Italy migrant boats: Palestinian boy tells harrowing story of journey from Gaza to Europe

The Independent reports: A Palestinian boy who fled Gaza has told his harrowing story of being kidnapped, beaten, imprisoned and starved in his battle to reach Europe for a better life.

Yusuf, not his real name, is one of more than 8,000 migrants have made the treacherous crossing to Italy in boats run by ruthless traffickers since the start of this year alone.

Save the Children cared for the 17-year-old when he arrived in the port of Lampedusa last month. Despite the horrors of his long journey from Gaza, Yusuf said he knew he was lucky to have made it.

Almost 1,000 migrants had to be rescued by Italian authorities during a 24-hour-period last week, when at least 10 people died after their boat capsized. [Continue reading…]

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Exile instead of murder: A Syrian refugee’s choice

Al Jazeera reports: Ammar Kassir became a refugee to avoid killing fellow Syrians.

In 2012, as pro-democracy marches on the streets of Damascus were increasing, Kassir was a part of a police unit working under the direct control of President Bashar al-Assad. One afternoon, he was ordered to open fire on protesters marching for democracy.

“Assad told us we must kill these people who are making demonstrations. The protesters were shouting ‘Freedom! Freedom!’, and he said we must kill these people. I did not want to do that,” Kassir told Al Jazeera.

The safe choice would have been to follow the orders he was given. The policeman, who was 20-years old at the time, chose to resist, even though he knew refusing orders meant he would have to escape for his own safety.

Kassir became a refugee, one of three million Syrians who have fled their country in the past three years.

He left Damascus, heading north to his family’s home in Idlib. From there, he made his way alone to Turkey, crossing the border by foot.

Since the Syrian uprising began, 95 percent of the Syrians who fled their native country remained in the region, mainly in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey.

Kassir had other plans.

He wanted to get to Europe, to reach a safer country that would give him a chance to restart his life.

Legal pathways to Europe for Syrian refugees are rare and Kassir – like many other Syrians who sought refuge in Europe – was forced onto dangerous and expensive smuggling routes. [Continue reading…]

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Thousands of migrants drown in the Mediterranean as the EU strengthens its borders

Benjamin Ward writes: On the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa stands a graveyard filled with simple wooden crosses. We don’t know the names and stories of those buried there, except that they perished at sea trying to reach Europe, fleeing conflict in Syria, human-rights abuses in Somalia and Eritrea, poverty in West Africa.

Over the last decade, an estimated 20,000 people have died attempting to make the crossing. Last year was the deadliest on record, with more than 3,500 drowning or succumbing to hunger, thirst, or cold.

The number of deaths would have been far higher had it not been for the efforts of the Italian navy. After a deadly shipwreck in October of 2013 off the coast of Lampedusa, in which more than 350 people drowned — an incident the pope described as a moral failure — Italy deployed its navy in a major rescue operation known as Mare Nostrum, Latin for “our sea.” The operation extended almost to the coast of Libya, from where many of the rickety boats embark. They rescued tens of thousands of people.

The Italian government has repeatedly asked member states of the European Union to share responsibility for rescue efforts. The EU is supposed to have a common asylum policy. But there was no appetite in Europe’s capitals for a pan-European effort, in part because of concerns that Mare Nostrum was acting as a pull factor. Instead, European governments collectively resolved to focus on deterring departures, combating the smuggling that makes these crossings possible, and addressing the “root causes” of migration in countries of origin.

In October of 2014, Italy finally concluded, for political and financial reasons, that it was not possible to continue with operation Mare Nostrum alone. The EU’s proposed alternative, Operation Triton, focuses more narrowly on border security — not saving lives. [Continue reading…]

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Fortress Europe and the migrants risking their lives to find refuge

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Brutal treatment of migrant children held in ‘ice boxes’ by U.S. Customs and Border Protection

The Guardian reports: Imagine being taken into a room. It is cold – very, very cold – and you shiver under the single layer of clothes that is all you are allowed to wear. The room is concrete and entirely bare: nothing on the walls, no furniture, no bedding of any sort other than the thin sheet you have been given. The only window allows guards to look in at you, but gives you no view of the world outside.

You sit in the room, huddled on the cold, hard floor, seeking warmth under the sheet. The room is lit by neon lights that are kept on 24 hours a day, and after a while you lose track of time. Is it day, is it night – you no longer know. Though there are many other people in the room with you, they are all strangers and no-one speaks to you. You are utterly alone.

And you are 7 years old.

Carla (not her real name) was 7 years old when she was picked up by officers of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) last June, after she crossed the Mexican border into the US near Hidalgo, Texas. At the end of a grueling 10-day journey from El Salvador, which she left to escape danger and poverty and in the hope of being reunited with her parents in New York, she was taken by border patrol officers to a temporary holding station.

For the first two days, Carla had the company of her cousin, a woman in her early 20s, who had made the journey with her. But then her relative was separated from her and released. For the following 13 days – as official immigration papers record – Carla was detained in the concrete room, surrounded by about 15 other undocumented immigrants like herself. [Continue reading…]

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For Syrian refugees in Yemen the future has become fearfully uncertain

Middle East Eye reports: When Abu Saleh [a pseudonym] sits down to talk about why Syria’s unremitting civil war forced him to seek refuge in Yemen, he stops every few minutes to scroll through photos on his phone.

“See here,” he said, pointing to a snapshot of six young men, their grins and embrace of one another discernible even through the phone’s cracked screen. “All dead.” More photos follow. More loved ones lost to Syria’s spiraling violence.

Abu Saleh then returns to explain why Jordan is too expensive, in Turkey he doesn’t speak the language, the welcome for refugees in Egypt has grown painfully thin, uncertainty has long loomed in Iraq and when he briefly found himself in Lebanon, Hezbollah tried to recruit him.

Syria’s neighbouring countries – whose infrastructure and social fabric have been buckling under the strain of hosting the majority of the more than three million refugees that have fled Syria’s bloody civil war – did not seem like options for him. But neither did remaining in Syria.

The 25-year-old former soldier feared persecution after he fled Bashar al-Assad’s army when he received orders to fire at protests in early 2011 challenging the government’s rule. This was all before Syria came to be called the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today.

Abu Saleh fled to Yemen two years ago to escape the fate of his friends in the photos.

Yemen’s low cost of living, ease of obtaining entry and relative stability at the time of his arrival offered Abu Saleh – like many of the Syrians who have found their way to the southern Gulf nation – a potentially ephemeral retreat from the bombs of his home country. [Continue reading…]

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Rapid deterioration in living conditions of Syrian refugees in Jordan

UNHCR: UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres says large numbers of Syrian refugees are sliding into abject poverty, and at an alarming rate, due to the magnitude of the crisis and insufficient support from the international community.

He made the statement at the launch of a new UNHCR study, Living in the Shadows, which reveals evidence of a deepening humanitarian crisis. High Commissioner Guterres is on a two-day visit to Jordan, where he will meet refugees profiled in the study in Amman and others at the Za’atari refugee camp.

“I am here to express my solidarity with Syrian refugees, as the impact of snowstorm Huda is still tangible and posing an even greater strain on their already dire living conditions.” Guterres is also meeting with Jordanian officials and with donors to coordinate efforts to improve living conditions for Syrian refugees and support the communities hosting them.

Conducted by UNHCR and International Relief and Development (IRD) the study is based on data from home visits with almost 150,000 Syrian refugees living outside of camps in Jordan in 2014.

According to the study, two-thirds of refugees across Jordan are now living below the national poverty line, and one in six Syrian refugee households is in abject poverty, with less than $40 per person per month to make ends meet.

Almost half of the households researchers visited had no heating, a quarter had unreliable electricity, and 20 per cent had no functioning toilet. Rental costs accounted for more than half of household expenditures, and refugee families were increasingly being forced to share accommodations with others to reduce costs.

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Europe’s fear of Syria’s ‘ghost ships’

James Denselow writes: The story of the Ezadeen, the ship set on autopilot and set towards Europe with 450 fleeing Syrian refugees on board, could be a turning point in the European response to the crisis in Syria. With a conflict that has killed some 200,000 people burning brightly on its doorstep Europe’s prime focus to date has been on ensuring that it stays away from the flames. The emergence of “ghost ships”, the latest gruesome tactic to come out of a conflict that has also put the “barrel bomb” into the popular lexicon, may force a much needed revaluation on the strategy of Europe’s response.

The discovery of the Ezadeen is simply the latest in an increasing number of horror stories emerging from the Mediterranean Sea. The boat, aptly a former livestock carrier, was found in rough seas some 40 nautical miles off the Italian coast – the second vessel in four days to be found sailing abandoned by its crew.

The ghost ships represent both a new tactic – using large cargo ships to move people in winter across longer crossing – and a new trend – that of the refugees coming from Syria. Last year some 230,000 people arrived illegally across the Mediterranean into the EU with Italy receiving the lion’s share of 160,000 whilst 3,500 people died trying to make the crossing. The UNHCR explained that in 2014 for the first time, people mainly from Syria “have become a major component in this tragic flow, accounting for almost 50 per cent of the total”. [Continue reading…]

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Wars and instability prompt biggest migrant wave since World War Two

The Guardian reports: The two “ghost ships” discovered sailing towards the Italian coast last week with hundreds of migrants – but no crew – on board are just the latest symptom of what experts consider to be the world’s largest wave of mass-migration since the end of the second world war.

Wars in Syria, Libya and Iraq, severe repression in Eritrea, and spiralling instability across much of the Arab world have all contributed to the displacement of around 16.7 million refugees worldwide.

A further 33.3 million people are “internally displaced” within their own war-torn countries, forcing many of those originally from the Middle East to cross the lesser evil of the Mediterranean in increasingly dangerous ways, all in the distant hope of a better life in Europe.

“These numbers are unprecedented,” said Leonard Doyle, spokesman for the International Organisation for Migration. “In terms of refugees and migrants, nothing has been seen like this since world war two, and even then [the flow of migration] was in the opposite direction.”

European politicians believe they can discourage migrants from crossing the Mediterranean simply by reducing rescue operations. But refugees say that the scale of unrest in the Middle East, including in the countries in which they initially sought sanctuary, leaves them with no option but to take their chances at sea. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. to accept thousands of Syrian refugees for resettlement

Barbara Slavin reports: US Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration Anne Richard says the United States will dramatically increase the number of Syrian refugees allowed to resettle permanently in the United States from about 350 this year to close to 10,000 annually as the crisis grinds on into its fifth year.

While the number is minuscule given a total Syrian refugee population of 3.3 million, it reflects US recognition that the civil war in Syria is not about to end anytime soon and that, even when it does, Syria will need years for reconstruction and reconciliation.

In an interview with Al-Monitor Dec. 22, Richard said, “People are surprised we haven’t taken more.” She said the initial low numbers reflect the reality that “resettling refugees is never the first thing you do when people are fleeing an emerging crisis” and that other countries — in particular Germany and Sweden — have “stepped forward and offered to take a lot” of Syrian refugees. [Continue reading…]

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Merry Christmas from Kafranbel, Syria

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Getting help to Syria

Dexter Filkins writes: Few experiences are more haunting than visiting a refugee camp in the middle of winter. You walk the rows between the tents, peering in here and there, finding men and women wrapped in blankets, huddled round lanterns, each face wearing the unforgettable look of a person who has lost control of his life. The children are shivering. You wonder, inevitably, how things could get any worse.

On December 1st, the World Food Programme (W.F.P.), announced that it was suspending its operations to feed one million seven hundred thousand Syrian refugees—scattered across Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Egypt—because it had run out of money. (The program is under the auspices of the U.N., but funded entirely by voluntary donations.) Under the program, Syrian families received the equivalent of a dollar a person each day to buy food at local shops. This operation cost sixty-four million dollars a month, and, while governments and private donors had helped to fund it throughout most of 2014, there was no longer enough money to carry on. This was “disastrous,” the Programme said in a statement. Winter, indeed.

Agencies dedicated to providing humanitarian relief, like the World Food Programme and private organizations, like the International Rescue Committee (I.R.C.), are always pleading for money. From a distance, it’s easy to assume that they always get it, that a government or a wealthy donor will eventually write the check that allows them to continue their work. Not so: each year, relief organizations suspend or curtail aid because they run out of cash. “The majority of our programs end because the money runs out, not because the need is gone,” David Miliband, the president of the I.R.C., which has twelve thousand relief workers in forty countries, told me. In Zimbabwe, where at least a half million people need food, the W.F.P. is closing three of its four field offices at the end of the month. It has already reduced rations for malnourished children, pregnant women, and people with H.I.V. and with tuberculosis. [Continue reading…]

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Aid fatigue is hurting displaced Syrians

Newsweek reports: As civil war in Syria inches toward its four-year anniversary, the nation’s humanitarian catastrophe deepens. Some 7.6 million Syrians are now internally displaced, and another 3.3 million have fled to neighboring countries to avoid the complex three-way dogfight among Assad’s forces, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and Syrian rebels.

In Lebanon the influx of one million refugees is straining the capacities of a country of only 4.4 million. Today, some 12.2 million Syrians, both inside and outside Syria, rely on emergency food aid.

It thus came as a shock when the UN’s World Food Program (WFP) announced on December 1 that a lack of funds was forcing it to suspend aid to help feed and clothe Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt. In fact, the WFP had been signaling for months that its program for Syria was in dire need of a cash injection from international donors.

Last week, the United States donated $125 million to prop up the program until the end of the year, but it clearly wasn’t enough. The WFP stated that it needed an additional $64 million for December alone to support its system of prepaid voucher cards, which can be used at local stores to buy food and supplies.

Without this lifeline, refugees will face the impending harsh winter without food, warm clothes, or heat. [Continue reading…]

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The world’s pitiful response to Syria’s refugee crisis

World leaders are failing to offer protection to Syria’s most vulnerable refugees with catastrophic consequences, Amnesty International has warned in a new briefing ahead of a UN pledging conference in Geneva on 9 December.

Left Out in the Cold: Syrian refugees abandoned by the international community highlights the pitiful numbers of resettlement places offered by the international community. Around 3.8 million refugees from are being hosted in five main countries within the region: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. Only 1.7 per cent of this number have been offered sanctuary by the rest of the world since the crisis began more than three years ago.

The Gulf states– which include some of the world’s wealthiest countries – have not offered to take a single refugee from Syria so far. Russia and China have similarly failed to pledge a single resettlement place. Excluding Germany, the rest of the European Union (EU) has pledged to resettle a paltry 0.17 per cent of refugees in the main host countries.

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Syria under Assad: ‘Kneel or starve’

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Germany struggles to make room for Syrian refugees

The New York Times reports: Ahmad Mahayni, a 38-year-old businessman from Damascus, is one of about 200,000 people expected to throw themselves on Germany’s mercy this year and apply for asylum.

Mr. Mahayni is resourceful, and he seems determined to build a future for his family. He helps out in the refugee facility where he was sent after arriving at the Berlin airport and telling the police that he was seeking asylum. A fairly fluent English speaker, he quickly figured out that “the key of success here is the language” and began taking 10 hours of German class each week.

But even as refugees like Mr. Mahayni work hard to adapt to their new homes in Germany, Germans are contending with a stream of new arrivals.

Three and a half years of war in Syria have produced the world’s worst refugee crisis, the United Nations says. In Germany now, refugees are arriving by the thousands, and even in the country where a Nazi past constantly evokes reminders of a special duty to help, the welcome mat is wearing thin.

To a large extent, the reluctance begins with a question of where to house ever more arrivals. Cities from Hamburg to Munich to Berlin have variously resorted to tents and modified shipping containers, and even talked of vast ships — a solution last used in the 1990s, when the Balkan wars created a similar influx into a recently reunited Germany.

The problem has grown so acute that Chancellor Angela Merkel has summoned the governors of Germany’s 16 states to meet in the coming weeks. Her vice chancellor, the Social Democratic leader Sigmar Gabriel, has already urged the allocation of an extra billion euros, or about $1.2 billion, in aid to hard-pressed communities. The authorities admit that they failed to anticipate such a wave of refugees and in recent years tore down too many empty buildings that could have been useful now. [Continue reading…]

Bill Frelick writes: With the number of Syrian refugees in the Middle East hitting 3 million, it’s worth examining how the United States and other countries not on the frontline of the conflict have stepped in to help countries like Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. These countries have the misfortune to be neighbors not only of Syria, but of Iraq and Israel/Palestine as well, other places that have been the source of millions of refugees.

Consider this: Lebanon is hosting 1.14 million refugees from Syria, the equivalent of 83 million refugees in the United States — or the combined population of California, Texas, and New York. And what has the United States done to relieve the human burden on Lebanon and Syria’s other neighbors? In the first 10 months of fiscal year 2014, the US admitted a grand total of 63 Syrian refugees. [Continue reading…]

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Refugees from the world’s worst conflicts struggle to reach Britain

The Washington Post reports: Ibrahim’s odyssey has taken him over the hot sands of the Sahara and across the vast Mediterranean in a death-defying, thousands-of-miles-long quest.

Now the 21-year-old from the Sudanese region of Darfur is so close to his destination that he can see it shimmering on the horizon — his dream, his salvation, his England.

It beckons to him, and it taunts him.

If Ibrahim were a day-tripping tourist, a jaunt from this French port city across the English Channel would take 35 minutes in an underwater train. But because he’s an asylum-seeking refugee, getting to Britain means braving coils of barbed wire, clouds of tear gas and an illicit journey wedged between a truck’s axle and the racing pavement.

“It’s very dangerous,” Ibrahim said softly as he prepared for his latest attempt to cross. “Maybe I’m going to die.”

Whatever the risk, it has not deterred Ibrahim or the more than 2,500 other refugees who have made Calais their temporary home. Drawn from the world’s worst crisis zones, they are contributing to a new crisis in the heart of Europe, on the watery border between two of the planet’s most affluent nations. [Continue reading…]

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In shift, Pakistanis fleeing war flow into beleaguered Afghanistan

The New York Times reports: Through three decades of war, waves of Afghans have fled their homes along the eastern border areas, many of them seeking shelter in the Pakistani tribal regions next door.

Last summer another wave of refugees surged through the area. But in a reversal, it is Pakistanis, not Afghans, who are fleeing war at home.

“There was fighting everywhere,” said Sadamullah, a laborer who fled with his family last month from Dattakhel, a district in Pakistan’s tribal areas. “There was shelling, and military forces were firing mortars on our villages. They carried out an operation in our area, and a woman was killed by them.”

Mr. Sadamullah, who like many tribesmen here has only one name, was speaking about the Pakistani military’s continuing offensive against Islamist militants in the North Waziristan region. The military has been clearing territory in the region since June, forcing an exodus of at least 1.5 million residents. As many as 250,000 of them have since crossed the border into Afghanistan, officials say. [Continue reading…]

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