Meely Cooper

The Community Sponsorship Scheme: welcoming refugees into British communities

To witness suffering of the scale and magnitude of the current refugee crisis has challenged many citizens, across the world. For some of us, questions stir within: What should I do, or what can I do to help?


In 2015, despite pro-refugee protests across the country, Britain pledged to receive just 20,000 refugees over 5 years – a fraction of the numbers hosted by nations such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Germany. I felt powerless. I noticed how life simply carried on in my neighbourhood.


I knew that with the help of organisations like Help Refugees, I could send money or resources to those in need, or help directly by traveling to Calais or Greece. But there is now a new and innovative way by which communities here in the UK can mobilise their resources and effort, to give the most vulnerable refugees a route to safety.


In 2016, the Home Office introduced the Community Sponsorship Scheme (CSS). Inspired by Canada’s Private Sponsors programme, which has resettled over 300,000 refugees since 1979, the CSS enables community groups to play a leading role in resettling refugees.


Under this pioneering scheme, communities organise themselves to take on all the responsibilities of resettling refugees. From housing to safeguarding, from benefits to schools, and always taking into account the bonds of friendship that are essential to a resettled refugee as any new member of a community.


My involvement in community sponsorship started in the autumn of 2017. Having graduated that summer, my search for purpose in the post-university mire was ended when a family friend proposed that I help her with an idea to help refugees in our South London neighbourhood of Herne Hill via the sponsorship scheme.


Courtesy of a heroic fundraising effort by Whoosh, a Herne Hill-based cycling group, we had the funds essential to take us forward. Some key connections were made with Lambeth council and the

Herne Hill community sponsorship team, including the author.

Raising awareness: Herne Hill community sponsorship team, including the author.

community organising charity, Citizens UK, who continue to provide us with crucial support. Now, we needed to get Herne Hill on board.


To achieve this, we held a public meeting to propose the idea to the community and to build a team who could make this ambition a reality. For community sponsorship groups, this is a huge moment. I’m not sure what we feared more: resentment and opposition, or nobody turning up at all.


A turnout of over 60 local residents – including members of Lambeth council and our ever-supportive local MP, Helen Hayes – put our nerves at ease. By the end of our presentation, we had scores of volunteers ready to join us. Herne Hill Welcomes Refugees was born amid a tidal wave of optimism.


In the weeks that followed, we set about turning this energy into progress. We had studied the Home Office’s community sponsorship guide and began shaping a smaller team of around 25 volunteers into sub-committee groups, delegating responsibilities. Housing, Communications, Benefits, Local Partnerships, Language, and Safeguarding groups were established. We appointed a Chair, a Vice Chair, a Treasurer, and a Secretary.


Above all, however, we got to know each other. We were a bunch who were unlikely to otherwise mix – some retired, some in their 20s, all with a range of backgrounds and skill sets. In the months that followed, we would become a team.


For me, sponsorship works on two levels. Primarily, it is way of directly helping individuals, giving refugee families a safe home and a network of friends to welcome them. There is, however, a second and vitally important aspect to community sponsorship. Simply, it is its capacity to change the narrative surrounding refugees in the UK.


Sponsorship creates welcoming environments for refugees, built by communities that have themselves joined together to make such a welcome possible. When neighbourhoods treat refugees as they should – as humans – they build and demonstrate the trust between diverse people that we so often lack. Sponsorship is an engine toward sewing refugees into the fabric of our society, helping to cool fears and insecurities that lead us to turn our backs on people different from ourselves.


When we actively welcome refugees into our communities, we show those who oppose helping refugees – who say they bring unwanted change, who are uncomfortable with sharing their country with different people, who say there are not enough resources – that helping vulnerable people is not only beneficial for them but for us too. The kindness that we show to refugees will likely be reciprocated, and we help create new citizens who can contribute to and enrich our community.


It’s a little-know fact that the Home Office are due to announce a review of their refugee policy in the autumn of 2018, shaping government resettlement policy for years to come. I like to think of community sponsorship is a form of communication with government, an expression of public support for refugees. Now more than ever, we need more groups forming, more expressions of solidarity with refugees.


Herne Hill community sponsorship

Some of the HHWR team.

It is easy to forget this final component of the sponsorship equation: our own community. So much focus is rightly directed towards the resettlement of the refugee family that we had almost not noticed the bonds that were being created in our Herne Hill neighbourhood. Our monthly meetings are warm occasions, punctuated by ripples of laughter as we catch up and share the hard work we’ve been doing. Progress is exciting, teamwork is rewarding.


When I walk through my neighbourhood, a place where I’ve lived since I was a child, I recognise more faces now than ever before. A trip to the shops will often involve a wave and a hello from a HHWR member passing by. This is no small thing for a community in London, a city famous for its aversion to eye contact. In the coming months, among those familiar faces will be those of resettled refugees. I couldn’t be more excited.

This article was written for Help Refugees by Nick Jeyarajah, a freelance journalist. If you are interested in community sponsorship, please follow the links in this article to find out more.

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Legal aid crisis denying justice to refugees, asylum seekers and migrants

Since March this year, criminal barristers have been on strike. They are rejecting state-funded cases, to protest cuts to legal aid that are keeping those most in need from accessing adequate legal representation. On the 8th May, Labour MP Richard Burgon stated in the House of Commons that 90% of criminal barristers voted for this industrial action. The justice system is facing a crisis over this issue.


Legal aid for asylum seekers

For immigration cases, the scope of legal aid has been rolled back considerably. Now, it primarily covers applications for asylum.

Previous grounds for legal aid included detention appeals, support for victims of trafficking who wished to remain in the UK, and asylum support (e.g. housing or maintenance funds).

A report led by Labour’s Lord Bach stated that legal aid funding had fallen by £950million from 2010-2017. The aforementioned Richard Burgon MP also stated that, since 2010, the Ministry of Justice’s budget is expected to be slashed by a further 10% (£600million) in the near future.


Issues faced by refugees and asylum seekers

The lack of legal aid provisions has resulted in serious difficulties for many refugees, including children. Amnesty International warned, in 2016, that teenagers may be forced to represent themselves in cases where they face deportation, due to the lack of legal aid.

When asylum seekers are denied legal aid, they are left particularly vulnerable to exploitation. They are not given the right to work until their applications for asylum have been approved – which means that they must depend on their savings, or support from family and friends, to pay their legal fees.

If their cases are unsuccessful, failed asylum seekers are stuck – many detained indefinitely or facing removal – with no money to pay for additional appeals, and no recourse to public funds.

According to a study by BiD UK, less than half of those in detention in the UK have access to legal representation, with just over half of this number saying they have a legal aid solicitor.

Of 12,688 applications for asylum between January and June 2017, only 613 applications for legal aid were granted in the same time. There were also only three non-asylum cases granted legal aid last year.


Hostile environment

The government’s ‘hostile environment’ policies, which seek to make life as difficult as possible for undocumented people in Britain, have added to the injustices suffered by migrants (or those perceived to be such).

In recent weeks, the Windrush Scandal has dominated headlines in the UK. It was revealed that thousands of people, who were invited to come to the UK from the Caribbean (then a part of the Commonwealth) some seventy years ago, have had their right to be in the UK challenged. Many have lived here for their entire adult lives, but have recently been sacked from long-term jobs, denied benefits, and lost their housing. The latest news revealed that 63 people may have been wrongfully deported.

In light of the cuts to legal aid, the Windrush generation may be unable to access support to secure the legal status that they are entitled to. Former Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, has promised to waive fees for the relevant applications. However, applicants will still need to provide extensive documentation of their time in the UK before the Home Office grants them Indefinite Leave to Remain or British Citizenship.


Legal aid grants for IAS

The Immigration Advice Service, one of the largest immigration practices in the UK, have had their legal aid contracts renewed in most major cities. In addition to this, new contracts in Newcastle, Derby and Bristol have been granted, as well as contracts in every detention and removal centre across the UK.

While these grants are gratefully received, this does not indicate a widespread move by the government towards increased legal aid. Many law firms that accept legal aid cases will still be struggling under the massive demand, which outweighs their capacity and resources.

While IAS will be using this increased support to help some of those most of support, the struggle for fair access continues on throughout the justice system.

This article was written by Damon Culbert, a specialist content writer for the Immigration Advice Service. The IAS was formed out of the Immigration Advisory Service, the UK’s leading immigration law charity. They have aimed to stay true to their charitable history, undertaking many legal aid cases alongside commercial immigration services.


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UN Experts urge the French government to redress “inhumane” conditions in Northern France

United Nations’ human rights experts have urged the French government to improve the “inhumane” conditions faced by refugees and migrants in Northern France.


A recent statement, released by the UN and drawing on the warnings of three Special Rapporteurs, highlights the challenging situation faced by refugees and human rights defenders – including Help Refugees’ teams and partners – in Northern France.


Léo Heller, the Special Rapporteur on the human rights to water and sanitation, noted that some refugees are “living in tents without toilets and washing themselves in polluted rivers or lakes.”


“Some efforts [by the French government] have been made, but not enough,” he said. “I am concerned that for every step forward, two steps are taken back. The situation along the northern French coast is emblematic of the need for much more attention from national and international authorities on this issue.”


His warnings come after months of advocacy by Help Refugees and our partners with regard to the water and sanitation conditions in Northern France, including a report published by independent WASH expert Ella Foggitt and litigation in French courts.


The experts called for the provision of valid accommodation alternatives for the hundreds of refugees currently sleeping rough in Northern France, and said that dismantling informal and incipient camps was not a long-term solution. This comes after a week of heavy clearances by the French riot police, including the destruction and seizure of refugees’ property and tents.


“We are concerned about increasingly regressive migration policies and the inhumane and substandard conditions suffered by migrants,” said the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Felipe González Morales.


“Migrants, regardless of their status, are entitled to human rights without discrimination, including access to adequate housing…[and] access to justice and remedies. By depriving them of their rights or making access increasingly difficult, France is violating its international human rights obligations.”


The experts also noted the harassment and intimidation of volunteers who are working in Northern France, and called on France to fulfil its obligations and promote the crucial work of human rights defenders.


Help Refugees’ Field Manager for France, Annie Gavrilescu, said that: “A new worrying pattern is emerging, in Calais and across Europe, of criminalising aid workers. This comes in the context of significant aggression, violence and neglect that refugees themselves face from the police.

“However, any intimidation, harassment, criminalisation or hindrance of humanitarian aid is simply unacceptable and reminiscent of a very dark time in history. Human Rights Watch and a UN Special Rapporteur have also condemned this phenomenon.


“We will continue to provide humanitarian assistance, because solidarity and aid are not crimes, but the bedrock of a civilised world.”


Help Refugees is the largest facilitator of aid in Northern France, and provides a range of services from food to child-specific support. Conditions in Calais and the surrounding area are dire, but our resources are already strained. Please, if you are able to donate, do so here.Thank you.


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Bosnia and the new Balkan Route: increased arrivals strain the country’s resources

Over the past few months, the number of refugees and asylum seekers arriving to Bosnia has steadily increased. Border closures – both political and physical – in other Balkan states have pushed greater numbers of people to travel through Bosnia, in their attempt to reach the European Union.

In 2017, authorities registered 755 people; this year, in January and February alone, 520 people arrived. The trend has continued into March; and in the coming weeks another 1000 people are expected to arrive from Serbia and Montenegro. Resources are already strained, as the small country struggles to meet the needs of the new arrivals.



Why Bosnia?

The unofficial “Balkan Route” developed in 2015, as thousands of refugees and asylum seekers travelled through the Western Balkan states en route from Greece to the EU. Unprecedented crowds of people crossed Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Croatia – until the border closures began in Spring 2016, and the EU-Turkey deal was signed. The old Balkan Route was effectively sealed, and the number of people travelling dropped significantly. Yet to this day, refugees and migrants still succeed in crossing into Europe, resorting to increasingly treacherous and hidden tracks to avoid an encounter with the Croatian and Hungarian border police. One such passage now leads through Bosnia.



The situation on the ground

The new arrivals are a transient population: most are passing through Bosnia, rather than looking to set up roots in the country. Recent improvements in the weather has led to a greater number of arrivals, as well as a greater number of people moving onwards – including families with small children. Bosnia, however, is hardly prepared for this sudden influx; official accommodation centres are already full, meaning that hundreds of asylum seekers are left homeless and sleeping rough. Locals and grassroots groups have identified hostels and arranged accommodation for some, but MSF’s Stephane Moissaing has warned that civil society groups are approaching saturation point.

Some 300 people are sleeping at the border between Croatia and Bosnia, and have faced unlawful pushbacks by Croatian authorities. Police have confiscated the shoes of people who are caught while attempting to cross the border, a practice that has been documented across Europe – including in Calais – since 2015. In the nearby town of Velika Kladusa, refugees and migrants are heavily dependent on the help of local townspeople, as there is no access to official accommodation, food or medical care.



Challenges in responding to refugees’ needs

The transient nature of the refugee population in Bosnia creates challenges in and of itself, which are then exacerbated by the country’s poor infrastructure and lack of resources. The impact of this is multifaceted, but has a particular effect on vulnerable populations who require specialist support. The identification and referral of unaccompanied and separated children, for example, remains a key challenge for Bosnian authorities. Unaccompanied minors are required, by law, to have legal guardians who can make decisions in their best interest – yet proper identification, referral and communication barriers (due to the lack of on available interpreters) can make this challenging in practice.


As the weather warms up, it is likely that greater numbers of refugees will pass through Bosnia in the coming months. We will monitor the situation, and respond to the emerging needs where possible.


Help Refugees supports 80 grassroots projects across Europe and the Middle East, providing a range of services from search and rescue to emergency medical care. To help us continue this vital work, please donate here. Thank you.

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Calais Update: another death at the border, an end to the “winter truce,” and a new asylum system for France

The situation in Northern France remains acute, following the end of the so-called “Winter Truce” and the destruction of people’s possessions and shelters. The community is mourning the loss of another young man’s life, who was critically injured in an incident on the port bypass. Our partners at the Refugee Info Bus write with the latest news from the ground.


Another Death at the Calais border 

Image: La Voix du Nord (who are still incorrectly reporting that the young man was 16 years old)

A young man has died following an incident on the port bypass in Calais on Friday 23rd March, 2018. He was hospitalised and placed in a medical coma in Lille. He passed away from his injuries on Wednesday 28th March, 2018.


He was born in Eritrea in 1996, although other sources have already incorrectly reported that he was 16. Details of the incident itself are unknown, but it is yet another unnecessary death in Calais which has been caused by the risks that individuals take in attempting to cross the border. The lack of safe and legal passage for people trying to reach the UK has led to over 200 deaths since 1999, according to L’Auberge des Migrants. Trade continues on unhindered as yet another young man fights for his life at the roadside.


European citizens can cross the English Channel quickly and with ease, and yet this is a privilege not afforded to our non-European friends, leading people to take dangerous and, as we have seen far too many times, sometimes fatal risks. People would not put themselves at the mercy of smuggler gangs in Libya, risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea in sinking boats or try to reach safety in refrigerated trucks if it wasn’t seemingly better than what they left behind.


Eritrea is a country in turmoil, and has been described as Africa’s North Korea. Despite only having a population of 5 million people, it has generated one of the world’s largest refugee populations, according to Meron Estefanos, an Eritrean journalist and activist who writes on the situation in Eritrea and of Eritreans around the world.  In March 2018, the UN Human Rights Council held a dialogue on human rights abuses in Eritrea, which details that “in 2016, the Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea had found reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity, namely, enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearances, torture and persecution had been committed since 1991”.


Of all the atrocities taking place in Eritrea, be it against dissident politicians, independent media professionals, religious leaders and community elders, it is the plight of the youth that is the most harrowing. Meron Estefanos, 2018


Calais: The Truce is Over 

In Calais, the so-called “Winter Truce” has ended on April 1st, 2018. This means that the sporadic emergency shelters opened over the winter months on particularly cold nights will no longer be opened, and that the 700+ refugees sleeping rough in Calais are condemned to the streets and the woods. However, even while the “Truce” was in place, shelters were opened sporadically, were run poorly, and only housed a fraction of the refugee community in Calais. Despite Macron’s promises that there would be no people sleeping on the streets by Christmas, the shelters were not even open on Christmas Day, and hundreds of refugees in Calais have not spent even a single night inside over winter.


In Dunkirk, the state opened an emergency accommodation centre for the entirety of winter — a gym which accommodates around 200 people. The gym will temporarily stay open past the April 1st cut-off date, which is good news for those already inside. However, for new arrivals to the area, or for those who did not manage to get a place inside over winter, sleeping outside remains the only option. Many people, including women and young children, are sleeping in the street outside the gymnasium, denied entry to the warm and dry accommodation behind guarded doors.

Accommodation centre for 200 refugees in Dunkirk. Not pictured: the many others sleeping rough directly outside its doors. Image: Delta FM

The CRS (French riot police) continued their dismantlement operations across the city last week, culminating in an eviction of the camp at Rue des Verrotiéres. Over 40 police officers and employees of the local authorities removed and destroyed what little shelter the communities living there had established in the preceding week, including a large tent that had served as a makeshift mosque.


The dismantlement took place at the same time as the state-funded food distributions located nearby, meaning that a number of the people we support had left their belongings in order to eat breakfast, only to find all of their belongings had been confiscated upon return. To quote the prescient words of an Eritrean minor, issued at the outset of the state-funded food distributions: “that government gives us food with one hand, and takes our tents with the other”.


Even more worryingly, we have heard numerous reports that the Police aux Frontiéres arrived just minutes before the onset of the dismantlement, detaining up to 20 people, the vast majority of whom were released from the detention centre immediately, forced to return to their living area by foot, a journey which takes several hours.


Volunteers at the L’Auberge des Migrants/Help Refugees warehouse responded, as we do following every dismantlement, by distributing tents and bedding to those without shelter, in spite of the police summons issued to four volunteers the previous week for replacing confiscated tents.


A New Asylum System in France

According to InfoMigrants, a new system of asylum is to begin in France in May 2018. People seeking asylum in the Paris region will have to begin the process by calling a telephone helpline run by OFII. The only languages available will be English, French and Arabic. The move is in order to reduce the number of people turning up at Padas (“platform for asylum seekers”) which cannot cope with the current number of requests.


However, France Terre d’Asile, the organisation which runs Padas in Paris, claims that the hotline is too complicated for people trying to claim asylum.


“This doesn’t make things simpler,” says director Pierre Henry. “I don’t think that this helpline is a good model for helping asylum seekers access their rights. I fear that at least some migrants will struggle to understand this service”.


This article was prepared by our partners, Refugee Info Bus, and originally published on Medium

Highlighted reading:

Meron Estefanos: “Eritrea’s New Normal: The Tragedy and Struggle for Change”

UN Human Rights Network: “Human Rights Council holds enhanced interactive dialogue on the situation of human rights in Eritrea”

Help Refugees continues to support displaced communities in Calais and the surrounding areas, as well as working with people on the move across Europe and the Middle East. To help us continue to help them, please donate here. Thank you. 

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Solidarity with the Yarl’s Wood strikers! Saturday 24th March

Why should the fortune of birth dictate what rights a person should have within our borders? We must all fight together to stop this spiral into division, intolerance and the disintegration of liberty, for liberty is easily lost, but very hard earned.” – The strikers of Yarl’s Wood.


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”.


In 2017, 44 children were locked up in immigration detention – despite a Government promise in 2010 to end the practice. Only 11 of the children then left the country: the remainder were released, meaning that their detention was not only harmful, but futile.


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.


There have been a series of vigils and fasts in support of the strikers in London, across the UK, and internationally. On Wednesday, events took place in various cities across the UK as a National Day of Action to support the strikers.


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

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.

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A devastating anniversary: Syria enters eighth year of conflict

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 country’s infrastructure has been destroyed, leaving millions food insecure and without access to basic services. Seven out of every ten Syrians – 13 million people – now live in extreme poverty, and are in need of humanitarian aid. Some 6.5 million people are food insecure; another four million are at risk of being so. More than half of the country’s public hospitals and healthcare centres are closed or only partially functioning, and more than 11.3 million people are in need of health assistance. Critical medical supplies have been repeatedly removed from aid convoys to besieged locations: most recently, more than 70% of the health supplies intended to reach East Ghouta were removed by authorities.


International complicity and failed ceasefires

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.


What now?

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.



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A ‘children’s refugee crisis’: the devastating conflict in South Sudan

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.


The UN estimates that one-third of South Sudan’s pre-war population of 12 million has been displaced since fighting broke out in December 2013. While around half of the displaced have crossed borders into neighbouring countries and beyond, approximately 2 million are internally displaced and face severe food shortagesTwo-thirds of South Sudanese refugees are children.


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.


One attack in 2014 perpetrated by Vice-President Machar’s forces claimed the lives of over 400 civilians who had gathered in churches and mosques to escape the fighting. Local radio stations were reported to have encouraged the rape and murder of any government-supporting civilians. Government forces have also been accused of ‘tacitly encouraging ethnic cleansing.’


However, the conflict cannot be presented as a “a simple, binary competition between the Government and SPLM/A in Opposition and their respective tribal bases.” It is a multifaceted war, in which identities have been exploited and now serve as a cloak for resource competition, unaddressed grievances, and shifting political allegiances.



A ‘chaotic’ humanitarian crisis

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.


‘Things have grown so chaotic that many of the civilians fleeing to the U.N. base aren’t sure who is doing the killing anymore,’ wrote Foreign Policy reporter, Cassandra Vinograd, in 2017. The acute risks in South Sudan are highlighted by its citizens’ willingness to seek sanctuary in unstable regions such as Darfur, and to cross the border into the Democratic Republic of Congo, a state in the midst of its own conflict.


Over a million South Sudanese refugees fled to Uganda in just a year (July 2016-2017), a country that has received well-deserved international praise for its progressive asylum policies. However, there remains an urgent funding shortfall that must be redressed by the international community – both within and outside South Sudan.


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.


In December 2017, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi made an urgent appeal. ‘The world cannot continue to stand by as the people of South Sudan are terrorized by a senseless war,’ he said. Grandi referred to the conflict as a ‘children’s refugee crisis’ due to the high proportion of child refugees created by the war.


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.


This piece was written by freelance journalist, Nick Jeyarajah.

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“We will not eat till we are free”: 120 women on hunger strike in Yarl’s Wood

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.


We are proper prisoners here.”

– Zimbabwean woman, currently detained in Yarl’s Wood

Many of the detained are survivors of torture and sexual or gender-based violence, in contravention of the Home Office’s own “adults at risk” policy. A 2017 report by the Chief Inspector of Prisons found that “
increasing numbers of women were being detained there despite professional evidence that they are victims of torture, rape and trafficking.” One woman, who is currently participating in the hunger strike, said that Home Office officials say that “they don’t detain asylum seekers and torture victims, but I can tell you this place would be more or less empty without them.”

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 26
th 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.


The demands, as published on Detained Voices:

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.

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Illegal and violent pushbacks from Croatia continue, finds report

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 pushback to Serbia

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.

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