On 21st February 2018, 120 people detained at Yarl’s Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire started a protest which has become known as #HungerForFreedom. Since then, strikers have been taking part in a variety of protest actions – including refusing food, refusing to work, and refusing to use services inside detention. They have removed themselves from detention, but their bodies remain behind bars.
The UK’s hidden – but extensive – detention estate is a national disgrace, and one that causes significant harm both to those incarcerated and to their loved ones.
This country is the only EU state that has no time limit on immigration detention, which places detainees under immense mental strain. The strikers in Yarl’s Wood have said that the uncertainty over how long they would be held “is a killer”.
The strikers in Yarl’s Wood – which is primarily used to detain women – issued a list of demands against the detention system and the conditions, that included an end to the detention of vulnerable people and victims of torture, and respect for the European Convention on Human Rights.
A number of politicians and advocates – including Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott; Shadow Attorney General and ex-Director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti; Stuart McDonald MP; and the Home Affairs Select Committee – have visited the strikers, and spoken out in solidarity with them.
This Saturday is your chance to get involved – on the 24th March, an alliance of groups will be demonstrating outside Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre in Bedfordshire. Now is a crucial time to show solidarity with detainees: we are encouraging our supporters to attend the demonstration, and shine a light on the cruel and unjust conditions faced by detainees.
Two coaches have been organised to leave from Central London, and will be leaving from the London Bridge area at 9.45am – further details will be announced closer to the date, and everyone who has signed up for a ticket will be receiving a follow up email with all necessary information, including a contact phone number for on the day logistics. There are a number of other coaches organized from citites across the UK: coach booking information can be found here, and further information found on the Facebook event here. If you have any questions, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
We stand in solidarity with the men, women and children who are detained across the UK, and join the strikers in their call for an end to unjust and indefinite detention.
“The government gives us food with one hand, and takes our tents with the other.”
These powerful words were issued by a 17 year-old boy from Eritrea, as we stood in a muddy forest in Calais, northern France. He is one of roughly 150–200 Eritreans sleeping without fixed shelter in the port town at the moment, and one of approximately one thousand displaced people currently in the same situation in the region of Nord-Pas-de-Calais.
Since the demolition of the ‘Jungle’ camp in October 2016, the provision of hot, nutritious meals to refugees in Calais has been left almost exclusively to volunteers working with Refugee Community Kitchen (RCK) and Utopia 56. From Tuesday 6th of March, the state began to contract La Vie Active to provide daily meals for those sleeping rough around the port town. La Vie Active in the current context had no experience of distributing food.
More than one week on from the start of these distributions, refugees across Calais have been systematically refusing to accept the government-funded food. In order to try and facilitate the long-awaited recognition by the French state of its responsibility to provide this basic right, RCK and Utopia 56 had temporarily halted their regular day-time distribution of hot food.
The Eritrean refugee community in Calais have been holding regular, mass community meetings over the past week to discuss the issue collectively. They have agreed, through consensus-based decision making, to issue demands to the local authorities before accepting any of their food.
What follows are the oral testimonies of members of this community articulating these demands, recorded and transcribed by a volunteer with the Refugee Info Bus. Whilst they only represent the views of one community, the words are echoed amongst the many other communities displaced and dispersed across the town. They are principled, poignant and impassioned, spoken with fire in their hearts, in lieu of food in their bellies.
“We don’t want to go to the government food distribution because it’s not peaceful for us. It’s not safe for us. They didn’t provide what we want, like the volunteers did before.
Starting from yesterday, I don’t want to take any food from the government at all. [It’s not safe] because the government provides food, but on the other hand the police take our clothes, our shelters, anything we have. If they want to prepare food, they have to prepare medical provisions. They have to provide shelter as well. They have to listen to what we want.” Anonymous — Eritrean male in his early 20s.
“Right now, the government is asking all the charity groups to stop feeding us… The government took charge of the feeding processes. If the government really cares about us, they should care about all things. We don’t only need food, because we don’t migrate from our mother countries only for food. We are in search of justice and peace, and here in Calais there is no peace and there is no justice.
If the government really cares about us, they need to arrest the criminals who shot Eritrean refugees in Calais. This is really, really disgusting. Right now there are four people sleeping in hospital and really they are in a very bad situation… So knowing this, why should we go to the same place [where the shooting happened] for food?*
We didn’t come here for food, we came here for justice and peace. If the government really cares about us, they should take care of us in all aspects. First, the most important thing is our safety. And then, after safety, all of the things that are being covered by charity groups, like blankets, tents, clothes, shoes, all basic necessities.
What’s really going on is police brutality. Police are really, really, really brutal to us. The charity groups try to give us tents, clothes, blankets and sleeping bags and in opposition to this, the police are still busy with trying to destroy this stuff… If the government really wants to take care of us, please take care of all the things that are being given to us by the charity groups.” Anonymous — Eritrean male in his early 20s
“I’m from Eritrea. I’m 17 years old. Hey guys!
I just want to say some things because we are living in Calais. We are refugees… Every day, our life is bad, but we have some organisations to help us, with food, or clothes, everything. We survive with the things they give us.
Right now, the government says they want to give us food. But we don’t need their food, because we are not coming here for food. We are coming here for freedom.
Why don’t we want the food? The police are from the government. They are not by themselves. They come because of the government sending them here. Okay, now we have to wait. The government is here, they want to give us food, feed us food. And in another way, they send police, and police take our tents, our place. And sometimes they go behind us and [spray us with] gas. How can we want the government to feed us food? We have humanity. Everybody, we need it. Like the first human beings. We need our respect. We are not animals.
And now we won’t take food by the government. For now, it’s better to come from another organisation, by volunteers. Because, volunteers care about us more than the government. Yeah okay, yesterday, they start to give us food. They say they want to take care of us. Maybe some person feels sick. What will they do? And who can speak for us?
As for me, it’s so difficult. It’s impossible. We can never accept this. Never, never. Because, the government, I don’t know how it thinks. They send for us police and police give us spray in our eyes and if they see a person sleeping they come in, they take the tent. And the government says they’ll give us food…” Anonymous, 17 year old Eritrean
A central point for many members of this community was also the location of the distribution points that the state expected them to attend. Initially, the préfecture announced that there would be two distribution sites — one in the industrial zone and one close to the hospital. For the Eritrean community, neither was a viable option; both entailed individuals entering an area in which they felt unsafe, with the latter being located at the site of a shooting incident, in which organised criminals opened fire on members of their community, leaving 5 people in hospital.
On Thursday 8th March, the préfecture of Calais invited a representative of l’Auberge des Migrants, a local association, to give feedback from the communities we support about why the attendance at food distributions had been so low.
Whilst volunteers welcomed the opportunity to give a voice to our beneficiaries, the préfecture’s position shows precisely how out-of-touch the local authorities are with the current situation. Rather than communicating with refugee communities directly, they rely on associations, whom they have repeatedly maligned in the press, to deliver feedback on behalf of the people we support. In the meantime, they continue to direct riot police to destroy tents and use CS spray on sleeping teenagers in the middle of the night.
Since the beginning of La Vie Active’s contract to provide food to Calais’ refugee population, volunteers based at the l’Auberge des Migrants warehouse (including those from Help Refugees, Refugee Community Kitchen, Utopia 56, Refugee Info Bus, Refugee Women’s Centre, Refugee Youth Service and the School Bus Project), have been conducting an informal survey, in order to ascertain how representative the views expressed above are.
Sixty-eight percent of responses suggested that refugees did not want to take food from the same authorities that legitimise violence towards them, whilst a further forty-two percent of responses noted the excessive police presence at distribution sites frightened them. Furthermore, since the beginning of the state’s distribution, eighty-nine percent of respondents stated that their only source of water came from volunteers, with one-hundred percent of respondents indicating that they were in need of more water at the time of asking.
Volunteers recognise that the state should bear the burden of providing protection for displaced people on French soil, however we respect and support the sharply critical and deeply courageous stance that refugees have taken in issuing their demands to the authorities.
Police assembling at a distribution point.
We stand side-by-side with them and seek to echo and amplify their demands, calling upon the local and national governments to meet the needs of Calais’ refugee population with dignity, respect and without further delay.
The initial two points of distribution, in the industrial zone and near to the main hospital, necessitated members of the Eritrean community coming into contact with the same individuals responsible for the shooting on 1st February.
The préfecture has subsequently opened a third distribution point, closer to the woods in which much of the Eritrean community are forced to live. There has been no new information as to whether the police have made arrests in connection with this shooting.
This article was written by our partners Refugee Info Bus. They provide information, access to wifi and legal and asylum support to refugees in Northern France.
This article originally appeared in The Sunday Times. Steve Ali is a Syrian refugee who volunteered with Help Refugees in Calais. Now living in London, he is a writer, silversmith and a translator for NBC Universal.
In Syria, we don’t say, “Once upon a time …” We say, “There was and there wasn’t a long time ago …” So that is how I shall start my story here.
There was and there wasn’t a long time ago a boy called Mustafa who had a friend called Mahmoud. The most exciting challenge in Mustafa’s life was to climb the tallest oak tree in a field owned by Mahmoud’s family in Ein Tarma in Eastern Ghouta. The field was by the Barada river that ran all the way from Western Ghouta and across Damascus to Eastern Ghouta. From the top of this oak Mustafa felt like he could see the whole world. He loved to ride the bendy branches as the howling wind rocked them back and forth.
Mahmoud’s father would scold Mustafa. “Get down, you monkey! You’ll hurt yourself if you fall, son,” he’d shout, but Mustafa did not fall.
Mustafa and Mahmoud and their friends Samer, Ahmad, Amer, Rami and little Ziad were a tight summer crew. They played football in the long, wide field, through the emerald plants and the dark red soil. They chased each other through the trees. They planted vegetables, fed the farm animals, swam in the river and found adventures in the woods until the sun went down. Then they pulled aubergines and potatoes from the field and cooked them over an open fire under the moonlight. Then they rode back to the house on their bicycles.
Mahmoud’s older brother Karim was a teacher and sometimes he would manage to gather the scattered children into the house to teach them maths. He had kind, twinkly eyes and a warm heart and stealthy means to make the children laugh as they learnt that “numbers are important”. After lessons the whole family would sit in their large living room full of treasures, on a beautiful Persian rug that Mustafa thought looked like Aladdin’s flying carpet. They would share a picnic of traditional Syrian dishes made by Mahmoud’s adoring mother.
When the children were tired of running outside on the long summer days, they’d visit Samer, whose father was a master craftsman. Sometimes he would take the boys to his workshop in Hazeh where he taught them how to make wooden clocks. Each child had a role in the production line and at breaktime Samer’s mother would reward the little workers with sandwiches and a huge kettle of tea.
Ahmad wouldn’t come to the workshop. He was too shy. He preferred to work in his father’s florist’s, more excited by flowers than people. He would lecture Mustafa about orchids with a spark in his eye and a passion in his quiet little voice. Mustafa loved watching his friend leave his awkwardness to one side whenever he was able to be an authority on orchids.
Amer and Rami were brothers. The children were sometimes invited to their father’s factory in Hamoryah where he produced generators and electrical products. The boys fiddled with the machines and tools and broke them as often as they learnt how to get them going.
Little Ziad, the last of the gang, was from Douma. His dad had a convenience shop on the corner in the main square where he chatted and chain-smoked. Mustafa always warned him the smoking was very bad for his health and he always promised to quit but never did.
Many blissful summers in Eastern Ghouta and peaceful school years in Damascus passed. Mustafa and his friends laughed and argued, played and studied, and grew tall — even little Ziad. Eventually the crew split up to travel to different universities. The idyllic years of their childhood grew into their first days of adulthood. Then the war began. It was and it wasn’t a long time ago … the kind of slaughter that belonged in a savage ancient myth. Except this time it definitely was — and it was happening now. It was happening to me and everyone I’d ever loved.
None of us living in Damascus knew what was happening in the country at first. We lived under the relentless brainwashing machine of national television, where we were told that the rumours of torture and killing were lies to turn people against the government. We couldn’t imagine life being any other way than it had been when we were riding bicycles in the woods.
But soon everyone could smell the blood. The sickeningly dry and suffocating smell of burning flesh made it hard to breathe. As the conflict intensified, we all had to be identified as either a loyal supporter of the regime or the enemy. For them or against them. Damascus was turned into one massive fortress, crawling with army officers, with checkpoints on every street. Walls were painted with the regime’s flag and propaganda. Veiled figures walked the streets at night writing revolutionary phrases on walls. The regime responded by threatening to knock the walls of people’s houses down if they couldn’t keep them clean.
From my room at night I could hear the peal of cannons. My house would tremble as I watched the bombs like shooting stars in the distance. A walk to see friends would turn into a battlefield, running through bullets from armed soldiers and rebels, like something out of Mad Max. Bombings, explosions, assassinations and arbitrary arrests became the norm.
I was a student, so immune to being called up to shoot and gas Syrians my own age and younger. But soon young men my age were randomly pulled off university campuses and forced into uniform with a gun in their back and a threat to kill or be killed. So on March 13, 2013, I packed as lightly as possible, dressed as discreetly as I could and left my home for the last time.
I set off with the intention of passing through about 20 military checkpoints, including one known as the checkpoint of death. My ID card was torn, which would have signalled disloyalty and meant certain death. I slipped it into a clear plastic folder, masking the tear, and showed my passport instead wherever I could. At each checkpoint I was waved through, my heart beating in my mouth — until the final one.
An enormous, bald, armed man with huge bushy beard and a face from hell approached me and asked for my ID. He stared at the torn document for a long time and I knew my time was up. I was going to be taken away. I knew not where, except that I would not return. After what seemed like a short lifetime, he handed it back to me wordlessly and walked away. I have no idea why, to this day. I didn’t look back. Not long afterwards, I was in Turkey. I felt born again, but I had no idea how far away peace would be for me.
I walked across countries where Syrians were not welcome and there were no rights for refugees. I crossed seas in dinghies and I slept rough. I avoided arrest from ruthless police, dealt with unscrupulous, terrifying smugglers and nearly died of exposure. After three years, I finally arrived in the Calais Jungle refugee camp, where I lived for a year. By day, I volunteered with organisations like Help Refugees. By night I worked as a firefighter. It was a very flammable place, in every way. The French police tear-gassed and intimidated the traumatised population and threatened to bulldoze our shelters to the ground. Eventually they did.
I tried every possible death-defying way to get to London until one of them worked. I was sofa surfing while waiting for asylum. Then a friend asked me to do a panel show podcast called Global Pillage with some stand-up comedians who were doing a refugee season for TimePeace, an app that connects refugees with local people. Deborah, the host of the show, said she and her husband, Tom, were going away and needed a cat-sitter. I agreed immediately.
When they returned, we all stayed up for hours chatting, drinking tea and stroking Toast, their cat, in front of the fire. It was the loveliest night I’d had in a long time. Like something I would have done in Syria before the war. It felt … normal.
Afterwards, Deborah said that if I left it was clear that Toast would leave with me, so I should stay on in their spare room. I feel very lucky and grateful in every way to have met them. The sense of family we’ve developed and the calm stability that I have being there has meant I’ve found some of my old self. I’ve unpacked in more ways than one and made my bedroom my own space, like it was in Damascus. I haven’t had any room except a shelter in a refugee camp from the age of 20 to 25, so I love this one.
I make silver jewellery, so I got a desk from Freecycle and began collecting tools. As soon as I got my papers, I started selling my jewellery and called my company Road from Damascus, because I had my epiphany coming the other way.
Being granted asylum is like becoming a person again. Life is getting better and normality is returning. Recently, I was offered a job as an interpreter for a news agency. I speak Arabic, Turkish and English, and this is quite well-paid work for someone who loves languages. For the first time in years, I have an appetite for the future.
I wake up. My phone reminds me it is 1,808 days exactly since I left Damascus. Numbers matter. Karim taught me that, but now I understand what that means in a way perhaps he didn’t. I go to work at the news agency and I am distracted because it is my best friend’s 26th birthday, but he only lived 21 of them. Our university was bombed just after I escaped. We spoke the night before he was killed. He was making plans to join me.
I sit behind a desk, going through videos and reports. They come through thick and fast from Eastern Ghouta. The region is being bombed and devastated. I need to prepare for a report for the 6pm news on national American television. I interpret a speech from a man they call “The Tiger” — Brigadier Suheil Salman al-Hassan, commander of the government’s Tiger Forces. He is leading the attacks on Eastern Ghouta. I translate his words into English but they stick to the roof of my mouth. He says: “I promise, I will teach them a lesson, in combat and in fire. You won’t find a rescuer. And if you do, you will be rescued with water like boiling oil. You’ll be rescued with blood.”
I feel sick. Furious, devastated, sad, battered and broken. How much longer will this last? How much longer do my people have to suffer?
I can’t see the screens any more. My mind blocks the carnage with all the summers with Mahmoud, Samer, Ahmad, Amer, Rami and little Ziad. I can hear their laughter, feel the softness of the magic carpet, taste the roasted aubergines and smell the orchids. Every colour is vivid. A hundred images in a second, as if their lives are flashing before my eyes.
I realise my tea is cold. And I am numb. I have forgotten where I am. And remembered where I’ll never be again.
Mahmoud died in an airstrike when a bomb fell on the house with the big Persian rug that we had picnicked on so many times. His father was killed beside him.
Mahmoud’s older brother Karim, who taught us to love maths, came home to find his loved ones dead and his kind eyes stopped twinkling when he buried them and four more of his siblings. Not long afterwards, Karim’s warm heart stopped beating. He was shot in the head by a sniper.
Samer left his house full of wooden clocks one day and went to a protest to call time on Assad’s regime. He was arrested and so badly beaten by the police he was unrecognisable. When his father went to the police station to try to get his son back, he was arrested too. Neither of them has been seen again.
About a year after that, Samer’s mother who had made us so many sandwiches and big pots of tea was killed in an explosion alongside her seven-year-old daughter.
Shy Ahmad got on a bus to go to university one day. It was stopped at a checkpoint. They ripped his student card out of his hand and forced him into the military. Ahmad was killed in a battle and thrown into a large ditch with many other young, violently conscripted men. A young soldier who knew Ahmad recognised him while trying to cover his body with some soil. He contacted his family to let them know. There were no orchids on his grave.
Amer and Rami’s father’s generator factory was stormed by the regime. Everyone working there was arrested and the place was looted. Their father was accused of having connections with terrorists and put on trial. All his possessions and property were taken and he was sent to the notorious military prison of Sednaya, where later he was executed.
In response Amer and Rami joined the rebel forces. Amer got shot in one of the vicious battles during the siege. Rami saw his brother go down, ran directly into the line of fire to try to save him and was instantly shot dead.
Little Ziad, barely grown up at 20, tried to flee Syria with his family, who left their convenience store and everything they knew behind, but he was detained at a border. His father went back for him and paid someone he knew to get his son out. They took his money and sent him Ziad’s dead body. Soon after, Ziad’s father had his last cigarette and died of a heart attack.
And then there is me, Mustafa, nicknamed Steve by my Syrian friends, which is easier for my English ones. The only one left who can remember the tallest oak tree in the field in Ein Tarma in Eastern Ghouta.
I walk back to the desk and see a post from Hassan Akkad, a friend from Damascus who is now in London. “A few years from now, there will be a huge Hollywood film about Syria. It will tell the true story of the systematic torture and rape Assad’s troops used against millions of peaceful protestors to shut down the revolution. A film we will watch, weep and then say, ‘Never again’.”
It was and it is and it’s happening now — and every day nobody stops it. I feel as if I have climbed to the top of the oak tree again and I can see the whole of Ghouta from here. I can hear Mahmoud’s father’s voice in my head, warning me to be careful, but I am the lucky one. I did not fall.
Help Refugees supports medical facilities, community centres, first responders and more, to aid civilians in hard-to-reach areas of Syria. The strength and bravery of our partners inspires and motivates us on a daily basis, and we feel privileged and humbled to work alongside such incredible men and women. Their work depends on the generosity of people like you: please donate here. Thank you.
The relentless suffering of Syrian civilians has reached a devastating anniversary. Today, the conflict – which shows no signs of abating – enters its eighth year.
Half a million people have been killed, though the United Nations has long stopped counting. More than half of Syria’s pre-war population has been displaced, both internally and across borders. And there have been no limits to the brutal crimes committed during the course of the war: the regime has employed chemical weapons countless times; bombarded civilians and medical facilities; and tortured thousands of people to death, behind the menacing walls of the regime’s prisons. Cries of ‘no more’ and ‘never again’ are made hollow by the international community’s failure to protect civilians, and the ceaseless destruction that is waged by a regime with apparent impunity.
The uprising begins
In 2011, uprisings unfolded across the Arab world. Chants of ash-shaʻb yurīd isqāṭ an-niẓām
(“the people want the fall of the regime”) were heard from Tunisia to Yemen, Egypt to Libya – and by the time that peaceful demonstrations began in Syria, the authoritarian presidents in Tunisia and Egypt had been toppled. A group of children in Deraa, some as young as ten, sprayed graffiti in support of the Arab Spring: “your turn, Doctor [Assad],” it read.
The regime responded with brutal violence and inhumane treatment: the boys were arrested, detained and tortured. But while they were held, protests were stirring outside. Their act of teenage rebellion has become the origin myth for the peaceful uprisings that then spread across the country – and which were then met with indiscriminate regime violence. In the ensuing conflict, now one of international dimensions and huge geostrategic importance, the Assad regime has shown that there are no limits to the monstrosities that it will commit in order to retain power.
War crimes and the devastation of a country
Over the past seven years, every major principle of international law has been violated in Syria. Multiple parties to the conflict have conducted attacks leading to multiple civilian deaths, perpetrated sexual violence, and deliberately blocked humanitarian aid. However, “the Syrian government has far greater military capacity to inflict suffering on civilians and bears a greater burden of responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity.” It has systematically waged war against its own people: it is responsible for the majority of deaths in the conflict, and has committed mass atrocities against civilians.
The war in Syria has paralyzed the international system. The United Nations’ Security Council has been repeatedly deadlocked by Russia and China’s protection of the Assad regime. A chemical weapons investigation was prevented by Russia’s use of the veto – which they have used eleven times since the conflict began. Multiple peace talks and ceasefires have collapsed. Diplomatic consensus, on the rare occasions that it can be achieved, cannot and has not been implemented by the Security Council: the most recent ceasefire, unanimously agreed to halt the bombardment of Eastern Ghouta, was shattered within hours.
The involvement of international actors, both states and non-state groups, has created a conflict of huge geostrategic importance. It has resulted in the reconfiguration of regional relations: Russia is now positioned as the arbiter of power and protection within Syria, while Iran’s backing of the regime has contributed to the development of opposing international coalitions. Western powers – and, in fact, the international system – have been pushed aside by Russia’s activity inside Syria, its overtures to other states, and its ability to bypass UN negotiations. This has become a global conflict, borne out on the backs of Syrian civilians.
The past seven years – of brutal violence, of unprecedented and repeated war crimes – have created a humanitarian crisis of monumental proportions. This, in turn, has been compounded by the failures of both the international system and the international community.
Neighbouring countries that are host to millions of Syrians have been left without the support of wealthier nations, who have instead closed their borders and their eyes to the ongoing suffering of refugees – Syrians and others – around the world.
There is no indication that peace and justice will be granted to Syrians in the near future. From Afrin to Eastern Ghouta, the hellish conflict continues. But so do the courageous and selfless acts of Syrian civil society, including grassroots groups of first-responders, medics and rights defenders. Their heroism and resilience have saved thousands of lives, and inspired countless others.
Our collective voice, and our ability to act, must not be quashed by the ongoing depravity that we are witnessing. We must instead amplify and support the work of those inside Syria: the ordinary individuals, who have been propelled to do extraordinary work in face of indescribable danger and suffering. On this day, as ever, we stand in solidarity with them and their wish for a peaceful Syria.
The world’s newest country, South Sudan, has been embroiled in a civil war for over four years. This has given rise to the largest refugee crisis in Africa, as millions of citizens have fled brutal violence and acute food insecurity.
What are the causes of this conflict that has uprooted so many individuals in South Sudan, and what is being done to end the fighting?
The history of South Sudan has been punctuated by instances of violent conflict. After securing independence from an Anglo-Egyptian occupation in 1956, the new Sudanese Republic descended into a 17-year civil war between northern and southern groups. A ceasefire was agreed in 1972, but fighting resumed in 1983 and continued until 2005 – making it the continent’s longest-running civil war.
The North/South Comprehensive Peace Agreement, signed in 2005, led to the formation of the Autonomous Government of South Sudan and provided for an independence referendum to be held in 2011. The vote finally delivered secession from the Sudanese Republic, and South Sudan became the world’s youngest nation – only for the present civil war to take hold, within the new republic, in 2013.
What sparked the present civil conflict?
In December 2013, President Salva Kiir (an ethnic Dinka, the country’s tribal majority) sacked Vice-President Reik Machar (an ethnic Nuer, the largest minority group) and his entire cabinet to prevent a suspected coup, sparking an outbreak of violence. Machar fled the capital city to lead the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition against the government.
What began as a political feud has since become a protracted conflict, in which the warring parties’ leaders have manipulated tribal and ethnic divisions in their pursuit of power.
The deteriorating political and humanitarian situation has created and exacerbated rivalries among other groups, of which there are more than 60, aside from the central Dinka-Nuer narrative. In December 2017, violence spread to the northern state of Western Lakes, where 45 people were killed in fighting between Ruop and Pakam tribe members. Even within the dominant Dinka and Nuer groups, factional infighting has claimed victims.
For the 2 million individuals who are internally displaced, conditions are more dangerous. Still at risk of becoming targets in the sprawling conflict, those within South Sudan are also facing an acute shortage of food. In October 2017, The Economist reported that over half the remaining population is going hungry, and that a full-scale famine was narrowly avoided by the arrival of food aid. Health threats such as cholera and malaria are spreading quickly in the absence of adequate medical resources.
Protection of civilians: an urgent requirement
The UN’s Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has been present since 2011, though their priorities have changed from post-secession peace building to the protection of civilians in the present conflict. The 14, 000-strong peacekeeping force faced initial criticism for their failures to secure civilian safety – including for those staying at UN Protection of Civilians sites – but much has been done over the past year toshore up their protective capacity. Yet the mission remains some way short of its required funding goal of US$880 million: only a third of the target has been raised to carry out distribution of essential aid in the country.
Though international leaders have slowly begun to recognise the severity of the crisis on South Sudan (the US announced an official ban on arms sales to the country in early 2018), the conflict continues to rage. Beyond the obvious need for a solution to the violence, the victims of the conflict – both in South Sudan and those who have fled across borders – are in urgent need of assistance.
Refugees face challenges at every stage of their journeys: from clandestine border crossings to perilous oceans, to underfunded and overcrowded refugee camps or insecure urban accommodation. For refugee women, these risks are constantly heightened.
Many of the risks faced by women in camps, both in Europe and elsewhere, stem from the space itself. Insecure shelters, lack of safe spaces and alienation from policing and reporting of crime create interlocking risks and, often, a climate of impunity. Single women, or women-headed families, are particularly vulnerable – and they are often forced to rely on men for protection, placing them at further risk of exploitation.
Women are particularly vulnerable when on the move and living in refugee camps
Inca Sorrell, who co-founded the Unofficial Women and Children’s Centre in the Calais “Jungle,” noted that women – including minors – were often forced to remain in abusive relationships, or enter in to exploitative ones, in order to be seen as having the “protection” of a male within the camp. This has also been reported in a new UNFPA report, Voices from Syria, which said that: “women and girls ‘without male protectors’, such as widows and divorcees, as well as female IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons), were regarded as particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation.”
In camps across the world, incidents of abuse and gender-based violence continue to be documented. Yet exploitation can also take more subtle forms. Lamya Karkour, who worked at the Intervolve Women’s Centre in Northern Greece’s notorious Softex camp, noted that “men were often taking the [UNHCR cash] cards of women in order to access services or get cash in the city – sometimes with the intention of helping the women out, but often the support was not sincere. This also resulted in women become dependent on others in the camp, and not knowing how to get cash or access services in the city.” Insecurity in camps can therefore chip away at women’s autonomy, both during their time in camp and beyond.
The risk of sexual and gender-based violence is often exacerbated by inadequate camp facilities. Poorly lit hygiene facilities, and weak locks have often resulted in women feeling too afraid to use the washrooms after dark. Lamya and the Intervolve team noted that women in Softex – a camp funded by the European Union – “were afraid to leave their tents or caravans at night to go to the toilet…and even in the day women would guard the communal toilets for each other. One man even created a toilet inside [their] tent for his pregnant wife.” This reality pushes women further from camp life and rendered them increasingly vulnerable.
Overcrowding, a common feature to camps in Europe and elsewhere, compromises the ability of services to support women (and other vulnerable individuals). A recent press release from UNHCR, for example, said that “in Moria, 30 government medical staff, psychologists and social workers share three rooms, conducting examinations and assessments in the absence of privacy. This affects work conditions for those staff as well as their ability to identify and help SGBV [sexual and gender-based violence] survivors.”
Cultural, linguistic and experiential barriers further limit women’s access to healthcare, particularly that which is provided by the state. Inca noted that fears of the French state, often rooted in experiences of police harassment or discrimination, meant that many women were unwilling to go to the hospital – often with devastating consequences.
Similarly, the Intervolve team noted that “most [women in Softex] were scared about going to the hospital, where there was rarely a translator and you might be given treatment without understanding what it was.”
“Women [in camps were often] scared to give birth and not be able to communicate with the doctors.”
“In particular,” she said, “women were scared to give birth and not be able to communicate with the doctors. Women were often given a caesarean section without the opportunity to make an informed choice…There was a gynaecologist who came to the camp twice a week, but they always had a male translator and so women did not feel comfortable to talk.”
Such experiences and challenges are not simply erased when women are relocated to urban or long-term accommodation. Inca noted that many women from Calais, who are now living in the UK, are at-risk of re-entering abusive relationships as they seek a measure of protection from destitution or other threats. Furthermore, it was also common for smugglers to ask for “extras” from women seeking passage to the UK. The feeling of having few other choices, and the risk of using transactional relationships as a way of ensuring basic shelter and some form of security, is not easily overcome.
In Greece, the closure of Softex camp meant that many of the residents were then moved to urban accommodation. While a clear improvement, the Intervolve team noted that the women of Softex “spent a long time isolated from the city, reliant on on-site support from NGOs. They are now struggling to access the services they need and receive insufficient support to look after themselves and their families. Social isolation and boredom are a huge problem… some women said that they rarely leave their apartments because they have nowhere to go, feel unsafe and struggle to navigate the city.”
Insecurity and the threat of abuse effectively removes women from camp life, denying them access to basic services as well as having a detrimental effect on their physical and mental wellbeing. Grassroots efforts, including the centres – first in camps, and now in cities – where Inca and Lamya have worked, have supported vulnerable women across Europe and the Middle East. Yet all of us would agree that this is not enough: these protection challenges can only be overcome with policy and practice reform. Humanitarian response should be sensitive to intersectional vulnerabilities – both in theory and practice – and provide effective protection for all who are at risk.
Help Refugees supports women’s centres in Greece, Lebanon, Syria, and the UK. This article was prepared in collaboration with Lamya Karkour and the whole team at Intervolve, who managed the women’s centre in Softex and now run the Irida Women’s Centre (Thessaloniki, Greece), and Inca Sorrell from the Meena Centre (Birmingham, UK). To help us help them, please donate here.
This article first appeared on All Women Count on March 6, 2018. It was written by Amelia Cooper (Help Refugees), Lamya Karkour (Intervolve) and Inca Sorrell (Meena)
“This is the only option we are left with to express how we feel. We will not eat till we are free.” These are the words of 120 women currently on hunger strike in Yarl’s Wood, protesting against the inhumane and unjust conditions in which they are detained.
Yarl’s Wood is one of the most notorious detention centres in the UK. It is used to hold some 400 people, mainly women, for “administrative purposes” related to their immigration status. These women are not criminals, and yet they are held – indefinitely – in an institution that is, for all intents and purposes, a prison.
A large number of women detained within Yarl’s Wood are asylum seekers, and therefore lack the right to work in the UK. However, they can work inside the centre – for £1 per hour. This money is often spent on phone credit, to contact a solicitor, or sanitary products – available from the shop inside Yarl’s Wood for inflated prices – to replace the brick-like pads that are distributed as standard.
This abhorrent arrangement would be classed as illegal were it happening elsewhere in the UK. But the usual rules don’t apply to detainees, who are currently exempt from minimum wage legislation. It is little wonder that women in Yarl’s Wood feel that they have “been removed to a place with different laws”: in this respect, and many others, they have.
Having received no response from the Home Office after three days, the women’s hunger strike was expanded to a full strike on Monday 26th February. “We will cease to participate in detention,” said a statement published by Detained Voices. “We will not eat, use their facilities or work for them. The detainees are thus staging an all out strike to protest the Home Office’s continued immoral practices.”
We support the protesters and their demands, and stand with them in denouncing the UK’s inhumane and fundamentally unjust indefinite detention system.
The demands are simple, but their significance huge – and you can help. Show your solidarity by signing the petition, sharing solidarity photos, or writing to your MP and setting forth the demands of the strikers. Together, we can end the UK’s inhuman and unjust detention practices.
“Our demands are for a fair system and an end to the hostile environment policy towards people with legitimate reasons to remain in the U.K.
We want an end to indefinite detention and a return to the original plan of the 28 day limit.
We want the Home Office to respect Article 8 [the right to a private and family life].
We want the Home Office to respect the European Convention of Human Rights regarding refugees and asylum seekers.
We want the Home Office to respect due process and stop deporting people before their cases are decided or appeals are heard.
We want due processes before we are imprisoned on immigration matters.
We want a fair bail process and the Home Office to end the process of selective evidence disclosure to the immigration tribunal courts and instead disclosure of all evidence to ensure a fair judgement is reached.
We want adequate healthcare and especially the mental health nurse to stop operating as an extension of the Home Office asking people such questions as, “did you know you were going to stay in the UK when you entered?”
We want the Home Office to stop detaining the vulnerable people, that is victims of rape, that is torture, all forms of torture, trafficking, forced labour, the disabled, the mentally ill and so on.
We want amnesty for all people who have lived in the UK for more than 10 years and an end to the exiling of those who came as children and are culturally British.
We want an end to the Home Office’s of employing detainees to do menial work for £1 per hour, it prays on the vulnerable and forces them to participate in their own detention.
We want an end to charter flights and the snatching of people from their beds in the night and herding them like animals…
This [hunger strike] is the only option we are left with to express how we feel. We will not eat till we are free.”
Detained Voices will continue to publish updates from the strikers and other detainees.
A new report has found that refugees in the Balkan states, and particularly Croatia, face violent pushbacks to Serbia and are denied access to asylum procedures. Repeated incidences of police brutality, including both psychological and physical abuse, have been documented by volunteer organisations on the ground. Furthermore, these illegal and inhuman pushbacks are not limited to border areas – the “violence occurs…deep within the country.”
The report, prepared by Are You Syrious? (AYS), No name kitchen (NNK), the Center for Peace Studies (CMS) and the Welcome Initiative. Each organization provides daily support to refugees and asylum seekers in Croatia, and has collated thousands of testimonies from people who have suffered from police violence or misconduct. The report notes that while their focus has been on pushbacks to Serbia, “there has been a worrying number of testimonies of push backs from Croatia to Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro, with descriptions of violence very similar to what is described at the border with Serbia.”
Common types of violence were reported as being “hit…with sticks and batons…hit, kicked or slapped, and even threatened with guns…[and] cases of electric taser use.” Furthermore, the rights Ombudsman in Croatia found that the thermovision camera videos went missing exactly at the time of presumed violence against refugees. The organizations preparing the report stated that “such selective disappearance of thermovision video documentation [suggests] that the physical violence against refugees was deliberately concealed.”
Moreover, “psychological violence and deception were testified by those who manage to reach Zagreb, too…Police officers in fact pretended to start the formalization of the asylum application (personal data, photos, etc.), then they make people enter the car while explaining they would take them to the reception center. Once the door of the vehicle gets opened again, refugees realize they were taken back to the border to be pushed back to Serbia. Again.”
As a result, a significant proportion of refugees attempt to hide themselves in woods and forests for fear of a pushback when they enter Croatia. AYS’ report details a number of cases where groups – including children, babies as young as five months old, pregnant women and the elderly – have spent days sleeping in the freezing forests for fear of encountering border police.
UNHCR records of pushbacks to Serbia. However, the report notes that this is likely to be a conservative estimate, as police officers in the border areas rarely record the pushbacks that they perpetuate.
The violation of refugees’ rights is not limited to the physical or physical abuse that they suffer: they are also denied access to asylum procedures, and therefore legal protection. The report detailed the cases of nine extended families, with young children and those in need of urgent care, who had sought international protection in Croatia. Two families were able to apply for asylum, thanks to the presence of AYS volunteers who observed the procedure; the outcome for two families was unknown; and the remaining five families – totaling 73 people, including at least 34 children – were pushed back to Serbia.
The death of six-year-old Madina Hosseini, after her family was forced to walk back along the train tracks to Serbia in December 2017, highlights the cost of European border aggression. She had arrived to Croatia that day, accompanied by her mother and five siblings. Her mother had informed the police that they wanted to apply for asylum – yet officers ignored the request, and drove them to the border instead. It was dark. Despite the protestations of Madina’s mother, the family was told that they must walk along the traintracks, back to Serbia. It was here that Madina lost her life. Her mother ran to the border guards, her daughter’s body in her arms – only to be separated from her. Madina was taken away in an ambulance, and the rest of the family deported. Notably, the police have said they no longer have the thermovision footage from this evening.
The report and the testimonies gathered are shocking, but they are not surprising. This is AYS’ fourth report on illegal pushbacks, and adds weight to additional research – including a study by Medecins Sans Frontières – that highlights the undeniable violence suffered by refugees on the Balkan Route. The pressing need for a reform of both policy and practice is as undeniable as it is currently unrealistic.
But with your help, we can highlight the abuses committed by Balkan authorities and ensure that the suffering of refugees and migrants is not swept under the rug. Write to your MP, tweet international agencies, and share AYS’ report – together, our voices can be heard.
Help Refugees has supported refugees along the Balkan Route since 2015, with a range of projects – from the provision of shelter, food and bedding, to support in navigating complex bureaucracy. In this freezing weather, your help is needed more than ever. Please, if you are able, donate here. Thank you.
Communities across the country are taking action to show what “family” means to them. From meeting with MPs to holding information stalls at university, it is our collective voice that will change the restrictive rules and help refugee families to reunite. Together, we can make change – but we all need to work together.
Showing support for the cause is incredibly easy – you could host an event with friends, to raise awareness of the issue and write letters to your MP; or perhaps send an email to your colleagues, telling them about the Bill and encouraging them to get in touch with their MP?
Student groups across the country have organised a range of events, from information stalls to photo stunts, to raise awareness of the campaign. Many linked up with other organizational groups – branches of Student Action for Refugees joined with Amnesty groups, for example – to reach a wider network of people, and ensure that their voices were heard. Could you do something similar?
Student groups across the country have been campaigning to keep #FamiliesTogether
Another way to raise the profile of the #FamiliesTogether campaign is to link with existing events. Could you have a stall at a local market, gig or cafe?
Is the touring exhibition, Museum Without a Home, coming to a city near you? Curated by Amnesty International and Oxfam, it displays items that were donated to new arrivals by Greek citizens. People have the opportunity to add to the exhibition as it travels, creating a live and ever-expanding display of solidarity.
Leicester Amnesty Students wrote 100 letters to their MP while the Museum Without a Home was in town. Could you do something similar?
The Family Reunion Bill, which will be debated on Friday 16th March, needs the support of at least 100 MPs – and for your local representative to vote, they need to know that you care. Write to them here, and ask them to attend the debate.
This Bill could change the lives of refugee families who have been separated by conflict and persecution, and who are now kept apart by the UK’s restrictive rules on reunion. Together, we can change this: let’s make our voices heard.
Help Refugees is a restricted fund under the auspices of Prism the Gift Fund, Charity No 1099682. Choose Love is a Registered Charity No 1177927. Advocacy is carried out under limited company, 09842577
Your ticket for the: Solidarity with the Yarl’s Wood strikers! Saturday 24th March
Solidarity with the Yarl’s Wood strikers! Saturday 24th March