Inflammation and stories on UNHCR

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

The Swedish “do-it-yourself” furniture giant, IKEA, has teamed up with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to develop a flatpack shelter that can being used for refugee housing. Currently, there are over 45 million people displaced across the world because of conflict or natural disaster. IKEA is working to return dignity, security, and a life to these people.

IKEA’s flatpack shelters are chock full of innovative technology developed solely for these structures. The shelters are made from a lightweight polymer plastic, which is mounted on a steel skeleton. Refugee Housing Unit designed this polymer plastic to be strong enough to withstand the harsh climates of refugee camps, light enough to be transported cost-effectively, and to create privacy. Each shelter also has a metallic fabric shading cover that reflects the sun during the day and retains heat at night. Solar panels on top of the shade net generate electricity for a built-in light and a USB port inside the shelter.

The shelters require no additional tools for construction and can be built in around four hours. Each one can comfortably house five people for around three years. These features make IKEA’s flatpack shelters a vast improvement over the housing options that are currently available to refugees. Unlike this new innovation, traditional canvas ridge tents are usually not insulated, are half the size, and have a lifespan of around six months, which combined severely limit quality of life.

IKEA’s current flatpack model is two years in the making, but still in the prototype phase. Refugee camps in Iraq, Lebanon, and Ethiopia are testing around 50 of these prototypes. In the future, the design team hopes to increase the shelter’s solar electricity capacity, as well as its water harvesting and purification capabilities. Lockable doors and windows are also in the works.

Thus far, IKEA’s philanthropic branch, IKEA Foundation, has invested $4.8 million into developing the shelters. Each unit reportedly costs around $7,500 to create, but designers are hopeful that they can settle on a cost of $1,000 each, once in mass production. This price is double the cost of current tents, but with a vast amount of additional features most important to refugees.

Though IKEA’s do-it-yourself model can sometimes pose a construction challenge to its average customer, this model excels within the constraints of refugee housing. IKEA has used its fortune to bring innovative, improved shelter to those truly in need of it.

– Tara Young

Sources: NPR, Wired, The Guardian
Photo: Inhabitat

Stateless People UNHCR International Aid Global Development Refugee
What do you do when no nation recognizes you as a citizen? For 12 million people around the world, statelessness is a daily reality. Born without citizenship, they are often doomed to a lifetime of joblessness and homelessness,with deportation a constant threat.

Without official papers verifying citizenship, the stateless cannot be hired by any employer. They also cannot qualify to rent or own a house or other property. Forget opening a bank account, renting a car, getting a drivers license, traveling long distance via airplane, or getting married. Public services that most people would consider to be basic human rights–such as education and healthcare–are not permitted for non-citizens.

As undocumented people, they live in legal limbo and are subject to harassment by the police for being “illegal immigrants.” Yet deportation is not possible, since they have no country to claim them. They “often end up in detention, in destitution or being bounced around like a ping pong ball from one country to another,” says Mark Manly, head of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

Similar to undocumented immigrants, stateless people  suffer persecution and isolation, which often leads to “depression with strong feelings of helplessness, frustration and exclusion,” according to Manly.Without any avenues to citizenship and no country to return to, stateless people are unable to advocate for themselves or to improve their existence.

“If we don’t have common, minimum rules there will always be people falling through the cracks. So while the work on accessions and reform of nationality laws is not very glamorous, it is very important,” Manly said.

Without consistent citizenship laws across all countries, people can become stateless in a variety of ways. Children born in one country to parents who are citizens of another country sometimes go unclaimed by either nation. Countries also make it national policy to deny certain ethnic groups citizenship, like the 93,000 Bedouins of Kuwait or 800,000 Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.

The UNHCR has recently increased its efforts to spread awareness about statelessness, and a number of countries have amended laws that once left people  without citizenship. UNHCR’s campaign has also prompted several countries to sign the UN Conventions on Statelessness. Other nations have also improved their handling of stateless people, recognizing their unique situation, and providing them with basic human rights and legal protection.

– Jennifer Bills

Sources: The UN Refugee Agency News, Thomson Reuters Foundation

This week, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has been conducting public hearings on potential human rights violations committed by the DPRK. This was the first panel established to investigate claims of human rights violations by the government of North Korea.

The Commission was started by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in March with a one year mandate to investigate such claims. The panel is the most direct confrontation of the North Korean government by the international body.

While the world body has been critical of North Korea’s nuclear program, it has been less vocal about the repressive nature of the country towards its citizens. The International Criminal Court has been accused of focusing predominantly on Africa, while turning a blind eye to the situation in North Korea. The expanded focus of the ICC is an important step for the international community in dealing with problems of this kind.

The DPRK manages to keep a tight grip over its citizens, preventing migration in or out of the country. Without direct access to the country, the international body relies on defectors to provide a glimpse into life in the repressive country.

Although North Korea denies their existence, there are approximately 80,000-120,000 political prisoners held in 5 prison camps across the country. Many prisoners lose their lives during their stay due to the harsh conditions and torture.

North Korea denies committing human rights abuses and has called past UN resolutions on the subject as a part of a ‘political plot’ to destabilize its government. Many defectors hope that the panel will lead to the indictment of Kim Jong-un and his government allies in the International Criminal Court.

As one defector, Shin Dong-hyuk, explained, “We were expendables they were keeping as beasts of labor, to get the most out of us before we die.” Shin, like many others, was forced into a labor camp. Unlike most of his peers, Shin escaped. Shin is now telling his story to the panel in hopes of advocating against the government of North Korea.

A female defector, Hee Heon-a, explained that conditions inside the prison camps are often unbearable for women. Most women are sexually exploited and some are even beaten until they miscarry. Thus far, the commission has identified nine patterns of human rights violations used in the country, such as torture, induced famine, and arbitrary detention.

Later this month, the commission is set to convene in Japan to meet with defectors from the country and those knowledgeable about the abduction of Japanese nationals. The hearings will take place in Tokyo on August 29-30. Government officials, NGOs, and other research organizations are set to take part in the discussion.

The chairman of the Commission, Michael Kirby, said Pyongyang has not yet agreed to participate in the hearings. Although there are few options to prevent such abuses from occurring further, the international community is utilizing the panel as a forum to raise awareness about the human rights abuses in North Korea.

– Kelsey Ziomek

Sources: UN, New York Times, Policy Mic
Photo: Washington Post

Somali refugees continue to arrive in Ethiopia in large droves due to poor growing conditions, food shortages, and continued conflict. While the situation is slowly improving, John Ging, Director of Operations in the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, urges continued attention to the crisis and says, “I call on the international community to invest now to build the resilience of Somalis and stop the cycle of crisis they have endured far too long.”

To that end, The United Nations World Food Program, UNHCR, European Commission Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection, and the government of Ethiopia have partnered to launch an aid project that provides Somali refugees with monthly cash installments in addition to food aid. Currently, 12,000 refugees are receiving monetary relief and the project plans to extend cash aid to 13,000 more by October.

Monetary relief allows Somali refugees to round out their diet with fresh produce, proteins, and dairy from the local market, providing an important supplement to the basic grains and non-perishables received from aid agencies. It also gives the refugees an opportunity to inject money into the local economy. This economic boost is helpful to the communities supporting the large number of refugee settlements.

Currently the refugees who are part of the pilot cash program receive 100 Ethiopian Birr per month, or about $5.00. The organizations backing this program are optimistic that these cash transfers will greatly alleviate the most acute suffering and make the refugee situation less of a burden. Between Ethiopia, Kenya, and Yemen, there are over 1 million Somali refugees. The cash relief program gives refugees an opportunity to regain a little agency and make decisions about what groceries to purchase while also offering much needed hunger relief.

– Zoe Meroney

Sources: World Food Program, United Nations, All Africa
Photo: UNHCR

An ethnic Tibetan who grew up under the Chinese Communist regime and currently works as a high-ranking Communist Party official has decided to speak out against the Tibetan atrocities currently taking place. Choosing to remain anonymous, the government official claims that the current state of Tibet is “far worse than people in the West suspect.”

When the Chinese military invaded Tibet in 1950, many Tibetans thought the Chinese would modernize the region and bring order to the land that was previously ruled by monks and monasteries. These thoughts were quickly dashed when the Chinese began erasing any signs of Tibetan culture and forcibly removing people from their homes into communes. During the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, Tibetan leaders were sent to Maoist reeducation camps and hundreds of monasteries and relics were destroyed. Many of these injustices are still occurring today.

The streets of Lhasa, Tibet’s capital city, are still patrolled by Chinese security forces that act like occupiers. The Communist official claims that the security forces often take property and beat residents at their own discretion and without cause. During another Lhasa revolt surrounding the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the military arrested 6,000 people. The practice of self-immolation, or the public death by lighting oneself on fire, has gained popularity with monks to raise awareness for their struggle. Since 2011, over 100 people have resorted to self-immolation to protest the Chinese occupation of Tibet.

Another horrifying byproduct of Chinese rule has been the destruction of the Tibetan plateau. The Communist official alleges that the increase in cultivation due to Chinese immigrants coming to Tibet has resulted in diminished grasslands and desertification. The number of rivers that feed into Qinghai Lake decreased from 108 to 8 due to extensive irrigation systems. Furthermore, the area as a whole is said to be a toxic dumping ground for Chinese industries.

Human Rights Watch recently published a 115-page report corroborating many injustices that the Communist official is claiming. Their report focuses on the re-housing project currently underway that has relocated over 2 million Tibetans since 2006. Hundreds of thousands of nomadic herders have been placed into “New Socialist Villages” destroying their livelihoods without adequate compensation.

These obvious and blatant human rights abuses are occurring all across Tibet. The Communist official hopes to publish a book in the West detailing his eyewitness accounts of the current state of Tibet and hopes that the Chinese will someday allow public debate on the matter. He says that a style of democracy tailored to the culture and people of Tibet would be the best solution if such an option were possible.

– Sarah C. Morris 

Sources: Spiegel, Human Rights Watch
Sources: New York Times

His novels have tugged at the heartstrings of millions around the world. Throughout his eight year writing career, renowned author Khalid Hosseini has enchanted his readers with the moving, powerful stories of characters like Amir in The Kite Runner, Laila and Mariam in A Thousand Splendid Suns, and Abdullah in his latest novel, And the Mountains Echoed. But Hosseini’s successes do not end at the tip of his pen. Since 2006, he has extended his work to his native Afghanistan not as a novelist, but as a humanitarian.

Hosseini was born in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1965. After a communist coup brought bloodshed and anarchy to the country, Hosseini’s family sought political asylum in the US in 1980, where Hosseini has lived since. He practiced as a physician in California until he began his career as a writer with the release of The Kite Runner in 2005. In 2006, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) named Hosseini a Goodwill Envoy, taking him back to Afghanistan to work with millions attempting to rebuild their lives. In 2007, inspired by his work with the UN, Hosseini started a foundation in his name dedicated to helping the people of Afghanistan.

The Khaled Hosseini Foundation (TKHF) is a nonprofit organization based in San Jose, CA that works with the UNHCR to create shelters as well as employment and educational opportunities for refugees, women and children in Afghanistan. To date, approximately 5.7 million Afghani refugees have returned to Afghanistan. Many of them homeless, these refugees have faced harsh summers and cold winters that have claimed the lives of thousands. And when looking for schooling or employment that could allow the population to rebuild, many Afghans have hit a dead-end.

TKHF came to help by focusing on building homes and infrastructure for those living without shelter, supporting the creation of jobs, and promoting and funding schools for girls and boys whose futures had seemed bleak. By 2012, TKHF provided over $650,000 to the UNHCR to build shelters for Afghanistan’s homeless. Through Trust in Education and the Afghan Friends Network, TKHF funded the education of hundreds of children. And through Markets for Afghan Artisans, TKHF is able to promote an array of jewelry, bookmarks, and purses handcrafted by Afghan women living as refugees in Pakistan, helping to keep these women employed.

Find out ways to get involved and join in Hosseini’s effort here.

– Lina Saud

Sources: Khaled Hosseini Foundation, UNHCR
Photo: The Guardian


Drinking water is a major problem for many parts of Africa, particularly in refugee camps, where minimal living conditions are make it difficult to secure safe drinking water. The recommended minimum amount of water a person needs in an emergency situation is 15 liters a day. In Ab Gadam, a refugee camp in southeast Chad, UNHCR struggles to provide refugees with 10 liters per person per day. Currently in Ab Gadam the drinking water is filtered from a nearby lake, however, when the rain comes, this source of water will be cut off. UNHCR is trying to find new solutions to be able to meet this challenge.

“It is really serious…we need to increase the supply – and that is what we are working on,” said Dominique Porteaud, UNHCR’s senior water and sanitation officer. He made it clear that if a solution was not found people would turn to alternative, unsafe ways of obtaining water that could lead to disease.

Zenab, a refugee living in Ad Gadam with five children, knows all too well the effect unsanitary water can have. After having to flee their village in the troubled West Darfur region, she and her family spent weeks in the border area. While there they dug small holes in the ground to find drinking water. This drinking water was not filtered and caused Zenab’s two-year-old son Ali to get sick. After entering the Ad Gadam camp, Ali is still sick but is now receiving treatment.

As the rain season quickly approaches UNHCR has been looking at several different approaches to supply safe drinking water to the refugees of Ad Gadam. Some of these measures include increasing the number and size of water storage tanks and continuing the search for productive boreholes.

UNHCR has already developed a water treatment plant, which chemically sanitizes water brought in from the nearby lake. The plant can produce enough clean water to supply refugees with 10.5 liters per day, which is still short of the minimum recommended. Refugees have also begun to find their own source of clean drinking water. Zenab and her family collect rainwater that they use to clean clothes, pots and pans, and bathe.

To inform people about the dangers of unsafe drinking water, UNHCR has begun to run awareness programs that stress the importance of clean water, sanitation and hygiene. “It is important that everybody, including the children, know about the best use of water and the dangers of drinking dirty water,” says Barka Mahamat Barka, a UNHCR water and sanitation expert.

– Catherine Ulrich

Sources: UNHCR, UN
Photo: Contribute