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asylum seekers in australia
A group of 157 asylum seekers from Sri Lanka have been held at sea for over a month by Australian officials. After a long detention and questionable treatment, Australia’s immigration minister Scott Morrison has announced that the group will be brought to the mainland.

Nevertheless, the future of the asylum seekers in Australia remains unknown, as they will be brought to shore to be detained a second time until a decision is made regarding whether or not they will be sent back to Sri Lanka.

Officials have not released any information about where the group will be taken.

The group includes Tamils—a group that still faces repression and violent attacks in Sri Lanka even though the civil war ended five years ago. The civil war took place between the majority Sinhalese Sri Lankan military and the Tamil separatists.

While the Australian government claims its policies are aimed at saving lives by preventing people from boarding dangerous boats and enduring a rough journey, the conditions of Australia’s detention camps have received harsh criticism both from human rights advocates and the United Nations.

UNHCR, a department from the U.N. who specializes in refugees, has spoken up, questioning whether or not on-water screening of asylum claims is at all fair.

The Australian government has been known to enforce tough policies aimed at ending the arrival of asylum seekers on boats. Just last month Australia detained a separate boat populated by Sri Lankan asylum seekers, and returned them to their country after “screening” their claims.

Reports have also come to light noting that Australian officials have been towing boats back to Indonesia, the most common area where refugees originate.

Activists have filed a legal challenge with the goal of preventing this current group of asylum seekers from being treated the same way. Under international law, Australia cannot return refugee seekers who may face maltreatment upon returning back to their homeland.

According to Graeme McGregor, the group’s refugee campaign coordinator, asylum seekers should be given the rights to undergo a “full, fair and rigorous assessment for refugee status” regardless.

Amnesty International has voiced their opinion, which aligns with McGregor’s concerns stating, “Stranding a boatload of people in the middle of the sea, in an effort to ‘stop the boats’ has achieved nothing.”

Indian officials from the Indian High Commission will be given full access to determine the identities of the asylum seekers to see if there is a potential for any of the refugees to be returned to India.

Morrison maintains that regardless of how the rest of the claims are addressed, no members of the group will be allowed to settle in Australia. Next month, the High Court will hear the asylum seekers case.

Until then, 157 men, women and children remain in limbo—awaiting their fate.

-Caroline Logan

Sources: BBC News, ABC News
Photo: News First

dengue fever in Sri Lanka
A recent epidemic of dengue fever in Sri Lanka has inspired one of the most unlikely sectors of society to innovatively combat the disease that infects between 50 and 100 million people globally every year.

Sri Lanka’s national newspaper, Mawbima, worked in conjunction with Leo Burnett to create the world’s first mosquito repellent newspaper. By combining ink with natural citronella essence, readers were able to reduce the risk of being bitten while educating themselves on current events.

The population reads the newspaper mostly in the early morning and in the evening. Because the Aedes Aegypti mosquito that transmits dengue is a daytime feeder, these are the times when they are most active.

Dengue fever causes an intense fever along with other symptoms such as severe headaches, nausea, pain behind the eyes or muscle and joint pains. Severe dengue is the more dangerous version of dengue fever, which can be lethal if not properly dealt with by professional medical care.

In many areas of the world, receiving professional medical care is not affordable or accessible for those in remote areas or those living in poverty. Prevention is a more cost effective way of addressing dengue fever.

Prevention of dengue fever is also vital because there is currently no vaccine or treatment, despite the increase of incidence worldwide in recent decades. In 2013, 30,000 Sri Lankans contracted dengue fever, which is considered “epidemic proportions.”

For National Dengue Week, several actions were taken to bring awareness to the disease. The citronella ink was used on large advertisements at bus stops to prevent those waiting for the bus from being bitten. When the paper was released, it contained articles on how to prevent dengue fever and even included repellent patches for schoolchildren to wear.

The innovative paper was so popular, it sold out by 10a.m., increasing sales by 30%. Not only was the risk of contracting dengue fever reduced, readership increased by 300,000, allowing the public to be both safe and well-informed.

Kim Tierney

Sources: CDC, Huffington Post, The Daily Star, IFL Science, World Health Organization
Photo: Black Tomatoe

asylum in australia
Forty-one Sri Lankan citizens returned to their country after being denied entry into Australia. The asylum-seekers were handed over to the Sri Lankan navy without a thorough investigation by Australian authorities. They face charges when they return to their home country.

The returned citizens face a charge of illegally leaving the country. Their sentence will include “rigorous imprisonment,” along with a fine. Although the civil war ended in 2009, human rights violations that existed during the conflict continue; imprisonment in Sri Lanka is still sometimes inhumane. There have been 75 documented cases of torture since the end of the war, according to Human Rights Watch. This includes instances of rape of both men and women. Very few of these human rights abuses are punished.

The Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, has adopted a policy of limiting refugees who enter the country, which is a popular destination for asylum seekers. This has led to a shoddy screening process for the 90 percent of Sri Lankans who attempt to enter Australia. Many boats are turned around on their way to Australia, and dozens of people have drowned because of boats capsizing.

While it is legal to return citizens when they are thoroughly screened and found to not need protection, this was not done. A hasty analysis was performed while still on the water, and no investigation was performed to determine whether the 41 Sri Lankans were in need of asylum. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees commented that Australia has a previous record of illegal screening practices for asylum-seekers.

Two boats were intercepted 12 miles from Australia. While the 41 were handed over, another 153 are still waiting on the sea to learn their fate. The first departed directly from Sri Lanka, while the other originated from the south Indian coast, from Pondicherry. They have been moved to an Australian navy ship. Although first denied, the Australian government has finally acknowledged this second ship’s existence.

Among these people trapped in limbo, 37 are children. Most of those seeking asylum in Australia are minority Tamils, who still face persecution despite the end of the conflict in their home country.

The 153 are awaiting a decision from an injunction called for by the Australian High Court. Numerous legal experts in Australia have commented on the human rights violations by their country. The decision to return the 41 Sri Lankans, and the potential return of the other 153, violate international law and the refugee convention.

The Prime Minister promised not to return the 153 without 72 hours’ notice, and a court hearing on Tuesday will determine what will happen to those still on the water.

Government lawyers have claimed those on board have no right to seek asylum because the ship was stopped outside of Australia’s immigration zone. It is possible the refugees will be sent to Papua New Guinea for further processing.

People on board have reached out to journalists and refugee advocates through satellite phones to advocate for their cause. Their families are also expressing concern for their safe arrival. One man stated through an interpreter, “I am desperate to know where my family is. I can’t function at all not knowing. I know all of them would be in very big trouble if sent back to Sri Lanka.”

– Monica Roth

Sources: The Independent, The Guardian, The Guardian, NPR, The Australian
Photo: Napalese Voice

sri lankan safety
On December 26, 2004, an earthquake at the bottom of the Indian ocean triggered an enormous tsunami that washed over large swaths of Southern Asia. Though Sri Lanka was technically only the second hardest-hit country (Indonesia having seen the most death and destruction,) it still experienced an overwhelming loss of life and infrastructure. On that day nearly 10 years ago, 40,000 Sri Lankans were killed as the massive wave crashed over their homes, schools and offices.

We all remember that day, so it’s no surprise that Sri Lankans have not forgotten the pain they endured that day and in the months and years that followed in which they strove to rebuild what they could of what was lost. By better preparing themselves for natural disasters, Sri Lankans hope to ensure that rebuilding their communities has not been for naught.

Research efforts supported by the International Development Research Centre have been used to design alert systems that will increase Sri Lankan safety and better inform communities when disasters are headed their way, giving individuals more time to protect themselves and their families. These new alert systems were specifically created to be able to access even the most remote areas of Sri Lanka, where inadequate communication on behalf of government authorities left unaware individuals most vulnerable.

To be used in circumstances of tsunami, tornadoes, earthquakes and other “rapid-onset disasters,” the new national warning system is sure to save many lives with the next natural disaster that hits Sri Lanka. By investing in the safety of its citizens, Sri Lanka is also investing in a more prosperous populace.

Natural disasters can quickly throw individuals into abject poverty, leveling their homes and workplaces in a span of minutes. Though the new alert system does not strengthen the infrastructure rebuilt in the 10 years since the Boxing Day tsunami, by allowing individuals to seek shelter sooner when natural disasters are headed toward them, Sri Lanka is simultaneously allowing those individuals to protect themselves and their families against the destruction these disasters can wreak on humans, which itself can cost thousands of dollars.

Other developing nations would be wise to emulate Sri Lankan safety by better preparing themselves for the natural disasters that occur in their corners of the world. Protection from destruction is a step toward flourishing in the future – a fate which many more Sri Lankans can now happily expect.

— Elise L. Riley

Sources: IDRC, BBC
Photo: Sunday Observer

sexual_assault_in_sri _anka
Sri Lankan Women’s Affairs and Child Development Minister Tissa Karaliyadda remarked that female victims should marry the males who sexually assaulted them to reduce the amount of rape in Sri Lanka. If the victim is underage, he suggests that the marriage be postponed until the victim reaches the age of eighteen, the legal age of consent in the country.

Karaliyadda explained to local media that, “the idea is to ensure the victim gets justice. If she feels the rapist must marry her for what he did to her, then she must have that option.”

But why would a girl wish to marry the person who sexually assaulted her? Is it because girls who have sex before their marriage will find it extremely difficult to find a husband in the future? Does their society mark them as unclean and force them to atone for the sexual assault? Is marriage the only solution to rid them of their dishonor?

Sri Lanka’s President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, has a different viewpoint. He believes that underage female rape victims should not wait until age eighteen to be married. He is quoted saying “if under aged girls are statutorily raped and the sexual act was however with consent, it may be good to have legislation that allows the perpetrator to marry the victim with her consent.”

What is most unsettling about Rajapaksa’s quote is not the part about forcing attackers to marry their underage victims, but that sexual activity between a child and an adult can be consensual.

In Sri Lanka, eighteen marks the age of consent, maturity and adulthood. Eighteen-year-olds can legally drive, smoke, drink alcohol and provide consent for sexual activity. The age of consent varies across the globe from twelve in Angola to twenty-one years old in Bahrain.

Rajapaksa’s belief that sexual activity between a child and an adult can be consensual is incorrect. Not only are their brains and bodies not fully developed, most children lack the emotional maturity and awareness to make informed important decisions. This is why statutory rape laws exist. Statutory rape laws are designed to prevent adults from “exploiting the ignorance, the trust, the inexperience and the terror of children.”

Chamal Rajapaksa, current Speaker of the Parliament and also the elder brother of President Rajapaksa, believes that “nobody can make men responsible for the violence against women. Women are responsible for it.” It is exactly this kind of viewpoint that perpetuates gender inequality and sexual assault in societies where women have very little agency. Sexual assault in Sri Lanka and gender equality is not merely a women’s issue, as it affects men, women, boys and girls. Instead of focusing on finding remedies to sexual assault after it has already happened, perhaps officials should attempt to prevent sexual assault in Sri Lanka before they actually take place.

-Sarah Yan

Sources: First Post, Buzzfeed, Care 2, Sri Lanka Guardian

poverty-sri-lanka
Even before the devastating tsunami on December 2004 in Sri Lanka, over 25 percent of the population – 5 million people – were living below the poverty line. Sri Lanka‘s definition of poverty is slightly different from the common scale, they define the poverty line as an individual living with the equivalent of $12 a month.

There are an additional 3 million people living on less than $15 a month. According to the World Bank, the rural parts of the country are home to over 4 million people, which is nearly one third of the entire population. After the tsunami hit, over 38,000 people were immediately killed and hundreds of thousands more were put in danger of entering the growing levels of poverty in Sri Lanka after having their entire livelihoods wiped out. The tsunami reminded Sri Lanka, and the world, how vulnerable the rural poor are to natural disasters.

Today, Sri Lanka has largely improved in quality of life and reducing poverty. There are 1.8 million identified as impoverished, but the majority, 84.7 percent, live in rural areas. The amount of people living in poverty has more than halved in both rural and urban Sri Lanka, with a reduction from 16.3 percent in 1990 to 5.3 percent today in urban areas and from 29.4 to 9.4 percent in rural areas. Poverty has even reduced in the estate sector as well, going from 20.5 to 11.4 percent. This decline in poverty indicates that up to 2.6 million people have been rescued from poverty over upwards of 20 years.

Currently, nine out of ten people in Sri Lanka live in extremely rural areas and after a 20-year civil war, in the northern part of the country, 800,000 people were displaced from their houses and as a result their means of life have been jeopardized. Thousands of children were orphaned and there has been a drastic increase in the total amount of households headed by single mothers, which experience significantly more hardship earning money than dual-parent households. Over 40 percent of these rural poor are small farmers who are mostly concentrated in the Uva, Central, Sabaragamuwa, and Southern provinces.

Malnutrition is common among children in these regions because of slow-moving agricultural growth. There is a substantial lack of infrastructure such as electricity, roads, communication and irrigation facilities which limit opportunities for people to produce more of an income.

Fortunately, Sri Lanka, as a whole, has an opportunity to bring in foreign aid and investment to further build the economy up for the future. The government has the current goal 8 percent growth per year, which would involve the present 29 percent investment to increase to 35 percent of the GDP and even more in the years to come. Raising foreign direct investment (FDI) is critical because Sri Lanka will be more likely to receive foreign aid if it is a more attractive investment location. In order to get more foreign aid, the government needs to build better institutions as well as strengthen law enforcement so it can create a more business-friendly environment. The country has recently taken the right steps toward improvement and is on the right track to a better economy and removing the presence of poverty.

– Kenneth W. Kliesner

Sources: Daily Mirror, The Island, Rural Poverty Portal
Photo: The Great Generation

unhrc-war-in-sri-lanka
On March 27, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) voted to open an investigation in Sri Lanka, based on allegations of human rights abuses and other crimes related to the civil war in Sri Lanka that ended in 2009.

In a press release, Secretary of State John Kerry said that the resolution “reaffirms the commitment of the international community to support the Government of Sri Lanka as it pursues reconciliation and respect for human rights and democratic governance.”

In 2009, Sri Lanka’s 26-year- long and extremely bloody civil war ended when Sri Lanka’s military defeated the Tamil Tiger rebels.

Earlier in March, Sri Lanka detained two well-known human rights activists for 48 hours under their anti-terrorism laws. The government has also denied allegations of human rights abuses, brought to them by various human rights groups.

The resolution calls on the UNHRC’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to conduct an investigation in Sri Lanka based on allegations of human rights violations on both sides. The 47 members of the council voted 23 to 12 for the resolution, with 12 members choosing to abstain.

Kerry went on to say that the HRC is “deeply concerned by recent actions against some of Sri Lanka’s citizens, including detentions and harassment of civil society activists.”

Navi Pillay, the UNHRC high commissioner, had previously wanted to investigate human rights violations in the country because he believed that the country’s authorities had not made a great deal of progress in their own investigations.

This investigation has been called “long overdue,” as two years after the war ended in 2009, the HRC passed a resolution that commended Sri Lanka’s way of bringing the war to a close.

Prior to the vote on March 27, Sri Lanka’s ambassador to the HRC Ravinatha Aryasinha was not in favor of the resolution that would open a new investigation. Aryasinha said that the resolution would be a “grave threat to the sovereignty of U.N. member states” and that the resolution also went against international law.

Pakistan’s ambassador Zamir Akram also protested the resolution claiming that it based on political motives rather than about human rights. Akram also questioned whether the UNHRC had the resources to open the investigation at all.

India chose to abstain from the vote, claiming that it was concerned about going forward with an independent investigation. This decision was off-putting, as many nations expected India to support the independent investigation. In the past, India supported “tamer” resolutions regarding the war and supported previous proposal to open investigations.

The UNHRC’s investigation will focus on the bloodshed and violations that occurred at the end of the war in Sri Lanka. It was reported that approximately 40,000 civilians were killed at the end of the war, largely due to military offensives.

Additionally, the resolution calls for continuous monitoring of human rights conditions in Sri Lanka. The United States has said that it is important to improve human rights in Sri Lanka in response to the continuing abductions, torture, and extrajudicial killings that are taking place.

– Julie Guacci

Sources: The New York Times, U.S. Department of State, BBC News
Photo: The Independent

human_rights_abuses_sri_lanka
After 25 years, the civil war that plagued Sri Lanka and claimed thousands of lives is finally finished. The war, between the Sri Lankan government forces and the Tamil Tigers separatist group, is estimated to have killed over 40,000 people in its final months.

The long war was between the Sri Lanka government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE,) or simply the Tamil Tigers. The LTTE desired an independent state for the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka.

The Tamils claim to have been victimized by the Sinhalese majority once the country became fully independent in 1948.

But, just because the war is finished, does not mean its opponents are any less quiet. In fact, many human rights groups are accusing the Sri Lankan government of destroying mass burial sites in order to cover its fingerprints on various human rights abuses.

Australia’s Public Interest Advocacy Center detailed an in-depth report chronicling the various abuses perpetrated by both sides of the conflict. The Tamil Tigers have been accused of using civilians as human shields and recruiting child soldiers. While these violations are heinous, the report lays the majority of the blame at the feet of the Sri Lanka government forces.

A United Nations report shows the majority of those 40,000 killed in the war’s final months can mostly be attributed to government action.

The team of investigators highlight the years 2008 and 2009, where the Sri Lankan government is accused of mass civilian bombardment. For example, in 2009, civilians were blocked by rebel fighters from leaving the war zone; the government shelled the entire area.

U.N. satellite images show the area the government shelled was occupied by up to 50,000 noncombatants. The government forces are also accused of purposefully targeting hospitals as well as blocking food and medicine to civilians and miscounting the number of civilians located in the war zone.

The abuses have been noted by the United States Government, resulting in intensified relations between the two countries. Recently, the U.S. has floated the idea of a third U.N. resolution against Sri Lanka. It responded by denying a visa request for a State Department official.

The government remains obstinate in the face of international pressure. Its President Mahinda Rajapaksa stated that it would be a “great crime” to accuse the government of war crimes. He went as far as to say that those bringing these allegations against the Sri Lankan government shows they are “opposed to peace.”

It is uncertain where these U.N. resolutions will lead or if they will be effective at all in finding justice for the many thousands that were needlessly slaughtered by their own government.

– Zack Lindberg

Sources: Al Jazeera, CFR, ABC News
Photo: The Telegraph

india_caste_system
On October 1, the European Union (EU) passed a resolution ending caste-based discrimination. Calling for action at multiple levels, the resolution demanded that the governments of the affected countries work to end discrimination towards people in lower castes, as well as limit the dangerous workloads often given to lower-caste employees.

Castes differentiate members of the population into different social groups, so that those in lower castes are often looked upon as “unclean,” and forced to work in unpleasant and dangerous conditions that activists say resemble slavery.

The EU’s statement helps to define caste systems as an issue that affects not only South Asian countries, but the international community as well.  The initiative has the European community, as well as South Asian human rights activists, hoping that talks on the issue of caste will proceed between the EU and caste-based nations such as Nepal, India and Sri Lanka.

According to the International Labor Organization, most of the people put under situations of forced labor in South Asia belong to lower castes. This kind of treacherous work occurs in many different sectors including agriculture, mining and retail production. The companies who subject their employees to this kind of work often supply products to multinational corporations, making caste discrimination an international problem.

Some South Asian nations have taken steps to solve the human rights issues inherent in current caste systems. For example, India has affirmative action initiatives to support Dalits, Indian citizens who belong to the lowest castes and who are subject to bonded labor.

Unfortunately, caste systems are still prevalent throughout Asia. Experts estimate that about 260 million people are affected worldwide.

Despite the EU’s recent attempt to tackle the issue, many government officials do not think the organization is doing enough, citing the high numbers of people still affected by caste discrimination as an indication of the EU’s failure. These officials stress the importance of specifically briefing the European Parliament on caste-based discrimination, so that the EU can take appropriate steps. Such measures would also aid the effectiveness of parliament members visiting South Asian countries on business, economic and development trips.

– Elisha-Kim Desmangles
Feature Writer

Sources: The New York Times, The Guardian
Photo: Live Science

rice_farms_climate_change

Climate change is having a profound effect on coastal rice farming. The resulting increase in pests, diseases, water scarcity, and salinity has been devastating to farmers.

Research conducted over the past decade demonstrates a strong relationship between climate change and the prevalence of disease and pests in rice paddies. Crop stressors like irregular rainfall often increase the virulence of rice blights such as brown spot and blast. Extreme weather, like flooding or drought, forces farmers into asynchronous, or unseasonal, cropping. Such practices, along with the weather events themselves, often lead to pest population explosions.

Water scarcity is another factor affecting rice production. As rice requires a certain amount of water to grow, even less-severe droughts can take a toll on production yields. Climate change continues to cause more frequent and more severe droughts, and rice farmers are starting to feel the pressure of drying rice paddies.

As higher temperatures and lower rainfall cause a decrease in ground water, sea levels continue to rise and intrude into fresh water areas. These factors cause a noted increase in salinity. Rice, particularly higher-yielding hybrids, is only moderately tolerant of salt. Thus, increases in the salinity usually see a decrease in yields for the affected paddies.

Drastic decreases in production are causing some farmers to abandon their fields. Several governments and NGOs, like Practical Action, a UK-based development organization, are launching initiatives to help these rice farmers cope with the growing challenges of climate change.

Practical Action partnered with farmers in southern Sri Lanka, a country that has seen significant effects of climate change over the past 20 years. The organization participated in farmer-led trials of traditional varieties of rice to assess each type’s resistance to temperature, pests, and salinity. The varieties were held against standards of crop duration, plant height, grain quality, and overall yield.

Sri Lanka has over 2,000 traditional varieties of rice. Most of these varieties had been abandoned for modern rice types and hybrids, but new climate challenges are turning many farmers back to indigenous varieties. The traditional rice is nutritional, some even having medicinal properties, and according to tests are more resilient in the face of climate change.

In fact, of the ten varieties tested by farmers in the Practical Action program, four scored high enough to now be officially promoted through farmer organizations as hardy and saline tolerant. The traditional rice cannot, generally, produce the high yields of hybrids, but its resilience and popularity in the consumer market still enable a farmer to generate profit.

It seems that for an agricultural community faced with emerging climate challenges, revisiting traditional methods could be the best solution.

– Lauren Brown

Sources: Practical Action
Photo: International Land Coalition