ; Editor: James Stapleton; Translation: Carles Casals (Spanish), Edith Castel (French), Simonetta Russo (Italian).