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IRIN - Human Rights


Mayotte: the French migration frontline you’ve never heard of

Wed, 14 Feb 2018 10:55:51 +0000

Last month, Ousseni Souffiani’s life was turned upside down. He had lived in a hillside shantytown on the island of Mayotte, but a torrential downpour swept his flimsy home away, killing his wife and four of his children who were sheltering inside.   Like many other Comorian immigrants on Mayotte, a speck of French territory in the Indian Ocean, Souffiani’s home was a banga – made of corrugated sheet metal.   All that was left after the tragedy was an old foam mattress and a refrigerator, half-buried beneath the rubble.   When IRIN met Souffiani several weeks later, he was carrying an empty pot covered in cloth. He and his only surviving child, a six-year-old son, were going to a friend’s to ask for food. “We’re starting over at zero,” he said.   Souffiani had most recently worked as a labourer on a manioc field. But his life, like that of other undocumented migrants who’ve made the dangerous sea crossing from the Comoros – just 90 kilometres away – is a precarious one. They face discrimination, and are fearful of being caught by the government’s deportation machine.   Mayotte was once one of the four main islands in the Comoros, all under French control. But during the decolonisation period in the 1970s, it alone voted to join Paris rather than an independent Comoros, splitting the archipelago.   Despite its far-flung location and Comorian claims to the island, Mayotte has most of the trappings and advantages of an official French department – including membership of the EU.   A mirror image of the Mediterranean   So, just as migrants cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe, Comorians cross a thin strip of the Mozambique Channel to reach Mayotte and the chance of a better life, usually on small kwassa kwassa fishing boats. Edward Carver/IRIN A banga in the Mayotte capital, Mamoudzou As in the Mediterranean, these boats are often in poor condition – they are frequently seized, so smugglers don’t use their best vessels – and they are overloaded.   About 7,000-10,000 Comorians – more than one percent of the islands’ population – died on the crossing between 1995 and 2012, according to a report from the French Senate. Many local observers cite higher figures, and the Comorian authorities claim it is “the world’s largest marine cemetery”.   French border patrols catch several kwassa kwassa per night. In most cases, the people on board are deported the very next day. Mayotte has a population of just over 200,000, and yet manages to deport about 20,000 people each year.   Mayotte is exempt from certain French immigration laws, and the border police do not always respect those that do exist. In a report last year, France’s human rights commission condemned the quick deportations in Mayotte, where most migrants don’t even see a lawyer or a judge before expulsion. The commission wrote that seeking asylum in Mayotte was “mission impossible” and that this “worrying phenomenon” was unique in France. For Comorians, these difficulties are compounded by the fact that they believe themselves to be on their own land when they are on Mayotte.   Social tensions   The people of Mayotte and the Comoros have a common, if complicated, ethnic background, with ancestors arriving over the centuries from Africa, islands in the Pacific, Madagascar, and the Middle East. They also share a language and religion.   Most people on the islands speak some form of the main Comorian language, Shikomori, and adhere to the Shafi’i school of Sunni Islam.   Yet the long-settled Mahorans (people of Mayotte) resent the large presence of other Comorians on their island, which puts pressure on public services. Schools are now full of children from the other islands, and at Mayotte’s main hospital, most of the women giving birth are undocumented migrants.   Mansour Kamardine, one of Mayotte’s two representatives in the French parliament, considers the Comorian presence an “invasion” and regularly bemoans the[...]

It is time to end the child soldier stereotype

Fri, 09 Feb 2018 12:30:45 +0000

From Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo to Myanmar and Nigeria, countless children remain trapped in armed conflict.   The UN Secretary General’s 2017 Report on Children and Armed Conflict names 56 non-state armed groups and seven state armed forces in 14 countries that recruit children.   Escalating conflicts have led to a spike in child recruitment in several regions. Deepening unrest in Congo saw more than 3,000 child soldiers recruited in 2017, levels in the Middle East have doubled, while the shocking scale of recruitment in South Sudan was laid bare again this month by Human Rights Watch.   “In conflicts around the world, children have become frontline targets, used as human shields, killed, maimed and recruited to fight. Rape, forced marriage, abduction and enslavement have become standard tactics,” a UNICEF statement declared in December.    Child soldier myths   Sadly, the use of child soldiers is nothing new, but the recent spotlight placed on Nigeria’s “Chibok girls” and the “Caliphate Cubs” of so-called Islamic State has drawn global attention to the problem.   The abduction of the 276 schoolgirls from the Nigerian town of Chibok by Boko Haram militants in 2014 raised awareness of the harsh reality faced by girls in some armed groups – from sexual abuse to their increasing use as suicide bombers.   The brutal indoctrination of children recruited to fight under IS, and their prominent use in propaganda materials, illustrates both the vulnerability of children and the lengths some armed groups will go to exploit them.       Child soldiers have always played many roles during armed conflict, as porters and cooks, messengers or spies, while sexual, physical, and psychological abuse is also common. Many are kept away from the front lines.   But child soldiers are still too often reduced to stereotypes. A Google search of “child soldier” shows children bearing arms in all but four of the first 50 images, and 47 of them are boys.   The UN estimates up to 40 percent of child soldiers worldwide are in fact girls, who often encounter serious difficulties when returning home.   Another misconception is that once they are freed from an armed group, former child soldiers will return to a normal life and be welcomed with open arms by their communities.   In reality, rejection and discrimination by family and friends is commonplace. Child Soldiers International conducted research in Congo in 2016 that brought to light the hardships endured by returning girl soldiers.   Of 150 girls interviewed, a majority had suffered horrendous sexual abuse, with several taken as “wives” by their captors. Their experiences were compounded when they returned home, as many were ostracised by their families.   Practical support   This is one reason why global efforts to improve the reintegration of child soldiers must intensify, and should be tailored to local environments and the individual needs of children.   For example, we found that the overriding wish of the girls in Congo was to return to education, to help them take on a positive identity and achieve redemption in the eyes of the community. Involvement in agricultural initiatives – the most common source of occupation in eastern Congo – also helped significantly, as well as bringing positive benefits to the broader community.   We also found that engaging community leaders to involve the girls in social activities helped strengthen relationships and change the way family and friends viewed them.   Upholding rights, providing funds   To ensure that reintegration support for these children is effective, there needs to be a more concerted effort to back appropriate programmes.   According to a recent report, while total Official Development Assistance amounted to $174 billion in 2015, only 0.6 percent was spent on projects fully or partially designed to end violence against children. It is crucial the international community recognises the importance of reintegration, and while many programmes [...]

Peace in northeastern Nigeria requires justice for military crimes not just Boko Haram atrocities

Wed, 07 Feb 2018 18:01:20 +0000

One day the Boko Haram insurgency will come to an end. When it does, there will be a painful time of reckoning. But for lasting peace to come to northeastern Nigeria, one important fact must be acknowledged from the start: there are perpetrators and victims on many sides. After eight and a half years of conflict, no one knows when the guns will fall silent. Government declarations of victory are still routinely followed by the jihadist group committing yet another violent outrage. Boko Haram is proving hard to defeat. It has survived a split between Abubaker Shekau (the ranting leader seen on the YouTube videos) and a rival faction led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi that is aligned with so-called Islamic State. It has weathered the food shortages that have affected rural communities across Borno State. And it has resisted a sustained offensive by the Nigerian military targeting its strongholds in the Lake Chad region and the Sambisa Forest, further south. The brutality of Boko Haram – its killings, torture, rapes, and abductions – are well known. But the Nigerian military and a pro-armed forces vigilante group called the Civilian Joint Task Force, or CJTF, are also accused of committing human rights violations – well documented by Amnesty International. The Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has identified eight possible cases of crimes against humanity in relation to the conflict in northeastern Nigeria. These include six possible cases against Boko Haram and two against the Nigerian security forces.  There have been various negotiation efforts between the government and elements within Boko Haram. This has involved talking to both factions of the insurgency, and has resulted in the release of two batches of the Chibok school girls. Justice for whom? If these negotiations were to go a step further and result in a ceasefire and peace agreement, or if somehow the Nigerian military finally found the skill and commitment to “win” the war – what would peace look like? There would certainly be a demand for accountability and justice, but justice for whom? The challenge of transitional justice in Nigeria is illustrated by a scoping paper by the Centre for Democracy and Development. It identifies the several categories of victims and perpetrators – and the issue is complicated. Appearing on both sides of the ledger – as both victims and perpetrators – are the Nigerian military, the CJTF, Boko Haram ex-combatants, government officials, and civilian collaborators. Within the military, for example, the rank and file see themselves as not only victims of Boko Haram, but also of corrupt government officials and senior officers who have lined their pockets with the resources that should have been spent on fighting the insurgency. In researching the report, I asked a lot of people in the three northeastern states of Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa what transitional justice should entail on the day peace returns. Can’t trust Boko Haram What was clear is that there is a great deal of anger towards Boko Haram. That includes those the government is trying to reintegrate through its Operation Safe Corridor demobilisation programme. The overwhelming opinion was that all insurgents – even those who have surrendered – should be prosecuted. It’s a powerful emotion, especially among the displaced. The sentiment commonly heard amounts to this: “we are suffering in IDP camps, with little food and only basic services, while the perpetrators are in a rehabilitation camp, drinking bottled water and sleeping under mosquito nets.” Many believe the ex-combatants are not at all repentant: they surrendered merely out of hunger, or to save their lives – because they had run afoul of their Boko Haram commander or been out-gunned by the military. The common denominator was: “Boko Haram can never change, they cannot be trusted.” Army crimes The armed forces and the CJTF are also clearly seen as complicit in rights violations and should be held to accou[...]

Africa’s all too preventable cholera crisis

Tue, 30 Jan 2018 09:49:11 +0000

Southern and East African countries are facing a severe cholera outbreak that is exposing the failure in public sanitation and the impact of government neglect. Last year, there were more than 109,442 cholera cases resulting in 1,708 deaths in 12 countries in the Eastern and Southern Africa Region (ESAR), according to the UN children’s agency, UNICEF. Since the beginning of 2018, there have been more than 2,009 cases and a further 22 deaths in seven countries – Angola, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Somalia, Tanzania, and Zambia. Zambia has been among the hardest hit, with the waterborne disease killing more than 74 people since October last year. Cases have been centred on the capital, Lusaka. To contain the outbreak, the government banned street food vending and public gatherings, which triggered violent protests by traders. The World Health Organization says that while sporadic cases of cholera are regular occurrences in Zambia during the five-month rainy season, 2017 exceeded the average annual caseload. The government and the WHO blame poor waste management and inadequate personal hygiene for the contamination of water and food in the townships, which has driven the epidemic. The government’s response has been to call in the army to help enforce control measures, clean markets, and unblock drains. It also launched an oral vaccine programme with a target of immunising one million people, and the number of cases is now beginning to fall. Failing record Zambia, as a lower middle-income economy, lies in the middle of a range of countries caught in the surge of cases in the region, from struggling Mozambique to relatively prosperous Kenya. “In the last four weeks of 2017 alone, Zambia reported 217 new cases of cholera including 11 deaths, Tanzania 216 new cases including eight deaths, Mozambique 155 new cases, and Kenya 44 new cases,” UNICEF’s regional WASH (Water, sanitation and hygiene) advisor for Eastern and Southern Africa, Suzanne Coates, told IRIN. But by far the worst-affected countries have been war-debilitated Somalia and South Sudan, with 72 percent and 16 percent respectively of the total cholera caseload. Beyond the ESAR region, the Democratic Republic of Congo is experiencing the worst cholera outbreak since 1994, with 55,000 cases and 1,190 deaths reported in 24 out of 26 provinces last year, according to Médecins Sans Frontières. allowtransparency="true" frameborder="0" height="429" id="datawrapper-chart-lvooQ" scrolling="no" src="//" style="width: 0; min-width: 100% !important;">   Meanwhile, over the past three years, the Sudanese government has made it clear it expects the EU to provide funds and equipment for its migration control efforts.    The head of the RSF, Mohamed Hamdan, regularly boasts about the RSF’s role in assisting the EU. He recently told Al Jazeera: “[The EU] lose[s] millions in fighting migration, that's why [it has] to support us."   The EU ambassador to the Sudan, Jean-Michel Dumond, rejects criticism of Europe’s relationship with Khartoum. “We have been accused of all the sins of the world, and it’s quite clear we have never cooperated with the RSF – we have no link,” he told IRIN. “[EU] aid is given [under] very clear conditions.”   Meanwhile, former border control officials from European countries are arriving in Khartoum as consultants, replacing development experts in some international agencies. One of the latest EU-funded projects is a Regional Command Center in Khartoum (ROCK), to be run by Civipol out of the Sudanese police training compound.   “The migration issue is becoming like the Darfur crisis, it’s a business,” said Fatima, a Sudanese journalist covering migration who also pointed to the creation of numerous new government charities that have started turning up at migration-related meetings. “Everyone wants a piece of the pie,” she added.   “Where to keep them?”   Yusef, an Eritrean refugee, tried t[...]

Afghan attack, Congo killings, and crisis debate at Davos: The Cheat Sheet

Fri, 26 Jan 2018 18:46:02 +0000

Every week, IRIN’s team of specialist editors scans the humanitarian horizon to curate a reading list on important and unfolding trends and events around the globe:   Congo’s deepening crisis   UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for "credible investigations" after at least six people were killed in Kinshasa on Sunday during a crackdown on demonstrations against President Joseph Kabila. Whether he will get it is a different matter. Guterres said the government should "hold those responsible accountable", just as the UN peacekeeping mission MONUSCO reported a surge in extrajudicial executions by “state agents”, notably in the southern region of Kasai. According to MONUSCO’s annual human rights report, there were 1,176 recorded summary killings, "including at least 89 women and 213 children” in 2017 – mostly committed by the armed forces – a 25 percent increase on 2016. Sunday’s protests followed the killing of nine people by the police during similar demonstrations organised by the Catholic Church on 31 December. Kabila is facing mounting unrest over his postponement of elections last year. They are now scheduled to take place at the end of 2018 – although few Congolese believe that date will hold either. Meanwhile, militia groups in the south and east are unifying to force Kabila from power, with increasing numbers of refugees fleeing to Zambia, Uganda, and Angola to escape the widening conflict. Look out for IRIN’s latest “who’s who” on the violence, and visit our in-depth page here.   Afghan attack fallout   Ripples from Wednesday’s attack on Save the Children’s office in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad are being felt far and wide. At least six civilians were killed, including four Save the Children staff, when gunmen, apparently acting in the name of so-called Islamic State, stormed the office after one of the attackers blew himself up in front of the building. The charity, which runs education projects for some 700,000 children across almost half of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, immediately suspended those operations, but the wider fallout could be far greater. It has become impossible to ignore the growing trend of civilian targeting in Afghanistan, in particular of aid organisations and places of worship. More than 60 local and international NGOs put out a joint statement, railing against this “normalisation” of attacks on civilians and calling for greater protections for aid workers operating in dangerous frontline environments. “Over the last year, there have been 156 attacks on aid workers committed by actors involved in the current conflict,” the statement said. “This includes 17 aid workers who have been killed as they attempted to provide life-saving humanitarian assistance including food, safe drinking water and healthcare to those most in need.” It wasn’t immediately clear if this latest attack would be the tipping point for some aid organisations to further scale back operations in Afghanistan, as the International Committee of the Red Cross has already done, but the secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, Jan Egeland, said his organisation was reassessing and that aid groups in Afghanistan were “hanging on by our fingernails”. We reported in October on how this spreading insecurity is cutting off medical care for many vulnerable Afghans. We’ll now have to look in greater depth at aid access more generally.   What’s really behind Saudi aid to Yemen?   Given the “dire, unrelenting” humanitarian crisis in Yemen – to use the recent words of Guterres, you would think the announcement of any new aid is welcome. So when the Saudi Arabia-led coalition this week announced the Yemen Comprehensive Humanitarian Operations (YCHO), a new plan it said commits over $3.5 billion to “relieve suffering in Yemen”, including $1.5 billion in “new humanitarian aid funding for distribution across UN [...]

Fumbled repatriation sows fear in Bangladesh Rohingya camps

Fri, 26 Jan 2018 13:32:36 +0000

It’s midday in Bangladesh’s sprawling Rohingya refugee settlements. A group of men hover under the shade of a tiny bamboo shack, trading strands of information about the topic on everyone’s minds: the future of several hundred thousand refugees here in the camps. Mohammed Salim is one of some 688,000 Rohingya driven out of Myanmar since August 2017. Like many, he’s heard the rumours – and they scare him. “We are hearing that Bangladesh wants to send us back,” Salim said. For Salim and many Rohingya here, there is only a trickle of information through the camps, often from news programmes downloaded at an Internet cafe, or from patchy radio broadcasts that have to be translated into the Rohingya dialect before filtering through the crowds. "The Bangladesh government doesn’t talk to us,” Salim said. “We know nothing." That said, news of plans to send Rohingya back to Rakhine pervaded the camps this week, sparking fear and protest. Officially, at least, Myanmar says it’s ready to begin resettling Rohingya. Bangladesh says it needs more time to prepare. Just about everyone else – rights groups, UN organisations, and Rohingya themselves – say even the thought of refugee return is startlingly premature and dangerous. A 23 January deadline to begin repatriations came and went with little movement. The Rohingya remain crowded in tenuous settlements etched into hillsides or sprawled out along low-lying floodplains. But fear is building as the uncertain prospects of repatriation loom overhead. Verena Hölzl/IRIN The Rohingya refugee camps of Bangladesh have swollen to the size of a city, but have little of the infrastructure. Aid workers say the upcoming monsoon and cyclone seasons could have a devastating impact on the fragile settlements. Voluntary returns? Behind a rusty fence, Bangladesh government employees inspect an overgrown patch of land that sits between overflowing camps near the border town of Teknaf. In the 1990s, the land was the sight of a transit camp built for a previous wave of Rohingya refugees who were being returned to Myanmar. For now, it’s still just an unkempt field. Bangladesh’s refugee relief and repatriation commissioner, Abul Kalam, said preparations for repatriation are continuing, even though the government this week announced actual returns would be postponed until an unspecified date. “It’s a complicated process and we want it to be sustainable,” he told IRIN. “There is no shortcut for it.” Bangladesh, he said, is continuing to prepare lists of possible returnees – he would not elaborate on how the names would be selected – and to set up transit camps so that returns can start. However, any eventual returns, he stressed, would be “safe and voluntary”. Ultimately, however, Kalam said the onus is on Myanmar to treat Rohingya with dignity, and for the international community to pressure Myanmar to do so. “We are by no means responsible for this artificially created disaster and we cannot solve all these problems,” he said. But there are major questions about what Rohingya refugees will face if they are returned to Myanmar. Rights groups and fleeing Rohingya say Myanmar’s military, along with groups of ethnic Rakhine, burned entire communities to the ground and slaughtered civilians. The military has denied almost all allegations of widespread atrocities, while the government has stonewalled a UN-led investigation on Myanmar soil. Myanmar says it is preparing a temporary settlement near Bangladesh’s border where repatriated Rohingya can live until their homes are rebuilt. But rights groups point out that tens of thousands of Rohingya in central Rakhine State have been stranded in once-temporary displacement sites since 2012, when a wave of communal violence ripped through the state. See: UN, aid groups debate Myanmar internment plan [...]

Why some Malians join armed groups

Thu, 25 Jan 2018 14:14:44 +0000

More than two years after some of Mali’s armed groups signed a peace accord, insecurity in the country is both escalating and spreading. When the latest chapter in Mali’s long history of insecurity first broke out in 2012 it was initially restricted to the north, but in recent years the violence committed by a wide range of groups has been growing in the centre of the country. In the third quarter of 2017, “the security situation worsened and attacks against MINUSMA [the UN mission in Mali] and Malian defence and security forces increased and intensified,” UN Secretary General António Guterres wrote in his latest update to the Security Council on 26 December. “Terrorist groups… appear to have improved their operational capacity and expanded their area of operations [leading to] an increase in the number of casualties owing to terrorist attacks,” even if attacks between parties to the peace accord have stopped, he added. “The peace process has yielded but a few tangible results,” Guterres concluded. According to Ibrahim Maïga, a researcher with the African Institute for Security Studies, “we have entered a new phase of the war.” “It is much more unpredictable than in 2012. It is much more diffuse. Before it was focused on urban centres, now it is happening in rural areas and the pockets of insecurity are much more numerous,” he told IRIN. The “non-state armed actors” – to use the jargon of conflict analysis ­– behind this violence are many in number and raison d’être, while alliances and splits come and go. Broadly, these groups fall into four categories: The Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) – a loose coalition of armed movements with shared interests in issues such as self-determination and territorial control. The Platform of Armed Groups – a diverse range of nominally pro-government armed groups. Violent extremist organisations, many of which fall under the umbrella of the Jamâ’ah Nusrah al-Islâm wal-Muslimîn (Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims or JNIM.) Other groups, notably local self-defence units which are not aligned to the above.   The multiplicity of these groups, their constant evolution, and insecurity in areas where they operate makes it impossible to determine how many Malian citizens are within their ranks. None of the organisations IRIN spoke to wanted to provide even a rough estimate. Some sense of the scale of the phenomenon can be gleaned from proposals about how many members of the groups which signed the 2015 accord are set to be integrated into the regular security forces. The government puts the figure at 4,900; some of the signatories insisted it should be as many as 14,000. Jihadist forces and self-defence units were not party to the accord. One area that has been researched extensively is why Malian citizens decide to join armed groups. And, according to the results of several field surveys, “radicalization” and immediate monetary gain barely figure as “pull” factors. Instead, what emerges is a picture in which taking up arms is often a considered response to deteriorating circumstances. “There is a multitude of factors, almost as many motives as there are members” of armed groups, explained Maïga of the ISS. Youths, aged between 18-35, “make up the largest proportion of the groups, of their fighting forces. Without youths, it’s hard to be an active, dangerous group,” he said. More than two-thirds of Mali’s 18 million inhabitants is under the age of 24. In 2016, ISS interviewed dozens of former members of Malian jihadist groups to assess their motives, which the research group determined fell into 15 broad categories: Personal reasons, education, protection, social, ethical, influence, economic, family-related, political, religious, psychological, coercion, environmental, cultural/community/sociological and unknown. The ISS findings are in line wit[...]