Nepal Criminalizes Urban Poor

The right to equitable housing, employment, and standard of living are in jeopardy due to Nepal’s government policies towards the displaced community. In the capital district of Kathmandu, the mistreatment of vulnerable, minority populations ensues without providing any alternative measures. Street vendors line the capital with their small business trying to make a living, but new policies are allowing authorities to seize their property and rob them of their way of life. This campaign is accusing street vendors of blocking sidewalks and obstructing pedestrian pathways. People who cannot find regular employment resort to selling their wares on the street. Now, their livelihood is threatened. These are non-permanent, transition spaces for vulnerable individuals dealing with poverty. Nepal government is displacing people who already do not have a place to live, and they are not providing adequate housing. This is only exacerbating the significant homeless population in the country. Preying on this disadvantaged population is harmful and violates human rights

Source by Flickr

Government Action

Along the banks of the Bagmati River in Kathmandu, rumbles of protests seem to emerge. The city announced that they will be removing beggars in an effort to make Kathmandu a beggar-free city. The landless squatters held a rally on December 5th from Maitighar to New Baneshwor urging for the government to provide alternative housing. Demanding government aid and relief United National Squatters Front Nepal Chairperson Kumar Karki stated to the press, “Removing us from the current place without arranging an alternative is not tolerable. It is a violation of human rights.” The slum settlements in the Kathmandu valley are not a threat to the government 

Source by Yahoo Images

 

Community Response

The government has bulldozed their living structures, so the only way to resolve the issue is through dialogue. Evictions are not the solution. According to the National Land Commission, a statutory body, the city government has failed to provide an alternative place to live. Under international human rights law, everyone has the right to the opportunity to work and to an adequate standard of living, including food, clothing, and shelter. The continued removal of residents is causing undue hardship on the citizens. This policy targets people who have no alternate source of income or no way of supporting themselves. Most of the time, it is young women and children which means now young women and children are being made homeless.  

Source By Yahoo Images

Enact Change

In order to prevent any more draconian governmental initiatives, you can get involved with Help Nepal. Donation, sponsorship, and volunteering are all great ways to support the Nepalese people faced with displacement. Posting on social media to raise awareness is another helpful measure. Speaking out against policies like this will result in less similar policies. Right to housing, work, and living are all basic human rights. Sprawling urban fringe is not only seen in Nepal, but in fact a lot of other parts of the world deal with these same issues. This is why it is important to discuss and bring attention to these topics.    

Famine Increases School Dropouts

by Grace Ndanu

A child stands next to an empty bowl
Source: Yahoo Images

I am used to children not attending school due to cultural practices and beliefs. Young girls might be sold out to their husbands when they are minutes or hours old. This led to child preference in some Kenyan communities, where only boys are taken to school while the girls are forced to stay at home so that they can undergo training on how to perform wife duties when they reach puberty and get married to their seventy plus years old husband. In this case education is considered meaningless for girls since they will be released to their husbands. They don’t consider the dowry that is paid a contribution from the girls; instead they assume that it is a payment for training a good wife. On the other hand, boys are considered to be of value to the family because they will attain the name of the family. That’s why they are taken to school.

This time it is a different sad story – a very high number of both boys and girls drop out of school. Not because of cultural practices but because of hunger. In most Kenyan counties, children go to school because there is lunch provided. For some families that is the only meal that the children have because their families can not provide them with food. Due to climate change, which has brought forth drought, the schools provide little or no food for their students now. The situation is alarming because there is no learning, the children are hungry, sleeping and collapsing in school. The majority are distracted by their rumbling stomachs.

Lack of food has a negative effect on the lives of learners, especially the primary school children. Traditionally, assembly is conducted while the students are standing. For the first time in history, in some parts of Kenya, assemblies are conducted while pupils are sitting. Not a long time ago, it was a taboo for a child to be addressed by a teacher while sitting down. Now they are forced by hunger to sit while being addressed by their teachers. In addition to hunger, children walk more than twenty kilometres to school, and when they get to school they are tired.

Kenya is comprised of 47 counties. Twenty three of them, which have roughly 4.35 million people, are facing droughts that are getting worse. The twenty three counties are more of pastoralists. They don’t rely on anything else apart from livestock for survival and hence they are more affected because the livestock have nothing to feed on. Kajiado is one of the most affected counties where children drop out of school to support their families by searching for animal feed. This includes going up the acacia shrubs to collect seeds to feed the animals. Others have been forced to move away from home with the cattle in search of pasture. The ones who remain are left with little or no food.

Children playing in the street
Source: Yahoo Images

There are several interviews that have been made around the most affected counties. In Samburu County, parents said that their children never reported back to school since July. The reason being, there is no rain, therefore they have to move around with their children in search of food. Teachers of the same county said that also the performance of their pupils has dropped, because of little or no learning at all. They find it difficult to teach hungry and weak children, which forces them to dismiss afternoon classes. It gets even sadder because sometimes parents visit the schools hoping to have lunch, which the law doesn’t allow.

In the coastal region, drought has pushed wildlife out of different parks to villages, which complicates the situation even more. The leaders called upon teachers and children and their parents not to risk their lives by going to school until elephants are contained in their parks. This is even more dangerous because the elephants arrive unexpectedly at any time of the day. The solution was for the children and their teachers to stay at their homes and wait for the county officials to do what they must do for them to resume, which seems it is until next year…unlike for the candidates who are waiting for their final primary and high school exams.

Most parents have opt to look for food for their children rather than paying school fees for their children. Following the most reason for school dropouts for the second and third term this year the school officials have called upon the ministry of education and the nation officials to ensure schools and communities in arid and semi-arid lands are provided with relief food. If the communities have food, the schools will be food secure. I believe if a child is assured of a meal they will show up for school and will fully concentrate in class.

Reclaimed Lives: The Power of Storytelling

BY: Alesa R. Liles, PhD, MSW

A line of prisoners in orange jumpsuits with hands behind backs
Source: Yahoo Images

Autonomy within our lives is often something many take for granted. We can make choices for ourselves whether it is a need or want or even a subconscious choice we don’t even think about. This right to choose is a fundamental aspect of humanity.

For almost 2 million people incarcerated in the United States, the ability to even make the simplest choices, like when to eat, to shower, to sleep, etc. are extremely limited. Given the penological goals of incarceration, some restriction of freedom is assumed. However, the system of mass incarceration in the United States, not only dictates a person’s everyday life, it systematically dehumanizes and deprives individuals of their inherent dignity. The primary way it does so is through the degradation of one’s identity and human rights. Individuals with little sense of self and little power, who are in the midst of experiencing the trauma of prison life, are easier to control.

As a result of mass incarceration beginning in the 1980s, prisons in the United States have become over-crowded, less safe, poorly managed, and provide few programming opportunities. With the lack of meaningful activities and limited connections to the outside world, individuals are returned to society, inevitably, carrying the trauma of prison home. There are few resources available, such as counselors or therapists, to meet the specific needs of this population in the free-world as well. Because the need for healing remains, the power of storytelling is invaluable in regaining personal dignity and autonomy. The act of storytelling provides an individual an outlet to express their experiences in a safe environment. The individual has autonomy over their personal narrative, ultimately allowing for understanding and healing. Research supports storytelling as one of the most powerful ways for trauma recovery.

To assist citizens returning home from incarceration, creating a platform to tell their story is one way that allows them to regain the dignity and autonomy that was taken. So, in the spring of 2022, my students and I set out to address this issue. We focused on developing a podcast for returning citizens to tell their stories. We wanted to speak with justice impacted individuals about their experiences, particularly their experiences returning to society after significant periods of incarceration. Through the creation of the podcast, we hoped our guests would be empowered to disclose their challenges and successes, and even significant traumas.

Photo of man standing at an open gate facing the city
Source: Voices of the Returned, Life After Incarceration; Georgia College Department of Government and Sociology

As we started the process, we gathered a large amount of research materials to learn more about what incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals endure. The statistics were grave. According to a study by the Urban Institute, returning citizens have difficulty finding stable employment, obtaining food, maintaining sobriety, and are often returned to the same neighborhoods with significant socioeconomic disadvantage. Poverty has been identified as the strongest predictor of recidivism. These are the things the data told us, but context is lost in the numbers. People are lost in the numbers.

Identified by a six-digit number for more than 40 years of his life, the first person we spoke to was incarcerated at the age of 18 and released at the age of 62. Charlie spoke about his experiences in prison over 4 decades, what it was like to have children and to lose family while incarcerated, and then being released into a completely different world that have moved on without him. After speaking with us, he stated “prison is a terrible experience that robs a person of self-respect, dignity, and any ray of hope. [This] helped me feel society would accept me.” In providing a platform to speak about their experiences and to tell their stories, returning citizens can reclaim their fundamental rights to dignity and autonomy. By the end of spring, we were able to produce 5 episodes featuring 4 justice impacted individuals.

To the common person, this may sound insignificant, but to individuals who have been stripped of everything down to their name, having an opportunity regain their voice and to see others will listen, is a step forward in the healing process. As stated by Craig Haney with the Urban Institute, “At the very least, prison is painful, and incarcerated persons often suffer long-term consequences from having been subjected to pain, deprivation, and extremely atypical patterns and norms of living and interacting with others.” With more than 95% of incarcerated individuals eventually facing release, healing is surely needed.

Alesa R. Liles is an Associated Professor of Criminal Justice at Georgia College and the Managing Editor of Undergraduate Research. Email: alesa.liles@gcsu.edu

 

The Ongoing Alabama Prison Crisis: From the Past to the Present

An image of a tightly packed women's prison.
An image of a tightly packed women’s prison. Source: Soumya Misra (Nursing CLIO) via Yahoo Images Public Domain

This is a continuation of the conversation about the Alabama Prison Crisis as exposed by Mary Scott Hodgin in her podcast, “Deliberate Indifference.” If you have not read the previous blog post on this topic, “The Ongoing Alabama Prison Crisis: A History”, it is recommended that you do so. Also, if you would like more information and details regarding this topic, please listen to the podcast, “Deliberate Indifference,” by Mary Scott Hodgin. Now, without further ado, let us jump right in from where we left off.

In the previous blog, we focused on the history of prison systems in America, and particularly, some of the legislations and ideologies that laid out the foundation for the correctional institutions we know today. We explored in detail the convict leasing system that helped rebuild the infrastructure of the Antebellum South following their defeat in the Civil War, and the racialized laws and legislations that disproportionately landed Black and Brown people in prison over their White counterparts. The War on Drugs era followed by the Tough on Crime era landed hundreds of nonviolent offenders in prison, serving longer and harsher sentences and life without parole. While our focus in the last blog was more nationwide, it was necessary context to set the stage to better understand the realities that face the Alabama prison systems focused on in this blog.

The objective now is to look deeper into the conditions of the penal system in Alabama, the lawsuits they faced in 2017, and the most recent one in 2020, how the pandemic exacerbated these conditions, the prison strikes that took place within these prisons, and some ways to move forward to bring about actual change – change in the mindset of our fellow Alabama voters, and a shift in the way the prison population is viewed and treated as a whole. We will look at some groups that are trying to do just that, from organizations like Alabama Appleseed and the Offender Alumni Association to religious groups and other educational groups that sponsor programs within the prison system to provide opportunities for higher education to the imprisoned population.

Prison Conditions

An image depicting a dormitory style housing unit. Many of Alabama's prisons are structured this way.
An image depicting a dormitory-style housing unit. Many of Alabama’s prisons are structured this way. Source: Yahoo Images via ACLU

While exploring the most recent reports that resulted from the federal investigations of Alabama’s prisons, there were many similarities in the reports. While the problems of understaffing and overcrowding were expressed in detail, (which will be discussed below), there was also extensive observation of the living conditions inside the prisons. What the investigations revealed was shocking, and despite having been advised to address these issues even in the 1970s investigation of Alabama’s prisons, the conditions had not improved. Rather, it had deteriorated even more due to the consequences of staffing and crowding issues.

Both reports extensively provide detailed examples of violent outbreaks within the prisons, between prisoners, and even at the hands of prison staff targeting the prisoners. Many such incidents go unreported, and others have even ended in the death of the imprisoned person. One of the things that contribute to this violence is the structure of the prison itself. Many of Alabama’s prisons are fashioned in a dormitory-style of housing units instead of the individual cell units depicted in popular culture. These housing units are essentially enormous halls that are secured on the perimeters, with bunk beds piled into the room as close as they can fit. With little to no privacy, and jampacked in tight spaces, people can get easily agitated, and this can lead to violence. Due to the overcrowding issue, many people are even expected to sleep on the floors, which can be unsanitary and uncomfortable. Due to the continuous staffing issues these prisons face, these large units may go unguarded for long periods of time, sometimes even entire shifts.

This puts both the inmates within the units at risk for violence, and the prison staff who, to the incarcerated individuals, represent the authority from which these conditions are sanctioned. Even still, many officers, due to the understaffing issue, have overlooked contraband possession (such as drugs or cell phones), deciding to pick and choose their battles in an already tense environment. As a result of all these issues, corruption is rampant within the prison walls, and many prison staff, according to narratives from both reports, take advantage of this tense environment to assert dominance over prisoners with increased brutality. People who are incarcerated are not viewed by society as individuals with their own pasts and presents. They are only viewed as “criminals,” remain invisible to society and are dehumanized. Regardless of the crimes that a person commits, they are at the end of the day, still, people, who deserve dignity and basic human decency. As an institution of the state, prisons are legally responsible for providing a safe and secure environment for people who are incarcerated to serve out their sentences as punishment. The American Constitution does not support “cruel and unusual punishments”, and under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the rights of imprisoned individuals are fully supported.

An infographic which lists the universal rights protected under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
An infographic that lists the universal rights protected under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Source: Irish Times via Yahoo Images Public Domain

2017 Federal Investigation

In the previous blog, we focused on how the prison system of Alabama has been under federal investigation nearly 50 years ago in the 1970s. Unfortunately, the conditions outlined in those reports were never fully addressed, and the issues that were highlighted have only been exacerbated over the years. In September 2017, the Department of Justice from the federal government toured one of Alabama’s prisons, Bibb County Correctional Facility, for their official investigation of prison conditions in the Alabama penal system. What they uncovered was outlined later in a report published in 2019, stating over 50 pages worth of evidence against Alabama, and the minimal expectations the federal government laid out for Alabama to achieve, both short-term and long-term.

The report is prefaced by the fact that these concerns were underlined within a week of their investigation. According to the report from the observations made in 2017, the Alabama correctional facilities faced a myriad of issues, including an overcrowded prison population, with dangerously low staffing, issues of contraband entering the prisons, and a host of observations pertaining to violence within the prisons, including physical, mental, and sexual violence. As discussed in the previous blog, these overcrowding issues come from the various legislations that were passed, increasing the lengths of sentences, criminalizing drug abuse and mental health issues (instead of treating them as medical issues requiring rehabilitation and treatment), and incorporating mandatory sentencing minimums and three-strikes laws. Along with identifying the concerns stated above, the report also deemed the penal system’s inadequate protection of its inmate population from harm, violence, and death, a failure. The report discussed at length how, along with unsanitary living conditions, there are dangerous weapons and drugs that are circulating within the prisons, making them unsafe for both the incarcerated people, as well as the officers who work there. This in turn is both caused by and exacerbated by the issues of overcrowding and understaffing within the prison walls. With fewer officers to supervise the dormitory-style prisons in Alabama, incarcerated people are packed together to fend for themselves.

While not all people locked up in prison are violent offenders, studies have shown that desperation, (which is rampant in these prisons), can lead to violence, distrust, and increased criminal behavior within the population. While the study referenced focused on populations outside of prisons, it is safe to assume that these results are only amplified within the prison system. The people within are both desperate and already undergoing punishment, which means that even the threat of punishment is not a deterrence from committing these violent acts. This also means that with fewer officers to supervise the dorms and halls of the prison, the overall violence within the prisons is increased, making it dangerous for the entire prison population.

As explained in both the report by the federal investigation, as well as the podcast by Mary Scott Hodgin, there were at least 11 men that died in 2019 alone due to the increase in violence within the Alabama prisons. To make matters worse, the federal investigation also found that the Alabama prison system’s record-keeping on these incidents and others was inaccurate, finding that there were many incidents that went unreported, and even many deaths misclassified as due to natural causes or medical reasons rather than due to the violence found within the prisons. If you count the total number of deaths within the inmate population in 2019 classified as natural causes or otherwise, the number is as high as 119 deaths.

An infographic providing statistics around mental health in the prison system.
An infographic providing statistics on mental health in the prison system. Source: Cabrini University via Yahoo Images Public Domain

In addition to the misclassifications and incidents not being reported, Hodgin also details in her podcast the inadequate mental health care offered to incarcerated individuals within Alabama’s prisons. This can lead to an escalation of violence, and abuse of drugs, and place incarcerated individuals dealing with mental health issues in dangerous situations. Without the proper medical attention required to treat these individuals with mental health illnesses, prisons can become a charged environment that can exacerbate their conditions, making them more vulnerable to both becoming victims of violence, as well as the perpetrators of the violent acts. Unfortunately, because people with mental health issues are four times more likely to be imprisoned instead of receiving treatment and care, many individuals in prison already enter the system without knowing how to follow social norms. This can put them in danger of being abused by officers and other imprisoned individuals alike, and without proper care, their conditions can become worse, and at times, can end in death, either at their own hands or at the hands of another.

Another major topic of concern addressed in the report is that sexual abuse and sexual violence. Sexual violence is rampant in Alabama’s prisons, and this issue is exacerbated by the understaffing issue present within these facilities. With fewer officers staffed to care for increasing numbers of imprisoned people, there is less monitoring and supervision taking place, creating a breeding ground for violence, both sexual and physical. Much of the sexual abuse either go unnoticed, or unreported by staff members, and while the victims can report these incidents too, many choose not to for fear of retaliation or feelings of shame. Their fear is not unsubstantiated, as many accounts have been provided in which sexual assaults took place in retaliation to the victim’s reporting of a previous sexual assault. In addition to the low staffing numbers, many of the facilities in Alabama are constructed in a dormitory style, meaning that imprisoned individuals are grouped into a big hall rather than individual cells. This can be challenging for clear visibility of each individual inside the prison and their whereabouts. At times, only one or two officers may be in charge of the entire unit, and sometimes, the incarcerated people go unsupervised.

Many incidents of sexual assault occur as a result of “drug debt”, where an incarcerated person owes another incarcerated person money for drugs or other contraband and does not pay.  There have even been incidents where family members of people who are incarcerated have been extorted for money, with the threat of sexual violence against their imprisoned family member. Many victims of sexual abuse within the prisons also alleged that these instances occurred after the victims themselves were drugged or held at knifepoint. While much of this goes unnoticed by the prison staff, some reports that do manage to document these incidents have even labeled sexual assault as “homosexual acts” rather than nonconsensual sexual abuse. People who are incarcerated that belong to the LGBTQI+ community are even more vulnerable to sexual violence simply for their identity. Unfortunately, many of the officers in charge of ensuring that the prisons comply with the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), are not even aware of who among their incarcerated population belongs to the LGBTQI+ community. The PREA flags the LGBTQI+ population as being most at risk for sexual crimes, and the PREA managers in the Alabama Department of Corrections are not fully complying with the standards set by the legislation.

After identifying and explaining the various issues the Department of Justice found within Alabama’s prison system, the report argued that these conditions violate the constitutional rights of the incarcerated people, and as such, provided some bare-minimum measures that Alabama should take immediately to avoid a federal takeover of the prisons. These remedies included addressing the issues of overcrowding and understaffing, the rampant violence (both physical and sexual), the access to contraband, and the living conditions within the facilities. In addition to these short-term measures, the report also suggested some long-term measures to implement, including – among a list of other things – better incentives to improve staffing issues, improved systems to track, record, and address issues of violence, and more regulation over prison conditions and treatment of the imprisoned population. Alabama closed down one prison after this report (Draper Correctional Center) and closed a particularly harmful “behavioral modification unit” or “hot bays”, (where incarcerated individuals are held as punishment for violence and drugs within the prison) at Bibb Correctional facility. While these closures were a good place to start, they should be in no way, the only solutions to the long list of problems outlined by the report following the federal investigation. Unfortunately, Alabama, as expressed in the report itself, has been “deliberately indifferent” to these situations, and as a result, experienced yet another investigation in 2020.

2020 Federal Investigation

An image of an overcrowded cell colored in red to symbolize prison violence
An image of an overcrowded cell colored in red symbolizes prison violence. Source: ProPublica via Yahoo Images Public Domain

The 2020 report from the Department of Justice’s investigation into Alabama’s prisons found similar problems echoed in the 2017 investigation they conducted. As mentioned in the 2017 report, the 2020 report also addressed issues of overcrowding of prisoners, stating that all of Alabama’s 13 prisons held thousands of people over the capacity they were designed for, making Alabama’s prisons among the most overcrowded prisons in the nation. This report also referred to the dangers of not having adequate staff members to care for and run these overcrowded facilities, this time focusing on how these staffing and overcrowding issues have led to an increase in officers using excessive force against the incarcerated individuals, further aggravating the violence that exists within the prison walls. This issue of excessive force is further examined in the report, claiming it is a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States which outlaws cruel and unusual punishments against imprisoned people.

The 2020 report details the many reasons why officers use excessive force against people who are imprisoned. Unfortunately, many officers have been known to use violence and excessive force to “handle” a situation, even in times when there is no physical threat to the officer, and even when the incarcerated people are complying with the given orders. This has the tendency to escalate the situation, placing both the incarcerated individual and the officers in danger’s way. The report provides various examples of such incidents where the imprisoned people are reported to be complacent with the officers’ instructions, even handcuffed without ways to fight back, but have still been beaten, tortured, and abused inhumanely. These officers filed false incident reports claiming that they did not engage in such actions, and even after investigations of the incidents, the officers did not face any legal consequences or disciplinary actions for their behavior.

At times, excessive force is used by officers as a form of punishment or retribution for disrespecting the officers or reporting them. The 2020 report describes multiple incidents where excessive force was used against incarcerated people simply for not following the specific directions laid out by the officers. One incident includes an imprisoned person being physically abused and forced to eat all the leftover chicken for simply wanting some extra food. Other incidents outline the use of chemical sprays to punish incarcerated people or as a form of retribution for not following verbal orders. Chemicals sprays are used even in times when the imprisoned people do not pose any physical threats to the officers. Finally, many officers also use force to simply assert dominance and inflict pain on their charges, something that not only endangers the people involved (both officer and incarcerated individuals) but also causes the incarcerated individuals to distrust the officers in charge, escalating the tensions between the two groups.

All these incidents are violations of the eighth amendment, and while many of the investigations that these incidents resulted in agreed that there was no justification for the use of excessive force in any of these outlined incidents, the officers faced little to no disciplinary actions for their conduct. The Department of Justice also included this issue in their report, arguing that unsurprisingly, officers either fail to report or inaccurately report incidents where excessive force is used. Many times, excessive use of force is investigated internally and recommended for an I & I investigation (Investigations and Intelligence unit of the Alabama Department of Corrections in charge of investigating misconduct by prison staff). Unfortunately, the report declares that of all the incidents recommended to the I&I unit, only 40% of them are actually reviewed. To make matters worse, many of the cases that are investigated by the I&I unit, where excessive force has been confirmed, are seldom referred to be criminally prosecuted. This means that many of the officers abusing their authority and misbehaving with incarcerated individuals go unpunished for their conduct. Many more of the incidents where excessive force is used go unreported, with only the victim’s bruises to bear witness to the incident. For fear of retaliation, many imprisoned persons go without reporting the abuse they face at the hands of officers. If the victim does not cooperate in the investigation, the incident is deemed “unsubstantiated”, and the investigation is closed.

Following their investigation, the federal government proposed a list of measures that Alabama’s Department of Corrections needs to take in order to fully comply with federal regulations for correctional institutions. These immediate measures included the need for more I&I investigators, a better system for victims of abuse from officers using excessive force to report their incidents anonymously and independent of the prison’s authorities, clear procedures for accountability for officers, and better documentation and investigations of incidents where excessive force is used.

COVID-19 and Its Impact on the Prison Population

A cartoon depicting a prisoner digging with a shovel, with a caption underneath reading: "I'm not escaping. I'm just trying to get tested for Covid-19." While this image was referencing the protocols followed by Mississippi prisons, this was essentially the same in Alabama's prisons as well.
A cartoon depicting a prisoner digging with a shovel, with a caption underneath reading: “I’m not escaping. I’m just trying to get tested for Covid-19.” While this image was referencing the protocols followed by Mississippi prisons, this was essentially the same in Alabama’s prisons as well. Source: Mississippi Today via Yahoo Images Public Domain

In addition to these inhumane conditions the imprisoned population experience that violate the basic human rights of incarcerated people, the outbreak of Covid-19 greatly amplified this issue, and soon, the prisons became a contagious and deadly environment for both the prison staff and their charges. With little to no access to adequate healthcare and deteriorating mental health caused by the conditions of their environment, people who are incarcerated are especially vulnerable to disease outbreaks. On the national level, according to a study conducted in 2020 by the American Medical Association, people incarcerated were five times more likely than people living outside the prison system to be infected by the virus, and the death rates among prison populations were higher than the national average at the time. Making matters worse, due to conditions of overcrowding inside the prisons, the outbreak was especially dangerous, as incarcerated people were unable to adequately quarantine and unable to maintain safe social distance between each other. There was also the probability of prison staff bringing the virus into the prisons from the outside world, and also recirculating the contagion within the prisons back into the larger society. A UAB publication by the School of Public Health declared the prisons a “petri dish for COVID-19”.

To add to this problem, the prisons were notoriously unsanitary, meaning that preventative measures such as maintaining clean spaces and washing hands with anti-bacterial soaps, were impossible to maintain. Furthermore, understaffing issues complicated this situation, as those who were infected were either neglected until conditions were too bad to ignore, or they were provided with inadequate healthcare measures. In Alabama, a unique situation further complicated the negative consequences of the pandemic. A large portion of Alabama’s prison population belongs to the older age groups due to the strict and long sentencing laws of the state, and the fact that the pandemic was considered to be even more dangerous for elderly people further put people incarcerated within Alabama’s prisons in jeopardy. Access to healthcare within the prison system makes this issue life-threatening, and despite the urgency from the American Medical Association to include the prison population in the vulnerable communities list for vaccinations, the Equal Justice Initiative reported that Alabama’s prisons denied its incarcerated people vaccinations. While some prison staff received vaccines, they were not required by the state to be vaccinated to work in the prisons, continuing to place the lives of incarcerated individuals in peril. As a result of inadequate protective gear (such as masks), and negligent behavior on part of the state and the prison staff, the prisons in Alabama encountered a large number of Covid-19 deaths.

Alabama Prison Strikes

A group of people protesting prison conditions and calling for the protection of the rights of incarcerated people.
A group of people protesting prison conditions and calling for the protection of the rights of incarcerated people. Source: Occupy Oakland via Yahoo Images Public Domain

After living through the grave conditions of the pandemic, and witnessing the unchanging environment within the prisons, the incarcerated individuals decided it was time to take matters into their own hands. In September of 2022, incarcerated people from all of the 13 prisons in Alabama began striking against the prison conditions they endured. They argued that the prison system was violating their basic human rights, provided inadequate healthcare, and did not in any way prove to be a place of rehabilitation for the imprisoned population. Instead, they initiated a strike, refusing to work their prison jobs (such as in the laundry department and the maintenance department) that they did not receive compensation for, called for improvements in prison conditions, and demanded reforms to the harsh sentencing laws currently in effect in the state of Alabama.

While imprisoned persons are demanding to be treated fairly in prison, the governor of Alabama, Kay Ivey, insisted that the demands of the prison population were “just unreasonable,” maintaining that the new construction of the two mega prisons in Alabama would solve all these issues of understaffing and overcrowding. These mega prisons, built with the use of funds designated to the state for pandemic relief, (causing public debate on this controversial subject), are supposed to provide more space for the overcrowded prisons in Alabama, and reports have surfaced about the possibility of hiring more officers for the newer mega prisons. This project will receive a total of over $1.2 billion in funding, of which $400 million comes from the pandemic relief funds.

What is vital to include here is that while these two new prisons will provide more space to house incarcerated individuals, (up to 4,000 in each), these prisons are replacing existing prisons with newer technologies and facilities. While this may seem like an improvement in some prison conditions, (such as more security and cleaner, sanitary units), it does not solve issues of overcrowding or staffing issues. The massive budget awarded to this project, instead of going toward building two mega prisons, could have been used more wisely to address the core issues of society that increase crime and criminality within its community. In addition, certain legislation and reforms could have been passed to overturn the harsh sentencing laws that exist in Alabama today. This would have solved both the issues of overcrowding and understaffing, as with fewer people being incarcerated and more people qualifying for parole, the total amount of people within the system would decrease, which would also lead to a decrease in the number of incarcerated people the prison staff is responsible for. A decrease in the prison population would also lead to a decrease in violence and more space for each individual within the prison walls.

Existing Resources

An infographic depicting the difference between education versus incarceration.
An infographic depicting the difference between education and incarceration. Source: Yahoo Images via QEDfoundation.org

There are many organizations that have attempted to address both the various issues that incarcerated people face within the prison system and those face as they re-enter society after completing their sentences. These organizations include Alabama Appleseed, Offender Alumni Association, Shepherds Fold, One Roof, and Aid to Inmate Mothers. Alabama Appleseed, which belongs to the national Appleseed Network, is a Center for Law and Justice that focuses on equity and justice, and research around prison reforms in Alabama’s penal system. The Offender Alumni Association, recognizing the importance of human connection, focuses on providing support and engagement within the prison walls, and community and stronger familial relationships outside, all while aiming to end the stigma around imprisonment. This organization is a support system for incarcerated people run by people who have been formerly incarcerated and engage in community efforts such as their Heroes in the Hood program to help inspire meaningful goals within the younger generations of high-risk communities to channel their energy toward community restoration. Shepherds Fold, as a transition home, provides similar services from a faith-based approach, instilling Christian values within their participating members. One Roof, an organization whose mission is to end homelessness in Alabama, is yet another resource for people re-entering society after being incarcerated. Through their practice of Coordinated Entry, or an in-depth needs assessment, One Roof is able to secure housing for those in need and point them to additional resources they may require based on their assessment. This can be very helpful for many, especially those who have been incarcerated for decades long, and who may not be aware of what resources exist in the community, or how to go about securing them. Finally, Aid to Inmate Mothers (AIM) is an organization that provides assistance to mothers who are incarcerated, both during their incarceration, as well as their transition period into society after their sentences have been served. AIM provides transportation to children for visitations with their mothers in prison and provides incarcerated mothers opportunities to record bedtime stories for their children. Their reentry programs aim to reconnect mothers with their children, provide a few essentials for those leaving prison, provide classes on life skills, job preparedness, parenting, and other topics for those who are interested, and even provide transition housing for a year, though it comes with a few eligibility requirements, including rental fees charged weekly.

There are also educational opportunities that are provided for incarcerated people in Alabama’s prisons. The Alabama Prison Arts and Education Project led by Auburn University, and the Donaldson Lecture Series led by the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) are only two such programs. The Alabama Prison Arts and Education Project provides incarcerated individuals a chance to earn college credits while serving time. These courses are offered in the field of arts and sciences, and for those who can keep up with the standards of Auburn’s academic programs, this is a great opportunity for incarcerated individuals to pursue higher education, and as a result, be better equipped to handle the professional world upon their release. Similarly, UAB also offers lecture series at Donaldson Prison. While not as extensive or academically progressive as Auburn’s program, the Donaldson Lecture Series focuses on educational talks given to incarcerated individuals within the prison every other Tuesday for academic enrichment purposes.

Shifting the Mindset Around Crime and Punishment

An image of solidarity in favor of Prisoner Rights
An image of solidarity in favor of Prisoner Rights; Source: Yahoo Images Public Domain via Racism.org

These resources are well-intentioned and have helped save so many lives to date. Yet, this is not enough; there is a much-needed shift in the societal mindset around crime and punishment. The issue of the prison system is rooted in the racist founding of this nation, and as such, has systemic implications on various areas of a person’s life. Reforms can only go so far, as they are still pieces of legislation that try to make changes to the existing laws, but they still operate under those same laws. There needs to be a shift in the way incarcerated people are viewed within the larger society, and there needs to be a reexamination of the laws on the books since most of the institutions in America are rooted in beliefs of supremacy. Some things that can help us rethink the way we approach topics that involve imprisoned people are suggested below.

As explained earlier, changing the language around how people in prison are talked about can humanize the population and foster compassion towards the group. Refer to them as imprisoned persons or people in prison rather than branding them the title of “prisoner” or “inmate”. This helps shift the narrative. “Prisoner” or “Inmate” seems to imply that these individuals are criminals at the core, and brands them as “others” in the eyes of society. Instead, referring to them as “imprisoned people” implies they are human, with natural rights, and only living in a condition of imprisonment rather than being defined by their conditions.

Finally, I leave you with a challenge: rethink how crime and punishment are framed in our society. Who is held accountable? Who isn’t? What acts are considered criminal and what aren’t? Who decides which acts to define as criminal and which ones do not? Who benefits from the current criminal “justice” system? Does committing a crime make you a bad person, a “criminal” for the rest of your life, or should you be given another chance to reform? Should people be branded innately “criminal” or are their actions influenced by the conditions of the society they live in and dependent on the context and motivations behind the crime committed? Is it fair to punish someone based on actions (mistakes yes, but still actions) committed as young people for the rest of their lives? Why is it that our society places the label “criminals” on people who commit crimes, but refuses to see them as anything else? People can be “criminals” and still be artists, musicians, poets, writers, activists, metal workers, etc. Why does our society insist on placing a singular label on this population? Could it be to easily forget their existence, to remove humanity from their essence? All these are necessary questions to ask ourselves to understand our own biases towards imprisoned people and began to rethink our own actions that can have long-lasting consequences on the lives of so many. After all, this prison crisis is happening in our own backyard, and if we do not speak out against these atrocities, we are just as guilty as those committing them.

 

How the Murder of the Mirabal Sisters Ignited an International Movement to End Violence Against Women and Girls

by Chadra Pittman

Trigger Warning: The language in this post will speak directly to the global violence perpetrated against women and heinous crimes which target women and girls. Specifically, sexual abuse, sexual assault, rape, and femicide/feminicide will be referenced. Please seek counseling if you are triggered by this post.

On Language: When I refer to “women,” I am including all humans who identify as women, including cis, trans, gender non-binary and intersex women. I acknowledge that some of the statistics in the article may not specify nor distinguish how women identify sexually and therefore, may predominately represent women who are cis gendered in their findings.

This blog is dedicated to the beloved daughter, sister, and mother, Connie Sue Kitzmiller. Her spirit and memory live on through her daughter and two granddaughters.

Black and white photo of the Mirabal Sisters in the 1950s
Patricia, Minerva, and María Teresa Mirabal in the 1950s (source: Women’s Museum of California)

They were known as las mariposas (the butterflies), a code name for their underground resistance organization, “Movement of the Fourteenth of June.” Patria, Minerva and María Teresa Mirabal, otherwise known as The Mirabal Sisters, were passionate about the fight for justice and liberation of their people and their land in the Dominican Republic (DR), and they were vehemently opposed to the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. Born into an upper middle-class family in the province of Salcedo, these “powerhouse 20th-century Dominican women activists” were university-educated, career women. While Minerva was the first woman to graduate from law school in the DR, her opposition to the government resulted in her being banned from practicing. She was arrested for her political resistance, and her law degree was revoked by Trujillo. While their parents opposed the politics of Trujillo, they pleaded with their daughters not to get involved in the movement. Of the four daughters, Dede was the only one who abstained from the resistance movement (though she now upholds the memory and carries on the legacy of her sisters). The other three sisters spent many years on the front lines of the struggle, even serving time in prison with their husbands, also resistance fighters. There were some who said the Mirabal sisters did not fit the stereotypical image of revolutionaries as they were women and part of the social elite. However, the sisters challenged that paradigm, and they are lauded as “Martyrs of the Dominican Resistance,” “world symbols for women’s struggle“, and “global symbols of feminist resistance.”         

According to history.com, “During the U.S. occupation of the Dominican Republic from 1916 to 1924, Rafael Trujillo joined the Constabulary Guard and was trained by U.S. Marines. His military career quickly progressed and by 1927 he was named commander in chief of the National Army.” Commander Rafael Trujillo seized control of the DR in a military coup, and in 1930, with the approval of the United States, Trujillo, or “El Jefe” (The Boss), became the dictator of the DR for the next three decades. While Trujillo was credited with advancing the DR economically by reducing its foreign debt, Trujillo also engaged in nepotism, ensuring that his family and supporters profited from the country’s economic gains.

As expected in a dictatorship, civil and political liberties in the DR began to diminish, and he named the Dominican Party the official and exclusive political party of the DR. The success of the Cuban revolution and Fidel Castro’s rise to power in January 1959 influenced many Dominicans to join the resistance movement. For ten years, the Mirabal Sisters were engaged in activism, giving voice to the many social and political injustices that plagued the people of DR. 

Human Rights Violations

Beyond his unsavory and criminal business tactics, were“his heinous human rights violations.” Trujillo was responsible for the torture and murder of thousands of civilians and dissenters to his dictatorship. From the rape of women, kidnapping, torture, and intimidation tactics, to the brutal and racist massacre of 20,000 Haitians during the Parsley Massacre, Trujillo utilized the police to carry out his nefarious deeds towards the citizens who opposed his regime. 

“On November 2, 1960, facing an outpouring of public sentiment against his regime, Trujillo publicly stated that he had only two problems left: the Catholic Church and the Mirabal sisters.”  As Nancy P. Robinson writes, “Trujillo’s hatred for the sisters was not just political but personal: he was furious at Minerva for rejecting his sexual advances, perceiving this as an affront to the machismo that powered his authoritarian leadership.” For those who told Minerva that Trujillo was going to kill her, her response was “If they kill me, I’ll take my arms out of the grave and be stronger.”

 

The Mirabal Sisters standing next to a vehicle
Source: Women’s Museum of California

The Murder of the Mariposas

Tragically, Minerva’s words came to fruition. Just three weeks after Trujillo’s remarks, the sisters were returning from visiting their husbands at a prison in Puerta Plata when Trujillo’s henchmen forced their car to stop alongside a mountain road. Their driver, Rufino de la Cruz was killed and then the sisters were suffocated and beaten to death. In an effort to simulate an accident, their car was plunged over a cliff. At the time of death, the sisters were between 26 and 36 years old, and had five children in all. The children were left motherless, the family was devastated, and the community was horrified by the brutality of this violent crime. The Mirabal sisters were brutally assassinated because of their identity as women and activists. The Mirabal Sisters were victims of femicide and injustice.

Defining Gender-based Violence and Femicide

Photo of women lying down in protest in front of a sign that reads "Parem de nos matar"
Source: Global Citizen

According to the United Nations, “Gender related killings also known as femicide/feminicide are the most brutal and extreme manifestation of a continuum of violence against women and girls that takes many interconnected and overlapping forms. Defined as an intentional killing with a gender-related motivation, femicide may be driven by stereotyped gender roles, discrimination towards women and girls, unequal power relations between women and men, or harmful social norms. “Globally, an estimated 736 million women across 161 countries and areas—almost one in three—have been subjected to physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence, non-partner sexual violence, or both at least once in their life (30 per cent of women aged 15 and older).” There has been a push to categorize femicide as a hate crime as hate crimes target specific groups and femicide targets women and girls.

“From the burning of witches in the past, to the more recent widespread custom of female infanticide in many societies, to the killing of women for “honor,” we realize that femicide has been going on a long time. But since it involves mere females, there was no name for it before the term femicide was coined.” (Defining Femicide by Diana E. H. Russell, Ph.D. Introductory speech presented to the United Nations Symposium on Femicide on 11/26/2012)


Igniting a Flame for Feminists Around the World

Drawing of women holding crosses that read "ni una más"
Source: Yahoo Images

While Trujillo hoped to permanently silence the Mirabal Sisters, instead their murder ignited a flame amongst feminists and feminist-minded individuals who are committed to protecting the lives of girls and women around the world.

After their deaths, the “Mirabals instantly became martyrs to the revolutionary cause, helping solidify resistance to Trujillo both at home and abroad.” “Killing women…was just beyond what people could stomach, and that catalyzed a lot of people to become more active in the movement,” says Elizabeth Manley, an associate professor of history at Xavier University of Louisiana.

Many grassroot organizations took it upon themselves to remember the contributions of the Mirabal Sisters. In 1981, in honor of the Mirabal Sisters, the Feminist Encounter of Latin American and the Caribbean in Colombia designated November 25th as the Day for Non-Violence Against Women.

In 1993, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 48/104 for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, which defines this type of violence as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.” Consequently, to solidify this decision, in 1999 the General Assembly proclaimed 25 November as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women in honor of the Mirabal Sisters.

How You Can Help End Femicide and Violence Against Women and Girls

“Gender-based violence is one of the most prevalent human rights violations in the world. It knows no social, economic or national boundaries…yet it remains shrouded in a culture of silence.”

However, we know from the wise words of poet and activist Audre Lorde that “Your silence will not protect you” and we cannot afford to be silent while women and girls are dying at astounding rates at the hands of oppressive systems.

You can add your voice to the conversation and help to break the silence around the violence against women and girls. The United Nations has created initiatives to help you get involved. You could join “The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence,” which is an annual international campaign that begins on 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and runs until 10 December, Human Rights Day.”

The campaign was started by activists at the inauguration of the Women’s Global Leadership Institute in 1991. Annually, the Center for Women’s Global Leadership coordinates this campaign, which calls upon individuals and organizations around the world to develop strategies for the prevention and elimination of violence against women and girls.” In 2008, the United Nations Secretary-General launched the campaign UNiTE by 2030 to End Violence against Women. The theme of this year’s campaign is “UNITE! Activism to end violence against women and girls.” See the concept note here.

In Remembrance of the Mirabal Sisters

What we know is that “No country can expect to succeed in today’s globalized world by marginalizing half their population. You can’t compete with the world with only half of your people.”  The Mirabal Sisters are a harsh reminder of the struggle women face globally, just trying to live their lives and speak about the issues that they face.

Their remaining sister, Dede Mirabal worked tirelessly to ensure that her sisters’ legacy would forever be etched in stone. Not only did she raise her deceased sisters’ children, she managed La Casa Museo Hermanas Mirabal / The Mirabal Sisters House Museum to keep the memory of her sisters legacy alive.

In the legacy of her mother, Minerva’s daughter, Minou Tavárez Mirabal, became a congressional representative and vice foreign minister, while Dedé’s son Jaime David Fernández Mirabal served as vice president of the Dominican Republic (1996-2000). She founded the Mirabal Sister Foundation.

The museum holds the precious artifacts from their life, even sacred memorabilia from the accident. On the 40th anniversary of their assassination, November 25, 2000, the sister’s remains were moved to the grave on the museum grounds.

Rock sculpture of Mirabal sisters
Source: The Mirabal Sisters Museum

The Face of Fearlessness

In the words of Julia Álvarez, author of In the Time of the Butterflies, the key to explaining why the story of the Mirabal is so emblematic is that they put a human face on the tragedy generated by a violent regime that did not accept dissent. 

Now the faces of the Mirabal Sisters are known globally as the symbol of feminist resistance. They appear on the currency in the DR.

Gender violence and femicide are global problems. According to CNN, “More than 100 women have been murdered in Italy so far this year, with almost half of them killed by their intimate partner or ex-partner, the Italian police said. In Latin America, gender-based violence has come to be described as a “pandemic”, because between a quarter and a half of women suffer from domestic violence. According to the United Nations, violence against women in their own homes is the leading cause of injuries suffered by women between the ages of fifteen and forty-four.

The fight to end violence against women is ongoing, and this is not merely a woman’s issue, it’s not just a woman’s fight, nor a feminist issue, nor an issue only in certain parts of the world. Violence against women is pervasive around the world and we must do something about it.

So, start where you are, use your voice, talk to friends and family members about how we can make the world safer for women and girls. Use your talents to bring awareness to the crisis of violence against women. Join an organization, write a letter to a politician or volunteer or lend support to an organization which advocates for women and girls. Here are a few organizations across the globe working to end the violence against women.

Here are some websites you can use to educate yourself on this issue:

A Firsthand Perspective of the Humanitarian Needs of IDPs in Cameroon

Cameroon, once a bastion of peace and tranquility, is now a nation beset with a series of violent and armed conflicts. Since late 2016, an armed conflict between the state defense forces of Cameroon and the non-state armed groups (NSAGs) of Southern Cameroons’ has ravaged the country. In the last six years, there have been more than 6,000 deaths, 765,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), and 70,000 registered refugees in neighboring Nigeria, with approximately 2.2 million people in need of humanitarian aid. The Norwegian Refugee Council has referred to the conflict as one of the most neglected in the world. The long-term human capital consequences of this conflict are enormous. 

A more comprehensive background of the armed conflict and humanitarian crisis in Southern Cameroons can be found in a previous IHR blog post, “Cameroon, a Nation Divided”. 

Map of Cameroon.
Source: via Yahoo Images

It is against this backdrop that the Cameroon Humanitarian Relief Initiative (CHRI) in partnership with the Institute of Human Rights (IHR) co-hosted an international webinar, “Updates on the Humanitarian Crisis from the Ongoing Armed Conflict in the Southern Cameroons” on the 18th of October, 2022. The aim of this event was to discuss the current humanitarian crisis from a multi-perspective panel. The speaker biographies can be found at the bottom of this blog post. 

Excerpts from this webinar were edited and woven together for this blog post. The full recording of the webinar is available on request by contacting ihr@uab.edu. 

Image of Cameroonian IDPs.
Source: via Yahoo Images

Overview                                                                                                                     

What are the current humanitarian needs for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Southern Cameroons? 

Atim Evenye: The current context and the magnitude of the ongoing crisis in the Northwest and Southwest regions remain tense. There is continuous violence in targeted areas. We have the destruction of properties. We have abductions and kidnappings of both community people and administrators. We have killings and local arrests. We have continuous attacks on schools and students. Humanitarians face threats and direct [armed] attacks.  [These are carried out] by both parties, the non-state actors and the state defense forces.

The population [has] really [been] under duress and stress for over six years.

Food Security:                                                                                                                      Atim Evenye: When it comes to the current needs for IDPs, at the moment, I would say food security remains one of those outstanding needs. Especially in the rural areas, because these IDPs have fled their place of abort. They don’t have access to their farms. [As such,] they don’t have the economic capital [for even] daily subsistence. So, there is a lot of dependencies now on family members, [or] world food programs, and other humanitarian organizations bringing food assistance in the area. 

Education Accessibility:                                                                                                        Atim Evenye: There is a strict restriction around education. In [the rural areas] of the Northwest and Southwest regions, we have children who have not been able to go to school until date. In urban areas, there is a possibility of schools for those who can afford it. Currently, in our zone in the Northwest and Southwest regions, we have lost one month [of school this term], because we are only starting now. So, it becomes challenging on how to catch up. There’s a need for accelerated learning. [Additionally,] teachers have been abducted [and] schools have been burned. [To add to that,] there is a lot of psychological trauma, [as] many children have witnessed or experienced violence firsthand. Both the state and non-state actors [are] not conscious of the impact their actions are having on children. The government doesn’t want to hear about community schools as prescribed by the separatist. So, it’s really very challenging to access education. 

Dr. Emmanuel Nfor: Education is one of the issues at the origin and at the core of the crisis, and formal education has been used by NSAGs, [the non-state armed groups], as a political instrument. NSAGs have advocated and enforced a “no school policy”, leading to public school closures for the past four years in many areas. More than fifty percent of threats against buildings in communities have been directed against schools, and many school buildings have been taken over by organized armed groups. Accessing education in emergency services, or going to school in such a volatile environment, is proven to be risky for children, as well as for teachers. Pupils who were in school in most rural areas have dropped out, some joining armed groups, others displaced, and some have outgrown their ages for the classes in which they were and cannot continue. Many parents have lost their means of livelihood and are unable to sponsor their children in school. Despite repeated calls from humanitarian and human rights organizations for education to be depoliticized, schools have been burnt, teachers and students intimidated, kidnapped, and even killed, and some have seen their hands chopped off by members of armed groups. 

Gender-based violence (trigger warning):                                                                          Atim Evenye: We see [a great deal] of gender-based violence. In certain assessments we have conducted, for example, [many of these] young girls in rural areas are not able to go to school. What are they left to do? There is a lot of harassment, rape, and [sexual assaults]. They’re looking for five hundred francs CFA, that’s like one dollar, to [be able to just buy] food to eat. So then, they depend on young men to give them that money. And at the end of the day, they [get pregnant and become] teenage mothers. The whole cycle is really detrimental, it’s a really difficult one. 

Dr. Emmanuel Nfor: Sexual violence is rampant, as a direct consequence of the crisis but also due to decreasing livelihoods, negative coping mechanisms, and lack of protection structures. The boy child is an endangered species, at risk of accusation and arbitrary killing from GFs [state defense forces], and forced recruitment by the NSAGs. There are no specific programs by both UN agencies and Internal bodies that address the needs of the boys. 

Housing:                                                                                                                                      Dr. Emmanuel Nfor: If we look at where the IDPs in particular are, we have IDPs that are living in the rural areas, in the bushes. We have those living within host communities. We have some that have been able to rent. [But if] they are able to pay for accommodation, [there are] a lot of difficulties because they want them to pay upfront, and they cannot do it. In all three groups, they lack basic WaSH and health services, NFIs [non-food items], and protection from natural hazards. Those who fled to other regions face stigma and severe protection risks related to exploitation, and socio-economic vulnerabilities including extortion, sexual exploitation, and child labor. 

Healthcare:                                                                                                                            Atim Evenye: The next principal need I would say is around healthcare. In recent times we have [had] heath centers burned, and the staff attacked. So, it’s really challenging. Statement needs to be completed, even before the crisis, access to health care has been a serious challenge, especially in rural areas. And then, currently, with the crisis, it’s even more exacerbated. It becomes difficult now [for] humanitarians on the ground who are trying to meet the needs of these people. Take, for example, Doctors Without Borders. They have [had] to put their activities on the hold because they had issues around access [and safety] of their staff.

Dr. Emmanuel Nfor: [There is a lot of] healthcare [needs] for the vulnerable. [Safe practices in regard to] water, sanitation, and hygiene are not being followed. People who live in rural areas don’t have a good source of water. But they could be educated on the fact that even though your source of water is doubtful, you could take it, you boil it, you purify it, or you do something to make it [potable]. That education, they don’t have, or the chemicals for water treatment. Additionally, there is a lack of emergency medical and psychological units, to provide emergency care to the wounded and psychosocial support to those traumatized by the violence. We can educate people on how to prevent simple infections. How can you prevent diarrhea infection? How can you prevent malaria? If this education is done, it could be [one] way to [improve basic healthcare].

Healthcare, which is supposed to be a protected area, unfortunately, has not been the case in this conflict.  We have had health centers closed; more than fifty percent of the health centers in rural communities have been closed. Not only the health centers, [but] the health workers do not feel comfortable staying there. So, a lot of them have abandoned [the centers]. The [people] left in these communities cannot access healthcare. Women cannot access antenatal clinics. Vaccinations [are] not being done, and thousands of children are at risk of contracting common vaccine-preventable infections. 

The population has been abandoned to themselves.

Health centers that are open in semi-urban and urban areas are overwhelmed by people who have [been forced by the conflict to flee]. And what’s worse is that most of those who have [fled] do not have the means to pay for the treatment. We have some health centers that have accumulated huge unpaid bills because those who access healthcare cannot afford to pay those bills. For the facilities that are open, IDPs cannot afford to pay for the treatment that is given to them. 

We have [also] had cases of drugs and other medical equipment [being] seized along the way by organized armed groups. So, it’s difficult to render care because the drugs and medical supplies do not reach the vulnerable in the hard-to-reach areas. Free supply of drugs and medical equipment is disturbed by locked downs, roadblocks, and/ or are seized at gunpoint. 

Then the last very worrying thing is that healthcare workers are being attacked or kidnapped for ransom. A lot of them have been attacked both by the non-state actors and by the state forces; [health workers are] kidnapped by the non-state actors and/or arrested by the [state forces]. So, it is not safe [from] either side. They see you as collaborating with the other, and [so the question is] whether you should treat wounded combatants or not. According to the healthcare regulation, we take any wounded persons as patients. But unfortunately, when these [combatants are] treated, we [the healthcare workers] are blamed. The non-state actors blame you for treating the state forces. The state forces blame you for treating the non-state actors. It’s really a dilemma in which we are in. 

Future Directions:                                                                                                     

Looking towards the future, are there any resolutions to the humanitarian crisis in Southern Cameroons that you can think of that can be implemented at this point?

Dr. Emmanuel Nfor: I think the first thing we need to consider for the humanitarian crisis is that we need to speak the truth.

We need to make a truthful appraisal of what is happening on the field. Address the needs. For example, we are told that the crisis in Cameroon is one of the least funded in the world. Why? Because the data and the reposting are for some reason concealed. 

So, if we must be able to go forward with the humanitarian situation, we need to know how many people are living in the bushes, how many are living in host communities, in what conditions are they living, and be able to address it. [These] figures are often contested, they say the number is lower, or they want to sway the number for their gain. So, we must start with you right data. If we have the right data on needs, it will be possible to see where the solutions should come from. 

Possible resolution options, specifically for the humanitarian crisis, could consider the following:

-A community-based approach to raise awareness of protection risks in the community and identify and support community-based solutions. 

-Advocate for access to civil documentation, especially birth certificates, to avoid a stateless generation and mitigate protection risks associated with a lack of civil documentation. 

-Support community mediation of localized conflicts to reinforce the dialogue between host communities and IDPs and avoid tensions within the communities. 

-Advocate with parties to the conflict to respect the protection rights of communities, and respect International Humanitarian Laws. 

-Finding durable solutions for IDPs intending to stay in their host communities, like those who have established businesses in the new areas.

-Shelter support in rural areas as a high percentage of households live in tents or informal collective shelters 

Atim Evenye: When it comes to setting strategies that we can use to resolve this conflict, I would say it’s imperative, for the powers that be to consider the roles of different parties in the conflict. There is a need for parties in this conflict to come to the table and talk. There is a need for dialogue. There is a need for unity. We need to have a unity of purpose, to push our agenda in one voice. 

True is the fact that they have been the major national dialogue, [there] have been consultation meetings and other forms of dialogue in smaller circles. But the question is, during this dialogue are the needs of the different parties considered?

For example, we have women who have suffered a lot as a result of this conflict. But at the same time, we have that arm of women who are also seeking solutions on how to resolve the conflict. Women are now spearheading and speaking for themselves. And I think, there is a need to give a listening ear to what the women are saying because I think time in memorial, women have always demonstrated that ability to resolve conflict. So, one way to consider the proposals that women are giving here in Cameroon.

Secondly, there is a need to give academia and research a place. There are a lot of people in the academic who are gathering data, but the fear around it is the dissemination of this information. The administrative system is such that once you do a publication that is not supportive of what is happening, you get targeted. And by both sides. Thus, we try to be balanced in all information dissemination. There is a need for that deliberation and freedom of speech, especially in the area of academia. People should not be afraid to publicize or to make public the research and the results of what they have found in the field. So that’s another way that can be an added value to the approaches to conflict resolution. 

Also, there is a need to consider the root causes. The conflict did not just start like that, it degenerated along the line. So, there is a need to go back to the drawing board and understand what pushed the Southern Cameroonians to arrive at this point. What are the different trends that have been changing through the crisis?

When it comes to how to resolve the humanitarian crisis, I think the humanitarian needs are more than what the humanitarian organizations can do, funding is very limited. It’s obvious that humanitarians cannot meet all the needs. So where should we turn to? We should turn to other actors who can bring assistance. We have development actors who can bring resilient, [long-term, skills-building] projects so that the communities will not be too dependent. The people of the Northwest and Southwest have never been those who are dependent on handouts. 

They are people who are hard-working. We hear the aches of people wanting to be self-sustaining. They want to just be, to go back and be what they had been doing [before the conflict]. 

Dr. Emmanuel Nfor: If we don’t put away falsehood, if we don’t speak the truth and have the right data and have the right information about what is going on, on the ground, we will continue for many more years doing much but with very little impact. 

The people of Northwest and Southwest can lead by themselves. These are hard-working people. They just need to be empowered, to go back to where they have lived before. There are many people who are longing to go back home, but the problem is that they go to homes that have been burnt. They go to farms that have been abandoned. They go to be reminded of the horror. So, we need psychological treatment and support. We need some form of equipping them to be able to cope with what they have lost. We should be able to end the hostilities and give people the opportunity to go back home.

So, we should rather empower them, than continue to give them aid. Let peace reign, [so that] we can empower them to reveal what they have lost and then see how they can bring up that life again. [Then] we can go forward. But hostilities should cease, and we should speak the truth; to face each other face-to-face and speak the truth. 

Speaker Biographies

Atim Evenye Niger-Thomas, received a Ph.D. in Student Conflict Management and Peacebuilding at the International University of Applied sciences for Development (IUASD) Sao Tome in partnership with IPD Yaoundé.  Since 2016, Atim Evenye has worked and grown in different roles at the Authentique Memorial Empowerment Foundation (AMEF). Currently, she holds the position of Assistant Director and trainer for Humanitarian Negotiation. Under this supervision, AMEF has grown to be one of the leading humanitarian organizations in the Southwest Region. AMEF runs four core programs namely, Education and Child Protection (ECP), Economic Development and Livelihood (EDL), Gender, Protection and Peace (GPP), Health/Nutrition/ WASH (HNW).

Dr. Nfor Emmanuel Nfor, holds a PhD in Medical Parasitology from the University of Yaounde I, Cameroon. In February 2017, he joined the Cameroon Baptist Convention Health Services (CBCHS), as the Malaria Focal Point. While working with the CBCHS, he attended a Peer Review Workshop on Humanitarian Negotiation organized by the Centre for Competence in Humanitarian Negotiation (CCHN) Geneva. After many other online courses, and several National and International Conferences, he was appointed Trainer and Advisor of Humanitarian Projects within the CBCHS. In this capacity, he coordinated projects executed by the CBCHS with funding from WHO, UNICEF, and UNFPA. He has been at the forefront of Humanitarian activities within the CBCHS during the ongoing sociopolitical crises in the North West and South West Regions of Cameroon, working closely with the Cameroon Humanitarian Response Plan. 

 

This is the second in a series of blog posts that will look further into the conflict in Cameroon. Each month a humanitarian need and/or organization working in response to the humanitarian crisis will be featured on the UAB Institute for Human Rights’ blog. 

Hurricanes: How Climate Change Has Made Them More Intense and More Frequent

I wanted to include this image to showcase how magnificent a hurricane storm really is.
Source: Photo by NASA found on Public Domain on Yahoo Images; An image from space of what a hurricane looks like, especially in its size and severity.

Hurricanes have been a natural disaster that Americans have been aware of for quite a while. They are, however, getting to be more frequent, and unfortunately more intense. They have devastated communities like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, the Caribbeans after Hurricane Sandy, and even Puerto Rico five years ago as a result of Hurricane Maria. Well, how do Hurricanes happen in the first place, why are they so damaging, and what is contributing to their intensity and frequency today? Hurricanes generally form over oceanic waters, when the warmth from the ocean water, paired with vertical winds, and the cool, moist air coming from surrounding areas come together in a dangerous mix. The warm water and the moisture in the air combine with the cool air, sucking in the air, and releasing it into the moisture, which then forms rain clouds and thunderstorms, with high winds that perpetuate the cycle. This impressive natural disaster is a powerful one, with wind speeds reaching over 70 mph, and can conduct enough electricity to power the world a few hundred times over.

The El Niño and La Niña

I wanted to include this image to showcase how dangerous being caught in a hurricane can be for individuals, property, and even the surrounding environment.
Source: Yahoo Images; an image showcasing how the heavy winds can uproot trees and blow ocean water inland, flooding the communities the storm impacts

While hurricanes are powerful by themselves, certain occurrences in the environment can impact their severity and frequency. Among these factors are the phenomenon known as El Niño and La Niña, where the normal patterns of the climate are disrupted, impacting trade routes, regional weather systems, and the ecosystem as a whole. These phenomena also impact the hurricane seasons, including where they may impact, and how intense they may be. Under the El Niño conditions, hurricanes are experienced largely in the central and eastern Pacific regions, while during the La Niña, effects are felt in the Atlantic region near Florida and Puerto Rico. Typically, La Niña conditions may mean the possibility of more hurricanes, because the winds during the La Niña are more stable, (as opposed to the sudden changes in wind direction or severity), leaving the storm in better conditions to expand and develop.

Economically speaking, these developments can also impact international trade. Some hurricane seasons are so deadly, many trade routes near the path of the hurricanes are filled with docking spaces for vessels to take shelter during storms. Many companies are taking massive risks moving products during these storms, as their goods can get destroyed by the storm, or get lost in the sea due to changing winds and intensity of the storm. This could prove costly for both businesses and consumers, especially adding to the stress of the already existing supply chain crisis.

Hurricanes and the Danger to Human Lives

I wanted to include this image to show how dirty the stormwater can be, making it dangerous for use and consumption
Source: Yahoo Images; An image of how dirty and contaminated the stormwater can be. This is harmful to use and consume, and special precautions need to be taken before handling the stormwater.

As intimidating and incredible as hurricanes sound, they also come with many health hazards and massively disrupt the way of life for the communities impacted by them. For one, hurricanes bring with them massive storms and high winds, oftentimes killing many people from their impact. If people manage to shelter from the storms, the resulting floods from the heavy rains can claim homes, properties, pets, and lives, as people struggle to literally, stay afloat. Even as this goes on, the community’s infrastructure is attacked, including roads, bridges, the power grid, and the water supply, as well as institutions such as banks, hospitals, and universities, to name a few.

Many of these institutions and infrastructure are essential for survival, meaning that people may remain stranded or stuck in a part of the region deemed dangerous simply because they no longer have access to travel across the roads and bridges the storm claimed. This also means that people of the impacted communities have to deal with the wet, cold temperatures while not having access to power or heat. Having no access to banks and hospitals means that you may not be able to withdraw much-needed funds or go to the hospital because it’s flooded or their equipment can no longer be used. Add onto this the issue of water supply, then suddenly the impact of the storm produces a failing society. These are issues that may take weeks or months even, to fix and get back to “normal” conditions.

Hurricanes are especially damaging because they bring in strong storm surges, which are walls of ocean water pushed onto shore because of the high winds, both of which are powerful enough to knock buildings over and destroy the standing infrastructures. Hurricanes can also cause storm waters, which are runoffs with contaminants that are picked up by the storm along the way, and which can include sediments, debris, fertilizers, fuels, and even sewage from nearby sewage infrastructures that have been damaged.

This can be dangerous to use and consume, and many official statements are posted following hurricanes urging people not to consume these waters, and the best practices to employ to decontaminate the waters before use.  Hurricanes simply existing are majorly impacting people’s right to movement, freedom, safety, life, clean water, and so many more basic necessities. However, there is also an added layer of racism in this mix, mainly in areas of how hurricanes from different regions are responded to, the consequences of climate change, and how this continues to expand the developmental gap between nations of the Global North and the Global South.

Hurricanes, Climate Change, and Double Standards?

I wanted to showcase how hurricanes can plunge communities underwater, and how long it would take for them to get back to anything resembling normalcy.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting the realities of the aftermath of a hurricane or tropical storm. Many communities are flooded, with people facing homelessness, and many resources are unavailable due to the destruction caused by the storm.

Unfortunately, the growing severity of the storms means that the communities impacted by them are having to not only brace against the storms but build their infrastructures to withstand the next round of storms. With the frequency of storms increasing, this also means that instead of a once-in-a-lifetime storm, these communities are experiencing storms of similar intensities every few years. Hurricanes form under conditions of warm water mixing with moisture and vertical winds, so the rising ocean temperatures (resulting from global warming) are naturally going to lead to conditions where hurricanes are more probable.

Among other things, climate change can impact not only intensify the storms, and the resulting consequences from them, that these communities deal with on a seasonal basis but also lead to the rising sea and ocean levels that will submerge many communities under water within the near future if climate change is left unaddressed. This will also contribute to the many other issues that will come out of climate change’s intensity, including the increasing number of climate refugees, the expanding food shortages, and the many conflicts that experts say will break out as a result of boundary disputes.

To make matters worse, although the storms do not discriminate where they make landfall, the responses to the storms have been different depending on the storm’s target. This was very clear in how the media and many Americans reacted to the two hurricanes that hit Florida and Puerto Rico within less than a couple of weeks of each other. Despite both regions being part of the United States, (Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory), Florida received more assistance and coverage when Hurricane Ian made landfall than Puerto Rico did following Hurricane Fiona. Fiona’s destruction was in addition to Puerto Rico’s recent recovery from Hurricane Maria’s impacts only five years ago. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is the government’s response to natural disasters, awarded Puerto Rico $456 million following the destruction of Hurricane Fiona. This may seem like a lot, but FEMA awarded $1.2 billion to Florida in response to Hurricane Ian’s impacts.

Although the efforts of FEMA in response to Hurricane Fiona are considered by many to be an improvement from their responses during the aftermath of Hurricane Maria five years ago, the island of Puerto Rico continues to struggle with poor infrastructure and dwindling supplies. While it is fantastic that such support was given to Floridians struggling with the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, many of whom are people in the elderly age demographic, Puerto Ricans are terrified that their struggles will be brushed aside to make room for Florida’s recovery from Hurricane Ian. President Biden has promised that this will not be the case, and on his visit to Puerto Rico in early October, has even promised additional funds for their recovery endeavors. This funding, however, (a proposal of $60 million), is still nowhere near the required funds to rebuild an entire society for the second time within a decade.

I wanted to include this image to point out the severity of this issue. 2030 is not that far away, and to think so many places could be underwater in under ten years!
Source: Yahoo Images; As sea levels begin to rise, more and more places are going to experience extreme weather, and many places will go underwater by the year 2030 if climate change is not addressed properly.

Additionally, although climate change is a global phenomenon, many of the communities impacted by it are those who are already experiencing marginalization, and this adds another layer to the climate crisis. There have been cries about how climate change is anthropogenic, (meaning it is an impact of human activities), and how the industrialized West has been contributing to climate change for centuries while the developing nations are experiencing the consequences of the activities of the industrialized West. This inequitable reality not only transfers the consequences of the West’s actions but also, the increase in climate awareness and environmental consciousness are used as arguments to prevent developing nations from using the same type of infrastructures required to compete with the economies of the industrialized West effectively and efficiently.

While this sentiment is definitely understandable, the push should be toward shifting policies to develop green infrastructures and help these nations transform their energy to incorporate renewable resources instead of chastising them for trying to develop their societies using the same techniques used by the West that brought the world to this stage in the first place. Blaming the developing nations while the industrialized ones continue to pollute is both hypocritical, and further destabilizes the economies of the developing nations, perpetuating the cycle of exploitation and the following lack of accountability that was founded and perfected during colonial times. When addressing climate change issues, these are some nuances to keep in mind; if climate policies are passed without considering the inequalities between how climate change impacts the developing nations differently than the industrialized nations, the wealth and inequality gap will continue to increase between the Global South and Global North.

Finally, with the increasing severity of hurricanes and the rising sea levels due to climate change, many cities around the world would be underwater as soon as 2030. These cities include Venice, Italy; Kolkata, India; Basra, Iraq; Bangkok, Thailand; Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; and even several cities in the US, including Miami, Florida, and New Orleans, Louisiana. This will take with it the homes of the people who live there, and the immense history that can be found in these places today. It will instead plunge many people into food insecurity, forcing many to become climate refugees and increasing hostilities between the members of these communities and their inland counterparts to fight for survival.

So, What Can Be Done?

I wanted to include this info graph because contrary to many popular beliefs that we are doomed, we do have things we could implements as a planet to combat climate change and become more sustainable in the future.
Source: Yahoo Images; This infographic expands on five types of renewable sources that can be used in place of the fossil fuels used today. These include solar, wind, biofuel, hydropower, and geothermal energy sources.

With the increasing severity of hurricanes, added to the ongoing climate crisis, many people around the world are experiencing both the worst and unfortunately the mildest (when compared to future possibilities of the climate crisis) impacts from these natural disasters. One of the many things that can be done on a global level is to continue to pressure every nation to convert their energy systems to support renewable resources and shift away from the fossil fuels that continue to exacerbate the climate crisis. This includes shifting away from oil, coal, and carbon, to incorporating solar, wind, and hydro-powered energy systems. Countries can implement green infrastructure and slowly attempt to return the environment to pre-pollution levels, (which may take hundreds of years to accomplish if started now).

At the domestic level, climate protections can be added, expanding the overall number of protected lands, and making acts such as deforestation and pollution illegal. Additionally, industries that impact the environment can be regulated for their business practices and their carbon footprints, and industries that use water systems can be further regulated for their practices of waste disposal, making sure the waterways are not polluted by their use of the resources. Furthermore, great effort needs to be taken to ensure that communities most impacted by climate change are included in conversations about policies and aid. Finally, on a more personal level, becoming more knowledgeable about the climate, and educating yourself and others to be more environmentally conscious can help shift the societal mind frame, resulting in the push for better policies addressing climate change as a whole.

 

 

The Trafficking of Migrants by American Political Leaders

 

Picture of the famous Ellis Island, where many immigrants made their entrance to America
Source: Wikimedia commons found on Yahoo Images; An image of Ellis Island, the place of entry for many immigrants wishing to enter into America

The issue of immigration in America is one that is divided on so many fronts, and recognizing this division, political leaders have exploited the public’s conflicting views to push their own political agendas. Immigration has a rich history in this nation, and unfortunately, America has had a very unequal approach to how immigrants are treated. While some immigrants, (including many from Western nations) are treated with great respect and dignity, many of the immigrants that come from Central American nations, African nations, or Asian nations are portrayed by many political leaders in the United States as “criminal” or “coming to the US to steal our jobs.” This has been a tactic used historically since the founding of this nation, and it has led to the racial hierarchy that functions in America to this day. Even today, there have been comparisons drafted between Ukrainian refugees and how they are received versus how refugees from Palestine are treated. Ukrainian immigrants were accepted fully without any concern for space, funding, or any of the other arguments that come up in regard to immigration. Palestinian immigrants, who have been struggling with a similar situation as Ukraine, (where another nation has invaded their own nation, claiming property and lives in the process), continue to deal with political attacks and discrimination simply for being Palestinian immigrants. (For more on how countries value immigrants from different nations differently, read a recent post by my colleague Danah Dibb). This discrimination is also present in how immigrants from Central America are treated, including the fact that children are still being held at the border in inhumane conditions separated from their parents.

Additionally, immigrants have been a source of cheap labor for industries since the founding of America. At first, there were indentured servants and slaves that helped build the economic success of America early on. Yet, after slavery was abolished and indentured servitude was outlawed, industries faced a new challenge to find cheap sources of labor to maintain their profit margins without sacrificing their productivity levels. This has led to industries using the modern-day prison industrial complex, (which has evolved slavery and indentured servitude into a legal process), or outsourcing jobs to other poor nations to be able to exploit laborers for their own benefit. Yet, another way that industries have aimed to address their cheap labor needs is through the employment of immigrants, mainly undocumented immigrants who are not protected under American labor laws, and as such, industries can (and do) exploit their labor without any regulations or transparency in the process. Even the process for naturalization and legalization for immigrants is purposefully long and difficult, forcing immigrants to still pay taxes, without receiving any benefits that documented immigrants would receive. Despite the misconceptions of many Americans, immigrants do not take away jobs from the American public; they take on jobs that are generally avoided by most Americans. Also, contrary to the American myth that immigrants are “criminals,” the immigrant population is more rule-abiding than most U.S. citizens. All these facts are relevant to frame the political landscape for immigrants in America. This historical context is necessary for comprehending the full reality of the political stunts that occurred recently in regard to immigrants.

A Bit of Background on Human Trafficking

I wanted to include this image because it is inclusive of what human trafficking entails
Source: Yahoo Images; An image of a person in distress made up of multiple words and phrases relating to human trafficking. These are just some of the realities people who are trafficked face

So, what is human trafficking, and what does it have anything to do with immigrants? Let’s begin with the first question, focusing on what it is, the federal laws on human trafficking as well as international and human rights laws that protect people from being trafficked. Human trafficking is the sale and purchase of human beings for the single reason of exploitation, whether it be for the victims’ labor, or for sexual manipulation. According to the human trafficking institute, over 24 million people worldwide are trafficked, of which 20 million are trafficked for labor-related issues, and another 4.8 million are exploited for the sex industry. These victims of trafficking are comprised of men, women, and children, from various nations, and from any and all age groups. Just looking at the numbers for America, it is estimated that around 14,000-17,000 people are trafficked into the United States. This does not even include the people that are trafficked within the borders, and this estimate is based on reported findings, which means that many people being exploited that have not been reported are not included in this statistic. Of course, as it is with any other issue, the more marginalized the group of people being targeted, the more vulnerable they are to being trafficked. Among other fields such as the sex industry, some of the most popular industries that employ people who are trafficked are the agricultural, manufacturing, domestic, and construction industries, which benefit from the cheap labor force. Victims are coerced into being trafficked through a variety of ways, including the threat of physical and psychological abuse to themselves or their family members (which can include sexual abuse, deprivation of food and sleep, as well as shaming and isolating victims from their family members). Traffickers also abuse the legal system to confuse or manipulate the victims, such as withholding their passports or documents and forcing them to comply with the trafficker’s rules. Immigrants and refugees are especially vulnerable, because they come from another nation, and most of the time, don’t speak the language of the country they are exploited to, are not familiar with that country’s laws, and are also threatened with deportation back to the country they escaped from fearing for their lives.

What protection do people have under the law against being trafficked?

I wanted to include this image to show that the UDHR protects people from being trafficked
Source: Yahoo Images; The Universal Declaration of Human Rights details in Article 4, that all persons are protected from being trafficked, forced into labor, or other forced actions.

Under most nations’ laws, human trafficking is a heinous crime that can result in serious punishment for those who participate in criminal activity. Protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) under Article 4,slavery and forced labor are prohibited. States that have ratified the UDHR are under a bounded obligation to protect the rights outlined in the UDHR. The United States has only selectively ratified the rights outlined by the UDHR, and as such, any issues of accountability they might face for any violations of the UDHR can become complicated. The United States does have its own laws against human trafficking, and according to the American state department, they have made it one of their policy priorities. One such legislation passed in 2000 to address this issue was the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which put into place an updated legal framework that focused on the protection, prevention, and prosecution of human trafficking. Additionally, to better define who falls under the victimhood of trafficked individuals, the A-M-P model was proposed, focusing on the Action, (how the trafficker approached the victims), Means, (what strategies the trafficker employed, mainly force, fraud, or coercion), and the Purpose (for sexual exploitation or labor exploitation) for the trafficking of individuals. This framework helped the legal system better understand not only how the people were trafficked, but also defined the why. With all this being said, let us now move on to the issue of two political leaders, Ron DeSantis of Florida, and Gregg Abbot of Texas, who engaged in the trafficking of migrants across state borders to stage political stunts, in the process of uprooting the lives of many vulnerable immigrants.

Case of Greg Abbot and Ron DeSantis Transporting Migrants Across States

I wanted to include this image because most humans who are trafficked are done so for two reasons: labor or sexual exploitation
Source: Yahoo Images; An image of migrant workers in the field. Many of the immigrants who were trafficked by Abbott and DeSantis were coerced, with false promises of new opportunities.

The Republican governor of Texas, Greg Abbot, in an attempt to make a political statement regarding the United States immigration policies, began loading up busses full of migrants he picked up at the US-Mexico border to then be transported to the houses of his party’s opponents, such as Vice President Kamala Harris. He also proceeded to send busses into cities that are led by Democrats, such as Chicago, Washington D.C., and New York City, arguing that the borders were not secure enough and that the United States allowed too many immigrants into the country. While this argument is far from the actual truth, Abbot is not the only political leader spouting this hateful rhetoric. The cruel tactics that were used were originally made popular by former president Donald Trump in 2019, who envisioned a much more sinister approach to collect all the “rapists and criminals” and “bus and dump” them in blue states to stoke fears against immigrants. The trafficking of migrants has been put into practice many times since then, by political leaders from his own party acting on the former president’s ideas.

Similarly, the Republican governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, also put into practice Trump’s “bus and dump” tactic but using a private plane this time, to fly migrants to Massachusetts, a state he claims is a “sanctuary state,” (which means these states or cities have an understood policy, whether written or unwritten, to protect the reporting of immigrants and their status to law enforcement, unless the individual is under investigation for a serious crime). In this latest stunt pulled by DeSantis, with the help of an individual identified as “Perla” (Perla Huerta, who is said to be a former counterintelligence agent for the US Army in Afghanistan and Iraq), rounded up 48 migrants in San Antonio, Texas, mostly from Venezuela, and lured them under false pretenses of new opportunities of employment and survival, to board the flight that landed in Martha’s Vineyard. These migrants were handed brochures that came from the Massachusetts Refugee Benefits center (which was made up), and had presented information on the pamphlet which they had copied from the real office for immigration services, Massachusetts Office of Refugee and Immigrants (who had no idea about any of these events). This brochure included “benefits” that the migrants were wrongly led to believe they would be eligible to receive and were flown to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. These benefits included promises of eligibility to receive up to eight months of cash assistance, housing assistance, food, clothing, and transportation assistance, and even help with childcare and education. Not knowing that these were only eligible for documented immigrants that had already been granted asylum, many of the Venezuelan asylum seekers (who had not been granted asylum by the United States) were misinformed and manipulated.

So, what happened to the migrants in both these cases?

Although this is not an image from the recent trafficking incidents, I wanted to include an image of what it looks like when community members come together to help migrants out.
Source: Marty Graham via Yahoo Images; An image of a community coming together to help with the medical needs of the migrant population

Despite the belief by both Abbot and DeSantis that these migrants would not be well-received, the people from the cities where the migrants were dropped off took it upon themselves to ensure that the migrants had adequate food and shelter arrangements as the issues of what to do moving forward were being decided upon. Chicago, one of the cities which received the waves of migrants sent by Governor Abbot, went out of its way to ensure that the migrants’ needs are being met and that they receive the medical care and legal advice they need as they await their fates. Similarly, in Massachusetts, Governor DeSantis’s plan was to drop the migrants off at the foot of a community center and they were told to knock to receive help. No one knew what was happening, but the entire community around Martha’s Vineyard came together to help feed and clothe the migrants. The 48 migrants later ended up at the military base in Cape Cod, using the military’s empty barracks for places to sleep.

If the actions of governors DeSantis and Abbot are run through the A-M-P model discussed earlier, the purpose of these stunts would be the only aspect that might be hard to judge from a legal perspective. The actions the two governors took would clearly fall under the transporting criteria of the first step, and their means would include both fraudulence and coercion for the second step. Although their purpose was of a political nature, they still rounded up migrants through fraudulent means to be migrated forcefully out of their current residence, without a proper place to be sheltered and provided for. While DeSantis dropped the migrants off at Martha’s Vineyard and forced the people there to deal with the aftermath, Abbot transported the migrants to the doorstep of the houses of his party’s political opponents. These actions, if committed by someone, not in a position of political power, would have led to the person facing severe legal repercussions. Yet the two governors have doubled down on their actions, proudly taking responsibility for the stunts, and Abbot even promises that more migrants are on their way, implying that he is not yet finished.

Update: Migrants file lawsuit against DeSantis

United States Supreme Court Building, Washington, D.C. Original image from Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress collection. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel. Source: found via Yahoo Images Public Domain

Still, DeSantis might face some form of accountability for his actions, as the 48 migrants he flew to Martha’s Vineyard have filed a civil lawsuit against him, claiming that in the process, he violated the fourth and fourteenth amendments as well as many federal laws. The attorneys, on behalf of the migrants filing the lawsuit, are calling on DeSantis to be banned from repeating this political stunt again and are asking for DeSantis to pay for the damages caused to the migrants as a result of his actions. DeSantis came out protesting this accusation, claiming that his actions were legal because he had obtained signed consent forms from all the migrants who boarded that plane. He also alleged that this was not an act of coercion but that the migrants willingly took the journey to Martha’s Vineyard. However, most of the migrants claim they did not know where they were being taken to, only that they were promised good employment opportunities and a chance at a better lifestyle. Many of the migrants that were coerced into getting on the plane did not even speak or understand English. Additionally, there have been updates provided that the funds for these political stunts pulled by DeSantis came from public, tax-payer funds, meaning that this is also a case of misappropriation of state funds. Some legal experts are even proposing that these political stunts can be categorized as “kidnapping” because the victims were moved from one place to another without knowledge about where their destination was going to be. We will have to wait and see how this lawsuit plays out, mainly on the issue of whether there will be any accountability for people in positions of political power.

What now?

So, while we await the final verdict from the courts, what can be done to ensure this doesn’t happen again? For one, we could put immense public pressure on the two political leaders using a tactic known as “naming and shaming” to discourage them from pulling similar stunts in the future. However, many people that support these politicians, mainly the Republican base, have applauded the two governors’ behaviors, doubling down on their anti-immigration stances. In a society that continues to become more polarized, “naming and shaming” might have the opposite results than expected. Additionally, another step that can be considered is impeachment, or even banning the two politicians from holding office again. Some people might say this may be a drastic move, but if, as an elected official, you are irresponsible with so many human lives, including those of children, where you think it is okay to treat others with disrespect and ignominy, then you should not be allowed the opportunity to serve a position that would put you in charge of people’s well-being.

Another approach would have to come from the international community, mainly the international criminal courts, in an attempt to hold these individuals accountable for violation of human rights. This too, however, might not be as easy as it seems. For one, the federal courts would have jurisdiction before the international courts, and even still, in 2002, then President George W. Bush “unsigned” the Rome Statute, and a few months later, Congress passed the American Servicemembers Protection Act, which forbade the US from assisting or supporting the ICC or any member states that support the ICC. Further, it granted the president full power over securing the release of any US person, or allies that are held or imprisoned by the ICC. Although there has been renewed interest in revisiting this legislation, from an unlikely individual at that (Lindsey Graham), this support might not extend as far as investigating members of his own party. America has long struggled to hold its political leaders accountable, whether it be for war crimes committed by past presidents, or even for simply acknowledging historical atrocities that have occurred in the nation’s past. However, without proper accountability for these heinous political stunts, the two governors would set a precedent for the worse treatment of migrants in the future.

The Worlds Response to Refugees

All refugees are welcome…well, not all, just those who fit the criteria. In the last decade, the plight and the rights of refugees has been a major topic of conversation and tension. Whether they’re escaping war or persecution, refugees are a vital part of the local and global economies, though people are deeply divided over how to handle refugee crises. There is a constant question on whether refugees should be welcomed, what resources should be given, how much aid should be provided, and how much of one’s human rights and physical security should be given. The UNHCR defines Refugees as “people who have fled war, violence, conflict or persecution and have crossed an international border to find safety in another country.” The definition does not change a refugee’s status based on race, ethnicity, or religion. However, the ways in which they are received by host countries very much depends on their origin, religious beliefs, and appearances. It is essential to provide equal assistance and support for all refugees, not exclusively those who align with a country’s beliefs, ethnicity, or race. Looking at the world and media’s contrasting responses in relation to the European refugee crisis of 2016 and the current Ukrainian refugee crisis, a question arises of whether there are specific requirements that make certain refugees more deserving than others.

Yahoo Images, Refugee Crisis
Yahoo Images, Refugee Crisis

Governments & Individual’s Responses to Refugees

Each country has its own legislation regarding how to govern the state and circumstances of accepting refugees. These laws and policies are heavily influenced by politicians and citizens. These policies have been found to change depending on the source of the refugee crisis. For instance, Japan breaks the news by not conforming to its regulations on accepting refugees and immigrants. This shocks many, as it is a huge contrast to its former response and actions taken in the past. About 1,800 Ukrainian refugees fled and went to Japan. Evidently, the community and country’s reaction reflected an “outpouring of sympathy for the Ukrainians.” It is seen that refugees from Ukraine were considered an exception to the government, apparent from Japan’s gesture of granting refugee status to 74 applicants, which is considered a high record for Japan, never done before. For a long time, Japan has not identified nor considered itself as a country that welcomes immigrants or refugees. They attempted to maintain a nation that houses one ethnic group, one culture. The 74 applicants who were granted refugee status can be compared to Heydar Diman’s story. Diman fled the Iranian persecution and has resided in Japan for over 30 years. He became accustomed to their culture and fluent in the language. Throughout that period, he repeatedly filed for refugee status; he was rejected each time and detained for more than four years.

Europe has been the center of focus when looking at government and citizen responses to the refugee crisis. The director of the Migration Policy Centre, Andrew Geddes, highlighted the dramatic difference between the “very warm welcome” given to Ukrainian refugees compared to the unwelcoming “hostile” responses to the refugees from the MENA region. Countries within the European Union (EU), such as Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, have the highest acceptance rates of Ukrainian refugees yet were the “most resistant” when it came to the MENA region, such as Syrians. The resistance continued, as shown when most of the Syrian refugees in Europe were only allowed to enter four years after the war began once the EU struck a deal with Turkey. Poland accepted Ukrainians with open arms, hosting about 1.2 million refugees (about the population of New Hampshire). Whereas, when the Syrian refugee crisis occurred, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, a strong political figure in Poland, stated in 2017 that to host Syrian refugees would be “dangerous and would completely change our culture and radically lower the level of safety in our country.” The response to Ukrainian refugees was more open and accepting when compared to the past refugee crises that involved Europe. The Robert Schuman Centre, EUI, found different responses to how European citizens felt towards refugee crises. There are statistical charts that display the responses toward allowing Ukrainian refugees as opposed to the acceptance of Syrian refugees. By all accounts, these charts resemble the harsh reality of the unequal treatment provided to refugees holding similar statuses of different origins, hence the willingness to accept Ukrainian refugees rather than the Syrians.

Yahoo Images, We are Not terrorists
Migrants demonstrate on February 29, 2016, during the dismantling of half of the “Jungle” migrant camp in the French northern port city of Calais. Two bulldozers and around 20 workers began destroying makeshift shacks, with 30 police cars and two anti-riot vans stationed nearby. / AFP PHOTO / PHILIPPE HUGUEN

The Media’s Response to Refugees

The World is One News (WION) released a video in February highlighting the contrasting responses of the media and government officials when comparing the refugee crises. Within the media, there have been blatant instances of racism, stereotypical judgments, and discrimination when discussing the urgent need for help in aiding Ukrainian refugees. The quotes below have all been taken from the news broadcast calling out the biased news sources and anchors.

  • A BBC expert stated, “it is very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed” 1:10
  • A journalist from NBC reported on live TV that “these are not refugees from Syria, these are Christians, they are white, they are very similar to us.” 2:07
  • A news anchor on Al Jazeera emphasized that Ukrainian refugees differ from the traditional refugees because “these are prosperous middle-class people…these are not obviously refugees trying to get away from areas in the middle east that are still in a big state of war. They look like any European family that you would live next door too.” 3:33
  • Prime Minister Kiril Petkov of Bulgaria stated, “These people are intelligent; they are educated, people. …this is not the refugees we have been used to. People were not sure about their identity, people with unclear pasts, who could have been even terrorists.” 5:29

These statements and false representations highlight the discrimination within the media sectors and governmental individuals. It deems only certain refugees from specific areas as worthy of help. It is crucial to create unbiased coverage in the media since, at the end of the day, all these individuals require help. Viewing or reading false information created biased responses from citizens and individuals.

Yahoo Images, Media Interviewing Protestor for Refugee Rights

What Can We Do?

The most important thing is to recognize how crucial it is to eliminate biased statements bestowed by the media, politicians, and ourselves. All refugees hold the same status. Their definition does not change based on their appearance or where they come from. Awareness of the discrimination and selectivity that occurs within international communities can aid in stopping it. All refugees are worthy of help and protection. To learn more: Check out this guide on detecting bias in the media. Read more on the topic of refugees and immigrants, and some books can be found here.

Yahoo Images, Ukraine Refugee Protest
Yahoo Images, Ukraine Refugee Protest

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yeshiva University vs. Pride Alliance Group

 

Yeshiva University Wilf Campus
Yeshiva University’s Wilf Campus (source: yahoo images)

On Friday, September 16th, 2022, in response to a court’s ruling that the university cannot block the formation of a LGBTQIA+ group, New York’s Yeshiva University decided to temporarily suspend all undergraduate student activities and clubs. Yeshiva claims that permitting the formation of a LGBTQ+ student organization would be “inconsistent with the school’s Torah values and the religious environment it seeks to maintain.”

How It Started

Pride Parade NYC 2011
2011 Pride Parade in NYC (source: yahoo images)

The LGBTQ+ group in question is Yeshiva’s Pride Alliance, which was unofficially created in 2018. They were unofficial in the sense that their support was low and their group size was small— as all student groups are in the beginning. The student group describes itself as a supportive space for all students, regardless of sexual orientation and gender, with the goal of allowing all members to feel secure, respected, and represented at Yeshiva.

It is understandable that one of the group’s goals was representation. In the modern day, it is extremely unlikely to find any major university without an instituted pride alliance group. Therefore, Yeshiva’s Pride Alliance group wanting that same, basic characteristic—of representation—should not come as a surprise. 

However, when they  approached the university last year to ask if they could get officially recognized as a student group, they were instantly denied. In response, however, they remained determined, and proceeded to sue the school for discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The Legal Claims

NYC CIty Court
New York City Court  (source: yahoo images)

The Pride Alliance group sued Yeshiva for breaking the New York City Human Rights Law, a law code prohibiting discrimination on a basis of gender, race, sexual orientation, and other classifications.

In response to the lawsuit, Yeshiva University, which identifies itself as an Orthodox Jewish university, claimed that they could not recognize the group because it “conflicted with the school’s interpretation of the Torah.” 

The lawsuit first went to a court in New York, where it was concluded that the university must officially recognize the group. The court argued that Yeshiva was not a religious institution (which would thereby make it immune to New York City’s Human Rights Law), but an educational institution. 

Yeshiva disagreed and appealed to the Supreme Court. At first, the Supreme Court told Yeshiva to ignore the prior ruling, and that the Justices will be the ones to declare what rights LGBTQ+ groups have in universities. 

However, that standing changed rather quickly. Just earlier this week, by a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court told Yeshiva that they should follow the prior court’s ruling because they have not exhausted all their options before appealing to the Supreme Court. In other words, the Supreme Court voted to send Yeshiva’s appeal back to local courts; they did not rule that Yeshiva acted unconstitutionally. 

Yeshiva’s Next Step

Empty Campus
An empty campus (source: yahoo images)

After Yeshiva was notified that they should follow the prior ruling (meaning that they must officially recognize an LGBTQ+ student group), they concluded that their only option was to shut down all undergraduate activities and clubs. 

Enforcing such drastic measures upon the entire undergraduate population, as one might assume, was an unprecedented move on Yeshiva’s end. Many might infer that this action could have been done in an attempt to mask discrimination. Is it truly discriminatory to not recognize a pride alliance group when also not recognizing any other groups at all? Most would say it is not. That, from what we can assume, is what Yeshiva wants until the legal proceedings sort out: put forth a blanket disapproval of all student groups so they cannot be faulted for targeting an LGBTQ+ one.

Yeshiva’s measures have caused many to view the university as homophobic; however, the president of the university, Rabbi Ari Berman, was quick to demobilize those allegations, stating that “[Yeshiva University’s] commitment and love for our LGBTQ students are unshakeable.”

However unshakable Yeshiva’s love for LGBTQ+ students might be, we have yet to see. We must not overlook what we have seen—it merely took a pride alliance group to ask for recognition to rid the entire university of all its undergraduate activities and clubs.

What’s to Come

supreme court
The Supreme Court of the United States of America (source: yahoo images)

As Yeshiva returns back to local courts we are unsure of what will happen in the future—except that it will not be filled with any undergraduate activities. If Yeshiva’s appeal succeeds and the city’s ruling is overturned, then the LGBTQ+ group will not be able to get recognized by the school. If the ruling does not get overturned, Yeshiva could appeal their way back up to the Supreme Court.

However, even if this were to happen, precedence seems to be against the LGBTQ+ group. In prior cases, the Supreme Court has sided consistently with religious universities when discussing issues of religious freedoms (i.e. what a religious university can and cannot do). 

Moreover, one of the dissenting members of the initial Supreme Court vote, Samuel Alito, stated, “[Does the First Amendment] permit a State to force a Jewish school to instruct its students in accordance with an interpretation of Torah that the school, after careful study, has concluded is incorrect? The answer to that question is surely ‘no.’” 

In other words, Justice Alito is stating that in his opinion, states should not have the authority to tell religious schools what to do if it does not align with their religious understandings.

With all of this in mind, one could reasonably come to the conclusion that the future of Yeshiva University’s Pride Alliance group is dependent on whether or not the initial city court was correct in deeming Yeshiva a state institution and not a religious one. 

If the city court was incorrect, Yeshiva could inherit the authority to deny recognition to a group seeking representation—even though, allegedly, their commitment and support for LGBTQ+ persons is “unshakable.”  If the city court was correct, representation and recognition of those underrepresented shall prevail. 

LGBTQ+ Rights

pride flags
Pride flags (source: yahoo images)

The events that unfolded between Yeshiva and its pride alliance group returned a variety of different topics to the forefront of the media. One of which, in particular, is the topic of LGBTQ+ persons and the rights they have. 

Discrimination against LGBTQ+ persons has been an ongoing issue for hundreds of years. For years, The United Nations has repeatedly stated that “discrimination against LGBTI  people undermines the human rights principles outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet discrimination and violence against people in the LGBTI community are all too common. Homophobic, biphobic and transphobic attitudes remain deeply embedded in many cultures around the world.”

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was published in 1948. 74 years ago. Not only does discrimination still exist, but same-sex marriage, in 2022, is only legal in 24 countries. 

With Yeshiva University’s recent decision, we are seeing the global issue of same-sex marriage and LGBTQ+ rights back in mainstream media. Equality and respect for all people should be the standard that we live by. 

Despite all that has occurred, Yeshiva could bring forth new lessons for us all. Maybe, (or perhaps hopefully), one of those lessons could be that we, as a society, should strive to make discrimination of all people a thing of the past—make it history, so we can learn from it.