On Monday, October 1, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event with local education, faith-based and law organizations, titled Addressing the Global Refugee Crisis – Part 1: Focus on Europe. Following, Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter, Director of UAB Institute for Human Rights, and April Jackson-MacLennan, J.D., from the Law Office of John Charles Bell, L.L.C., covered the legal challenges of this phenomenon from an international and national perspective, respectively.
The event began with a viewing of the documentary Non Assistance, sponsored by the Consulate General of Switzerland in Atlanta, which illustrates how sociopolitical crises in the Middle East and North Africa have galvanized thousands of people to flee their home countries, permeating the Mediterranean Sea with frail boats past occupancy, holding limited supplies. Just like its title, the film focused on the lack of assistance refugee boats receive during their treacherous journey, highlighting the tragedy on March 27, 2011 that lead to 63 Tripolitanian refugee fatalities.
Despite endearment from many Europeans citizens, like the vigilantes that aim to rescue whoever they can with their personal boats, many ships in the Mediterranean to do not strive to assist the refugees. However, in 2015 alone, Doctors Without Borders rescued over 23,000 people in the Mediterranean with a just three boats, demonstrating how non-governmental parties can be instrumental in addressing this crisis. One theory for this disparity is, since the first country of contact is responsible for reporting asylum, governments do not want to carry the burden of assisting refugees. Such an outcome begs us to ask: What steps are the European Union (EU) taking to address this issue? How would you feel being lost and abandoned at sea with just the shirt on your back? Where is the humanity?
After the film, Dr. Reuter and Mrs. Jackson-MacLennan fielded questions from the aghast, yet spirited, audience. People wanted to know what can be done; answers centered on policy change and contacting elected officials. Others asked why rescue ships are being held at the ports, leading to discussion about the legal entanglements that now restrict these boats from aiding refugees. Despite there being less rescue boats navigating the Mediterranean and a drop in migration via this route, often attributed to slowing of violence in the Syrian Civil War, there is still a need to assist refugees.
On November 12, the sequel to this three-part series, titled Addressing the Global Refugee Crisis – Part II: Focus on the United States will be held at Birmingham-Southern College and followed by the third event in early 2019, at Samford University, where action planning around this global issue will take place. Please join us for the following events whereas every voice and helping hand counts.
I’ve been to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. twice. The first time was just over a year after it opened. I was newly out and went with a new gay friend and a straight ally. We picked up random ID cards to “own” during the tour, but also asked for information about the gays who died in the Holocaust. Those pamphlets were kept behind the counter, like the dirty magazines at 7 Eleven.
It was a somber visit. Seeing the shoes was the hardest. The owners were dead. Only their shoes left to give witness. Hundreds—thousands?—of shoes. I whispered the refrain of the tour, “never again.”
My last visit to the museum was a few months ago. Donald Trump had been in the White House for several months. I still had not called him the P word. I can’t do it here. I didn’t remember the tour being so crowded. It felt right, though. Again, I clutched my identification papers. Last time I cheated and looked to see my assumed persona lived or died right away. This time I wanted to find out in real time. The crowd added to the experience, especially when I saw the train car.
Last time when I said Never Again it was defiant, a promise. Now it was a question. The tour starts at the upper floor with the lead up to the Holocaust. It didn’t happen overnight. Old newsreels and headlines show Hitler’s rise to power. Shave his mustache and tint his skin orange and it could have been the buildup to the 2016 elections. It scared me, the Othering part of the German people. Change Jew to Mexican or Muslim and it wasn’t dusty history at all. Never again?
Something else was wrong. The mood wasn’t as somber this time, not for everyone. A group of people in front of me laughed at some of the videos and exhibits. Not nervous titters. I do that sometimes. I smiled nervously when I told my mom that Mr. Lamar, my seventh-grade gym teacher died. I wasn’t happy. I was nervous. These people now, though, were enjoying themselves. This wasn’t a shameful part of humanity’s past but a primer.
I had to sit down, but there was no place to sit.
Last night when I heard Riva and Josephine speak, I thought the Holocaust museum, and the Civil Rights Institute, and the news coverage of the Valentine Shooting at Parkland, and the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and the Sandy Hook, were too sanitized. When I worked in the ICU and ER in the Navy I treated gunshot victims. I keep hearing people speaking abstractly about 2nd Amendment this Crisis actor that. It’s easy to be a talking head when all you see are helicopter shots of students walking single file across a school parking lot with their hands up. Or the flashing lights of emergency vehicles and worried parents behind barricades.
I don’t know what the dead and wounded looked like at Marjorie Stoneman Douglass High School or Sandy Hook, or the Pulse, or the field where Josephine’s father was lynched. But the shooting victims I saw had half their heads missing, their entrails hanging out, entrance wounds the size of a quarter and exit wounds the size of an orange. More blood than you’d think a human body could hold saturated their clothes. I don’t believe anyone could see that and NOT say never again!
And yet those laughing people at the Holocaust Museum took pictures with their smart phones of the photos and videos of the atrocities of Joseph Mengele to show off to their friends back home.
One of them had a red MAGA baseball cap on.
Riva and Josephine must keep telling their story, but that’s not enough. Everyone who heard it must also tell it. And they must insist, Never again. And when the assholes with the MAGA caps laugh we have to shout it, Never Again! Never!
And for the love of God, never here.
For Bob Byrd, it was a race to see which he would earn first: an undergrad degree or AARP card. He is a senior at UAB, majoring in Communications with a minor in Creative Writing. He just celebrated his 55th birthday–looks like AARP won, but it was close. He is an award winning storyteller and a frequent contributor to the NPR radio program Says You!. He grew up in Fort Lauderdale but has called Birmingham home for the last twenty years.
On Wednesday, April 11th at UAB Edge of Chaos, dozens of Blazers met, in the spirit of Earth Month and Earth Day (4/22), to hold a discussion titled A Conversation about Sustainability. The event centered on a faculty panel, consisting of Dr. Hessam Taherian (School of Engineering), Dr. Suzanne Judd (School of Public Health), Dr. James McClintock (Department of Biology), Dr. Tina Reuter (Institute for Human Rights), Dr. Josh Robinson (Collat School of Business), and, moderator, Dr. Shauntice Allen (School of Public Health), alongside an inspired, and vocal, student body.
Conversation began with a simple question: Why should we care about sustainability?
The conversation began as far from Birmingham as possible, in Antarctica, where Dr. McClintock conducts research, inspiring him to mention risks to the continent’s biodiversity and its resources that enable pharmaceutical innovation. Dr. Taherian asserts that with almost 7.5 billion people on this planet and counting, so it is imperative we think about our actions, especially as finite resources dissipate. Dr. Judd mentioned how she just came back from Paris, where, in recent years, often rises, and threatens to flood the heart of Paris.
Discussion then turned to Alabama, where raining has increased, resulting in river erosion. Although the effects in Birmingham are minimal, as hurricanes travel through warm water, their strength compounds and influences greater threats to our environment and communities.
When discussing resource distribution, the tragedy of the commons became an immediate talking point — a scenario where individual actors are capable of taking a resource with no clear owner, leading to its depletion. This concept was then related to big hunting in Africa because no one owns the wildlife; therefore, excessive hunting practices have guided many species to their endangerment. Since human behavior was addressed, conversation quickly shifted toward a human rights perspective, demonstrating sustainability’s impact on conflict and displacement of vulnerable communities, namely poor and indigenous persons. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an international document that aims to protect security of the person, was proposed as a framework to protect these communities. However, no legal mechanisms are yet in place to protect “climate refugees”, a growing phenomenon.
Panelists exclaimed we need to incentive sustainability because it directs responsible behaviors. For example, in France, one is charged if they don’t bring their own grocery bags, while, in Dr. Reuter’s home country of Switzerland, she mentioned trash bags are $2 each, incentivizing sustainable behavior. Inevitable critiques of business practice then emerged, where Dr. Robinson claimed businesses are designed for sustainability, meaning accumulating costs of unsustainability will pressure enterprises to adapt. However, it was insisted major oil companies don’t want to leave their product in the ground because of it investment, pitting money against environment. Strikingly, the same researchers hired to protect the tobacco industry about the harms of smoking now help Big Oil with denying the existence of climate change.
As the topic of taxing the population entered the discussion, audience members suggested such an approach would disproportionately affect society’s poorest. Although, it was insisted taxes are not monolithic and can be tiered by income brackets. In addition, the groundswell of communities pressuring the Chinese government to clean the polluted air was mentioned. This generated conversation about the multi-stakeholder process that has been excluded from many environmental decisions, leading to a strong suggestion for non-state actors to be included in such discussions.
When formal discussion ended, students forwarded more insightful questions to the panel, which many responses resulted in conversation about behaviors such as beef consumption, sustainable transportation, Styrofoam cups and the importance of not being aggressive when discussing sustainable behaviors with others. As the lively dialogue ended, it was clear that UAB is the largest electricity consumer in the state, inside a city with poor transportation, and represents a state with some of the nation’s greatest solar potential, meaning Blazers are in the unique position to participate in a global cause by leading local initiatives that advocate for a greener, more sustainable community.
A video of a slave trade in Libya presently circulates the international circuit, eliciting pleas from the international community to the UN, and the UN Security Council to Libyan government to do something to end the “heinous abuses of human rights.” Questions of the video’s validity arose when Libyan officials, based on President Trump’s go-to slogan, discredited the report as “fake news” because it is a product of a CNN investigation. However, in April, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) exposed the slave markets after staff based in Niger and Libya gathered testimonies of these markets. The trafficked individuals are migrants from Nigeria, Ghana, and Gambia seeking passage through Libya to Europe. “Migrants who go to Libya while trying to get to Europe have no idea of the torture archipelago that awaits them just over the border. There they become commodities to be bought, sold, and discarded when they have no more value.” In other words, the video confirms what the humanity already knows: human beings are trafficked and disposed of by other human beings. The Palermo Protocol defines trafficking in persons is an all-encompassing term for the recruitment, transportation, transfer, and exploitation of another for the purposes of commercial sex exploitation, labor trafficking, and organ trafficking. This blog focuses on labor trafficking, which includes domestic/manual forced migrant labor, and speaks to three issues surrounding this labor trafficking case: the international attention, the commonplaceness, and the international complicity.
The rawness of the video, in many ways, conjures images of American colonial and antebellum days gone by—when Africans were sold in markets and public squares to the highest bidder, thereby becoming property and labor on soil that was not their own. Given the fact slavery in the United States occurred nearly 400 years ago, why is this scene garnering international attention and creating a stir? First, the video provides undeniable evidence of the dehumanizing condition of slavery and the audacity of traffickers and traders. Second, it is a stack reminder that slavery, despite the Emancipation Proclamation in the US, never ended in many other regions of the world, including Libya. Lastly, it is challenges the notion of who is valuable and worth saving, and who civil society may continue to turn its back on.
It is essential to distinguish between indentured servitude and slavery. An indentured servant enters into an agreement with full acknowledgment of unpaid labor for a fixed and agreed-upon timeframe. William Mathews voluntarily made himself the servant of Thomas Windover in 1718 for the period of seven years. For his part, Windover agreed to teach, feed, clothe, and provide lodging to Mathews, who upon his release would receive “a sufficient new suit of apparel, four shirts, and two necklets [scarves].” Slavery, on the other hand, was and is about exploitation and “every sort of injustice…and debasement.” The written account of Olaudah Equiano and his family describes the feelings of betrayal and disillusionment of being “torn from our country and friends to toil for your luxury and lust of gain… Surely this is a new refinement in cruelty”. The essential difference here is the presence or absence of choice.
Choice is the thin line separating the inferior from superior, poverty and enough, and animals and human beings. Choice, whether from individual, societal, or government level–influences how we perceive. Bales, in his book, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, offers two views of slavery: old and new. Both possess a dehumanizing element. However, old slavery prided itself on ownership and maintenance of “property”; new slavery focuses on bodies for profits. Ownership takes a backseat to the profit margin. This new slavery relies on the disposability of human beings. This reliance enables Bales to assert slavery never ended; it simply evolved. Slavery, at its core, is the theft of life. The theft of one life indirectly affects another.
Traffickers sell sex slaves on the black market, underground, and on the dark web. Bonded labor is often intergenerational in places like Pakistan and India, thus, children oftentimes are born into slavery. Migrant workers build soccer stadiums in Qatar and Brazil for FIFA World Cup and the Olympics, respectively, after fleeing poverty in their home countries. Unpaid or slightly paid workers, specifically children, sew garments for major fashion brands, grind coffee beans for industry leaders, and pick cocoa beans for chocolate bars sold in America. The major issue with labor trafficking lies in the complexity of the supply and demand chain, and the complicity of local and national government officials.
Per Free the Slaves website, of the estimated 40 million enslaved persons worldwide, 50% are forced laborers. ABC used last spring’s television show, American Crime, to bring some aspects of labor trafficking to light. The mini-series revealed the interconnectedness of an American tomato farming family and the illegal migrants they employed. In a poignant scene, a fire conflagrates the property, killing several enslaved workers trapped inside. A real-life similar incident occurred in July 2017, whereby nine migrants died in a semi-trailer at a San Antonio Walmart. Many quickly jump to the assertion that ‘they should have done it the legal way’ and ‘they are taking away American jobs’ or ‘should not seek refuge in the EU’, yet what often happens is we fail to examine the backstory and interconnections.
Libyan Arab Spring occurred in February 2011. The death of leader Colonel Muammar Gaddaffi in October 2011 by NATO forces left a vacuum for the rise of the Islamic State. Several failed attempts for parliamentary elections, crumbling infrastructure, thousands of internally displaced citizens (IDPs), and limited resources coalesce to create the perfect storm for the rise and perpetuation of trafficking in persons. Additionally, continental intrastate conflicts and civil unrest result in large migrations of IDPs and refugees desperate for a semblance of normalcy and peace. The proclivity of new slavery, unlike old slavery, is not race or religion but on “weakness, gullibility, and deprivation”. Put another way, the subjection of the trafficked is the misapplication of trust in an uncontrolled situation. Nikki Haley, in the 2017 TIPS Report, concludes that the impact of trafficking in persons is cross-cultural, leaving no country “immune from this crisis.” The slave markets of Libya are not the first occurrence and they will not be the last; however, the video makes them known.
After a month of awareness and contained outrage, where do we sit on the elimination of slave markets in Libya, specifically? The UN released a statement condemning the markets while noting Libyans have launched an investigation, and encouraging inter-regional cooperation. Amnesty International (AI) named and shamed EU governments–particularly Italy—for their collusion and complicity in creating and maintaining a system of abuse. AI discloses the three-pronged policy of containment consists of provision of assistance to run detention centers, coordination with Libyan Coast Guard to intercept and return fleeing refugees, and cooperation with leaders on the ground to halt the smuggling of seekers by increasing border controls. The Italian government, a state party to the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its protocol, pays to refuse refugees and asylum seekers and knowingly returns them to a foreign land for detention and torture. Libya is not a state party; therefore, signing the Convention and implementing asylum law as suggested by Dalhuisen will constitute a step in the right direction, when Libya establishes a functioning government.
The fight to end human trafficking is a global civil society (GCS) responsibility. Glasius believes GCS is a voluntary, social contract based association with others who desire to reach and include humanity to think and participate in the world as global citizens, not simply national citizens. How can one participate in GCS? First, employing social media platforms as advocacy tools. Second, reading the TIPS report and following international entities like the UN and AI will keep you informed of changes in international government strategies and shortcomings for prosecution, protection, and prevention of human trafficking. Third, shop and buy products that are fair trade by understanding the relationship between the supply and demand. Fourth, dig deep and ask questions. Lastly, look up, become aware and watch your surroundings because you, like Shelia Fedrick, could rescue a trafficked person.
Consider the time it takes to count to sixty. In those sixty seconds, twenty-four people have just been forcibly displaced from their homes due to conflict and persecution. What are their lives like? Take a moment to imagine what your life might be like as one of the roughly twenty-two million refugees in the world today. Crisis and conflict have created violent or otherwise unsafe conditions in your area of residency. Your home is no longer safe, so you are forced to venture into a strange hostile land with no resources, no safety net, and no choice in the matter. You and your family are victims of circumstance, and yet you experience an onslaught of hostility and discrimination. Your host country denies you of your basic human rights by denying adequate healthcare, reducing access to work, and refusing to let you worship or travel freely. All you want is to go home, but home may not even exist anymore.
Once you have pictured yourself as a refugee, enduring terrible circumstances for the well-being of yourself and your family, then imagine the additional barriers of being a refugee woman with a disability. These compounding factors make your life is then filled even more with fear and uncertainty. As a woman, you are already at a disadvantage; women globally face extraordinary obstacles to their success and wellbeing. You now face further discrimination in the workplace, in education, and in society because of your gender. Now add the complex challenges of being a person with a disability. You are now a member of “one of the most socially excluded groups in any displaced or conflict-affected community.” Your risk for being sexually assaulted or abused now increases substantially. If you have a physical disability, any specialized medical care or transportation is most likely out of the question. Families tend to hide and isolate their family members with disabilities, so you likely will never receive the resources you desperately need. You face insurmountable barriers born of circumstances out of your control: gender, ability, and displacement due to conflict. Though you have done nothing to deserve this fate, this is your reality – just as it is for roughly thirteen million displaced people with disabilities in the world today.
Refugees worldwide face institutional violence in their host countries through mass detention, illegal deportation, and police abuse. Nonviolent discrimination against refugees is just as impactful and much more insidious. There are countless barriers to refugee’s human rights such as the refusal of host countries to allow refugees to practice their religion freely, denial of identity documents that allow refugees to travel or return home, and psychologically damaging hateful rhetoric in many countries. Overcoming these barriers along with the ones that accompany disability and womanhood can seem an impossible task. This is what we call multiple discrimination, where your identity is marginalized on multiple levels. This combination creates a perfect storm that has resulted in the devastation for many women with disabilities. The compounding factors of womanhood and disability create a crisis for refugees who fall in these two categories.
This issue raises questions — what is a refugee, and what does disability look like? The UNHCR defines a refugee as “any person forced to flee from their country by violence or persecution.” Similarly, an IDP (internally displaced person) has been forced to flee their home from violence or persecution, but never crosses into another country. Unlike refugees, international law does not protect IDPs though they suffer from many of the same issues as those with refugee status. The number of forcibly displaced people, which includes both IDPs and refugees, hit a staggering 65.3 million last year according to the UNHCR.
The CRPD defines “persons with disabilities” as individuals who have “long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which, in interaction with various barriers, may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.” A report on refugee camps in Kenya, Nepal, and Uganda by the Women’s Refugee Commission showed that over half of refugees with disabilities studied fell in the category of physical, visual, or mild mental impairment. Around 20% had hearing impairments, and about 17% had mild intellectual impairments. Women who identified as having a disability were most concerned with inadequate medical care, and secondly concerned with the lack of empowerment and inclusion. Interviewees relayed a lack of physical accessibility in refugee camps, and women from adolescent to senior reported high risks of sexual violence and abuse. This does not take into account the number of invisible disabilities (disabilities that are not obvious or apparent to others) or the number of persons who are isolated from the public by their families, as all the people interviewed self-identified as having a disability.
A 2008 report by the Women’s Refugee Commission found another disturbing trend: persons with disabilities are rarely counted in refugee registration or data collection, and thus never receive specialized resources to aid with disability management. Little attention and even fewer resources are allocated towards the unique concerns of women with disabilities. Bathing facilities, education centers, and distribution sites all commonly had accessibility issues, which makes practicing good personal hygiene, obtaining proper education, and accessing equal resources impossible. This is an obstacle for both men and women with disabilities, but lack of personal hygiene can be detrimental for those who menstruate. Reproductive health for women with disabilities is a major issue—there is a severe shortage of knowledge and inclusion for many refugee women with disabilities. Additionally, the lack of accessible hygiene facilities and lack of adequate healthcare in refugee camps directly violates the standard set by Article 28 of the CRPD that recognizes the “right of persons with disabilities to an adequate standard of living for themselves and their families,” as well as the right for equal healthcare opportunities outlined in Article 25.
Limited physical accessibility in camps results in many refugees with disabilities forced to stay in their homes. This isolation only increases the risk of sexual assault and abuse that is already prevalent in the disabled population, and creates a dangerous situation for women and girls with disabilities who are trapped in their homes and do not have the means to defend themselves or to report their attackers. This situation occurs because displaced people with disabilities are “less able to protect themselves from harm, more dependent on others for survival, less powerful, and less visible” (Women’s Refugee Commission). Further barriers block people with disabilities when attempting to report gender-based violence. Inadequate transportation, lack of accessible communication methods, and discrimination all contribute to the underreporting of gender-based violence against people with disabilities.
It is essential to improve the means of data collection so that people with disabilities are represented when resources are being allocated. This is a crucial step before accessibility in refugee camps can improve. Some attention has been paid to the topic and there is a general trend towards improving humanitarian aid for people with disabilities. The Women’s Refugee Commission is committed to increasing disability inclusion in aid efforts around the world, and publishes reports on their findings. Disability programs based on the topic of gender-based violence have been widely successful, and program participants have responded with overwhelming positivity. “Stories of Change” is one program by the WRC and the International Rescue Committee that shares the stories of women with disabilities and their caregivers. Sifa, a sixteen year old girl with physical disabilities in Kinama Camp, Burundi, shares her experience:
“Over the past year, I have most enjoyed going to awareness sessions. It is important to me that the community sees me as not just a girl without a leg, but as a person with rights and a future. I also really appreciate the materials from IRC, especially sanitary napkins and supplies, because often people forget that girls our age need them. With my new leg and my chance to have an education, I feel safer, smarter and less likely to be taken advantage of.”
Though promising, much work remains in the field of humanitarian aid for women with disabilities. While transparency and accessibility have improved, we should not become satisfied with any standard of living that is less than ideal. Women with disabilities have the right to the same freedoms as more privileged refugees, and refugees have the same rights as every human on Earth. Water, food, hygiene, shelter, freedom from violence, work– all of these items are absolutely and unequivocally vital as a human right as enshrined in the UNDHR. For too long we have settled for inadequacy for people with disabilities because society demonizes and rejects them as human beings. As we have raised the standard of human rights, we must continue to emphasize the most vulnerable people who suffer from compound discrimination. To champion the rights of women must include all women. This unequivocally includes the rights of displaced persons along with the rights of people with disabilities; gender directly impacts both one’s experience with ability and displacement. We can and must strive to do better in our fight for the rights of one of the most marginalized populations around the world.
In 1950, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), also known as the UN Refugee Agency, was created to help millions of Europeans who had fled or lost their homes during World War II. Since the creation of the UNHCR, the UN Agency for Refugees still remains the leading UN organization mandated to protect the basic needs and human rights of refugees. The unprecedented forced displacement of people, both internally and across borders, is one of the most persistent manifestations of humanitarian crises and conflict in the modern era. 65.5 million people around the world have been forced from their homes due to violence. Among the 65.6 million people, the UNHCR oversees more than 21 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. Presently, the rights of refugees are protected by the UN Convention Related to the Status of Refugees adopted in 1951, established from Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Article 14 of the UDHR recognizes the right of persons to seek asylum in other countries from persecution in their home country.
The long- and short-term effects of displacement on the masses of global refugees generate humanitarian crises for these persons. Humanitarian responses to crises focus on delivering equitable and quality public health interventions, an essential element of the larger operational framework of humanitarian aid. Public health encompasses a vast variety of components including: 1) reproductive health, 2) disease control, 3) maternal and child care, 4) psychosocial support, and lastly 5) sanitation. “Although the health needs during and after natural disasters and armed conflicts are similar, the differences arise from the political complexities of the latter, in which civilian populations serve as targets of war and human rights abuses aggravate health and protection needs” (Leaning, 2013). The main health consequences of armed conflicts are not conflict-related injuries and deaths. During humanitarian crises such as armed conflict, death is exacerbated by various direct and indirect factors, including common childhood illnesses such as diarrheal disease and severe malnutrition. The legitimate concerns of public health equity in the framework of refugees’ and internally displaced populations’ (IDPs) healthcare continues to be more complex and challenging.
Urban Refugees Current global trends indicate a shift towards urban destinations for refugees and away from refugee camps. The UNHCR reports 60% of the global refugee population and 34 million IDP population live in urban environments. Urban environments provide social security for refugees. Unlike refugee camps, living in cities offers refugees the opportunity to live anonymously. Refugees residing in urban settings are not subjected to the limitations of a refugee status and camps. In urban settings, refugees have access to educational, advanced healthcare services, and employment opportunities which may not be available at refugee camps. Examples of this trend are Damascus, Syria and Amman, Jordan; both received more than 1 million refugees from Iraq alone. Furthermore, many refugees are not legally permitted to settle in urban centers, thus end up living in informal settlements and slums alongside the major urban areas. These informal settlements are typically outside the radar of government and humanitarian aid agencies, thus remaining unidentified and particularly at risk for human right violations.
Public health equity in humanitarian situations From the public health perspective, it is much more difficult to keep track of people when they move to urban areas. This consequently makes healthcare delivery more difficult in terms of: 1) assuring refugees receive basic health care services, 2) coordinating patient referrals, 3) accessible and available health services and resources, and finally 4) managing the costs of health care services. UNHCR’s leading principles for public health assert health care services delivered to refugees by host countries should resemble and correspond with the services provided to citizens and residents in their country of origin. Minimum, yet essential, health care services must be maintained in all situations, including humanitarian disasters and mass forced migration. “This UNHCR guiding principle preserves a sense of fairness and equity between two contiguous groups of people who must, for a range of security and political reasons, be encouraged to live in this adjacency as harmoniously as possible for an indefinite period of time (Leaning, 2011).”
A coordinated system of health care delivery is more urgent in urban settings not associated with refugee camps or humanitarian relief. The urban displacement phenomenon has shifted the direction of care delivery systems to focus on establishing healthcare delivery systems supporting access to preventive health care services. Present systematic healthcare delivery issues requiring critical consideration include 1) the financing of health services, 2) access barriers to services due to unaddressed financial burdens, 3) cultural barriers, and lastly 4) and the integration of services for refugees within existing formal health systems.
Recently, UNHCR has begun to advocate for refugees to gain access to health insurance in their host country, especially in middle-income countries where healthcare systems already function for host populations. For example, in 2011, health insurance for Afghan refugees living in Iran was introduced. By June 2012, 347,000 refugees registered for health insurance. 40% of the Afghan refugees whom enrolled for health insurance were officially registered with the UNHCR. With health insurance, refugees have access to secondary and tertiary healthcare services for treatment of non-communicable diseases and other illnesses. Health insurance provides UNHCR registered refugees a second form of official documentation. Secondary healthcare services include consultant led-services with health care specialists. Tertiary care services include specialized consultative care delivered on referral from primary and secondary The Iranian government also benefits from providing health insurance to the country’s population by reducing the perennial risk of paying for the hospitalization of refugees. Refugee health insurance is successful in Iran because refugees have access to employment allowing some refugees the means to afford to pay premiums and co-payments. The UNHCR will support vulnerable persons if they cannot afford health insurance. Urban refugees need more representation and support services within the health sector.
Resource Allocation Achieving public health equity in humanitarian crises is a complicated and challenging process. The majority of refugees do not live in refugee camps and their experiences as urban dwellers must be further investigated by academics and professionals alike. This trend holds for human societies in general; the world at large is experiencing rapid urbanization. In 1950, less than 30% of the world’s population lived in cities and towns. Presently, urban population has increased to 54% and is expected to reach 60% by 2030. Even though urban refugees have the ability to live anonymously and earn wages, living in an urban setting undermines refugees’ access to affordable and high-quality basic health care services. Future policy decisions and international aid programs regarding urban refugees must continue to adapt to the shifting demographic profiles of refugees, IDPs and the effects of global urbanization. Ultimately, public health equity problems the humanitarian community is attempting to confront can be categorized under two categories: resource allocation and decision-making. As humanitarian crises stemming from armed conflict become more common, investing in sustainable policy solutions for resource allocation in the health sector for forced migrants will prevent the suffering of these individuals on the low end of the welfare continuum.
**This is a repost. Please make plans to join us for a lecture and discussion with Dr. Wakar Uddin on Monday, Nov 13 at 630pm, in the Edge of Chaos.
Trigger warning: this blog references graphic physical and sexual violence. Please do not read if easily affected by these topics.
“Now is the worst it has ever been. We have heard from our grandparents that there were bad things happening in the past too, but never like this.” – interviewee from Pwint Hpuy Chaung commenting on the violence in the Rhakine, Myanmar
Ethnic cleansing. State-sponsored violence. Genocide. This is what the Muslim Rohingya and most scholars would call the egregious human rights violations carried out by the state over the last eleven months. Myanmar’s government disagrees. The village-burning, mass-murdering campaign has been a legitimate effort against militant Rohingya insurgents from their perspective. The Rohingya are members of an ethnic and religious minority group that has suffered discrimination from the Buddhist-dominated state for years. A large population of Rohingya live in the Rhakine, an extremely poor area on the coast of Myanmar. Though the Rohingya have been living in Myanmar for generations, the ethnic majority considers the group to be illegal Bengali outsiders. The minority group has been denied citizenship for decades and has recently had restricted travel with the institution of state-sponsored “Muslim-free zones.” The decades of discrimination came to a head in last October, when Rohingya militants killed nine police officers. In response, Myanmar government began a colossal campaign to push Rohingya into Bangladesh through burning entire towns, executing villagers, destroying food supplies, and widespread sexual violence. Officials describe the campaign as targeting militant insurgents, yet vulnerable groups like women, children, and the elderly have been beaten, murdered, and raped at a wide level. Entire communities have been devastated through arson, executions, and looting. The violence has been strategic in an effort to drive out the Rohingya. The mixing of mud with village grain supplies forces surviving villagers to flee or starve.
Interviews with refugees from the region conducted by the United Nations Office of High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) report of atrocities like murders of newborn babies, massive gang rapes of girls as young as eleven, houses set on fire with entire families locked inside, and brutal beatings of pregnant women.
“In Kyet Yoe Pyin I saw the military killing a newborn baby of a distant relative … My relative could not come out [of her house] as she was in labour so they dragged her out and hit her stomach with a big stick. They killed the baby by stomping on it with their heavy boots. Then they burned the house.” -19 year old woman from Ngar Sar Kyu (OHCHR 2017)
Much of the violence is fueled by decades of religious and ethnic discrimination against the Rohingya, a majority Muslim population within a Buddhist state. When the October 9, 2016 attack occurred, religious tension reached a boiling point. As a part of the government’s reaction, state military officers have been committing heinous crimes against innocent Muslim individuals. Survivors report their attackers as saying, while raping or beating them, “What can your Allah do for you? See what we can do?” Women systematically dragged into holy places to be gang-raped by groups of soldiers. A long beard is a religious practice among the Rohingya; however, several religious leaders have been publicly humiliated by having their beards shaved or burned off with melting plastic. Holy Qurans have been gathered and burned, and numerous religious leaders are kidnapped and murdered. There is also the denial of families to perform religious ceremonies to mourn their dead.
“I was rounded up, along with 30 others villagers, who were mainly youngsters. They tied my hands behind with a rope. They burnt plastic and dropped melted plastic on my feet and neck. They also burnt my beard with burning plastic.” – Religious leader (OHCHR 2017).
Activists worldwide, including Malala Yousafzai and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have called the Myanmar government’s response to last October’s incident “grossly disproportionate”. Many specifically criticize Myanmar’s de facto leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi for her leadership during this period. Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel peace prize in 1991 “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights” (Nobel Peace Prize 1991). Today, some see this as incredibly ironic, even labelling the atrocities of her administration as crimes against humanity. In fact, the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein calls the campaign “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Harsh V. Pant suggests that while Suu Kyi, the de facto leader, does not control the military, “her refusal to condemn military abuses against Rohingya provides the generals with political cover”.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership as a prominent factor is why international forces have not yet intervened. Suu Kyi is a much-loved public figure, has garnered enough legitimacy to make the violence seem possibly justified. Suu Kyi’s struggle to gain democracy in Myanmar nearly a decade ago brought globally acclaimed; however, these new democratic processes have magnified prejudices of the public. Suu Kyi herself has expressed anti-Muslim sentiment at times. Peter Popham describes a 2013 interview conducted by BBC presenter Mishal Husain, the Nobel laureate was heard saying angrily, “no one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim.” This statement is a strong indication that Aung San Suu Kyi’s non-violent legacy should be dismissed when considering the legitimacy of Myanmar’s claims.
The Myanmar government has recently blocked UN forces from entering the country to administer aid so refugee testimonies are the source of much of the information on the violence. Over half of the refugees report family members still missing after officers rounded up important male villagers–teachers, businesspersons, and religious leaders. Fifty-two percent of women reported experiencing sexually violence in some way – usually during public nude line-ups of female villagers, where officers grope, slap, and pinch the vulnerable women. Most reported occurrences of mass executions by knife or shooting, including babies, toddlers, children, women, and elderly people. OHCHR in January’s flash report is the source of the collected data and all the reports of violence cited earlier.
These issues have been ongoing since last October’s attack, but fighting began anew last month when Rohingya militants once again launched an attack that killed nearly a dozen security officers. The group that launched the attack call themselves ARSA, or the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. Nearly three-hundred thousand Rohingya are currently fleeing this violence, but have faced obstacles every step of the way. The path to the Bangladesh border is treacherous already, weaving through mountains and jungles, but Myanmar security forces have added additional danger. Yanghee Lee, Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, said, “Rohingyas [are] being indiscriminately killed and injured by military gunfire, even while fleeing, and helicopters and rocket-propelled grenades being used against the civilian population.” Amnesty International reports that Myanmar security forces have been putting land mines along the route of fleeing refugees. Even if the violence dies down and refugees attempt to return home, they will likely be denied entry back into Myanmar. The government has recently released a statement that any returnees are required to show proof of citizenship — something that has been denied to Rohingyas for decades.
The international response has been halfhearted at best. Entities like the United Nations and Amnesty International have collected information through interviews and satellite surveillance, yet, Myanmar still refuses to allow international aid. India, one of the most powerful countries in the region, has shown support to the Myanmar state by condemning ARSA and being hostile to Rohingya refugees. U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley seems to tiptoe around the matter by similarly condemning Rohingya violence but reminding Myanmar to “adhere to international humanitarian law, which includes refraining from attacking innocent civilians and humanitarian workers.” In a situation of clear ethnic cleansing, politically delicate statements like these are insufficient.
Human rights violations at this level and scale are painful to read about and not become stricken with grief. However, we must keep in mind that hope is still alive—the world is in the process of becoming a better place, and awareness of these topics is vital to that change. To those who are reading this, remember to treat yourself kindly. When the horrors of the world make you feel hopeless, remember the good that still exists. Remember to take a break every so often to recharge. Whenever I feel like the world is just too bad to improve, I remind myself of this quote by Anne Frank: “I hold onto my ideals because, in spite of everything, I still believe that people are good at heart.”
The Birmingham Islamic Society (BIS) will host a demonstration for Rohingyas outside the Hill Student Center on Saturday, September 16 at 12-1:30PM. The event is free and open to the public.
“Armed conflict kills and maims more children than soldiers,”
-Garca Machel, UNICEF
Global unrest and armed conflict are becoming more common, intense, and destructive. Today, wars are fought from apartment windows, in the streets of villages and suburbs, and where differences between soldiers and civilians immediately vanish. Present day warfare is frequently less a matter of war between opposing armies and soldiers than bloodshed between military and civilians in the same country.
In 2014, there were 42 armed conflict, resulting in 180,000 deaths worldwide. Civilian death tolls in wartime increased from 5 per cent at the turn of the century to more than 90 per cent in the wars of the 1990s. War and armed conflict is one of the most traumatic experiences any human can endure, and the brunt of this trauma is felt by civilians- most especially children. In 2015 alone, some 75 million children were born into zones of active conflict. As of May 2016, one in every nine children is raised in an active zone of conflict. Two hundred and fifty million young people live in war zones, with the number refugees at its most prominent since World War II. Currently, there are 21.3 million refugees worldwide, and half of them children.
For refugees, the events leading up to relocation (notably war and persecution), the long and unsafe process of relocation, settlements in refugee camps, and overall disregard for human rights, takes a major emotional and mental toll. PTSD, depression, anxiety, and sleeping disorders are just few of many problems refugee children experience. Respecting human rights is essential to society’s overall mental health. Equally, a society’s mental health is essential for the enjoyment of basic human rights. Addressing the psychological needs of victims of armed conflict is essential for the prosperity of war-battered children’s future.
The Relationship between Mental Health and Human Rights Armed conflict affects all aspects of childhood development – physical, mental, and emotional. Armed conflict destroys homes, fragments communities, and breaks down trust among people, thereby undermining the very foundations of most children’s lives. The psychological effects of loss, grief, violence, and fear a child experiences due to violence and human right violations must also be considered.
Throughout the process of becoming a refugees, the three main stages in which people experience traumatic and violent experiences include: 1) the country of origin, 2) the journey to safety, and 3) settlement in a host country. The interrelationship between human rights and mental health are recognized in various universal human right conventions and resolutions. Numerous legislative measures exists for mental health, but two main conventions that address the situations refugees experience include: 1) Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and 2) The Convention on the Rights of a Child. These two conventions specially address mental health pertaining to violence.
Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment: 1987 This Convention is significant towards the promotion of mental health as a human right because “torture,” any act that creates severe pain or suffering, can be both physical and mental. This convention is particularly relevant to refugees because they are more vulnerable and susceptible to mental and physical torture. The short video documentary released by the UNHCR provided refugees and migrants to tell their own stories of kidnap and torture during their journeys to Europe. The stories told by survivors are emotionally distressing but highlights the realities refugees continuously experience.
The Convention on the Rights of a Child: 1990 The Convention on the Rights of a Child is the first legally binding international instrument to integrate the full array of human rights. This convention is also an important document for mental health. The CRC explicitly highlights the significance of both the physical and psychological wellbeing of a child. This convention is particularly important because it addresses the relationship of affect armed conflict on mental health. First, Article 38 of the Convention highlights state parties’ obligation under international humanitarian law to protect the civilian population in armed conflicts, and shall “take all feasible measures to ensure protection and care of children who are affected by an armed conflict.” International humanitarian law is a set of rules which aim, for humanitarian purposes, to minimize and protect persons from the effects of armed conflict. Second, Article 39 of the Convention states “States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to promote physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration of a child victim of: any form of neglect,… torture or any other form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; or armed conflicts.” For children refugees, the Convention on the Rights of a Child is an imperative document for the security of their right to mental health, and mental health services.
Barriers to Accessing Health Care Services The process of becoming a refugee takes a tremendous emotional and mental toll on all refugees. PTSD, depression, anxiety, and sleeping disorders are just few psychological diagnoses given to refugee children. The fundamental right to mental health care is addressed in various international standards, such as the Convention of the Rights of the Child, however, there continues to be numerous barriers preventing access to these services. There has been an unparalleled surge in the number of refugees worldwide, the majority of which are placed in low‐income countries with restricted assets in mental health care. Currently, responsibility for mental health support to refugees is divided between a network of agencies, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the World Health Organization (WHO), government, and nonprofit organizations. Yet, the reality is that most refugees with mental health problems will never receive appropriate services. Cultural barriers, such as language, persistently affect a refugee’s capability to utilize mental health series. A study examining health care barriers of post-settlement refugees reveals language is the most impeding cultural barrier to accessing healthcare. Refugees and mental health service providers often do not speak the same language, making successful communication during healthcare visits less effective. Language barriers affect every level of the healthcare system, from making an appointment to filling a prescription. A lack of multilingual interpreters for refugees and health care providers weakens the healthcare system, making miscommunication about diagnoses and treatments possibilities common. Lastly, stigma surrounding mental health is another barrier to health services. Refugees often feel the words “mental health issues” should be reserved for individuals with extreme learning disabilities, and do not understand mental health problems can be conditions like depression and anxiety.
Psychopathologies due to trauma are very powerful, however, recovery is possible. In Judith Herman’s book Trauma and Recovery, she discusses her theory of recovery. She states recovery happens in three stages: 1) establishment of safety, 2) remembrance and mourning, 3) re-connection with ordinary life.
Stage 1: Safety
Trauma diminishes the victims’ sense of control, power, and overall feeling of safety. The first stage of treatment focuses establishing a survivor’s sense of safety in their own bodies, with their relations with other people, in their environment, and even their emotions. Self-care is also an important focus point during this stage. The purpose of this stage is to get victims to believe they can take protect and take care of themselves, and they deserve to recover.
Stage 2: Remembrance and Mourning
The second stage of Herman’s recovery theory highlights the choice to confront trauma of the past rests within the trauma survivor. It’s important for victims to talk about their goals and dreams before the trauma happened so they can reestablish a sense of connection with the past. That second stage begins by reconstructing the trauma beginning with a review of the victim’s life before the horrors and situations leading up to the trauma. This second step is to reconstruct the traumatic event as a recitation of fact. The goal of this step is to put the traumatic event into words, and come to terms with it. Testimonies are ways for survivors to get justice, feel acknowledged, and find their voice.
Stage 3: Reconnecting
In the final stage, the victim focuses on reconnecting with oneself and the recreation of an ideal self that visits old hopes and dreams. The third stage also focuses on emotionally and mentally reconnecting with other people and social reintergration. By this stage the victim should have the capacity to feel trust in others. A small but influential minority of individuals revolutionize the meaning of their trauma and tragedy, and make it the foundation for social change.
A Peaceful Future
Even though human rights activists are not psychological clinicians, we can still contribute to the success of these stages. At present, more than half of the refugee children population are children. Despite the violence these children have experienced, refugee children are the foundation and hope for a peaceful future. However, for that to happen, refugee children need to find peace in themselves. Respecting human rights is essential to society’s overall mental health. As activists we need to advocate for refuges and children who don’t have a voice. Activists for human and mental health rights should start focusing their goals on ensuring their communities and hospitals contain mental health care provisions. As activists, we can lobby for more accessible mental health services throughout our health care system, join and volunteer at non-profit organizations, and advocate for the rights of refugees. As Herman Melville states, “we cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men.”
These past few weeks have been a very vulnerable time for our global community. Media has been predominately focusing on the countries and victims affected by Hurricane Harvey, Irma, and Jose, however nature’s violent outcry stormed communities all over the world- not just the hurricanes in the West. Powerful monsoons struck South Asia, affecting more than 41 million people throughout Bangladesh, Nepal, and India. In Karachi, Pakistan, devastating monsoon floods abruptly invaded communities preparing to celebrate an Islamic holiday, Eid al-Adha. Lastly, Typhoon Hato swept into the cities of Macau and Hong Kong, causing thousands of people to flee their homes.
After all of these natural disasters transpired, one concept became very clear: Mother Nature does not discriminate. Natural disasters affect the rich and poor, high income countries and low income countries, and people of all nationalities and ethnicities. Regions struck by these disasters are left with substantial amounts of infrastructural, property, and environmental damage. As a result, victims of these disaster experience traumatic consequences, such as internal displacement and food insecurity. Growing up, I believe I was too young and just overall uninformed to really comprehend what natural disasters entail, and why they are so devastating. However, now being an adult, it’s obvious to me that the reason why natural disasters are so devastating is because post-disaster damage completely compromise the dignity of human rights detailed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
Disasters interfere with a population’s economic, social, and cultural rights emphasized through 17, Article 22-27 of the UDHR. Articles 22-27 of the UDHR focus on establishing social security through people’s right to education, employment, adequate living conditions, cultural life, and leisure. Likewise, Article 17 of the UDHR establishes that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.” Unfortunately, after a natural disaster, these rights are undeniably negatively affected.
Right to Work
The right to work and employment is severely hindered after natural disasters due unimaginable infrastructural damage. In 2005, the US experienced public health tragedy when Hurricane Katrina devastated millions along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Louisiana. Two years after Hurricane Katrina, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released numerous reports on the effects of Hurricane Katrina on employment and unemployment. These statistics state: “approximately 38 percent of business establishments in Louisiana and Mississippi were within a 100-mile corridor of the path of Hurricane Katrina’s center.” From August 2005 until June 2006, Louisiana unemployment rates soared from 5.8% pre-hurricane to 12.1% post-Hurricane Katrina. In Mississippi, unemployment rates climbed from 6.8% in 2004 before the hurricane to 10.4% after Hurricane Katrina. Everyone has the right to work to “ensur[e] for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity”; this is ultimately difficult to achieve when opportunities for employment have literally been washed away. In the Caribbean regions, hit hardest by hurricane Irma, tourism one of the largest revenue-builders and an important source of income for many families. Specifically in Anguilla, a territory hit by Hurricane Irma, tourism contributed to 57% of the island’s GDP in 2016. Generally, travel and tourism alone contributed to about 15% of the Caribbean region’s total GDP. For the Caribbean victims of Irma, the disruption of the tourism industry is a disruption to a family’s livelihood. Natural disaster victims living in rural regions such as India, Nepal, and Bangladesh face continuous threat to work when their agriculture and crop land get destroyed and the becomes unprofitable.
Right to Adequate Living
The most noticeable human right that natural disasters discernibly jeopardize is the right to “a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services…” For many survivors after natural disasters, ‘adequate living’ is no longer a reality. What happens when a family’s home is demolished in the wake of disasters such as these? Tragically, millions of people become internally displaced within their countries. The United Nations reports that about 851,000 people are displaced in India, 352,738 Nepalese are displaced from their homes, and lastly 696,169 people have been displaced in Bangladesh since the monsoons. Food insecurity also becomes an urgent need to address throughout regions affected by these disasters. Within two days after the floods, Nepal Food Security Monitoring System (NEKSAP), issued a first assessment of the damage. Results exposed that 70% of flood-affected areas are moderately food insecure or worse. Of that 70%, 42% of those regions are highly and severely food insecure.
Right to Education
Natural disasters also impede on one’s right to an education due to the damage sustained by schools and educational infrastructure. Human loss to education systems, comprising the loss of school administration personal, teachers, and education policy makers, affects the institution’s ability to deliver a quality education. UN reports affirm that in Bangladesh, 2,292 primary and community schools suffered substantial water damage. In Nepal, 1,958 schools have been ruined, thereby impacting the education of 253,605 children. In India, nearly one million students’ education have been disrupted when floods damaged 15,455 schools. Damage to schools not only undercut education in the short term, but threaten long-term educational goals as well. USAID explains “the normal processes of educational planning break down during an emergency, weakening the overall system and creating future problems in the development of an inclusive educational system.”
These events have got a lot of people asking why these disasters even occurred in the first place. Well, science indicates that climate change has become a major catalyst to such drastic weather related disasters witnessed throughout the past couple of weeks. As NASA explains “changes in climate not only affect average temperatures, but also extreme temperatures, increasing the likelihood of weather-related natural disasters.” With rising temperatures and a predicted increase in weather-related disasters, maybe the United Nations and our government should start to consider changing the definition of an internally displaced person (IDP) or a refugee to include people fleeing from natural disasters. The UN definition of a refugee is a person who , “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…” Just like people running away from armed conflict, victims of weather-related disasters are also trying to escape harsh realities, including inadequate living conditions, food insecurity, no economic opportunities, and violence. A modern day example of weather-related disasters is the famine spreading across Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya caused by intensified droughts.
“We have moved four times in the last four months. We were trying to follow the rain – moving according to where the rains were supposed to come. But they haven’t. If the rains don’t come, none of us will survive”
– Farhia Mohamad Geedi, Oxfam
Just like Farhia and her family, 10.7 million people across Somalia, Ethiopia and are facing sever hunger. If their governments are not able to provide them with a feasible and effective solution, they have no other choice but to leave, or die. With a predicted increase in weather-related disasters such as drought and floods, more people will be living in extremely life-threatening environments that will force them to leave their home. The destruction of the consecutive water disaster have been very tragic, but there is hope for the future. Countries have begun to recognize that “their shared burden of climate-related disasters can only be lifted by universal action to address the causes of climate change.” 175 countries from all over the world have signed onto the Paris Agreement, which will focus on keeping a global temperature rise this century below 2 degrees Celsius. We as a global community have already made such positive impact by acknowledging we have a problem, now it’s time to hold ourselves accountable for progress.
Additional resource: This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein.
The United Nations (UN) Conference on State Parties (CoSP10) experience began on the 29th floor for me. I say this because I lived in New York City and toured the UN on a couple of occasions. Additionally, living a life that is inclusive of persons with disabilities is in my wheelhouse. A friend and mentor utilizes crutches to help him walk because an accident, when he was younger, took the full use of his legs. Cancer took the use of B’s legs when she was a baby, and a motorcycle accident left my uncle paralyzed from the waist, making them both wheelchair users. I lead with all of this to say that making room in my world for persons with disabilities is something I have done for decades. My familiarity, in a sense, is akin to the knowledge gained by a couple of tours of the UN lobby and gift shop. Therefore, walking into CoSP10, I was prepared or so I thought.
I had never been on the 29th floor. The perspective is much different up there.
The Division of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) is located on the 29th floor of the UN. The DESA team is responsible for both the economic and social affairs of persons with disabilities for all the UN member states as directly related to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). They write and disseminate policies and ideas to the member states as suggested modes of implementation. Each policy and suggestion lies within the UN mandated Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) which is an extension of the 1945 UN Charter. SDGs are the 17 goals all member states, through collaboration, seek to achieve by 2020 as a means of ensuring “no one is left behind” while honoring the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and CRPD. Sitting in the conference room, I am inspired by the opportunity but not fully awake to what is about to take place.
Enter Daniela Bas.
Bas is the DESA director. During her chat with us, she disclosed a couple of points that stand out to me. First, the UN, as an employing entity, is beginning to put into action many of the policies and measures, tasked to member states for implementation. Most specifically, employing persons with disabilities in key leadership positions of which she is one. Second, the UN is an organization led by human beings seeking to do the right thing. With full acknowledgment, she reminds that the UN is not perfect but that the process of coalescing 196 backgrounds, traditions, religious affiliations, and attitudes to make significant strides at securing human rights and making the world more peaceful, is an accomplishment. Lastly, when compared to men and boys, and those who are able-bodied, discrimination against women and girls with disabilities doubles, and even triples if they belong to a minority race or class in their country. This last point, triple discrimination for women and girls with disabilities will become a recurring theme in the conference for me. The harsh reality of this fact remains an echo in my soul to this moment.
Confrontation with another person’s truth requires an adjustment to what is known through experience and education, and assumed through familiarity.
I study and view life and the world with a gendered perspective in mind. I look for the role of women, our impact on families and societies, and our visibility and invisibility when it comes to equality. I am aware of the trials of living life at intersections. Intersectionality complicates because discrimination is complicated. I believe there is a temptation to separate the intersections so to obtain a solid understanding; however, it is in the attempt to separate that understanding is lost. Gaining a complete understanding of the dynamics of discrimination requires a holistic not segmented perspective.
Girls, irrespective of ability, are not as valuable or visible in many societies as boys are. Nora Fyles, head of the UN Girls Education Initiative (UNGEI) Secretariat, asserts invisibility is the fundamental barrier to education for girls with disabilities. She confirms this assertion when explaining the search for partnership on the gendered perspective education project by stating that 1/350 companies had a focus on girls with disabilities. For Bas, the failure to identify girls and women with disabilities is a failure to acknowledge their existence. Subsequently, if they do not exist, how can we expect them to hear their need? She suggests addressing crosscutting barriers. Leonard Cheshire Disability (LCD), in partnership with the World Bank, UNICEF, and UNGEI, hosted a side-event where they released their findings regarding a lack of inclusive education opportunities for girls with disabilities. Still Left Behind: Pathways to Inclusive Education for Girls with Disabilities sheds light on the present barriers girls, specifically those with disabilities, experience when seeking an education.
Article 26 of the UDHR lists education as a human right. Bas believes if knowledge is power, and power comes from education, the fact that 50% of women with a disability complete primary school and 20% obtain employment, reflects social and economic inequality. Ola Abu Al-Ghaib of LCD emphasizes policies, cultural norms, and attitudes about persons with disabilities perpetuate crosscutting barriers for girls with disabilities to receive an education. She concludes that schools are a mirror of society. In the absence of gendered sensitivity, boys advance and girls do not. Every failed attempt to address and correct the issue is a disservice to girls generally, and girls with disabilities, specifically.
It is imperative to remember that the spectrum of disability is multifaceted. Most people recognize developmental and physical disabilities like Downs Syndrome, Autism, visual and hearing impairment, and wheelchair users, but fail to consider albinism and cognitive disabilities as part of the mainstream disability narrative. Bulgaria is focusing on implementing Article 12 of CRPD regarding legal capacity. Legal consultant and lawyer, Marieta Dimitrova explains that under Bulgarian law, only reasonable persons have the right to independence; therefore, persons with cognitive disabilities receive the “unable” descriptor under assumption they are unable to reason and understand, thereby placing them under a guardian. Guardianship removes the right to participate in decisions regarding quality of life, which is a deprivation of liberty. She resolves that although full implementation into law awaits, stakeholders are seeking renewal in the new government because pilot projects have proven that an enjoyment of legal capacity in practice yields lower risk of abuse, changed attitude within communities, personal autonomy and flexibility.
Not all disabilities result from birth or accidents. War and armed conflict factor into 20% of individuals maimed while living in and fleeing from violence. A lack of medical access leave 90% of maimed individuals permanently disabled. Stephane from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) submits that for refugees with disabilities, access to essential services can be difficult on the journey and in camps, but also for those who are unable to flee. He infers a “double disability” inflicted upon refugees with disabilities: first as a refugee, and second as a person with a disability. Human Rights Watch advocates that refugee camps produce a humiliating and degrading existence for persons with physical disabilities because the “tricks” employed prior to arrival in the camps, are no longer applicable as wheelchairs sink in the mud and crutches break on rocky grounds. The Lebanese Association for Self-Advocacy (LASA) reports the underrepresentation of women and girls is significant when receiving information and access to assistance.
In a refugee simulation seminar, LASA informed that on the ground, confusion is high given that humanitarian organizations do not consult with each other, making communication difficult and non-supportive. For families with a person with a disability, nonexistence communication means a prevalence to fall victim to violence and harassment. Jakob Lund of UN Women divulges that humanitarian aid can be ineffective for women with disabilities, while Sharon with OHCHR suggests a clear dichotomy between the rights of the able-bodied and the rights of persons with disabilities holds central to the ineffectiveness. At the core of a lack of communication and accessibility is invisibility. Stephane concludes that there is an obvious need for a necessary and systematic retraining specific to educating others on how to see the invisible.
The process of inclusion and equality relates directly to the decision to acknowledge a person’s existence. Retraining the mind to see any human being with a physical disability takes decisive action so I put myself to the test. First, I thought of all the famous women with a physical disability I could think of, and arrived at about six, including Heather Whitestone and Bethany Hamilton. I then googled celebrity women with disabilities which yielded a Huffington Post piece that identified Marlee Matlin, Frida Kahlo, Helen Keller, and Sudha Chandran as 4/10 “majorly successful people with disabilities”. I had Marlee Matlin and Helen Keller. What is more interesting is that I arrived at seven when naming men with physical disabilities. Here is the point: society is not inclusive of persons with disabilities if we have to strain our brains to remember the last time we sat next to, opened the door for, ate a meal with, or saw on the television/movie screen/church platform a person who did not look like us physically.
Perspective changes everything because perspective is everything.
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