Edafe Okporo is the director of the only shelter in New York City that provides housing for asylum seekers, refugees and migrants. He knows what it’s like to arrive in the U.S. with nowhere to go. Okporo left Nigeria seeking asylum after he was attacked by a mob because of his sexual orientation. With the hope of a better life, he came to the U.S., but soon realized he faced another battle. Refugees can undergo harsh treatment, having to navigate complex asylum law and face time in detention centers. Still, he persevered, and built a life for himself. Now, Okporo is helping others do the same.
The boy’s eyes lit up when he talked about his dream of becoming a doctor.
Seven-year-old “Mohammad” – not his real name – is a Rohingya Muslim from Myanmar. I met him at a learning center at a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, in early July 2019.
After sharing his aspirations, Mohammed quickly remembered reality.
“I know my dreams will never come true,” he said with a faint smile.
Refugee crisis of global proportions
Mohammed is among the more than 700,000 Rohingya who have taken refuge in Bangladesh after an ethnic cleansing campaign of rape, killing and torture by the Myanmar military in mid-2017. They joined the more than 200,000 Rohingyas who had previously fled Myanmar’s brutal efforts to rid the Buddhist-majority country of this marginalized Muslim minority.
In a noteworthy humanitarian gesture, the Bangladeshi government has given refuge to these persecuted people. Aided by Bangladeshi community organizations, various UN agencies and other international donors, the Rohingya have been receiving shelter, food, clothes and basic health care since the massive exodus in 2017.
Most Bangladeshi refugee camps are overcrowded and, as a result, unhygienic. Residents survive on the absolute bare minimum of nutrition and other necessities. Monsoon rain, cold and landslides are everyday threats for these Rohingya, as I’ve witnessed firsthand during my visits to Bangladeshi camps in 2017 and 2019.
It is a dismal existence for all. But it is the plight of the roughly 500,000 Rohingya children living in limbo that strikes me as bleakest.
Concerns of a lost generation
Research shows that future of refugee children grows more imperiled the longer they remain out of school.
In many countries that host substantial refugee populations, including Turkey, Lebanon and Uganda, the United Nation’s refugee agency and the United Nations Children’s Fund ensure children receive a quality, full-time education, either at the camps or in nearby public schools.
Even so, just 23% refugee children worldwide are enrolled in secondary school, according to the UN’s High Commission on Human Rights. Just 1% attend university.
Because Bangladeshi authorities have not granted the Rohingya official refugee status and consider them instead “forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals,” the roughly 500,000 Rohingya children in the country have no access to a formal education. Rohingya children are not permitted to attend Bangladeshi public schools.
The United Nations Children’s Fund and its partners offer Rohingya refugees aged 4 to 14 two-hour daily lessons on Burmese, English, math and life skills at about 1,600 learning centers located at the camps. These classes keep about 145,000 Rohingya children – or about 30% of the Rohingya youngsters in Bangladesh – occupied for part of the day but do not provide the kind of formal education that will allow the children to work toward a high school degree and enter the job market.
The camps offer no schooling at all for Rohingya refugee adolescents aged 15 to 18.
Some teenagers, mostly boys, have turned to madrassas, or Islamic learning centers, where they can receive a religious education.
The remaining Rohingya children who attend neither UNICEF classes nor madrassas are simply left to fill their own day. At the Rohingya camps, I saw boys working in shops, playing cards or sitting idle at all hours of the day.
When I asked Mohammad what he does when he is not in school, he told me that he “takes care of his family.”
“I play with the other kids, too,” he added with a grin.
Adolescent girls, I learned, are often kept at home by their parents because of the Rohingya’s conservative social and religious norms.
The camps can also be dangerous for girls. Human traffickers have been known to target young Rohingya women, promising them jobs outside the camps. Girls face other forms of violence and human rights abuse at Bangladesh’s camps, too, including child marriage.
However, their return was postponed due to protests by the refugees, who feared conditions in Myanmar was not yet safe. The United Nations and other international refugee services have also voiced concern about sending the Rohingya back, saying there was no indication that the Myanmar government had punished the people responsible for the crimes in Rahkine state, nor agreed to give the Rohingya citizenship.
Considered foreigners in both Myanmar, their native country, and Bangladesh, where they’ve sought refuge, the Rohingya Muslims are the world’s largest stateless people.
While the negotiations for their repatriation continue, a generation of traumatized Rohingya children wait for their futures to begin.
RUBAYAT JESMIN is a Doctoral Student at the College of Community and Public Affairs, Binghamton University, State University of New York.
THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON THE CONVERSATION
As he ended the government shutdown in a televised speech on Jan. 25, Trump reiterated his claim that a border wall between the United States and Mexico would save the lives of Central American migrants, many of whom are women and children.
“Walls work,” he said. “They save good people from attempting a very dangerous journey from other countries.”
Open arms or closed borders?
An estimated 1.3 million migrants entered the European Union in 2015 — more than double the year before. They were seeking asylum protection from war, conflict and extreme poverty.
To put that figure in context, just half-a-million migrants — including asylum-seekers, who typically give themselves up to border agents — were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2018.
Most of Europe’s migrants came from Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq. Generally, these asylum-seekers entered the European Union via Turkey, crossing Macedonia, Serbia and other Balkan countries by foot.
Well over 100,000 migrants from sub-Saharan African countries reached southern Europe by sea in 2015, crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa.
Overwhelmed with these increased arrivals, national governments in Europe took dramatically different approaches to managing their borders.
Greece, however, was unable to process the more than 850,000 migrantswho arrived to its shores in 2015. It built holding camps on its Aegean islands, where people stayed in overcrowded, often inhospitable conditions for up to two years as their asylum claims were processed.
Other EU governments were openly hostile to refugees. Across Eastern Europe, countries along the Balkan route began to build and extend border barriers.
Europe had five border walls in 2014, built following the 1985 Schengen agreement amid concerns about immigration at the bloc’s external borders. By 2017, it had 15 barriers, according to the not-for-profit Transnational Institute, and a heavily patrolled maritime border.
Hungary, perhaps the EU’s least immigrant-friendly country, built a high-tech fence that uses thermal detection and cameras to monitor movement, with speakers that blare warnings in five languages.
Walls make migration more dangerous
Border walls have not stopped migration into Europe.
Before the walls, migrants traveled in groups, with or without the help of smugglers.
Now, paying a smuggler is the only way for migrants to avoid border guards and pass barriers. For several thousand dollars, smugglers bribe EU border agents, hide migrants in trucks or walk them across EU borders under cover of darkness.
At least 10,000 migrants now live in homeless encampments or squatsacross Italy. And after the French refugee camp known as “The Calais Jungle” was demolished in 2016, nearly as many people scattered to makeshift camps or the streets of French cities.
Stopping migrants before they arrive
Italy, where most refugees arrive by boat from North Africa, has tried to keep migrants out in a different way: It outsources its border security.
In 2017, Italy struck a deal to supply the Libyan coast guard with vessels and anti-smuggling training. The agreement promised US$325 million if Libyan agents would intercept migrants crossing the Mediterranean and return them to Libyan detention centers.
Human rights organizations have questioned the deal, citing Libya’s political unrest and documented history of migrant enslavement and torture. Returning migrants to detention centers in Libya may also violate international law, since refugees cannot be kept safe there.
In my own interviews with African migrants in Italy who’d crossed the Sahara to Libya, many told me that they eventually boarded a boat there not as a final step toward Europe, but to escape imprisonment or torture in Libya.
Last June, 629 migrants, including 123 unaccompanied minors and seven pregnant women, were held at sea for over a week, unable to seek asylum or aid.
Malta, Spain and France have since repeatedly closed their ports to rescue vessels, refusing to bear responsibility for the migrants on board.
Lessons for the US
Migrant routes into the EU also continue to shift in response to closing borders. Spain, for example, has seen sea arrivals increase tenfold since 2015.
In my assessment, Trump’s crackdown along the U.S.-Mexico border will have similar results. There are signs of this already.
A decades-old U.S. policy of paying Mexico to secure its southern border with Guatemala to keep Central American migrants out has merely made the journey riskier, according to a 2018 United Nations report.
To avoid apprehension by Mexican border patrol, some migrants get from Guatemala to Mexico by water, on boats that are often operated by traffickers.
As in Europe, migrants now increasingly rely on smugglers to get across the U.S.-Mexico border, who may charge more than $10,000 per family.
That does not guarantee safe passage. Between August and October last year, smugglers abandoned more than 1,400 migrants, including children, in the sweltering Arizona desert. Hoping to find safety in large groups, more migrants are now traveling in caravans.
As the U.S. and the EU struggle to resolve their border crises, migrants will continue to flee their home countries seeking protection. Heightened border control certainly won’t make them safer.
ELEANOR PAYNTER is a PhD Candidate of Comparative Studies at the Ohio State University.
THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON THE CONVERSATION
Myanmar recently claimed to have repatriated its first Rohingya refugee family. But, as an official from the United Nations noted, the country is still not safe for the return of its estimated 700,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees, who fled to Bangladesh in 2017 to escape an ongoing state-sponsored military campaign and persecution from Buddhist neighbors.
Indeed, in recent times, the Myanmar military has been building a fence along the 170-mile border and fortifying it with landmines, to prevent the Rohingya from returning to their villages.
I spent two months between June and July 2017 talking to Rohingya individuals who are still in the country living in an internally displaced person camp, about their experiences of violence, displacement and loss. My research shows the difficult conditions under which the Rohingya live in Myanmar today and why there is little hope of a safe return for the vast majority of the refugees anytime soon.
Conditions in Rohingya camps
Since 2012, more than 1 million Rohingya refugees have fled their homes in Rakhine. The vast majority that fled in 2017 sought refuge in Bangladesh, where fears of an imminent monsoon flood are currently looming. In addition, there are an estimated 3.5 million Rohingya dispersed across the globe, the majority of whom have either fled or were born into exile due to violence in their homeland.
Those who remain in Rakhine are either in their homes and are prohibited from traveling away from their villages, or dwell in temporary camps. There are roughly 120,000 Rohingya encamped in settlements, located on the outskirts of Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine, just a few miles from their former homes.
Most residents have lived in the camps since 2012, despite the fact that they were forcibly relocated by the government on a purportedly temporary basis. The camps are managed jointly by the government and military, and receive substantial assistance from international NGOs and U.N. agencies. However, there have been times when even the humanitarian organizations have been barred from delivering food rations and other goods and services by the government and military.
I received government approval to visit the camps last year. In Northern Rakhine, I was interrogated by military officials, and one officer came to my friend’s home where I was having dinner to ask for my passport and travel documentation. I was then allowed to stay.
When I visited the Rohingya camp on the outskirts of Sittwe, the fear was palpable. The only road leading to the camp was dotted with police checkpoints staffed by AK-47-wielding officers. One of my interviews was cut short because there was a rumor of a man being shot dead, while trying to escape the camp. The entire quarter was put on high alert.
I happened to be visiting the camp on Eid al-Fitr, the last day of Ramadan when Muslims break their monthlong fast. In the midst of the tension, there was joy as well. Young girls with freshly oiled hair adorned with satin bows and sequined dresses played alongside the officers with machine guns.
At the same time, there was also the trauma of not being able to freely honor and practice their faith. Residents of the camp spoke to me of the limitations on their religious expression. They explained how camp officials required them to remain in their homes from 10 p.m. onward and how it was not possible for them to gather at a mosque to participate in traditional celebrations central to the Islamic faith, even during Ramadan.
Destruction of mosques
Another sad reality for many Rohingya in Myanmar is the destruction of their religious buildings. All mosques in Rakhine have been either destroyed or shuttered after communal riots broke out between the local Buddhist population and Rohingya in 2012.
Many of the abandoned mosques that I saw had been reduced to rubble, and many of them continued to be heavily policed. The government has also made it illegal to construct new mosques to replace those that have been destroyed or to make repairs or renovations. In addition, in 2016 state authorities announced plans to demolish dozens of other mosquesand madrasas (Muslim religious schools), based on a claim, that they had been illegally built.
In the camp, I learned that residents were allowed to build two small mud and thatch huts, which would serve as their mosques. These small structures were hardly able to accommodate the thousands who wanted to pray there. People must therefore pray separately, a move which has deeply fractured social relations within their community.
Residents reminisced about the beauty of their now demolished mosques, some refusing to even call the structure in the camp a mosque for they believed it was disrespectful to their religion. For some residents, offering prayers in this structure was not a true practice of their faith. As one young man told me, “Without being able to worship Allah, we no longer have our lives.”
Furthermore, it is only men who are allowed into this space. Women are required to pray within their shelters. During one of my interviews with a young man, I saw his wife crouching down on the dirt floor in the rear corner of their bamboo hut amid a pile of cookware. I asked what she was doing. “Praying,” he said.
Even before the 2012 military crackdown, restrictions had been placed on many of the religious obligations and rituals of the Rohingya. From my interviews I learned that for the better part of the decade, no Rohingya living in Rakhine have been able to engage in spiritual pilgrimage to Islamic holy sites in other areas of the country and globe. They have also been prohibited from inviting Muslim religious leaders to visit their mosques.
When I spoke with Rohingya individuals in the camp, they told me the deep religious significance of these practices. To many, it wasn’t just a denial of their religiosity, but of their humanity. “Our history is Rohingya, our religion is Islam, and our home is Rakhine,” said one older man, as he showed me the damp, often muddy, dirt floor where his family of eight sleep has slept every night since June 9, 2012.
Not losing faith
Over the past several years, opposition to the Rohingya has deepened. Many residents of Rakhine believe that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, referring to the fact that some of the Rohingya trace their heritage to Bengal, an area that became part of British India in the mid-18th century and from which many people migrated during the colonial period.
Nonetheless, despite their persecution, the individuals with whom I spoke remained unwavering in their faith. As I was departing, a young man, who had spent five years, or roughly a third of his life, in the camp, told me, “This has only made me stronger. The government has tried to destroy our religion and destroy our people, but a child never loses faith in his mother, and we can not lose our faith now.”
CRESA PUGH is a doctoral Student in Sociology & Social Policy, Harvard University.
THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON THE CONVERSATION
Immigration is a challenge that meets all relatively stable governments and countries offering political asylum. The issue is not solely a hot topic in the United States. In fact, Trump’s suggestion to build a wall is a concept that is being orchestrated to control immigration to the UK from the Northern part of France. This area of Northern France, called Calais, is largely undeveloped but not largely uninhabited… The region has been nicknamed the “Jungle” for its history and conditions.
The two European governments are choosing to handle immigration facilitated via a railroad system called the Eurotunnel that goes under the water passage through the construction of a 13 ft wall. The water passage has served many brave and desperate immigrants either a life or death sentence, literally. The wall will cost a lofty 23 million dollars, funded by both countries.
The Calais Jungle is known as a refugee camp that has historically amassed a number of illegal immigrants, many of which are escaping their native countries of Yemen, Syria, Sudan, Iraq and Somalia. The camp has a long history beginning in 1999 with the opening of a migrant center to facilitate those attempting to reach the UK. By the year 2002, the camp had grown to an unmanageable 2000 individuals. The camp, not fully backed by the French government could not support the steady increase of needy people, and thus, closed abruptly. However, the establishment of these people without a safe place to which they could return meant the area became an unofficial “jungle” home. The immigrants courageously and stubbornly determined to reach the UK continued to arrive to the area. The unofficial and illegal camp became a growing, makeshift society of people with ominous backgrounds seeking a singular goal- a better life in a more objectively stable country. The illegal nature of the camp meant that it was quite dirty, unorganized, and unsafe according to several volunteers. In an attempt to eradicate this development that the government refused to support, the camp was bulldozed in 2009. In spite of their efforts to eliminate the inhabitants from this region of France, the community persisted.
The camp reopened and regained a significant amount of immigrants from the years of late 2014 to the camps official closure in October of 2016. This time period of a year and a half were monumental in the immigrant crisis that existed in this space. The camp grew to a fluctuating 10,000 individuals by 2016. Violence, poverty, and a community completely unsupported had become overwhelming. That said, it was not all ugly. The community had taken on its own personality.. The refugees had developed a functioning society among themselves and volunteers began appearing to help the many downtrodden peoples.
In 2015, two particular men arrived to the camp with ideas and a hope to change the lives through the devotion of their own. The two men, Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, of Northern England and Oxford University came under their personal concerns about the growing migrant crisis. They eventually went on to raise money to create a community theater that would function within the camp. The theater was called “Good Chance and was used by a number of refugees for an array of purposes. One man of Sudan, in between his efforts to escape to the UK, found the theater as a place to participate in a band. This young man, known as Mr. Sarrar according to the New York Times, went on to seek asylum in the UK for for 5 years with a possibly indefinite residence in the future. He, along with many others, found the theater a place to play “upbeat music” and “dance the night away.”
While the camp was well-served by this theater, and the two men who built it created a sense of positivity among the inhabitants, the immigrant situation was nevertheless worsening. In October of 2016, the French government closed the camp and attempted to relocate all willing to regions throughout the country. The rest of the population returned to their home countries or, even in spite of the poor conditions in Calais, remained illegally.
As of 2018, the “jungle” is left only to those forlorn enough to live in what is now a dilapidated camp. Volunteers are still making trips to and from the region, raising money and attempting to help those refugees in desperate need. In February of 2018, two refugee groups engaged in violent acts over food handouts that resulted in 4 left in critical condition and dozens injured. Strict actions are being taken between the English and French governments to prevent further losses and to eradicate illegal movement of refugees between borders. The camp remains a relevant topic of concern.
As far as the British playwrights of the Good Chance Project, Mr. Robertson and Mr. Murphy, they resided as volunteers and theater coordinates up until the closure of the camp. They later went on to create the play entitled The Jungle that follows their experiences across a year throughout the camp. The play is used to raise awareness about the immigrant crisis that persists while telling a story of human existence, resilience, and inquiring about the role of external volunteers. The play began showing regularly in London this year as of June 16 according to The Guardian…
ELEANOR DAINKO is an undergraduate student at the University of Virginia studying Spanish and Latin American Interdisciplinary Studies. She recently finished a semester in Spain, expanding her knowledge of opportunity and culture as it exists around the world. With her passion to change the world and be a more socially conscious person, she is an aspiring entrepreneur with the hopes of attending business school over seas after college.
Remembering Dr. Ho Fengshan and the Jewish Immigrants to Shanghai
Two seconds isn’t much time. It’s a blink of an eye, really—but in that blink, another person became a refugee according to UNHCR. And in a world where one out of every 110 people is a refugee, you might not want to blink. Indeed, take a moment—if you haven’t already—to admire refugees and their unique experience. They epitomize strength and courage in the face of adversity. They leave for better, even when that better is increasingly closed off from them as both their countries and other countries push back. And on World Refugee Day, celebrated this past year on June 20th for the 18th time, the refugee is celebrated for their resilience that is often lost amidst the politics.
Even though World Refugee Day is relatively new, the refugee is not. Since 1950, the UNHCR has worked with refugees—from the early days working with those displaced by World War II to today’s 22.5 million. But what happened before the UNHCR? During World War II the refugee crisis was largely dealt with by countries directly. However these efforts were mostly unsuccessful: the Evian conference failed to find a solution for what was then termed the “Jewish Refugee Problem.” Out of the 32 countries that convened in July 1938, only the Dominican Republic was willing to take in 100,000 refugees. Leaving thus required the kindness of others, especially that of diplomats.
One such diplomat was Dr. Ho Fengshan, who was the consul general of the Chinese Consulate in Vienna, Austria from 1938-1940. He helped issue thousands of “lifesaving visas” against his superior’s orders to help Jews migrate to Shanghai, which was then an open port city with no immigration controls. Some used the Shanghai visa to obtain a transit visa to other destinations. One professor estimates Dr. Ho Fengshan helped save over 5,000. His efforts earned him the posthumous title “Righteous Among the Nations,” a civil honor bestowed by Israel, and the nickname the “Chinese Schindler.”
And in Shanghai the impact of Dr. Ho Fengshan’s action can still be seen at the Jewish Refugee Museum housed in the former Ohel Moshe Synagogue in the Hongkou neighborhood. A memorial spans a back wall with the names of the some 18,000 who found refuge there. Interspersed amongst the Goldsteins, Roths, and Schwartzs are quotes that speak to the refugee experience. Rena Krasno referenced tough beginnings, “the refugees found it very hard to adjust to local conditions,” while Nina Admoni looked on her time as a refugee as an “emotional experience.” Most remarkable is the absence of prejudice on the walls—rather it is a sense of camaraderie seemed to have formed between the Chinese and Jews in Hongkou. A kinship that later became founded on a shared pain from the Japanese occupation.
Looking back at the Jewish refugees in Shanghai provides a glimpse of refugees today: a mix of personal perseverance and external kindness. For many of the Jews in Shanghai, Dr. Ho Fengshan was a boost to their internal determination and shows the power of a small act of kindness. And as we celebrate the courage of refugees this week, we must ask ourselves how we can lend a helping hand. Maybe it is something small, like being a welcoming neighbor to resettled refugees, or something as big as volunteering with the International Rescue Committee. Whatever it may be, focus on the individual and their story.
TERESA NOWALK is a student at the University of Virginia studying anthropology and history. In her free time she loves traveling, volunteering in the Charlottesville community, and listening to other people’s stories. She does not know where her studies will take her, but is certain writing will be a part of whatever the future has in store.