Saturday, September 10, 2011

To Help-A Moral Obligation or Something Else?

"We were hungry and couldn't get work. We traveled as a family but soon after we arrived my husband died, leaving me a widow and my children without a father. 
I just need help — anything."

— Dainabo, a 30-year-old mother of three, who
arrived in Dadaab after walking for six days.

The situation in Somalia is getting worse. The United Nations has officially declared famine in five different regions of Somalia. According to Amnesty International, Somalia has one of the highest levels of malnutrition in the world, accounting for more than 50% of the country. Due to the drought, and unsuitable environment for living, most people are forced to move out. Many are migrating to refugee camps situated in nearby countries, like Kenya. As Dr. D’s post states, due to these massive shifts of people, these emergency camps are being filled quickly with increased amounts of people and fewer resources. The camp in Dadaab, Kenya, is host to 400,000 refugees. The place was designed for only 90,000 people.

The United Nations can only do so much. Their resources can assist only a fraction of those in turmoil. In times of need like this, many big non-profit organizations and companies are sending help through food, water, clothing, manpower, etc. The Helston-based charity has pitched nearly 3,000 ShelterBox tents and is ensuring that there are sanitary facilities and adequate water. Humanitarian Organizations are assisting with what they can. United States is also sending aid. But it still isn’t enough…

Such a situation brings a controversial thought to mind. Should we, as humans, be REQUIRED to help those in need? Morally, we all want to assist, and think about it, but should there be an external control over our intent to aid and support?

For most of us, this is a situation that speaks to us. We want to help those in need, but because of our busy schedules and external commitments, we tend to forget that such things are happening around the world. At times, some of may feel a moral obligation to help, and we send in a check to a charity and it makes us feel better. But is that it? We just think about it, make a minimal attempt to help, and move on?

Famine-ravaged Somalia and the definition of "refugee"

Somalia, the east-African nation (if you can call it that) defined by clan warfare and a perpetual lawlessness, is currently facing a famine of Biblical proportions that the UN suggests could claim the lives of 750,000 people within just four months. Somalis have fled north into Kenya and other neighboring nations due to the instability in their country that has stymied efforts to supply food and medicine - but are these individuals "refugees" and would they be justified in their claims of asylum should they come to the United States?

As we all know, the UN definition of refugee and the US definition of asylum-seeker insist that individuals in each category must have a "well-founded fear of persecution" because of "race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion." Those fleeing famine, however - though certainly warranted in their fear - don't seem to fall under this definition. Lacking food doesn't seem to suggest intentional persecution by the government or another group, and none of the enumerated elements in the definition seem to encompass - at first glance, anyway, those who are going without food.

The situation is undeniably terrible, and no rational person would dispute the reasons that the Somali people have for leaving their country or, hypothetically, seeking to relocate in the United States. The questions about their classification as refugees and therefore as potential asylum-seekers throws into doubt the effectiveness of the definitions of those terms provided by the UN (and the US), rather than the validity of what the Somali people want for their future.

At the very least, I think this provides grounds for an interesting discussion about the refugee/asylum-seeker definitions with respect to the vast array of peoples that they are meant to apply to.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Documentaries on Human Rights

Hi Everyone,

I just watched a truly enlightening documentary on child soldiers in Uganda. There are heartbreaking interviews with children who have escaped the LRA that make the impact of such atrocities hit home in a way that reading about them can't convey. It's not too long (about 36 minutes) and it's definitely worth a watch. Here's the link:’s-silent-war

This is a great website with a good selection of free documentaries on Human Rights. If you have any other documentary recommendations, please post!


Warehousing or Helping Refugees?

The linked NYT article, "Fixes for Refugees: The Price of Dignity", explores a continual problem with what host countries should do with refugees in their countries. Are refugee camps the way to go, or is there a better route? In order to understand why camps have been the preferred route, it seems that we need to look at the motivation of host countries. To be fair to them, they are often burdened with some of the cost of hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees, and the spill-off effects....but is it really humane to put large numbers of people into desolate areas -- give them makeshift homes-- and keep them there -- sometimes for 20+ years?
Lancaster, Pennsylvania, has actually been impacted by some of these international policies. For example, two VOLAGS (Volunteer Agencies) -- Church World Service (CWS) and Lutheran Refugee Service (LRS) will help to resettle over 500 refugees from Bhutan and Burma (Mynamar) this year alone. UNHCR has finally decided to close the camps housing Bhutanese refugees in Nepal -- some who have lived there all their lives -- over 20 years!

What do you think is the answer?

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Sixty-Three Years and Counting: Palestinian Refugees

This month, Palestinian diplomats hope to submit a bid to the UN Security Council that would have their territories formally recognized as a Palestinian state. The US promises a veto, but the Palestinians hope that a favorable vote in the General Assembly could still increase the diplomatic pressure on Israel.

Students of refugee law will find a highly complex and controversial case in this situation.  Due to a strange definition by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) tasked to the situation, not only the Palestinians who fled in the 1948 war are classified as refugees, but also their descendents. This means that the half a million refugees from 1948 have ballooned to a current total of nearly five million. Israel, fearful of losing its Jewish demography through a wave of immigrants, refuses to contemplate offering any “Right of Return” to these refugees. Meanwhile, more and more Palestinians are born stateless, having neither Israeli citizenship nor citizenship in the nonexistent Palestinian state. Instead, they merely get refugee status cards from UNRWA (and none are automatically eligible for asylum in the US because they do not have a “well-founded fear of persecution”; a life of poverty does not qualify).

These refugees do not live in the worst of conditions: the refugee slums I saw in the West Bank city of Nablus did have concrete buildings and narrow roads. These are not the tattered tents one would see in Darfur, for example. But existing without rights, having only a hostile Israeli government and a nascent Palestinian one, these people see little hope of ever gaining justice. Accordingly, many turn to violence. I saw many posters idolizing armed teenage boys, “martyrs” against the occupation. (“Idiots,” commented one Palestinian, "This kid was throwing rocks at a tank.”)
Palestinian Refugee Camp in Nablus, West Bank. Note the banner honoring "martyrs" who had died fighting the Israeli occupation. 
What is the answer to the Palestinian refugee problem? I believe that it is impossible to return these refugees to their family hometowns in Israel. It’s been over sixty years and the landscape has been completely changed. Moreover, I know Israel will not grant citizenship status to Palestinians for fear that they would become an electoral majority and take over the “Jewish” state. Thus, I think the only fair thing to do would be to permit the Palestinians to form a state, placing the responsibilities of rectifying the refugees’ social justice claims in the hands of their own people.

Thus, I believe the US should not veto the Palestinian’s bid for statehood. Instead, it should vote in favor of it and immediately begin working with Israel to craft safe, secure borders between the two states.