Despite Chemical Weapons Agreement, Crisis Continues for Syrian Refugees and IDPs

The historic deal brokered by the United States and Russia facilitating Syria’s compliance with international chemical weapons norms has drawn wide attention from the international community. And while the work of the joint mission of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the United Nations (OPCW-UN) is critical to enhancing global security, dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons program is overshadowing the more immediate humanitarian crisis facing the region: the ongoing and burgeoning Syrian refugee crisis.

Currently, more than 2 million individuals have fled Syria and 4.25 million have been internally displaced. Efforts to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons program have done nothing to quell the violence within its borders or stem the tide of refugees fleeing the country. As the civil war rages on, the provision of assistance to those trapped inside Syria becomes increasingly difficult. The delivery of aid is hampered by rapidly-changing front lines as well as by blockades imposed by armed groups. Meanwhile, many continue to flee the country daily, swelling the already-large ranks of refugees and creating the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) expects the number of refugees to reach 3.2 million by the end of 2013 and increase by another 2 million in 2014. By the end of 2014, OCHA predicts that more than one-third of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million people will be either refugees or internally displaced people (IDPs).  Such alarming levels of displacement have serious regional implications, particularly for Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, the countries that currently host the majority of Syria’s refugees.

 These nations are already at their limit as they work to provide shelter and services to displaced Syrians. Despite UN appeals to the international community for increased funding, host countries continue to shoulder the bulk of the burden. Both Turkey and Jordan have spent close to $2 billion each caring for refugees with the majority of that money coming from their own coffers. Lebanon, a country of only 4 million residents, currently hosts 750,000 Syrian refugees, in addition to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. Jordanian authorities likened the presence of Syrian refugees in Jordan to “the United States absorbing the entire population of Canada.” The influx of people in all host countries has a marked effect on local economies, health infrastructure, and education systems, thereby straining both resources and relationships.

 With no end to the conflict in sight, the prospect of more refugees requiring a prolonged stay has created an unwelcoming environment for refugees in many countries. There are reports of some refugees facing indefinite detention  or deportation back to Syria. Poor camp conditions, tense dynamics with local populations, and harassment from government officials has created a sense of desperation among countless Syrians. Many pay thousands of dollars to smugglers and risk their lives attempting dangerous journeys to Europe in search of asylum. However, reaching Europe does not mark the end of these refugees’ struggles, as they face overwhelmed and inconsistent asylum systems in the European Union.

 

PHR applauds the difficult work being done in challenging environments on behalf of refugees and the countries hosting them. But we urge the international community to recognize the need for continued support of these efforts and to not allow other issues to overshadow the ongoing displacement crisis in Syria and the region. As winter approaches, these humanitarian needs become more urgent. The international community must seize opportunities to provide assistance and security to those fleeing armed conflict – not just in Syria, but around the globe.

The original version of this blog post can be viewed on the website of Physicians for Human Rights.

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Protecting Cultural Heritage through Community Storytelling and Legal Research

I spent my final semester of law school living in the southern Caribbean region of Costa Rica and learning about the volatile land rights situation threatening to displace native Afro-Caribbean residents. In an effort to learn more, I began interviewing people about their history, the current challenges facing their communities, and their hopes for the future. I quickly realized there was a story to be told – one that asks how environmental conservation measures can and should be balanced against the needs and rights of local communities to economic development and sustainable livelihoods – and that this community’s story could help inform better decisions and smarter policy for the benefit of communities around the world facing similar challenges.

The post below provides an overview of the background, progress, and goals of The Rich Coast Project. We are raising money now to support a community storytelling campaign. Donate to the project’s indiegogo campaign and spread the word to your networks. Thank you in advance for your support!

Katie Beck

Founder, The Rich Coast Project

PHRGE Fellow (2010 and 2012)

George Hansel has lived in Punta Uva his entire life, a small town founded by his grandparents. He has many fond memories of growing up in this tight-knit community, where neighbors treated one another like family and shared whatever they had.

“This is a big conflict. For at the moment you don’t own something that you had owned. We used to be owners, until now we comes to be squatters. In everything you supposed to be going up, not down. But in this we are going down.”

-George Hansell, Punta Uva

George Hansell has lived in Punta Uva his entire life, a small town founded by his grandparents.  He has many fond memories of growing up in this tight-knit community, where neighbors treated one another like family and shared whatever they had. His family has lived on the same plot of land for several generations. About 35 years ago he built, with his own hands, the house in which he now lives. He has owned the 11,000 m² of land since his grandmother handed it down to him when he was five years old. Sixty years later, George looks forward to passing the same land to his children, grandchildren, and the “ones that are coming.” His ability to do so, however, is seriously threatened by Costa Rican conservation and land use policies.

George’s community is in the canton of Talamanca, located in the southeast of Costa Rica and bordered by Panama and the Caribbean. It is home to a rich Afro-Caribbean culture, fostered over centuries by descendants of the area’s original founders, fishermen and coconut farmers from Jamaica and Panama. It is the country’s poorest region in terms of socioeconomic and human development, and the richest in terms of biodiversity and tropical forest systems.  In total, 88% of the land in Talamanca is restricted by some form of conservation protection.

These conservation laws, especially the Gandoca Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge (REGAMA) and the Maritime Zone (ZMT), are squeezing out the very people who have cared for and called these lands home for centuries.

The effects of unstable land tenure and stunted economic development are pervasive: opportunity for personal advancement is increasingly limited, and many young people must leave their homes and families to pursue education and employment. Homes and businesses have been threatened with demolition orders and residents have faced criminal charges for pursuing better lives for their families.

These communities face losing their lands, their culture, and their very history. Conscious of these challenges, residents are working hard to protect their rights and reinforce their cultural traditions while seeking a more balanced approach to the government’s regulation of their natural resources.

The Rich Coast Project wants to make sure that these communities have a chance to tell their own story. 

The Rich Coast Project aims to connect local experience to broad questions of international law and policy through a combination of new media storytelling and legal research.  We will create a living archive of the Talamanca coast by collecting the stories of the people who call it home and hearing firsthand how these issues are impacting their communities and way of life. We’re teaming with law students, librarians and scholars from a range of disciplines to reconsider how conservation law works, and letting this community’s experience help us explore better approaches to the competing aims of environmental conservation and sustainable development.

The goal of the project is to use creative advocacy to build the case for keeping the local people on their land, showing that not only is it the right and just thing to do, it will also produce better results for the people and the environment.

So far we have set up a non-profit, found a fiscal sponsor, organized a team of lawyers, researchers, photographers and filmmakers, and developed several exciting partnerships, both in Costa Rica and in the United States. This year a group of law students at Northeastern University will research the issue from Boston, and experts in archival studies at Simmons College, the top rated program in the country, will help us develop a digital community archive.

We are raising money for the first phase of the storytelling project now. Our crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo is ongoing until November 22, 2013. Contributions will help us buy equipment, work with experts from the Center for Digital Storytelling, and support a small team working on the ground in Costa Rica.

DONATE NOW TO MAKE THIS PROJECT POSSIBLE

The Rich Coast Project is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of The Rich Coast Project must be made payable to “Fractured Atlas” only and are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.

More information can be found on the project’s website, www.therichcoastproject.org. Contact us directly by emailing Katie Beck at kbeck@therichcoastproject.com

Tita Hansel

“The only good thing about this problem is that it has helped us grow as a community and be more united.” 

– George Hansell

Final Update from Geneva: Days 4-5

See the video below for the final update from the Law Center’s Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy Fellow, Kirsten Blume, regarding days 4 and 5 of her advocacy trip to Geneva. Kirsten has been able to meet with various UN Special Rapporteurs, UN Human Rights Officers, and UN Human Rights Committee Members to discuss the issue of the criminalization of homelessness in the U.S. as it violates international law. We hope you’ve found these updates informative and we thank you for tuning in to the video blog series!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Il_81aibKck

The original version of this post can be found on the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s website blog.

Update from Geneva: Days 3-4

See the video below for an update from the Law Center’s Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy Fellow, Kirsten Blume, regarding days 3 and 4 of her advocacy trip to Geneva. Kirsten has been able to meet with various UN Special Rapporteurs and UN Human Rights Officers to discuss the issue of the criminalization of homelessness in the U.S. as it violates international law. Stay tuned for another video update tomorrow!

The original version of this post can be found on the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s website blog.

Update from Geneva: Day 1-2

See the video below for an update from the Law Center’s Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy Fellow, Kirsten Blume, from her first two days in Geneva. Kirsten was able to make the trip to Geneva and attend scheduled meetings with UN Special Rapporteurs and various non-governmental organizations despite the postponement of the U.S. hearing before the Human Rights Committee in Geneva due to the U.S. Government shutdown. Stay tuned for more video updates about her advocacy efforts on behalf of the Law Center in Geneva this week!

http://tinyurl.com/pzhakaw

The original version of this post can be found on the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s website blog.

The Road to Geneva: The Right to Vote

This is the eighth edition of a blog series (see blog intro) on the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s advocacy efforts during the HRC Review of U.S. compliance with the ICCPR. The information in this blog came from the Law Center’s shadow report, Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading.

Homeless people in the U.S. are disproportionately excluded from their constitutional and human right to vote. Laws increasingly disenfranchise homeless people by predicating the ability to vote on photo identification often requiring billing information and housing details that homeless persons simply cannot provide. Additionally identification documents are frequently lost during the frequent moves of homelessness, and once lost, are especially difficult to obtain again without a permanent address. These voting restrictions violate Article 25 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Article 25 guarantees the right to political participation, including the right to vote. The Human Rights Committee (HRC), which oversees ICCPR compliance, has affirmed that states have an obligation to ensure that citizens are able to vote. U.S. advocates like the National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty and its allies such as the Advocates for Human Rights use international law to ensure that global norms of political participation are upheld around the world.

A recent example of voting restrictions is the Wisconsin voter ID law which the Law Center, together with the ACLU of Wisconsin, challenged in court last year. The law only allowed select forms of identification such as a driver’s license, state ID card, or passport to verify a voter’s identity. Voters also had to produce a utility bill from the past thirty days, pay stub, an account statement from a bank, or mortgage documents. Veteran’s identification, government benefit cards, and state issued IDs were excluded as identification options. The court in the case issued a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the law, but the case continues and the next hearing for this case will happen in November.

The Law Center has done extensive research to prove that such restrictive voting laws targeting homeless people are unnecessary. Our 2008 voting rights report documents states like Oregon that allow homeless people to use descriptors of residency rather than an actual address to register to vote. For instance, a person could identify a park where they live or a shelter where they sleep instead of showing a bill with an address as proof of residence. Such alternatives are essential in upholding the voting rights of homeless individuals.

We learned late last week that the U.S. has received an HRC hearing postponement due to the U.S. government shutdown. The U.S. will now appear before the Committee in March of 2014. Nevertheless, the Law Center and its allies, such as the Advocates for Human Rights (see the Advocates Post), will continue to write and raise awareness about U.S. ICCPR violations and the advocacy efforts leading up to the HRC Review. The Law Center’s Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy fellow will still attend meetings in Geneva this week and advocate on issues of criminalization of homelessness in the U.S. with other U.N. officials. Look forward to blog updates this week about our fellow’s efforts to advocate and fight for the human rights of homeless people in the U.S., such as voting for all, this week in Geneva.

-Kirsten Blume, Program on Human Rights & the Global Economy Fellow

The original version of this post can be found on the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s website blog.

The Road to Geneva: The Right to Family

This is the seventh edition of a blogs series (see blog intro) on the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s advocacy efforts during the HRC Review of U.S. compliance with the ICCPR. The information in this blog came from the Law Center’s shadow report, Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading.

Homeless parents in the US are often faced with the impossible, heart wrenching decision to have to either separate from their children in order to find shelter, or see their children taken away because they choose to stay together without permanent housing. Families facing homelessness often have little choice but to separate due to shelter imposed rules based on sex. And, children are increasingly removed from homes and placed in foster care due to inadequate housing. Both issues represent stark problems in the U.S. that revolve around access to adequate housing and represent violations to the Right to Family under Article 23 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Article 23 says that society owes protection to the family because it is “the natural and fundamental group unit of society.” According to an article in the ABA Child Law Practice Journal called “Housing Resources for Families at Risk of Separation,” “families represent the fastest growing segment of the homeless population in the United States.” Rather than protecting the right of homeless families or families living in inadequate housing, U.S. laws and practices thwart family unification.

Most shelters in the United States are segregated by sex, thus fathers rarely have the option of staying with their family. Mothers are likely to be separated from their adolescent sons. Families are all too often faced with the choice to either separate for shelter or forego a safe place to sleep to stay together. These shelter separations last, on average, six months.

The National Center for Housing and Child Welfare notes on their website that daily, almost a half million children are separated from their families and placed into the U.S. foster care system, due in large part to inadequate housing. Many states forcibly remove children because of “neglect” related to the lack of stable housing. Twelve states have taken a stance against these forced removals by agreeing that parental inability to financially sustain housing does not constitute neglect.

Some cities such as Patterson, New Jersey, have found innovative alternatives to separating families or removing children. In Patterson, a $5 million project was created to turn a vacant lot into an apartment complex for children at risk of removal to foster care to live with grandparents. The grandparents receive rent subsidies while living in the apartment complex. Overall, alternative approaches, like that in Patterson, that provide housing options to maintain family units and avoid child removal or shelter separation are more effective solutions to maintaining the rights of families. 

-Kirsten Blume, Program on Human Rights & the Global Economy Fellow

The original version of this post can be found on the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s website blog.