Inflammation and stories on UNHCR

During the 1951 Refugee Convention, the international community agreed upon and defined the word “refugee.” Article One calls him or her a person who has left their country, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

But events of the last century have shown this definition inadequate. Some flee severe poverty and lack of economic opportunity. Some seek access to clean water, a consistent source of food or much needed health care. Many are forced from their homes by natural disasters. These people are called climate change refugees.

The UNHCR reports that in the last 20 years, the number of natural disasters per year has doubled and now sits at 400. Nine-tenths of natural disasters are climate related.

The organization breaks disasters into categories.

Hydro-meteorological disasters are floods, hurricanes, mudslides, etc. In 2013, Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines and displaced nearly 4 million people. But they remained in the country, and the typhoon had not been after their freedom of speech or religion. Technically, the victims did not fall under the purview of the UNHCR. Still, aid was provided.

Second are zones designated ‘high-risk’ by their governments. Third is the sinking of landmasses, for the most part, small islands.

Fourth is “environmental degradation.” Deforestation and desertification, a reduction in available water, flooding and salinization of coastal areas are all included. For communities affected by climate change, especially those whose economies are agriculture-based, any one of these could be devastating.

Last is conflict caused by a change in availability of essential resources, namely water, land and food.

In 2010, over 42 million people were forced from their homes by natural disasters, sometimes across international lines. In response to the great number of migrant peoples affected by natural disasters, the UNHCR has had to reconsider its role in emergency relief.

The Nansen Initiative recommends vulnerable communities have an exit strategy in case of disaster. IRIN recently reported on Sebana-Demale, an Ethiopian village in an active, volcanic region. Combined with an utter lack of rain, living in Sebana-Demale is difficult. But in 15 years, it could be impossible.

So, according to the Initiative, people of Sebana-Demale and villages like it should be prepared to move. The Ethiopian government, as well as area states, should be ready to integrate the newly displaced population.

Favoring the-end-is-nigh rhetoric, the media and public interest have often ignored the humanitarian crises created by climate change. When they do, they ignore those now called climate change refugees.

— Olivia Kostreva

Sources: UNHCR, UNICEF, IRIN, Huffington Post
Photo: Treehugger

syrian refugees
The United Nation refugee agency’s top medical expert has recently published a warning of the dangers of overwhelmed health care systems in Jordan and Syria, which are flooded with Syrian refugees.

This client base of Syrian refugees does not arrive with marks of external violence or chemical warfare, but instead arrive fighting against a more internalized battlefield — cancer.

Paul Spiegel, the top medical expert of UNHCR, was quoted in the latest edition of The Lancet Oncology, the leading British medical journal, explaining how the overwhelming of the health care systems forces “UNHCR offices and partners to make agonizing decisions over who does and doesn’t receive care.” Siegel has documented hundreds of refugees in Jordan and Syria denied cancer treatment on account of limited funds.

So far there are more than one million documented Syrian refugees in Lebanon and 600,000 in Jordan. In the case of Lebanon, that number is expected to continue to increase, reaching 1.5 million by the end of 2014 (already equivalent to a third of Lebanon’s pre-Syria war population).

“We have to turn away cancer patients with poor prognoses because caring for them is too expensive. After losing everything at home, cancer patients face even greater suffering abroad – often at a huge emotional and financial cost to their families,” Siegel remarked.

For most cases, denial is based on poor prognosis, as a patient’s unlikely chance of recovery prompts committees to invest the limited money on more promising cases. In Jordan alone, between 2010 and 2012, the UNHCR’s Exceptional Care Committee was only able to approve 246 out of 511, or 48 percent, of the refugee applications for cancer treatment.

Amnesty International, in a newly released report, found that the inaccessibility of health care in Lebanon has prompted some refugees to return to Syria in order to receive the treatment they need.

“Hospital treatment and more specialized care for Syrian refugees in Lebanon is woefully insufficient, with the situation exacerbated by a massive shortage of international funding,” said Audrey Gaughran, Amnesty International’s Director of Global Thematic Issues.

While Amnesty acknowledges the strain on resources, including health care, caused by the wave of refugees entering Lebanon, the organization is calling on the government of Lebanon to adopt long-term strategies in order to properly address health care needs. Similarly, the organization called on the international community to step up and provide assistance to the Syrian refugees.

UNHCR outlined possible new approaches in a press release, stating solutions could include “mobile and online information campaigns focusing on preventive health and new financing models such as crowd-funding and potentially health insurance.”

No matter what solution is adopted by the asylum countries, the UNHCR’s biggest concern is avoiding inequality between host communities and refugees.

In the meantime, readers should not only support international organizations combatting this internalized war-zone amongst patients, but also support the 21st Century Global Health Technology Act. By calling one’s local legislators about this important bipartisan bill, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) could have the authority to strengthen the development of health products that are affordable, culturally appropriate and easy to use in low-resource health systems.

— Blythe Riggan

Sources: Amnesty, Borgen, UNHCR 1, UNHCR 2
Photo: The Independent

The Syrian conflict has continued for three years at this point and there seems to be little hope that it will be solved anytime soon. The conflict between Russia and the United States over Ukraine puts any future peace conferences in flux, and the attention of the international community has largely shifted to that part of the world. However, for the countries around Syria, the crisis there is still a daily ordeal with Syrian refugees flowing in from the beleaguered nation.

Lebanon has taken the bulk of the masses from Syria. Since the beginning of the conflict almost a million refugees have come into Lebanon and projections have that number going up to 1.5 million by the end of the year if nothing changes. A representative from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that the influx “is equivalent to 80 million Mexicans arriving in the U.S. in 18 months… the largest per capita recipient of refugees anywhere in the world.” While Lebanon continues to generously take in the refugees, the influx has put a severe strain on the country’s infrastructure.

Studies done by the United Nations have shown that many of the refugees are settling in Lebanon’s poorest regions, where the least amount of assistance can be provided. This has left both the refugees and the Lebanese poor at a disadvantage, with little room for the country to move them.

One potential problem with this influx are tensions existing between the various religious groups in the area. Lebanon has a diverse religious population, but the many Sunni refugees coming in from Syria will upset the balance in Lebanon. With sectarian violence a key part of the Syrian conflict, worries are that tensions could erupt in Lebanon and put more people at a disadvantage.

The United Nations is trying to remedy these problems facing Lebanon. The UNHCR put out a call for $1.9 billion to help refugees in Lebanon, yet the agency still hasn’t come close to meeting that goal. Viral campaigns centered around pictures taken at refugee camps have served to attract notice, it sill has yet to be seen whether the campaigns will bring in more funding for the projects.

Lebanon might be the biggest location for Syrian refugees, but all the countries bordering Syria have been affected by the war. The World Food Program is planning to assist 2.9 million people in countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. With 12,000 people coming into Lebanon a week, more help will be needed. The time to act is now, even as the countries of the West may be focused elsewhere.

– Eric Gustafsson

Sources: United Nations, The Daily Star, McClatchyDC
Photo: AlJazeera America

A report titled “Right to Food” was submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council in which the contemporary distribution of food was addressed. Currently, major corporations maintain control over food production and distribution—which has caused problems for society at large.

The World Food Programme stated that there are currently 842 million people without steady access to food. The UN special rapporteur on the right to food asserted that the global food system is in dire need of reform, especially considering some of the significant environmental and technological changes in society. The worldwide human population is expected to rise significantly while limited resources continue to be threatened by a global climate at risk.

Currently, the system of food production and distribution is in the hands of prominent corporations that have utilized the industrial processes to increase the efficiency of resource distribution overall. It has allowed for the global population to expand significantly in the 20th century and will continue to do so regardless of some of the environmental threats we face.

Some of the corporations that control food distribution are ConAgra, Cargill and PepsiCo. In order to be able to maintain their efficiency in distributing food resources, they rely heavily on chemical fertilizers, pesticides and fossil fuels to maintain their operations. The industrial revolution marked the start of the utilization of external variables to impact food production. At the time, the global population was rising and the green revolution was necessary to sustain the population.

However, the distribution of food is now becoming outdated with environmental issues, and the system indicates challenges that may require institutional reforms to be addressed. With so much of the global population without stable access to food resources, a rise in global population will further complicate matters.

Moreover, industrial food production also requires intensive freshwater use—which is also a limited resource. So if the United Nations is able to meet its goals of supporting fundamental human rights in the access to food, the industrial food distribution system will have to adapt. Corporate sources of food distribution have been unreliable in allowing for the general population to have access to the resources they need to survive—which is causing the issue to be considered from a human rights perspective.

Society is changing faster than ever before. With the level of technological development today, we can expect to see our world become increasingly fragile. Therefore, sustenance will require the consideration of sound approaches to distribution of resources, such as food.

– Jugal Patel

Sources: TruthDig, FNS
Photo: Zoom in on Poverty

As of December 2013, Thailand has had 646,770 incoming refugees, mostly from Myanmar, to which the Thai government responded by setting up nine camps on their border for temporary shelter. The United Nations reports that “with possible reduction in humanitarian assistance, the protection risks of economically vulnerable refugees who might resort to negative coping mechanisms for survival will represent an additional challenge…”

Before 2013 came to a close, one last tragedy hit the Thai people on December 27. Fires in two of the refugee camps on the Burmese border left the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to respond to the disaster, which caused approximately 600 people to become homeless. So far only one death has been reported, but 600 people are still left without homes.

The director of IRC programs in Thailand explains “This is a sad reminder of the refugee’s vulnerable living conditions. Families lost all of their possessions in a matter of minutes.” What would you do if you saw your possessions being turned to ashes? The people of Thailand also did not know what to do.

The IRC has since stepped in to provide health care, water and other services to all nine of the refugee camps, not only the two affected by the fire. Unfortunately, the Thai people did not expect anything less than a tragic end to 2013, but are thankful for the various health teams visiting the displaced families for counseling.

UNHCR explains that the refugees in Thailand have been fleeing conflict and crossing Myanmar’s eastern border jungles for safety for 30 years. Moreover, the IRC began working in Thailand in 1976, in response to the influx of refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

As it stands, the IRC has, for a while, been responsible for aiding 140,000 refugees in Thailand, responding to emergencies by providing urgent health care and supplies. Additionally, IRC provides legal counseling, emotional support and even assistance for refugees seeking admission to the United States.

– Lindsey Lerner

Sources: The UN Refugee Agency, International Rescue Committee
Photo: The Guardian

The Dadaab refugee camps in northern Kenya are now home to approximately 500,000 people, making them the largest refugee complex in the world.  Located closely to Somalia, where most of the refugees come from, Dadaab is occasionally a dangerous place.

Regardless of location or conditions there is access to primary and secondary education and now there will be access to tertiary education with the help of a new pilot program called Borderless Higher Education for Refugees, or BEHR. The United Nations refugee agency estimates less than one percent of refugees around the globe are enrolled in higher education. Now, fortunately 400 students in the Dadaab camps will be given that chance.

The first round of 400 students is made up of 17 percent female, but the hope is that the next round of students will be 40 percent female. These students will have the ability to earn accredited diplomas in teaching as well as a chance to earn university degrees in subjects including community health, development, business and natural sciences, according to the New York Times. The funding is currently in place for the second unit of students to start the program next August.

Despite the fact that Kenyan law does not allow refugees to have formal jobs within the camps, participants in BEHR are able to hold what are known as “incentive” positives in the camps for teaching and community health services. The New York Times also reports that the idea of bringing university education into refugee camps grew from a long-term scholarship program run by the World University Service of Canada, which has offered scholarships within Canadian universities to 1,350 refugees from around the world during the past 35 years.

In regards to BEHR, Wenona Giles, a professor at York University in Canada stated that, “We knew it would be big in terms of resources, organization and thinking. We are going to be offering degree programs and that had not been done before, so that took a lot of chutzpah.” She also highlighted that through the program it is possible for its graduates to not only be qualified as teachers, but also positioned to go on to advanced university degrees which are important for jobs in fields like community health and development.

The BEHR program gives the refugees in the Dadaab camp a chance to gain a new perspective on their lives, a chance to graduate from school and the hope as well as knowledge to be able to one day possibly go home to Somalia.

Lindsey Lerner

Sources: UNHCR, New York Times

Successful actress and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Special Envoy Angelina Jolie was awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ annual Governors Awards in Hollywood on November 16, 2013.

The Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award was created for the Danish actor, who worked tirelessly in many philanthropic capacities in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Notably, he served as President of the Motion Picture Relief Fund.

Jolie was appointed Goodwill Ambassador for the UNHCR in 2001, and has worked extensively with the refugees, forcibly displaced, and victims of sexual abuse and violence. In 2012, UNHCR Chief Antonio Guterres named Jolie UNHCR Special Envoy. From there, Jolie took on more responsibility, becoming an advocate focusing on emergencies with complicated implications, such as the Syria Crisis.

At the Governor’s Awards, Jolie was both humbled and grateful for the award. Guterres commended her for her dedication and direct support she has provided for countless individuals. He pointed out Jolie’s visiting more than 40 nations in crisis. He said, “Angelina works tirelessly for refugees. I have seen how much they inspire her as she listens to them for hours on end. Together, we have focused our efforts on very complex refugee situations, most recently the Syria crisis.”

Jolie responded emotionally, and compassionately referred to those she had supported, “I have never understood why people are lucky enough to be born with the chances I had and why across the world there is a woman just like me with the same abilities, same desires, same work ethics and love for her family who would most likely make better films and better speeches, only she sits in a refugee camp and she has no voice. She worries about what her children will eat, how to keep them safe and if they will ever be allowed to return home. “I don’t know why this is my life and not hers, but I will do as my mother asked me to do, the best as I can and be of use to others.”

In an effort to widen her advocacy efforts, Jolie founded the National Center for Refugee and Immigrant Children, which she funds. She also co-created Kids in Need of Defense, Jolie Legal Fellows Program, Education Partnership for Children in Conflict, and the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation.

Let Jolie be the kind of role model for future generations. She has utilized her celebrity to save lives, and make the world a better place. She is a go-getter on so many levels, and cares about the people of the world, and works hard to ensure their basic human rights.

– Laura Reinacher

Sources: Las Vegas Guardian Express, UNHCR, USA Today

Albinism is a genetic medical condition diagnosed at birth, characterized by lack of pigment in the skin, eyes, and hair. The rare condition is found in 1 in 20,000 people worldwide. Albinism is more common in Africa than other parts of the world. Unfortunately, when it comes to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania, uneducated communities often react to Albinism in severely discriminatory ways.

Strangers and families alike reject the Albino populations in these regions. Oftentimes, mothers feel extreme humiliation when giving birth to an Albino child, and are mocked. Albino children oftentimes don’t feel loved by their own families. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Albinos struggle to find work, access adequate health care, find marriage partners, and enroll in education programs.

Beyond discrimination toward Albinos, many uneducated Congolese and Tanzanian inhabitants believe strongly in several superstitions about the Albino population. To some of these inhabitants, people living with Albanism need to be hunted down by witch doctors, for their body parts are considered to bring luck and wealth on the battlefield. According to United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Navi Pillay, many of the attacks lead to “dismembering (of) people, including children, while they are still alive.”
One child, in particular, has managed to flee with the help of his supportive family. According to a press release on October 14, 2013, Father and Mother, Anaclet and Solange, are deeply concerned for their son Jeff, a child with Albinism.

For the most part, the family lived a peaceful life. When Jeff was five years old, a member of the Mai Mai militia group broke into the family home, knocked him unconscious and stuffed him into a bag. His father awoke, and with the neighbors help, they were able to get Jeff back. After this attack, the Mai Mai demanded Jeff be given back, or pay 10,000 dollars. If  they failed to respond, they would all be killed.

After the initial attack, the family fled, staying with reletives, in North Kivu, but ultimately were forced back to South Kivu to escape fighting between Congalese government and members of the M23 rebel group. They decided to head to Burundi, where they were secure for a while. On August 6, 2013, a grenade was thrown at the family home. At this point, the family reached out for help from the UNHCR, as well as the local government’s National Commission for the Protection for refugee and Stateless People. The family is protected at this time, while officials are figuring out permanent solutions.

The UNHCR has teamed up with a local group called Albinos San Fronières and launched a campaign in Burundi to raise awareness about Albinism. Catherine Huck, UNHCR’s representative in Burundi, hopes, “the partnership will contribute to a greater respect of the rights of people living with Albinism.” Additionally, the aforementioned UNDP, and the Association for the Protection and Development of Albino People in Orientale Province are organizing workshops, which seek to promote the issue among international organizations, and appeal for funding.

– Laura Reinacher

Sources: UNHCR,,  Womennewsnetwork
Photo: NY Daily News

Syria Refugees Settle in Australia
Entire towns ransacked to ruins, food and medicine completely run out, schools and hospitals attacked, rape and disappearance of women, and blockades preventing essential flow of goods to the people—these unbelievable conditions are actually happening today in Syria. The conflict in Syria has led to over 100,000 deaths, and over two million people have already fled the nation.

The United Nations Security Council has created plans to address humanitarian action to stop the suffering of the Syrian people. However, the international support networks have not realized the plans to help these people. The international community has been unsuccessful in demanding that agencies assist Syria. The UN has voiced a need for an additional $4.5 million to meet Syria’s needs, but less than 40 percent of this financial target has been met.

Syria’s neighbors are doing their best to take in fleeing refugees. Lebanon, for example, now houses 750,000 refugees. Because an astounding two million refugees have fled Syria, surrounding nations including Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan are facing great population increases. The UNHCR has requested that nations aim to alleviate the burden these neighboring nations are dealing with.

While not a neighboring country, Australia has contributed to Syrian aid as well, providing the nation with nearly $100 million, with $45.5 million allocated to support the neighboring nations taking in refugees. Australia has joined 16 other nations, and made an agreement to take in 500 Syrian refugees.

The UN Security Council’s resolution calls for the urgent and unhindered deliverance of aid toward Syrian civilians caught up in the Syrian civil war. The statement sends an urgent message that Syria must allow the UN to come in and help the innocent citizens. Australia is responding to this call.

Australian Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Scott Morrison, said the refugee relocation will begin in 2013-2014. The agreement “guarantees more resettlement places for those waiting in desperate circumstances.” Further, Morrison explained priority will be given to refugees who are most vulnerable and need urgent security.

Morrison emphasized, however, that “The Australian people’s support should not be interpreted as an encouragement to those seeking to enter our country illegally.” He said that those arriving unlawfully on boats will not be treated differently than any other illegal immigrants.

– Laura Reinacher

Sources: Business Standard The Guardian ABC Australia
Photo: ABC Australia

A court case ruling of the Constitutional Tribunal of the Dominican Republic regarding a Dominican woman, Ms. Juliana Dequis Pierre, 29, and her four children is causing great concern and eagerness to act by UNHCR.

Ms. Juliana Dequis Pierre’s parents were migrants from Haiti, and moved to the Dominican Republic several decades ago. Although she was considered a Dominican citizen when born, she does not meet qualifications based on the ruling. If implementation of the case ruling progresses, hundreds of thousands of persons of Haitian descent would be forced out of the state, and rendered stateless. According to the Tribunal’s criteria, descendents of Haitians registered as Dominicans as far back as 1929 would be considered, and instructed to leave the country they have called home for decades.

Several UNCHR officials voiced worry for the fate of almost 300,000 people born in Dominican Republic since 1929. Gonzalo Vargas Llosa, UNHCR’s Chief of Mission in Santo Domingo explained, “it is difficult to image the devastation of being told you are no longer a citizen of the country where you were born and lived your entire life.” Shelly Pitterman, UNHCR’s Regiona; Representative for the U.S. and Caribbean furthered these concerns by discussing a potential risk of these people being stripped of a recognized nationality, and how it is a “basic principle of international law that no one be deprived of a nationality if that action leads to statelessness.”

According to the ruling, the people should not have nationality because their parents were considered “in transit” and were never truly citizens of the Dominican Republic. Defending the ruling against a backlash of humanitarian supporters, Roberto Rosario, President of the Central Electoral Board, states, “The ruling unifies the country,” and “clarifies and defines a legal way and provides a framework to seek a humanitarian way of for those people.”

However, within the harsh criticism of so many humanitarians, information has leaked about the working conditions for Haitian descendents in the nation’s profitable sugar cane trade. The U.S. was able to conduct reports, and found Haitian sugar cane workers were underpaid, and worked in unsanitary conditions.

Additionally, children of Haitian descent have lived the effects of the hardship caused by a ruling in 2008, because parents were undocumented. School-aged children were stripped of the opportunity to take required standardized tests because they lacked their birth certificate.

Ms. Deguis’s lawyer states, “It’s essentially a life suspended.” U.S. involvement is at a consequential place in this case, as the U.S. imports more sugar from the Dominican Republic than any other nation. The U.S. Department of Labor announced it will revisit the situation involving labor laws in six months and a year.

As for the court ruling, Roman Catholic priest Father Christopher Hartley described the situation saying, “The truth is finally coming out.” Haitian officials will consult with UN members on how to further respond to the ruling.

– Laura Reinacher

Sources: UNHCR, UN Radio, Haiti Innovation
Photo: Castlebar News