Obama opens third prison camp for child refugees

Reuters reports: The Obama administration on Monday announced it is designating a third U.S. military base for emergency housing of children immigrating illegally into the United States without parents or relatives, as the cost of caring for these minors escalated.

Senior administration officials, who asked not to be identified, told reporters that an Army base at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, will initially hold 600 “unaccompanied minors” and eventually will be able to accommodate up to 1,200.

In recent weeks, the Obama administration has opened similar emergency shelters at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, and Naval Base Ventura County in Southern California.

The moves come amid a tidal wave of children trying to slip into the United States, largely from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, often to join a parent already here.

Reuters previously reported that the administration was seeking about $2 billion for the Department of Health and Human Services to handle the influx in fiscal 2015, which begins on Oct. 1, more than double the $868 million appropriated this year.

HHS takes custody of the children shortly after they are detained at the border by federal law enforcement agents.

On Monday, administration officials said they would be asking Congress for an additional $560 million to help the Department of Homeland Security cope with the illegal border crossings.

One week ago, the White House director of domestic policy, Cecilia Munoz, attributed the rapid run-up in illegal immigration by unaccompanied minors to growing violence — often drug related or due to domestic abuse — in the three Central American countries.

That violence, she said, was encouraging children, including an unusually high number of girls and children under the age of 13, to leave home unaccompanied by parents or relatives. [Continue reading...]

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The globalization of indifference

Christopher Dickey writes: The children are coming, illegally and alone, and they are coming by the tens of thousands. They are crossing the borders of the United States and they are risking the high seas to reach Europe. They trust their lives to criminals—to smugglers and traffickers. Many are effectively enslaved. Many do not survive.

On Monday, President Barack Obama issued a memorandum meant to address the “urgent humanitarian situation” on the southwest border where the number of children from Mexico and Central America trying to cross without their parents may reach 60,000 this year.

On the waters of the Mediterranean, each summer brings tide after tide of migrants from Africa, the Middle East and Asia, but this year the wave started much earlier than usual. About 30,000 migrants have arrived in Italy so far. Some 3,000 of them are children without their parents.

Yet for all the talk of urgency in government press releases, this crisis is presented in oddly sanitized, depersonalized and distant-seeming language. Obama’s “urgent” directive to relevant agencies calls on them to respond to “the influx of unaccompanied alien children (UAC),” thus reducing terrible suffering to a set of initials.

In fact, along the high fences and walls built around the rich nations of the world, the poor and dispossessed, the terrified and the suffering, the ambitious and the hopeful are gathering in scenes that look like they’re straight out of hell.

Maybe you’ve seen the stunning photographs of immigrants and refugees trying to storm the borders of Spain at the enclave of Melilla, or the tens of thousands awaiting deportation from American detention centers. Or, maybe, you read the stories about the 12-year-old Ecuadoran girl who committed suicide in Mexico when she could not reach her parents in New York.

In the midst of this massive tragedy, the most human and humane voices are coming from the Catholic Church: from Pope Francis himself, and from Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, who has spent his life working with immigrants, both those with papers and those without.

When I first met O’Malley in the late 1970s he was running the Spanish Catholic Center in one of the poorer corners of Washington, D.C., helping undocumented workers find housing, jobs, and a future in the United States. He wore the hooded brown habit and sandals of a Franciscan Capuchin friar. “Padre Sean,” they called him.

Today he still wears the habit much of the time, but his title is “Eminence,” and when required he dons the cardinal’s miter. At the last conclave to select a new pope, the “Vaticanista” press corps touted him as one of the leading candidates. And the man who finally was chosen, Pope Francis, has made O’Malley one of his most high-profile advisors on everything from organizational reform to the scandal of children sexually abused by priests.

But there is no subject that brings the pope and Padre Sean together more closely than immigration.

The first pastoral trip that Francis took outside of Rome as pontiff, in July last year, was to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, where so many refugees and immigrants have first made landfall on European soil, and where so many have died trying.

“In this globalized world, we have fallen into globalized indifference,” said the pope as he stood in a playing field that served as a makeshift detention center.

“We have become used to the suffering of others: ‘It doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business!’ … The globalization of indifference has taken from us the ability to weep!”

In April of this year, O’Malley went to Nogales, Arizona, on the border with Mexico, and with other bishops distributed communion through the slats in the tall fence that separates the countries. He took a lot of flak for it. Right-wing Catholic pundit George Weigel criticized him for holding a “politicized” mass.

But other Catholic commentators leaped to O’Malley’s defense. “This place that is the border is precisely where our bishops should be because it is where Jesus would be,” wrote Michael Sean Winters in the National Catholic Reporter.

When O’Malley met with Pope Francis in Rome shortly afterward, the pontiff commented on the photographs that had come out of Arizona. “That’s a powerful picture,” he said to O’Malley.

Indeed. It’s not just the spiritual message, it’s the way of delivering it that is so striking in Francis’s church. “He’s a man who speaks in gestures,” O’Malley told me last week over lunch in New York City.

When I walked into the restaurant I was curious, of course, to see if O’Malley had changed much over the decades, and saw instantly that, apart from the whiteness of his hair and beard (he will turn 70 later this month), and the fact he was wearing a conventional priest’s collar that day, he seemed exactly the same.

We talked about the refugees and priests of Latin America during its wars, including El Salvador’s martyred Archbishop Romero, shot with a bullet through the heart while performing mass at a hospice in 1980. But mainly we talked about rationalizing immigration policy as a matter of common sense, and common decency, not partisan politics. [Continue reading...]

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Collapsed health care system may be biggest threat to Syrians

Barbara Slavin writes: More Syrians have died from lack of adequate medical care than from actual combat as the war grinds on into its fourth year, according to Kristalina Georgieva, the European Union’s commissioner for international cooperation, humanitarian aid and crisis response.

In an interview with Al-Monitor on April 11 in Washington, where she attended a coordination meeting at the US Agency for International Development (USAID) with other groups struggling to keep up with the spreading humanitarian consequences of the Syrian crisis, Georgieva said that “over 200,000 people have died because treatment is not available anymore in the collapsed health system of Syria.”

While Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad has consolidated control over a significant part of territory, the country’s economy has fallen apart, the European commissioner said, and nearly half the population — almost 10 million people — need assistance.

Increasingly, aid workers are reporting cases of malnutrition and starvation, which make weakened populations even more vulnerable to diseases such as measles, Georgieva said. She said she recently visited the northern Kurdish section of Iraq, which is now home to some 230,000 Syrian refugees.

“A large proportion of them flee not because of the fighting,” she said, “but because their children are starving and they cannot access very basic necessities.” [Continue reading...]

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U.N. has to cut Syria food rations for lack of donor funds

Reuters reports: The United Nations has been forced to cut the size of food parcels for those left hungry by Syria’s civil war by a fifth because of a shortage of funds from donors, a senior official said on Monday.

Nevertheless, the United Nations’ World Food Programme managed to get food to a record 4.1 million people inside Syria last month, WFP deputy executive director Amir Abdulla told a news conference, just short of its target of 4.2 million.

As the humanitarian crisis within Syria intensifies, its neighbors are also groaning under the strain of an exodus of refugees that now totals around 3 million, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said.

“We know that this tragedy, together with the tragedy of the people displaced inside the country, 6.5 million, now shows that almost half of the Syrian population is displaced.”

Donor countries pledged $2.3 billion for aid agencies helping Syria at a conference in Kuwait in January, but only $1.1 billion has been received so far, including $250 million handed over by Kuwait on Monday, U.N. officials said. [Continue reading...]

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UN brands polio outbreak in Syria and Iraq ‘most challenging in history’

n13-iconThe Guardian reports: A UN agency has described the eruption of polio in Syria as perhaps “the most challenging outbreak in the history of polio eradication” after the number of cases in the war-ravaged country reached 38 and the first case was confirmed in neighbouring Iraq.

According to the World Health organisation (WHO), the Iraqi case – found in a six-month-old unvaccinated child in Baghdad – is related to the outbreak in Syria, fuelling fears that the virus is spreading around the Middle East.

“The current polio outbreak in Syria – now with one confirmed case in Iraq – is arguably the most challenging outbreak in the history of polio eradication,” said a spokesman for the UN relief and works agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA).

“Seriously damaged health infrastructure, poor health access and utilisation because of insecurity inside Syria, and massive movements of vulnerable and at-risk populations in and out of Syria – all make controlling the outbreak and rendering health protection to Palestine refugees in Syria and across the region very challenging.” [Continue reading...]

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Don’t put Syria aside, Brahimi says amid Ukraine crisis

n13-iconBloomberg reports: More than 350,000 people will have died in Syria’s civil war by next year if peace talks don’t restart, United Nations mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said in an effort to keep an international spotlight on the conflict.

“I told the Security Council that Syria cannot be placed on a back burner,” Brahimi told the UN General Assembly yesterday, according to a transcript. “A crisis of this magnitude needs the full attention of this organization.”

With the Security Council set to take up a resolution today on Russia’s move into Ukraine, Brahimi sought to underscore the continuing human and economic costs of Syria’s civil war, which entered its fourth year this week with more than 130,000 people killed. He said more than 300 Syrians flee their homes every hour. [Continue reading...]

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U.N. refugee chief warns world powers not to forget Syria conflict

n13-iconn13-iconReuters reports: The head of the United Nation’s refugee agency said on Tuesday it must be ready in case Ukraine’s crisis causes refugees to flee Crimea, but his biggest worry is that “a total disaster” could occur if the international community diverts its attention away from Syria’s conflict.

Antonio Guterres, the head of the U.N.’s High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), said in an interview that little progress was being made in efforts by the United States and Russia, now at loggerheads over Ukraine, to bring Syria’s warring sides together after the collapse of talks in Geneva last month.

“In the moment in which we need the most relevant countries in the world to be able to come together to narrow their differences and to try to find a way to move into peace for Syria, this tension around Ukraine will obviously not help,” Guterres told Reuters while visiting Washington to discuss Syria’s refugee crisis.

“I hope that those that have the most important responsibility in world affairs will be able to understand that forgetting Syria will be a total disaster,” he said. [Continue reading...]

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Just because it isn’t happening here doesn’t mean it isn’t happening

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‘There’s no hope left’: the Syrian refugee camp that is becoming a township

f13-iconRobin Yassin-Kassab writes: This must be how the Palestinian camps began their slow transformation into towering townships. The Syrian families here are still living in canvas or plastic tents, but the little shops selling falafel and cola on the Atmeh camp’s “main street” are now breeze-block and corrugated-iron constructions. And now nobody dares talk about going home.

Atmeh camp, just inside Syria, hugs the Turkish border fence. It is December, and the population has risen in the six months since I was here in June, from 22,000 to almost 30,000. This new settlement is one of many – there are more than 6 million people displaced inside Syria, and more than 2 million in neighbouring states. The camp’s population dwindles and swells according to the vicissitudes of battle. When the regime reconquered (and obliterated) the Khaldiyeh quarter of Homs last July, an additional 50 to 60 families a day arrived.

Six months ago, when I last visited, I was able to travel deep into liberated Syria – as far as Kafranbel in the south of Idlib province – with nothing to fear from the Free Army fighters manning checkpoints. This time I don’t dare go as far as Atmeh village, sitting on the nearby hilltop, because it is occupied by al-Qaida franchise the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis). Last June the camp’s residents referred derisively to the mainly foreign jihadists as “the spicy crew”. Now they are a real threat – abducting and often murdering revolutionary activists, Free Army fighters and journalists. This development contributes greatly to the gloom of the camp’s residents.

In the camp, the steaming vats of the Maram Foundation’s charity kitchen are cooking the same meal they were six months ago: lentil soup. Children wait with buckets in the red mud outside for lunch to be distributed. Also on the main street is a new clinic and one-room dentist (funded by the Syrian-American Medical Society). Dr Haytham grins as he complains about the conditions. The roof leaks, and the recent snowstorm has flooded his crowded space, destroying electrical equipment. As he serves us tea, a boy called Mahmoud, aged about five, walks in to observe us, his face marked by post-treatment leishmaniasis scars (a resurgent disease caused by the sand flies which prosper in uncollected rubbish). Mahmoud seems a pleasant child at first, but after a smiling photograph with one of our group his mood flips; he violently pinches the hand of the man he’d been cuddling up to and then takes to whipping his older sister with a cable. “Nobody can control him,” somebody remarks. “He doesn’t have a father.”

Fatherless, husbandless, homeless … When I ask a man where he’d come from he changed the name of his town from Kafranboodeh to Kafr Mahdoomeh, “the Demolished Village”. I ask him why. “Because they haven’t left one house standing, nor any animals in the fields. What will we ever return to? The whole town’s gone.” [Continue reading...]

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U.N.: Syrians soon to become world’s biggest refugee population, surpassing Afghans

n13-iconThe Associated Press reports: Syrians could soon overtake Afghans as the world’s biggest refugee population, with their numbers expected to pass 4 million by year’s end, a top U.N. official said Tuesday.

High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres spoke as the international community sharply urged Syria to comply with a new Security Council resolution demanding that President Bashar Assad and the opposition provide immediate access for humanitarian aid.

Opposition activists say more than 140,000 people have died in the conflict, which enters its fourth year next month. The U.N. says 9.3 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance.

The number of Afghan refugees was 2.6 million at the end of 2012, UNHCR says. Syrians, with nearly 2.5 million registered as refugees, should overtake that long before the end of the year. About one-half of the refugees are children.

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Syria’s polio epidemic: the suppressed truth

Annie Sparrow reports: One way to measure the horrific suffering of Syria’s increasingly violent war is through the experience of Syrian children. More than one million children are now refugees. At least 11,500 have been killed because of the armed conflict,1 well over half of these because of the direct bombing of schools, homes, and health centers, and roughly 1,500 have been executed, shot by snipers or tortured to death. At least 128 were killed in the chemical massacre in August.

In the midst of all this violence, it is easy to miss the health catastrophe that has also struck Syrian children, who must cope with war trauma, malnutrition, and stunted growth alongside collapsing sanitation and living conditions. Syria has become a cauldron of once-rare infectious diseases, with hundreds of cases of measles each month and outbreaks of typhoid, hepatitis, and dysentery. Tuberculosis, diphtheria, and whooping cough are all on the rise. Upward of 100,000 children are stigmatized by leishmaniasis, a hideous parasitic skin disease that flourishes in war. Many of these diseases have already traveled beyond Syria’s borders, carried by millions of refugees. Five million more children have been forced out of their homes but are still living within Syria, increasingly vulnerable to early marriage, trafficking, and recruitment as child soldiers.

And now polio is back. Since May, Syrian doctors and international public health agencies have documented more than ninety cases of polio in seven of Syria’s fourteen administrative districts, or governorates: Deir Ezzor, Aleppo, Idlib, Hamas, Damascus, al-Hasakeh, and Ar-Raqqa. At an average age of just under two, most victims are—or used to be—literally toddlers. Few were fully vaccinated. None has had treatment to prevent paralysis from becoming permanent. All are from areas long opposed to the Assad regime, which reflects the political dimension of the outbreak. Not a single case has occurred in territory controlled by the government.

Once the most feared disease of the twentieth century, polio in most countries had long ago passed into the history books. Syria was no exception. Polio was eliminated there in 1995 following mandatory (and free) immunization introduced in 1964 after the Baath party took power.2 Yet wildtype 1 polio—the most vicious form of the disease—has been confirmed across much of Syria.

Ninety or so afflicted children may sound like a small number, but they are only a tiny manifestation of an enormous problem, since for each crippled child up to one thousand more are silently infected. Polio is so contagious that a single case is considered a public health emergency. Ninety cases could mean some 90,000 people infected, each a carrier invisibly spreading the disease to others for weeks on end. [Continue reading...]

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Syrian refugees no longer know who is fighting let alone who is winning

The Guardian reports: Lugging three plastic sacks full of clothes, Abu Mohammed and his three daughters pulled back the wrought iron border crossing gate, stepped through it into Turkey and smiled.

As one daughter wept tears of relief, her father recounted their 12-hour journey from Aleppo, through some of the most terrifying and volatile scenes of the Syrian civil war.

“It was miserable,” he said, his eyes haggard from the stress and the relentless two weeks of aerial bombardment that preceded it.

“At every checkpoint along the way, we didn’t know who was in charge. There was The Islamic State of Iraq in Sham [Isis, a name given to the main al-Qaida group in the north – the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant], the Free Syria Army, the Islamic Front. It changed every few miles.”

The family had woken early last Friday, sensing the latest outbreak of violence to ravage the north meant a hope of escape. For one week prior, the myriad fighting groups that make up the opposition had been at each other’s throats from Idlib in the north-west, to Raqaa several hundred miles east.

Isis, which had steadily been enforcing a religious tyranny across a broad swath of land, had been ousted from many of its strongholds and was being surrounded in others.

The fratricidal fighting erupted several weeks before a much-anticipated detente scheduled for 22 January in Geneva, adding another layer of complexity to a war that long ago ceased to have two clear-cut protagonists.

“It’s not clear who is winning,” said Abu Mohammed. “It’s not even clear who is fighting. What really matters to us is that we could finally leave.” [Continue reading...]

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Far right in Eastern Europe makes gains as Syrians arrive

The New York Times reports: After spreading turmoil and desperate refugees across the Middle East, Syria’s brutal civil war has now leaked misery into Europe’s eastern fringe — and put a spring in the step of Angel Bozhinov, a nationalist activist in this Bulgarian border town next to Turkey.

The local leader of Ataka, a pugnacious, far-right party, Mr. Bozhinov lost his seat in the town council at the last municipal elections in 2011 but now sees his fortunes rising thanks to public alarm over an influx of Syrian refugees across the nearby frontier.

Membership of the local branch of Ataka, he said, had surged in recent weeks as “people come up to me in the street and tell me that our party was right.” Ataka, which means attack, champions “Bulgaria for Bulgarians” and has denounced Syrian refugees as terrorists whom Bulgaria, the European Union’s poorest nation, must expel. An Ataka member of Parliament has reviled them as “terrible, despicable primates.”

With populist, anti-immigrant parties gathering momentum across much of Europe, Ataka stands out as a particularly shrill and, its critics say, sinister political force — an example of how easily opportunistic groups can stoke public fears while improving their own fortunes.

The influx of Syrian refugees has sown divisions across the European Union as the refugees add burdens on governments still struggling to emerge from years of recession. But Bulgaria is perhaps the most fragile of all the European Union’s 28 members. Modest as the numbers of refugees are here, the entry of nearly 6,500 Syrians this year has overwhelmed the deeply unpopular coalition government and added a volatile element to the nation’s already unstable politics.

The arrival of the refugees and public fury over the stabbing of a young Bulgarian woman by an Algerian asylum seeker “has opened the floodgates” for far-right nationalists, said Daniel Smilov of the Center for Liberal Strategies, a policy research group in Sofia, the capital. “They see this as their big chance.” [Continue reading...]

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Refugee stories from the Syrian exodus

Dania-Amroosh

The Washington Post reports: Dania Amroosh wears a Hello Kitty shirt, tiny heart-shaped earrings and her hair in cute little pigtails. She looks like any other 7-year-old, except for the jagged scars on the bridge of her nose and across her chin.

There is much worse beneath her blanket on the third floor of the Kilis State Hospital in southern Turkey. A huge seeping wound on her stomach is closed with an angry grid of stitches. The casts are finally off her broken right leg and right hand, but her fingers are still black and blue and she can barely walk. Her lower body is covered with shrapnel scars.

Five months ago, Dania and her family were sitting in their home in Aleppo, Syria, about 60 miles south of here, when a bomb dropped from the sky. Her grandmother, aunt, uncle and two cousins were killed instantly. Another cousin lost his legs. Dania was mangled.

Mohammad Amroosh, her father, says that after what Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s military did to them, he can’t go back. When Dania is ready to leave the hospital, the family will stay in Turkey, joining nearly 700,000 other Syrians who have taken shelter in the country.

“This is our home now,” he says.

One of the world’s largest forced migrations since World War II is transforming the Middle East.

The United Nations and governments in the countries where the refugees have taken shelter estimate that between 2.3 million and 2.8 million Syrians have fled their homeland. The United Nations says that number is rising by nearly 3,000 people a day, with no end in sight for a conflict that has lasted nearly three years. [Continue reading...]

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For Syrian refugees in Lebanon, winter storm brings snow, rain and new misery

The Washington Post reports: The United Nations said Wednesday that it is “extremely concerned” for Syria’s refugees as snow and freezing temperatures descended on the region.

Syria and the countries that border it have been bracing for what is expected to be the worst winter storm in years. Snow hit some areas of Lebanon, Turkey and northern Syria overnight Tuesday as sharp winds and cold, heavy rains battered others, causing misery for hundreds of thousands in camps and shanties.

In Lebanon, despite the wintry conditions, the flow of Syrians fleeing the war is unrelenting. Local officials in the border town of Arsal, where some of the heaviest snow fell overnight, on Wednesday reported the arrival of 200 men, women and children who had risked the treacherous journey across the mountains on foot. Many were from the town of Yabroud in the Qalamoun region, where a Syrian army offensive is underway.

Aid agencies, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Lebanese army rushed to distribute kits containing plastic sheeting and blankets to the newcomers, but poorly funded humanitarian groups are struggling to meet the overwhelming needs. Authorities remain reluctant to establish permanent refu­gee camps in Lebanon and have opened only one official, 100-tent “transit camp.” [Continue reading...]

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Syrian government offensive pushes 20,000 Syrians into Lebanon

The Washington Post reports: Its dusty streets lined with cars bearing Syrian license plates, this Lebanese mountain town has long felt as much Syrian as Lebanese. But as Bashar al-Assad’s army squeezes rebel-held towns just across the border, 20,000 new arrivals have left locals significantly outnumbered and forced Lebanon to open its first official transit camp for Syrian refugees.

Many arrive in the border town with little more than the clothes on their backs, packing into wedding halls and mosques or sleeping in cars while awaiting tents in the newly organized camp.

The influx comes as the Syrian army, backed by forces from the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, moves to secure towns in the Qalamoun region across the border. It started as government forces took Qara, a highway town dotted with car mechanic shops on the road from Homs to the capital, Damascus, a fortnight ago. The town emptied, and a convoy of thousands left for Lebanon, the winding dirt road across the mountains backed up with cars and trucks. On Thursday, Deir Attiyeh, a few miles farther south on the highway, was retaken by government forces after being seized by rebels days earlier, while nearby Nabk remained surrounded. [Continue reading...]

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