The Coronavirus in the Middle East: Its Impact on Sectarianism and Refugees

The coronavirus has spread to virtually every country of the world, but due to differences in privilege and access to resources, many countries are unable to adequately address this pandemic as well as other countries are. However, for countries in the Middle East, in addition to these differentials, the pandemic has also further exacerbated many preexisting problems that the region faces, namely political, economic, and social unrest. While this outbreak has had ramifications on several facets of life in the Middle East, this blog post will be focusing on the outbreak’s impact on sectarianism and the refugee crisis.

An image showing Shia Muslims visiting a shrine.
Shrine visitation. Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons.

Sectarian Conflict

The Middle East is marred by the Sunni-Shia conflict, and geopolitics are heavily influenced by this divide. Because of this, the divide is often invoked when something disastrous occurs in the region, with each side blaming the other, and the coronavirus outbreak has proven to be no exception. Although the coronavirus has spread to all Middle Eastern countries, Iran, a Shia-majority country, has been disproportionately impacted; as of March 31st, Iran has had 44,605 coronavirus cases and 2,898 deaths, making it one of the countries with the most cases in the world. Further, Iran has now been identified as the source of spread to other Middle Eastern countries; some of the earliest identified cases in the Middle East were all of people who had recently traveled to Qom, one of the holiest cities in Iran. Despite the fact that people were aware of the outbreak in Iran, visitations to holy shrines in Iran were not discouraged, and people continued to travel to these holy sites. Any large gatherings during this time pose a risk, but shrine visitations are especially risky; many people engage in practices at shrines, such as kissing and touching the shrines, that lead to an increased likelihood of spreading. Since the outbreak is speculated to have spread from Qom, the city where one of the holiest shrines, the shrine of Sayyida Fatima al-Zahraa, is located, it is not unlikely that transmission did occur like this.

Because the spread has been identified as coming from Iran, many Sunni-majority countries in the Middle East have used this as an opportunity to justify further prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims. For example, Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia who recently traveled to Iran for shrine visitations were labeled as traitors, leading some to call for their execution. In other countries, such as Lebanon, preexisting sectarian conflict has only gotten worse. It has been claimed that the first case in Lebanon came from Iran, leading many to blame the Shia Muslim population of Lebanon. Further, the Lebanese government continued to allow flights from Iran up until mid-March. Due to this, many have criticized Iran’s influence in Lebanon, specifically its influence on the government.

 

An image showing a Syrian refugee camp.
A Syrian refugee camp. Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons.

Refugees in the Middle East

There have been refugees in the Middle East for the past several decades, but the number of refugees significantly increased after the Arab Uprising in 2011. Because refugees often live in destitute conditions, the coronavirus outbreak would prove to be disastrous for them. Once a case of the coronavirus reaches a refugee camp, there will be little to nothing that can be done to stop its spread; large families live within the same tent, usually only five feet apart from other nearby tents. For this reason alone, social distancing is not an option for refugees living in camps, highlighting the intrinsic privilege of others’ ability to practice and call for social distancing. In addition to this problem, refugees also do not have access to the resources necessary for sanitization, namely due to lack of access to clean water. Further, there are often no established healthcare systems within refugee camps, making it difficult for them to access resources that would be needed to aid infected individuals. Even if refugees were to seek health care outside of the camps, it is not guaranteed that they would have access to this care. For example, many refugees are internally displaced in war-torn countries where hospitals have been demolished and those that are still standing are severely lacking in resources. Further, even when refugees resettle in other countries with established health care systems, it is not incorrect to assume that nationals of that country will be given preference over refugees for treatment and access to resources.

Despite the scarcity of resources and bleak outlook for refugee camps, measures have been taken to ensure that refugees are protected as best as they can be from the coronavirus. For example,  many refugee camps have been sanitized with anti-bacterial spray. Certain organizations, such as Islamic Relief, have donated supplies, including rubbing alcohol and medicine that treats certain symptoms of the coronavirus, to ensure that if an outbreak does occur within a camp, there are some necessary resources available. Finally, the UNHCR has appealed governments for $33 million in funds to provide refugees access to hygiene kits, protective gear, and sanitary water, among other things, that could help deter the spread of the coronavirus.

Recently, an IHR Intern wrote a blog about racism and discrimination that arises during outbreaks such as this one. While Asians have largely been victims to racism during this period, in the Middle East, Iran and Shia Muslims have been targeted, highlighting that people do indeed try to blame such events on others when, in reality, there is no one that should be blamed. Further, times like this also highlight the level of privilege many of us live in; while we have the privilege to access resources and to distance ourselves from one another, other groups who lack such privileges, namely refugees, cannot practice any of these things. Thus, while we are all impacted by this outbreak, it is important to recognize that many people, in addition to worrying about the coronavirus, face other obstacles during this time as well, and these groups should be kept in mind.

Impact of Covid-19 in Conflict Zones

A photo of 3 medical professionals in masks and white suits carrying testing machines in war-torn Syria
Medical professionals in war-torn Syria fear the worst after first case reported. Source: Yahoo Images

“Wash your hands.” “Avoid close contact with others.” “Stay home.” These are the CDC’s recommendations for protecting yourself against the coronavirus and the disease that it causes, COVID-19. For those of us fortunate enough to have clean water and soap and space and a home, that is helpful advice and easy enough to follow, even if it is somewhat of a disruption to our normal lives. Unfortunately, these recommendations are completely irrelevant to the millions of people across the globe who live in conflict zones and refugee camps where fresh water is scarce, sanitary facilities are lacking, and the healthcare infrastructure has been decimated by war and continuous violence. In places where day to day survival is already a key concern, the novel coronavirus poses a new kind of threat, one that the struggling healthcare systems in these countries is not prepared to take on. 

While the U.S. government and media have focused on individual vulnerabilities, such as age and underlying respiratory conditions, very little has been done to address social and structural vulnerabilities, including limited access to basic services, health care, safe water, sanitation, and hygiene, in some of the most dangerous places in the world. Overcrowded refugee camps are a virus’ dream – they provide conditions in which the virus can spread rapidly and easily. Individuals living in these places are already prone to respiratory problems due to air pollution and living in close quarters. Unsanitary conditions and lack of housing, food, and clean water exacerbate the risk of contracting an infectious disease, and the lack of access to basic health care makes fighting any kind of infection difficult. The coronavirus is highly contagious and has a very high global mortality rate, even in places where social distancing and healthcare are accessible, and this rate will likely be significantly higher in conflict zones where large numbers of displaced people live. Preventing the virus from entering these spaces is the only hope, but as Dr. Esperanza Martinez, head of health for the International Committee of the Red Cross, has said, “this is uncharted territory,” and it is unclear how effective containment strategies will be in reality (or if they are even possible in certain places).

According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, 126 million people around the world are in need of humanitarian assistance, including 70 million who have been forcibly displaced from their homes, mostly due to violence. COVID-19 is adding a new layer of uncertainty and fear to the already precarious and vulnerable status of these individuals and families. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration have suspended refugee resettlement programs, and many governments worldwide have stopped the intake of refugees who are fleeing violence and food insecurity. Cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in war-torn areas in the Middle East, including Afghanistan, the Gaza Strip, and Ninevah, a displaced persons camp in Iraq, as well as in several African countries, including war-torn Libya, Cameroon, and the Congo. This post considers how this global pandemic will likely impact people living in three particularly dangerous and vulnerable countries in the Middle East and West Africa: Syria, Yemen, and Burkina Faso. 

Syria

Nine years into the seemingly endless civil war in Syria, more than 380,000 people have died, dozens of towns and cities razed to the ground and half of the country’s entire population displaced. Targeted attacks have left Syria’s once thriving public health care system in shambles. Hospitals and clinics have been destroyed or damaged to the point of not functioning. Medicine and medical supplies are limited, healthcare workers are few, and travel to the still-operational clinics and hospitals is out of the question for many of the sick and suffering. Of particular concern is the refugee camp in Idlib, a town in the northwestern province near Turkey, where many displaced individuals now live. The conditions of the camp are dire – there is limited access to soap and water and overcrowding makes social distancing impossible – so self-protecting is a major challenge.

Syria reported its first case of coronavirus a few days ago, from a woman who had recently traveled to Iran, a country that is backing the Syrian government in the civil war and where Shia pilgrims frequently travel. There are now five confirmed cases (the actual number is suspected to be much higher), and there is growing fear that the virus is spreading unimpeded throughout the northwest, where there is limited capacity to test and monitor the situation, but experts have warned that “if the disease starts, it will spread massively.” Jan Egeland, director general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, has warned that COVID-19 could “decimate refugee communities.” Containment is the only hope, but the shortage of supplies, including test kits, makes this unlikely. 

A young Yemeni man sits atop the rubble with his face in his palm grieving the destruction of his home
Source: Yahoo Images

Yemen

The United Nations has labeled the situation in Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. No cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed yet in Yemen, but the country is bracing for a devastating catastrophe if and when the virus arrives. Since the U.S.-backed war in Yemen began five years ago, Saudi and Emirati coalitions have leveled 120 attacks on medical facilities throughout the country. These attacks, including airstrikes, ground-launched mortar and rockets, and attempts to occupy hospitals and clinics, have led to widespread disruptions in access and service to some of the world’s most vulnerable people, including displaced women, children, and persons with disability. With a mere 51% of the country’s health centers operational, there is a severe shortage of medicine and medical equipment. Even if people in this area can get to a hospital, many hospitals don’t have electricity, rendering a ventilator — a potentially life-saving device for people suffering the most severe symptoms of COVID-19 — out of the question. The decimated healthcare infrastructure is unable to control preventable disease (there was a cholera outbreak a few years ago) and is completely ill-equipped to handle a pandemic. Both the Houthi rebel group (aligned with Iran) and the government recognize the threat the virus poses and are implementing precautionary measures, such as closing schools and halting flights into the area. However, both sides are amping up their rhetoric and are posed to blame the other if and when cases of COVID-19 are confirmed. The United States, for its part, has cut off emergency aid to Yemen, citing the Houthi’s interference in the distribution of supplies and services to starving Yemenis (likely a Saudi-directed approach), but humanitarian officials have warned that this decision will create major funding gaps in efforts to provide hand soap and medicine to clinics and to staff health centers with trained healthcare workers. Yemen’s basic healthcare programs are heavily reliant on foreign aid – about 8 out of 10 Yeminis rely on some form of aid. Eliminating this source of funding could mean suffering and death for millions of displaced persons in Yemen. 

Burkina Faso

On March 18, Burkina Faso, the impoverished West African country of 20 million people, registered its first confirmed case of COVID-19. A week and a half later, that number leapt to146 cases, with hundreds more suspected, making it the hardest hit West African country so far. This tiny, conflict-scarred country is no stranger to hardships, including poverty, drought, rampant hunger, and militia-led coups. In 2019, clashes between government forces and militia groups linked to ISIL and al-Qaeda led to more than 2,000 deaths in Burkina Faso and forced more than 700,000 people to flee their homes. This escalation of violence has led to the closure of 135 health centers in the country, and an additional 140 have reduced their services, leaving 1.5 million Burkinabe in dire need of humanitarian health assistance. With a healthcare system that has been ravaged by war, a mere three facilities in the country are able to carry out the tests, and only a few hundred test kits have been provided. As part of the government’s response, Malian refugees once displaced into Burkina Faso are being forced back into Mali, where ongoing violence inhibits humanitarian and medical access to affected populations. COVID-19 will exacerbate an already dire situation — it is feared that an outbreak would see fatality rates of ten times higher than the global average. “These populations are already very vulnerable to diseases that are otherwise easy to treat,” says Alexandra Lamarche, senior advocate for West and Central Africa at Refugees International, “but that’s not the case when they have no access to water or proper sanitation or health care.” She adds, “We could watch entire populations vanish.”

Bumper sticker that says "All people are created equal members of One Human Family"
Source: Yahoo Images

Against a common enemy?

Rarely does a disaster – natural or otherwise – affect the entire world. The coronavirus is a different story, unlike anything we have witnessed in the modern age. It is exposing the fragility of even the most advanced economic, technological, social and medical systems, and it poses a grave threat to humans the world over. The virus doesn’t discriminate on the basis of status or religion or skin color or any of the other things that divide us or give us cause to fight each other. It travels across borders and between enemies, and the more people it infects, the greater the risk for everyone. Just like the virus, the distribution of basic human rights must not be qualified on the basis of anything other than humanity. Turning a blind eye to the suffering and inadequate conditions of the world’s most vulnerable populations only facilitates the spread of the virus. In a practical sense, limiting the spread of the virus in refugee camps and conflict zones in Yemen and Syria and West Africa is just as important as it is in wealthy countries if the goal is to eliminate the virus and end this global pandemic. That requires distributing resources and investing in large-scale infrastructure improvements in places where people are not able to follow the protocols for containment under the current conditions. As we scramble to make enough surgical-grade masks for healthcare workers in the United States to wear, we need to be concerned with sending as many as possible to medical facilities in places around the world that are under-served and over-taxed, including displaced persons camps. We cannot hope to protect ourselves if we refuse to protect our fellow humans, no matter the distance or cultural difference between us. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called this “the true fight of our lives,” insisting that we put aside our differences, which now seem small and inconsequential, and turn our aggression toward a common enemy. “That is what our human family needs, now more than ever.”

This Decade in Human Rights

Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons

As we approach 2020 and the end of this decade, we come across several lists of important happenings, milestones, and statistics in various disciplines across the world. As for human rights, it is important to reflect where we stand on the provision and fight for human rights and highlight the important issues that emerged during this decade.

Continue reading “This Decade in Human Rights”

Cleaved and Clamored: The Crisis in Cameroon

On Tuesday, November 5th, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event alongside Cameroon Humanitarian Relief Initiative to present Herman Cohen (former United States Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs) and Dr. Fontem Neba  (Secretary General of Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium). During their panel discussion, Cohen and Neba discussed the history of Cameroon, ongoing Anglophone discrimination, and potential resolutions to end the conflict.

As one of the most prominent voices advocating for Anglophone rights, Dr. Neba spoke directly about the atrocities taking place in Cameroon because he was recently detained for nine months after being charged with terrorism. Followed by its establishment as a federation in 1961 and an illegal referendum in 1972 that unified the Francophone majority (~80%) in the north and Anglophone minority (~20%) in the south, Cameroon has endured significant conflict. With political power most harbored in the north, Anglophone Cameroonians have experienced pressure to assimilate and prevention to secede, which led to a civil war in 2016 that has been riddled with human rights violations. More specifically, the Cameroonian military has permeated the south with their influence by committing heinous acts such as destroying Anglophone schools, burning crops, and murdering separatists. As a result, these acts have led to famine, homelessness, and institutional instability throughout the south. Additionally, thousands have been jailed for speaking out against the Franchophone government, while approximately a half-million are internally displaced and another 40,000 have sought refuge in Nigeria.

Neba describing Cameroon’s geographic division. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

Cohen then spoke about the crisis in Cameroon by drawing parallels with Eritrea which Ethiopia turned  a province before it eventually became an independent country. Although, the international community has been passive about the events unfolding in Cameroon. One exception is none other than the Trump Administration, which signed an executive order last month that effectively removed Cameroon from the African Growth and Opportunity Act. As a result, this action prevents Cameroon from profiting off duty free sales to the U.S. Additionally, south Cameroonians have found an Anglophone ally in Nigeria, making the prior impervious to defeat, while north Cameroonians have been increasingly critical of their government because they are not benefiting from the country’s strong economy. Thus, Cohen argues the U.S. is in the unique position to mediate a resolution. However, the Trump Administration has adopted an isolationist position, which currently places the U.S. distant from potential negotiations. Following, he suggested that the Cameroonian diaspora in U.S. should write letters to their local representatives and urge a cease-fire agreement.

After their presentations, Cohen and Neba took questions from an appalled audience. Addressing a question about the realistic options in our current political environment, Cohen insisted the United Nations Security Council must initiate negotiations and that it must be settled between warring factions; his personal suggestion is that they return to a federation relationship. Additionally, Cohen responded to a question that mentioned the role of former colonial powers, where he mentioned that Great Britain is currently distracted by Brexit, while France, despite reluctance from southern Cameroonians, is taking initiative to mediate the conflict. When asked how geopolitics, namely natural resources, influence this conflict, Neba claimed south Cameroon is rich in cocoa and timber as well as a fevered, educated populace. Although, he argued the region cannot become economically independent because their oil supply, which is on the border, is property of the government. In response, a passionate audience member, and Cameroon native, insisted south Cameroon, much like other small countries, can be independent without an oil industry.

Cohen answering an audience question. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

Cohen argued this crisis has potential to become a “Rwanda situation”, but, thankfully, a potential resolution doesn’t require money or soldiers. However, the current trajectory of this crisis primarily lays in the hands of Cameroon (who is persistent on military intimidation), Nigeria (who has enabled separatists in the south), and the U.S. (who has implemented economic sanctions). Thus, these conflicting narratives put human rights advocates in the position to highlight this pressing issue whether it be mentioning it on social media, writing to your local representative, or donating to humanitarian relief.

The Refugee Education Crisis

Child writes in workbook at a desk.
Getting Syria’s children back to school in Lebanon. Source: Russell Watkins/Department for International Development, Creative Commons.

Now more than ever, people are fleeing their home countries because of war, persecution, or violence, hoping to find a better life in a different country. In fact, we haven’t seen a refugee crisis this large since World War II: there are 70.8 million refugees worldwide, and estimates show that around 37 thousand people are forcibly displaced every day. They risk their lives to escape a situation they feel they won’t survive, but when these refugees finally find a place they feel safer in, they face new challenges, including the education of their children.

Children, in every society and culture, are the future; they will grow up and have an impact on society. The significance of the impact and whether it’s positive or negative is greatly affected by the child’s education. If a child is refused an education, it will be hard for them to positively contribute to society. Additionally, a lack of education can prevent people from knowing their rights and being informed about their health.

For refugee children, education is even more important. In addition to the importance of education in general, education can give a child back their sense of identity and purpose after being stripped away from everything they know. Often, refugee children are taken to a country that is much different from their native country, especially with regards to culture and language. However, receiving an education can lessen the growing pains, especially if teachers are trained to help children from different cultures and speak different languages. Additionally, going to school can help children learn the intricacies of the new culture by being exposed to it for extended periods of time.

While it may seem obvious that education is important for every child, the education gap between refugee and nondisplaced children continues to grow. Worldwide, 91 percent of children attend primary school, but only 63 percent of refugee children attend primary school. While the number drops for secondary school across the board, the decline is much more dramatic for refugee children: only 24 percent of refugee children will attend secondary school. This is alarming because secondary school is typically the minimum level of education needed to attain a desirable job. The vast majority of these children, who are already put at a disadvantage, have even less of a chance of receiving the education they need.

Worldwide, there are many reasons refugee children are not receiving a quality education. First of all, the language in their new country may be different from any language they speak, which could cause them to fall behind in their studies. Second of all, there may be discrimination and bullying, which can make it much harder to focus on and excel at their studies. Additionally, in some areas, there may be limited spots in secondary schools for refugees, limiting the number of refugees that can receive an education. Finally, many refugees are denied the right to attend school, as many governments have policies in place that block their enrollment. These policies can include the requirement of residency documentation, which is nearly impossible to attain, essentially making their enrollment in school impossible.

In the US, there are two laws in place that are meant to protect children’s education: the Flores Settlement and Plyler v. Doe. The Flores Settlement outlines the regulations and restrictions regarding detaining minors, including refugees, at the border. It ensures proper treatment within detainment centers and includes a section specifically regarding education. Children are required to receive an individualized educational plan including basic education and lessons in English. However, in June, there were reports that the Trump administration decided to suspend many services in juvenile detainment camps, including education, because of a lack of resources. This act would’ve gone directly against the Flores Settlement.

Plyler v. Doe protects the rights of undocumented children to get a primary and secondary education, stating that they fall under the Equal Protection clause in the Fourteenth Amendment. Plyler v. Doe shows that in this country, every child has a right to an education. However, this right is not always granted. There are many schools that require birth certificates and ask about immigration statuses as a way to keep undocumented children out of school, even though it is illegal.

There are many benefits to the communities that accept refugees. Many of those against admitting refugees to Europe, the United States, or wherever they may live, cite the economic strain refugees put on the government as their reason for opposing the intake of refugees in their country. However, they are ignoring the fact that through taxes refugees generally boost the economy more than they strain it. This can only be improved by educating the children as well. The best way for someone to positively impact the economy is to be well educated; in a study done over 40 years comparing 50 countries’ economies and education levels, they found that the higher the average cognitive ability, the faster the gross domestic product (GDP) increased. If a country refuses to educate any of the children that live there—including refugees—it will not only negatively affect the children, but will also negatively affect the entire country. Additionally, schools that allow refugee children will have more diversity, which promotes higher levels of tolerance, not only among them, but also among parents and the community.

It is imperative for the development of the individual and the well-being of the host country that refugee children have the opportunity for an education. However, it is not enough to just give them access to an education. They must have the resources necessary for them to succeed, such as teachers that are willing to work with them through language barriers and accurate credit for courses taken in their native country, among others. They must be given the same opportunities that the other children in the country are given if they are to succeed and we are to close the gap in education between refugee and nondisplaced children. Many countries have already started making an effort to close the educational gap and take down barriers: Turkey has made significant efforts to prepare school-age refugee children for a transition to Turkish schools, and Ecuador has passed laws to give undocumented Venezuelan children easier access to school. There are many benefits to the education of refugee children and ignoring them will have grave consequences for refugees and the communities they are a part of.

Clarion Call on the on-going Anglophone violent conflict in Cameroon

Some Victims of the On-going Anglophone Crisis in Cameroon

Photo by the Cameroon Humanitarian Relief Initiative

 

Cameroon has always been known as a nation of peace and tranquility ever since she gained her independence on the 1st of January 1960. Despite being surrounded by nations constantly faced with internal conflicts and wars, it remained steadfast in being a violent and conflict-free nation. She is located in the western part of Africa and shares territorial borders with a host of other nations such as Chad on the northeast, the Central African Republic on the east, Equatorial Guinea, the Republic of Congo and Gabon on the south, and Nigeria on the west. The nation currently officially known as the Republic of Cameroon is bilingual, with English and French as its official languages. Historically, there was a federal and then, a “united” republic of Cameroon that had seven provinces, two of which are Anglophones and the others, Francophones, before their expansion to form eight provinces, resulting in the current ten provinces within the country. Then in 2008, the use of “provinces” as a form of territorial breakdown was abolished and replaced with “regions”. Even though French Cameroon now Republic of Cameroon gained her independence in 1960, and returned to independence of British Cameroon by either joining Nigeria (Northern British Cameroon), or independent French Cameroon (Southern British Cameroon), the South- and North-West regions consisting of  Anglophones who are the minorities, are being subjected to a series of socioeconomic and political marginalization and discrimination from their Francophone counterparts, despite a binding and official referendum joining both regions as a political unit in 1972, a violation of the 1961 agreement that brought about the federal republic.

Over the years, there have been several cases and reports of bias, unequal treatment and unconstitutional actions against the Anglophones while their counterparts enjoy a smooth and successful relationship with the central government in terms of better developmental structures and platforms, enormous representation and control of major sectors in the government. Another major area of concern is the rigid educational and justice system, mostly controlled by and privileged to French speakers due to their dominance. There has been a long case of marginalization in the nation, one of which includes the prominent case of Fon Godji Dinka (a report by the Council on Foreign Relations), an Anglophone lawyer and the first president of the Cameroon Bar Association. He was arrested and imprisoned in 1985 by the then and current president of Cameroon, President Paul Biya for rebuking the actions of the government and terming it unconstitutional. Fon Godji Dinka believed the government was unfair and unjust, which was why he began to move for an independent Anglophone region known as the Republic of Ambazonia, an act that led to his imprisonment and the separatist idea suppressed. The continuous cases of inequity, inequality, bias, discrimination and marginalization suffered by the Anglophone regions eventually resulted in the 2016 onset mass non-violent protest led by Anglophone lawyers and teachers, where the protesters displayed their disinterest and frustration in the government, negotiated with the leaders who demanded a return to federation and eventually called for an autonomous nation of the Republic of Ambazonia.

The government on the other hand, was aggressive and brutal to the protesters and labeled them and their movement as pro-terrorist. The military forces were ordered to curb and contain the non-violent peaceful protests (carrying peace plants), and unfortunately responded by firing live ammunitions into the crowd of protesters which led to the arrest, injuries and deaths of several protesters. To further suppress the separatist movement, military forces often laid attacks on several Anglophone villages and communities, sometimes opening fire where they considered a threat. Thousands of elites and locals have been arrested and jailed without trial and are faced with severe torture and other inhumane treatments. Over 5,000 lives have been lost, families scattered, several homes destroyed, businesses ended and the futures of millions shattered. These actions by the government and military forces brought about a more resounding and coordinated separatist motive and movement. They began to solicit and continuously receive support from prominent Cameroonians within Cameroon and in diaspora, to further their campaign and organized rebel groups to conduct so called “self-defense” against the government and its military forces. Presently, several acts by both conflicting parties have resulted into severe human right violations as Amnesty reports that over 200 villages have been burnt and according to the United Nations, while over 1.2 million people, mostly women and children, are either displaced or refugees in neighboring countries.

According to the UNICEF press release on the 21st of June 2019, it discusses how the security and living conditions of the Anglophone regions continue to worsen, as the UNICEF spokesperson in Geneva, Toby Fricker, estimates about 1.3 million people have been affected by on-going conflict, and are urgently in need of humanitarian assistance such as basic welfare and health items and services. Another major area of concern is education, whereby over 80 per cent schools in the regions have been shut down because of continuous crisis, putting the future of over 600,000 thousand children at risk. So far, several communities and villages in these regions are continuously being plundered, attacked and destroyed, leaving victims to either live in the shattered remains of their communities or villages under strict martial law, or seek refuge in Nigeria, a neighboring country. The latter is the mostly selected option with over 500,000 so far, trooping daily into several refugee camps within various communities, where they are vulnerable to sexual abuse and harassment, rape, child abuse, forced relationships, extortion, unplanned pregnancies, abortion, drug abuse, prostitution, hunger, stigmatization, poor shelter, poor access to educational and health services, and lack of basic welfare privileges.

Of the $35.4 million estimated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, as urgently needed to help provide welfare services to the victims of the crisis, only 4 per cent of the estimated funds have been generated so far according to a UNHCR official report. Although the UN representatives, alongside other humanitarian organizations continue to provide basic welfare and healthcare services to the Cameroonian refugees in few camps in Nigeria, there are still thousands languishing in severe pain and hunger in bushes and settlements not easily accessible, especially in Cameroon. One organization that has remained consistent in providing necessary assistance to both the refugees and IDP’s is the Cameroon Humanitarian Relief Initiative (CHRI). CHRI is a registered US 501-3c non-profit organization set-up to provide emergency humanitarian relief to those affected by the on-going crisis in Cameroon. In partnership with the Institute of Human Rights (UAB) and other local/international organizations, CHRI has carried out several humanitarian outreach initiatives to refugee camps/communities and IDP settlements in Nigeria and Cameroon respectively, and serves as a reliable organization of support for individuals, groups or organizations willing to assist victims of the present conflict either through donations or voluntary services. To donate, kindly visit their official website at chrelief.org/donate or mail a check to CHRI at 4413 Nuttall Road, Fairfax, VA 22032.

Food items provided for refugees by the Cameroon Humanitarian Relief Initiative (CHRI) Photo by CHRI

In terms of resolving the conflict, there has been no reasonable development between the Cameroonian government and the separatist or other groups despite numerous calls for dialogue. Several protests by these groups have been carried out, questioning the 85 years old President Paul Biya’s long tenure. He has been in power since 1982 (37 years) in a supposed democratic government. Several protesters have also been arrested by the government and charged by a military court with various acts of rebellion, insurrection and engaging in hostile activities against the country. The United States, United Kingdom, and other international humanitarian organizations are being alerted by the continuous violence that has generated a huge distress and violations in the Anglophone regions, and have begun initiating strategies and action plans to successfully resolve these conflicts. Just recently on June 25th, 2019, U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), and Tim Kaine (D-VA), introduced an amendment to the Fiscal Year (FY) 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to halt all further U.S. security assistance to Cameroon except for dealing with Boko Haram (a terrorist group in Nigeria) until the U.S. Secretaries of Defense and State certify the military and security forces of Cameroon have demonstrated progress in abiding by international human rights standards regarding the repression in the Anglophone regions. Also, a German lawmaker named Christopher Hoffmann on June 5th, 2019, wrote a letter to Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, requesting her to urgently review the escalating Cameroon crisis and assist in finding swift resolution to the violent conflict.

Refugees scrambling for clothes donated by the Cameroon Humanitarian Relief Initiative (CHRI) Photo by CHRI

Since the beginning of time, there has been and will always be demands for separation and breakaway among families, lineages, institutions, unions, groups, communities, societies and nations. It is a part of the human nature and psychology to aspire for a better and improved lifestyle if the existing or present way is not as beneficial or productive as hoped. Often within a group setting, the minorities or marginalized would always aspire for separation or breakaway from the existing unit or body. We cannot dismiss groups seeking autonomy or separation, especially if evidence proves they are being marginalized and discriminated by the majority or the government. But demand for such autonomy has been responsible for several historical wars and conflicts. Although some separatist movements were successfully achieved while others failed, the enormous loss of lives and destruction of properties to both parties remain constant across these movements. The Anglophone crisis has already aligned to a violent pattern and would need the intervention from other nation-states and international organizations to be successfully resolved. There is a need to carefully conduct an in-depth analysis of the long-term effects on the Anglophone people and the Cameroon government to bring if possible, a permanent end to this crisis and restore peace.

 

Worldwide Famine and its Impact

by Nicole Allen and Pam Zuber

Sharing out the beans Yemen still has 350,000 dipslaced persons, although verifying this number is difficult. Most of these are from Sa’da and many of these are in Harad district on the border with Saudi Arabia. Conditions in Harad are not easy, hot and dusty and prone to flash flooding. Even before the arrival of the displaced it was an area of high malnutrition, diarrhea and malaria. UNICEF has, with the government and NGO partners worked to provide education, clean water and nutrition services. On this mission I accompanied the WFP representative and visited food distributions. After five years of displacement we need to look for longer term and sustainable solutions. One of the many beautiful features in this part of Yemen is how flowers are woven into everyday, flowers for sale at traffic lights, boys wearing them in the hair, given as gifts.
Sharing out the beans. Yemen still has 350,000 dipslaced persons, although verifying this number is difficult. Most of these are from Sa’da and many of these are in Harad district on the border with Saudi Arabia. Conditions in Harad are not easy, hot and dusty and prone to flash flooding. Even before the arrival of the displaced it was an area of high malnutrition, diarrhea and malaria. UNICEF has, with the government and NGO partners worked to provide education, clean water and nutrition services. On this mission I accompanied the WFP representative and visited food distributions. After five years of displacement we need to look for longer term and sustainable solutions. One of the many beautiful features in this part of Yemen is how flowers are woven into every day, flowers for sale at traffic lights, boys wearing them in the hair, given as gifts. Source: Julien Harneis, Creative Commons

Famine and other types of food insecurity are problems in several ways. A chronic and widespread lack of food is not only harmful to people’s health but can produce other repercussions.  Unfortunately, we are witnessing many of these short- and long-term repercussions of famine and food insecurity in several areas of the world.

Yemen

Yemen is a country in the throes of a vicious civil war. Like other countries experiencing such strife, it is experiencing food insecurity as well. People who experience food insecurity do not have consistent access to nutritious, affordable food. Yemenis truly do not have physical access. Experts estimate that Yemen imports 90 percent of its food, but the civil war has closed the country’s airports to civilian flights, blocked its seaports, and created dangerous conditions within the country. Even if food becomes available, many impoverished Yemenis cannot afford it. Saudi Arabia invested billions in Yemen in early 2018 to reinforce the latter nation’s economy and the riyal, its unit of currency, but the economic status of Yemen remains precarious.      

Malnutrition causes other problems. Malnourished people are susceptible to disease that requires medical intervention, and this has been the case in Yemen. The country has experienced cholera and meningitis outbreaks. These diseases can create even more malnutrition. Thus, Yemen is battling a vicious cycle of malnutrition and disease. There is another, less-discussed but still significant factor that also contributes to problems in the country: drug use. Many in the country use a drug called qat (also spelled khat). Users say the drug enhances strength and virility, which is why military leaders allegedly give it to child soldiers. Users also say it suppresses the appetite, which could make qat attractive in a country experiencing food instability. Given qat’s popularity, it is also big business for the people who grow and supply it. Qat is profitable, which could encourage people to grow and sell it instead of other crops that could feed Yemenis. But, as with any drug, struggles for control over the qat market could provide dangerous, especially in a country already experiencing political instability. The quest for profit might come before the health, physical safety, and other human rights of Yemenis.

Somalia

Long subject to periods of drought that devastate its food supply, Somalia’s food situation is bleak. According to the United Nations’ World Food Programme: “As of May 2018, 2.7 million people [in Somalia] cannot meet their daily food requirements today and require urgent humanitarian assistance, with more than half a million on the brink of famine. Another 2.7 million Somalis need livelihood support to keep from sliding into crisis. An estimated 300,000 children under age 5 are malnourished, including 48,000 who are severely malnourished and face a high risk of disease and death.” Such drought limits the crops Somalis can grow and shrinks the amount of pasture land they can use for their livestock. It also puts people out of work, preventing them from buying food and other necessities.

What little food and water there is available is a precious commodity in Somalia. People have attempted to control these scarce resources to build and consolidate power, which has sometimes led to violence and tension. People without such resources might be more willing to join violent movements because they feel as if they have no other optionsThus, famine and reduced job prospects might be breeding grounds for violent groups of people who feel as if they have nothing to lose. It could contribute to violence, unrest, and human rights violations, since people may feel that their situations are hopeless and that human life is worthless.

Nigeria

As with other countries on this list, political strife has created considerable food insecurity and other problems in Nigeria. The militant group Boko Haram has been active in northeast Nigeria since the early 2000s. Boko Haram’s name means “Western education is forbidden” in the Hausa language and the group calls for Islamic law (sharia). The group has protested secular Nigerian rule in various ways, most notably by kidnapping several women, girls, and children in a number of separate incidents and by bombing and attacking government and United Nations buildings. Boko Haram has also clashed with government representatives and multinational troops, which has killed several Nigerians, displaced others, and severely disrupted everyday life in the African nation: “[I]t is likely that significant populations remain in areas of the northeast that are currently inaccessible to humanitarian actors. Reports indicate that people fleeing from conflict-affected, inaccessible areas [in Nigeria] are often severely food insecure and exhibit signs of malnutrition,” according to a 2018 report from the Famine Early Warning Systems Network.

If Nigerians had their way, they would not only have access to food, but the means to grow it as well. Fanna Kachella is a farmer in Rann, a city in northeastern Nigeria. The ongoing political conflict has affected her livelihood, but she hopes that food assistance can help her and her family: “Not having anything much to do has been hard for us, we are used to planting our own food. I hope we will get a good harvest from the seed.” The ability to support oneself and one’s family should be a fundamental human right. Not being able to do so is denying this right. Not being able to do so can jeopardize a person’s health, dignity, ability to form and nurture a family, and interactions with others.

a group photo of the women of SIM South Sudan
SIM South Sudan Harvest Worker Project. Source: SIM East Africa, Creative Commons

South Sudan

Founded in 2011, South Sudan is the world’s youngest country. But, in its brief history, it has faced many problems that are as old as time. Unlike other countries on this list, it looks as conditions may be improving, however. On August 6, 2018, South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, signed a power-sharing cease-fire agreement with the leader of his political opposition, Riek Machar. As part of this agreement, Machar would serve as one of the five vice presidents of the country. Political conflicts between the two men plunged South Sudan into civil war in 2013. Machar once served as Kiir’s deputy but fled the country after a dispute between the men. The two men agreed to end their dispute in 2015, but it ended in 2016 when Machar return to the country’s capital, Juba.

These personal disputes erupted into a country-wide civil war that has killed thousands of residents of South Sudan and displaced almost two million more. The political conflict and its resultant disruptions, massive displacement, economic problems, flooding, dry spells, and pests all contributed to famine conditions in 2017. According to the international initiative the IPC (the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification), “5.3 million people required food assistance” in South Sudan in January 2018, “up 40 percent from the same time last year.” The initiative attributed these food-related problems to “widespread conflict [that] continues to displace communities, disrupt livelihood activities and impede humanitarian access to vulnerable populations.” But, if the truce between Kiir and Machar holds, it could spell an end to this calamitous conflict. Perhaps it will allow people to return to their homes and grow and obtain food, reversing the food insecurity and other problems that this new nation has faced.

North Korea

Food insecurity and malnutrition have been common occurrences for decades in North Korea, another country also experiencing political troubles. The oppressive and secretive nature of the country’s government has made it difficult to determine the extent of North Korea’s many problems. But, the estimates are devastating. For example, experts believe that a famine in the country in the 1990s killed up to three million people. North Korea’s mountainous terrain and cold climate have always made agriculture difficult, and the country no longer received agricultural aid from the Soviet Union after the latter country collapsed in the early 1990s, which made farming even more difficult.

The North Korean government claims that a lack of aid from other countries continues to hurt the country. Many countries have imposed sanctions on North Korea for developing a nuclear weapons program. The countries imposing the sanctions have claimed that they did not place sanctions on food but on other goods. But, even these sanctions threaten the livelihoods of many North Koreans. If the North Koreans cannot earn enough money, they cannot earn enough to feed themselves and their families. The results have been heart-wrenching. “[H]unger remains a way of life” in North Korea, wrote Dr. Kee B. Park in a December 2017 article in the New York Times. “Forty-one percent of North Koreans, about 10.5 million people, are undernourished, and 28 percent of children under 5 years old have stunted growth. When my 4-year-old daughter visited [North Korean capital] Pyongyang in 2013, she, all of three feet, towered over children twice her age.” Park vividly explains how hunger creates immediate problems and future ones. Not having food creates insecurity that can last a lifetime. It can create physical and emotional problems that persist long after people receive adequate food if they ever receive adequate food.

What Are People Doing About Hunger-Related Issues?

Different governments are pitching in to tackle famine. The government of United States president Donald Trump pledged to donate more than $1 billion since November 2017 alone. Still, relief workers say that the governments of other countries can do more. That is if the governments even know about such problems in the first place. Relief workers say that people do not know that famine exists in many places. They say that Trump’s administration has been helpful in its humanitarian efforts. But, on the other hand, they also say that publicity surrounding Trump and the activities of his administration has overshadowed people’s knowledge about other things, including famine and food insecurity in different parts of the world. Food insecurity is also tied to political insecurity. It is no coincidence that many of the countries on this list have experienced war or other forms of political instability in addition to food problems. Many experts believe hunger and war are often inextricably linked. According to Cormac Ó Gráda, “The hope for a famine-free world depends on improved governance and on peace. It is as simple – and as difficult – is that.”

Nicole Allen is a freelance writer and educator based in the United States. She believes that her writing is an extension of her career as a tutor since they both encourage learning and discussing new things. Her degrees in creative writing, education, and psychology help her understand her target audience and how to reach them in creative and educational ways. She has written about fitness and health, substance abuse and treatment, personal finance and economics, parenting, relationships, higher education, careers, travel, and many other topics, sometimes in the same piece. When she isn’t writing, you might find Nicole running, hiking, and swimming. She has participated in several 10K races and hopes to compete in a marathon one day. A longtime volunteer at animal shelters, Nicole is a passionate supporter of organizations that help animals. She also enjoys spending time with the dogs and cats in her life and spoiling them rotten.

Pamela Zuber is a writer and an editor who has written about human rights, health and wellness, business, and gender.

Climate Change and Refugees

Climate Change Refugees. Source: Flickr, Creative Commons

Climate Refugees

The ongoing debate about climate change never seems to become resolved because there are certain people who believe in it and others who refuse to believe it. However, both sides often forget about climate refugees, a fairly new term that has no formal definition or protection under international law. As of 2008, millions of people lose their homes to weather disasters. Other aspects such as desert expansion and sea levels rising also affect people in terms of where and how they live. Scientists say the three most endangered regions are sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America while a World Bank report estimates that by 2050, those three endangered regions will consist of 143 million people who are displaced.

Climate Change and its effects

According to scientists, climate refugees consist of “people who must leave their homes and communities because of the effects of climate change and global warming.” Climate change pertains to the change of a climate in a region, while global warming is how the average temperature of the Earth is rising. As a result, global warming is leading to climate change. Rising temperatures due to global warming can cause glaciers to melt which can lead to flooding and the rising of sea levels. Furthermore, it can lead to droughts and desertification. These results of global warming can make the land people live on uninhabitable and make it difficult for people to survive.

In Bangladesh, thousands of people are affected by flooding each year, especially in Dhaka. In West Africa, Lake Chad is almost completely gone due to desertification. These problems are not just limited to the developing world. In the United States, approximately 2,300 Puerto Rican families who were displaced due to Hurricane Maria are looking for permanent housing. Additionally, small coastal communities in areas like Alaska and Louisiana are fading into oblivion due to rising sea levels.

In regard to droughts and desertification, individuals are not able to grow crops where they live. Thus, with no food, they are forced to move elsewhere. In China, the Gobi Desert is expanding more than 1,390 square miles every year. Farmers and merchants who live near the Gobi Desert migrate to more urban areas because the grasslands are turning into deserts. Droughts and desertification are a global problem. Also, in Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya more than 386 square miles of productive land are lost to desertification.

Desertification. Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons

 

Climate Change and its ambiguity

In Europe, a journal estimated that if global temperature trends continue, applications for asylum to the European Union would increase by 28% by the year 2100. Additionally, many climate refugees live in rural or coastal communities and are forced to migrate to urban areas. Their skills, such as farming, are not beneficial in urban areas. Thus, finding a job can be difficult. Climate refugees who leave their country can face struggles when adjusting to new laws, languages, or cultures.

According to the development expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Yayboke, the biggest problem that arises is there are millions of people who are considered a climate refugee, but there is no consensus as to what we can do about them. There are currently no international laws that protect climate refugees and they can be sent back to their homelands or forced into refugee camps. The reason that the term climate change is ambiguous is due to “the effectiveness of rights and legal certainty”. Since it is not covered by the law, there are no guaranteed international protections. Another source of ambiguity arises when you need to determine why those individuals were displaced. Was it actually due to climate change or was it because of another reason? For example, say there is a drought and a farmer moves to another area in order to find other work. Did the farmer move due to climate change or because the economy has no alternatives for employment? The term “climate refugee” tends to be associated with a variety of factors and not simply just climate change. Thus, an absolute definition is hard to define.

In 2016, the UN General assembly introduced the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. In this declaration, it discussed the development of two global compacts: In 2018, climate refugees became recognized in the Global Compact on Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration. The purpose of this compact is to protect the rights of those who displaced and to determine the economic, environmental, and social factors that individuals who are forced to leave their homes face. Unfortunately, the compact does not focus on trying to control the man-made forces behind global mass migration.

Another major problem is how climate refugees are not covered by the 1951 Convention in regard to the Global Compact of Refugees. Their definition of refugees has nothing to do with individuals who are displaced due to environmental factors. Thus, the term ‘climate refugee’ does not fall under the score of the 1951 Refugee Convention and their protocol. Therefore, individuals who are displaced cannot be classified as refugees and cannot appeal for resettlement and are “trapped in worsening environmental conditions”. However, a counterargument is that those who are displaced due to the environment could rely on the protection of their national government, whereas the traditional refugee cannot rely on the national government because they tend to be the source of persecution.

Hope for the future

In 2009, the EU decided to place a greater focus on climate change as a cause of migratory flows, in terms of security. From 2011-2013, a strategy paper was created for a European Commission project whose goal included working with developing countries in regard to migration and asylum. Additionally, the paper states focusing on climate change and migration. In 2013, the Commission published a paper on internal displacement. In 2015, Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission President stated “Climate change is one of the root causes of a new migration phenomenon. Climate refugees will become a new challenge – if we do not act swiftly”. However, EU Member States still have not created a category for climate refugees.

Climate refugees is a vague term that is hard to define. However, the economic, social, and political consequences are apparent and need to be addressed. Based on the global compact on migration and the international climate, one of the most salient ways to address this burgeoning human rights issue is for there to be numerous regional agreements that influence the creation of international law for climate refugees.

The Global Refugee Crisis: What Can We Do?

On Monday, March 4, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event with local education, faith-based, and policy organizations at Samford University, titled Addressing the Global Refugee Crisis – Part: What Can We Do? The panel discussion, moderated by Rachel Hagues (Assistant Professor at Samford University – Department of Social Work), included Carlos Aleman (Deputy Director at Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama), Mary Baxter (Resettlement Specialist at World Relief Atlanta), Cesar Mata (Organizing Fellow at Adelante Alabama Worker Center), Sarai Portillo (Executive Director at Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice), Leida Venegas (Refugee/Birmingham Resident from Colombia), and Lynda Wilson (Chair at Refugee Interest Group), where they addressed their organizations’ roles in the current refugee crisis and how local community members can get involved.

Baxter first addressed the audience by speaking about World Relief’s origin which stemmed from a faith-based relief effort that addressed the devastation in Europe after WW2. The organization began addressing refugee resettlement in 1979 and, today, are only one of nine organizations in the country that has a contract with the U.S. State Department to help resettle refugees. World Relief does case management work that covers child development, agriculture, and nutrition as well as teaches participants about navigating housing, U.S. laws, and obtaining proper documentation.  World Relief also offers legal services and English tutoring to make resettled refugees are on a supportive, sustainable path in the U.S. Finally, World Relief has a church mobilization program which helps amplify their faith-based humanitarian efforts.

Aleman informed the audience that Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama (HICA) is currently observing its 20th anniversary as an organization, but there is much needed work still to be done. Although 70% of HICA’s participants are of Mexican heritage, they are here to help any and every one that is in-need of assistance.  He argued that “refugee” is a political title because Cubans entering the U.S. during the Cold War were afforded this title. However, Central Americans fleeing to the U.S. currently don’t have that same benefit because the political environment has cultivated anti-immigrant rhetoric about those trying to cross the Mexico-U.S. border. HICA offers a Justice and Leadership Program that helps people achieve immigrant status as well as a Family Program that is case management-centered, the latter assisting children enroll for school and people navigating the court system.

Portillo also mentioned our current political environment by mentioning that refugees have been scapegoated for electoral purposes but that the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice (ACIJ) will not be discouraged. ACIJ is a coalition of six non-profit organizations and hundreds of individual members throughout the state of Alabama. More specifically, ACIJ does preventative work, such as family emergency plans, that prepare people for economic, social, and/or legal challenges that relate to their immigrant status. You can help advance ACIJ’s mission of grassroots immigrant justice by volunteering or donating to their organization.

Sarai Portillo addressing the audience. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

 

Aleman of Adelante mentioned how there are many problems facing their participant community and that the existence of immigrant detention centers, much like Etowah in Gadsden, is an issue that is not exclusive to this current presidential administration. As a result, Adelante has helped organize the #SHUTDOWNETOWAH campaign which is “committed to ending the human rights abuses at the Etowah County Detention Center” due the facility’s notorious mistreatment of detainees, including inadequate medical care, poor nutrition, and verbal abuse. Adelante also offers many volunteer opportunities, including the Accompaniment Program, which assists members with transportation to court hearings and probation appointments, a worker’s assembly called Asamblea!, and a Pen Pal Program.

Wilson briefly spoke about the Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham’s Refugee Interest Group whose three pillars are direct support, education, and advocacy as well as the remarkable journey of an asylum-seeking mother and her two children who fled Angola to Cuba, relocated to Ecuador, then walked a grueling 1800 miles to El Paso. Following, she introduced Leida Venegas, a refugee from Colombia and current Birmingham resident, who shared the story about leaving her country because of organized crime and governmental conflict. Venegas also fled to Ecuador where she corresponded with the United Nations and U.S. government for over a year then moved to Birmingham. With only three suitcases and her children, Venegas relied on her case worker from Catholic Social Services and church volunteers who have assisted her with housing, learning English, and transportation to obtain documentation. She insisted such volunteering has been vital and is very thankful to all of those who’ve committed their time and opened the door to their home.

As demonstrated, the current refugee crisis is not only in the hands of the U.S. government but to anyone who wants to get involved. Many organizations addressing this pressing issue have limited resources so lending a helping hand could change or possibly save a life. What can you do to address the current refugee crisis?

Women in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is in the Middle East and occupies about “four-fifths of the Arabian Peninsula”. It is home to Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina. When thinking of Saudi Arabia, most people associate it with religion, petroleum wealth, and tribalism. Although, throughout the years, Saudi Arabia has become more urban while experiencing vast technological, educational, social, and economic changes. However, in terms of women’s rights, Saudi Arabia has received much backlash.

Women’s Rights Timeline in Saudi Arabia

In 1955, Saudi Arabia’s first school for girls was created and, in 1970, the first university for women opened its doors. In 2001, women were allowed to get personal identification cards as long as they had permission from their guardian. Furthermore, it was issued to the guardian, not the women. Until 2005, it was cultural practice for women to be forced into marriages even though it was considered illegal. Four years later, in 2009, the first female government minister, Noura al-Fayez, was appointed. In 2012, women were allowed to compete in the Olympics on the national team for the first time. Before the 2012 Olympic Games, there was a possibility that Saudi Arabia could be banned due to gender discrimination. A year later, women could ride bicycles and motorcycles in recreational areas but only if they wear the full Islamic body covering and have a male relative present. That same year, 30 women were sworn into the consultative council, the Shura. In 2015, women could run for office for the first time, which resulted in 20 women being elected to municipal roles in the absolute monarchy. Beginning just last year, women can now go to the sports stadiums and drive. Furthermore, in order for women to get their driver license, they do not need permission from a male guardian and can drive by themselves. Finally, in 2019, there a new law established where women would receive a text message if they got divorced, whereas in the past, their marriage could end without their knowledge. Additionally, they can check their marital status online or in court, but only if she has her husband’s approval or if he has harmed her. Many of these policy reforms still include male supervision. While persecution is a high risk, women are willing to fight for their freedom.

Women2Drive. Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons.

Their Stories

Rahaf Mohammad al-Qunun fled from Saudi Arabia to Canada; she was seeking a place where she can be free. Even though she left her family behind, now she can make her own decisions. She said, “I don’t have any contact with my family, but I think that’s good for me and for them. I feel like this is my home now. It’s better here.” Two girls, Reem and Rawan, escaped from Saudi Arabia to Hong Kong. Reem claims, “Our rooms were the prison cell and our fathers and brothers were the prison keepers. Saudi Arabia is one big prison.” However, they cannot stay in Hong Kong for long because they are at risk of being possibly removed or prosecuted. If they are forced to return to Saudi Arabia, the outcome could result in imprisonment or death. Cases similar to Reem and Rawn’s tend to often be covered up.

Why Women Run  

One of the most common reasons women flee Saudi Arabia is due to the restrictions placed on where women can travel. Women are not given the right to leave the country without their male guardian’s permission. Furthermore, a woman’s ability to choose her marriage partner is solely dependent on the permission of their male guardian. In January 2019, the country set the minimum age of marriage at 18, but girls aged 15-18 can still become married without the court’s approval. Other reasons include but are not limited to domestic violence, discrimination in employment and healthcare, and inequality in divorce, child custody, and inheritance.

 Technology and its Effect on Women’s Rights

 With every technological advances comes benefits and drawbacks. The benefits can include a platform where people are given a voice to share their thoughts and an accessible platform from anywhere in the world. However, the drawbacks comprise of undesired scrutiny which can make one an easy target. As a result, one of the biggest questions now is “whether it is the responsibility of technology companies to make sure their platforms are not used by governments to repress their citizens.”

In Saudi Arabia, there is an app called Absher, which the government can access. The purpose of the app is for men to approve or deny women to go abroad. As mentioned earlier, some women have tried fleeing the country and must do this secretly due to not having permission from their male guardian. In this case, technology is detrimental for women’s rights because it places a limitation on their freedom. Technological advancement makes it easier for men to have power over women by “policing” the women’s movement. Whenever a woman wants to go to the airport, she cannot leave without the government and her guardian knowing because they receive a text alert; people have gotten around this system. For example, Salwa left Saudi Arabia by getting her father’s phone and replacing his information with her information. Thus, she was able to make consent for her sister and herself, although risking legal consequences. People believe that these apps are causing discrimination to become more normalized. Unfortunately, even though the companies are aware of the circumstances, removing the app would not solve women’s issues in Saudi Arabia. The government in Saudi Arabia has a website that comprises of the same functionality as the app does.

 

Free. Source: Max Pixel, Creative Commons.

The Future

During a session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, leaders of Saudi Arabia discussed their goal of developing the country by increasing participation from women. In fact, the number of female diplomats has expanded steadily over the years. While the future for Saudi Arabia’s women is unknown, there is “cautious optimism” in regards to women having a bigger role in society and politics.