Category Archives: Human Rights

The Golan Heights: The Status Quo is Good for Everybody (or Almost)

Photo credit: Aamer Ibraheem

Syria and Israel clash over the region but the status quo seems to work for both. Meanwhile, a new generation of activists are struggling to reaffirm their rights.

By Elena Roda

Qunaytra checkpoint. About 500 meters divide Israel and Syria. Or better, about 500 meters divide Golan Heights, a Syrian territory occupied by Israel in 1967, and Syria. A narrow demilitarized strip crossed by trucks carries apples. Apples that grow in Golan Heights and that are sold in Syria. In 2011, 12.000 metric tons of apples reached Syria from the Golan. Unlike Syrian and Israeli citizens, apples are allowed to cross this border, under the control of the International Red Cross.

Aamer is a young man who has worked on picking apples to sell to Syria. He is from Golan Heights but he is studying in Haifa, Israel. “I moved to Israel only because I wanted to study law. We live under the Israeli law and we cannot go to work in Syria, I did not have other possibilities rather than studying in Israel. But, if I had studied medicine or something else, I would surely have chosen to move to Damascus, because I belong to Syria, I am Syrian”.

When Aamer talks about the Golan, his voice changes its tone. He talks feelingly, proving his involvement in the Golan situation. Aamer is an activist for Golan Heights and he keeps saying that he wants to reach as many people as possible talking about the Golan issue. “It is important to spread the word, to let people all over the world be aware of our condition, as occupied territory”.

Arab people from the Golan are allowed to cross the border and go to Syria only for studies, religious pilgrimages, marriages, and health issues. On the contrary apples are carried across the border several times between February and May, every year, since 2005. “For Syrian authorities the apple operation is more than just an ordinary marketing intervention. Syria supports farmers in the occupied part of the Golan Heights as a patriotic and humanitarian duty, without thinking at all about profit or commercial gains”, claims Saleh Dabbakeh, the communication delegate of the International Red Cross in Damascus, the only organization in charge of apple trade and mediation between Israel and Syria concerning apples border crossing.

 Negotiations are not working

Syria is buying the Golan’s apples to sustain Arab settlers in the region as Israel is supporting Israeli settlers living in the Golan, buying their products. The issue is small in comparison to the larger unresolved problems between Israel and Syria. Israel is taking care of its settlers (Israeli people are little under 50% of the population in the Golan Heights), while Syria is mindful about its Arab people living there (the other half of the population).

The two countries, Syria and Israel, have different cultures, origins, and traditions. And the Golan (with a population estimated around 40.000) is located in between, influenced by both. Arab people in the Golan Heights feel they belong to Syria but they live in an Israeli territory, under Israeli law, and they cannot travel to Syria except on a rare occasion.

Aamer lives his life sharing feelings of these three different populations. He is the living proof of the messy situation among Israel, the Golan, and Syria. He lives and studies in Israel, his parents live in Golan Heights, and he is looking at Syria as his home. Every time he can he goes back to the Golan.

“I am OK in Haifa,” he says, “I have a lot of friends from Israel, I share with them my life, my studies, and my work. But I live in Haifa and I think about Syria, my country where I cannot go”. Studying and living in Israel is a good opportunity for Aamer to analyze both sides of the same phenomenon: “Being in Haifa I can feel the Israeli-Syrian clash also from the Israeli point of view and I am making comparisons. But I am not changing my perspective about my land”.

Since 1967, when, after the Six-Days War, Israel captured the Golan area from Syria, countries and organizations have been trying to deal with this controversial situation internationally. “We have to say that Israel is occupying the territory”, claims Marcelo Kohen, professor of international law at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. “The UN Security Council declared it illegal, that is the central point to think about”, adds Mr. Kohen.

Thus, Israeli action in the Golan is condemned internationally. After the first occupation in 1967, Israel continued its maneuvers in the Golan. It definitely annexed the territory in 1981, and extended Israeli law in the area. The whole Israeli action is not internationally recognized.

During these years the Golan issue was discussed among leaders and countries without achieving any result. “The Golan issue was discussed in informal negotiations”, adds professor Kohen, “During the Ehud Barak administration Israel put many efforts in resolving the conflict with Syria before resolving the Palestinian issue, but then no outcomes were achieved”.

Regarding the slowness and inefficiency of negotiations, professor Kohen says: “In that area the first priority is resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, afterwards it will be time to resolve the controversy between Israel and Syria about Golan Heights. Anyway, in these days, because of the domestic situation in Syria, any kind of negotiations would be impossible as we face an international concern about Assad government”. “Probably – concludes professor Kohen – the international community has to wait till conditions improve”.

Keeping the status quo

In the Israeli-Syrian clash regarding Golan Heights we have to consider a lot of different factors. It is not just a matter of one country occupying a territory of another one. On the contrary, many different elements are playing an important role in this situation that it is more complex than it seems at first sight.

Dore Gold, who served as foreign policy advisor to Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon, wrote about the Golan Heights raising interesting points. In his article for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs in May 2008, he points out problems hardly solvable in the Israeli-Syrian clash. These are obstacles correlated to boundaries, security matters and the Syrian-Iranian alliance. Mr. Gold claims that the Golan is a strategic territory for Israel’s defense. That means that Israel has no advantages in resolving this controversy.

Israeli indifference over the Golan issue is easily understandable and, we can say, not new. The unexpected factor is the role of Syria and its position in this complicated situation. “I believe both sides are interested in keeping Golan under occupation”, claims Shefaa Abu Jabal, activist from the Golan Heights, graduate in law, journalist, and blogger. “For Israel it is a strategic place and provides the country 25% of water annual supply. For Syria it is important to keep Israel as a declared enemy to keep telling the Arab world that Syria is the last castle standing in the face of Israel and distract public opinion from what is going on inside Syria”.

This new perspective on Syrian role on the Golan issue shows us the complexity of the question. Both countries, for different reasons, are trying to keep the situation as it is nowadays, to keep the status quo. On the other hand, the international community has no voice in the matter, as no outcomes in negotiations showed us.

Aamer thinks about Syrian deficiencies. He would live in Golan Heights as a Syrian territory but he is aware that living under the Syrian regime would not be a good solution for Arab people in the Golan. He keeps saying that he dreams of the end of Israeli occupation. However, he would be afraid of living in Syria under Assad regime. He would rather prefer waiting for a democratic turning point in the country.

“Syria has no freedom of speech. Many people there say that they are free but this depends on which country you compare Syria with”. Freedom of expression is fundamental for Aamer. He is using his voice, his words to talk about the Golan Heights, he writes on social networks, he takes pictures, and he makes videos to explain to people his country’s condition.

Asking him about current happenings in Syria, without any doubt he says: “Syria must change. If I was there I would surely be with the population against the Assad regime. I would surely be part of the group of people who struggle for their rights. But without any kind of violence, this is my most important concern. I am against any extremist movement”.

 Dreaming of freedom

Aamer feels he has an important role in Golan issue, and this is not just his own feeling: “The most conservative people in the Golan are afraid of freedom, changes, and modernity. But not looking for a change would not allow people from the Golan to change their condition. That is why young people are fundamental for a positive change in my land. New generations want to make a difference. They want to spread their voice all over the world”.

He looks at his land. “This is wonderful. Look at the nature, the green places, feel the atmosphere. There, mountains are full of snow. Israeli people are coming here to ski. The only ski resort in Israeli territory is in the Golan Heights. It is weird, isn’t it?” The nature flourishes, apples grow before travelling to Syria. Aamer helps farmers to pick apples. Probably he would like to go to Syria with them. But not now, before he still has to work a little bit more. Freedom is his aim, free Syria his dream.

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The Mystery of Syrian Unrest

Demonstrations in Banyas, Syria, May 6th 2011. Photo credit: Syria-Frames-Of-Freedom (CC-BY)

By Elsy Melkonian

Also published on EMAJ Magazine

Syria has boasted a remarkable stability over the last 40 years. Unlike most Middle Eastern countries such as Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq, Syria knew no sectarian rivalries that struggle for power or discrimination policies against minorities or conflicts to set the stage for terrorist groups. People with different beliefs and belongings lived harmoniously maintaining peace and security for many years. However, skirmishes that started in Deraa, March 2011, moved across the country and changed the image upside down. Protesters weren’t pleased with their life in Syria anymore.

For the last three months, revolts have sparked on Fridays after the Muslim prayer at mosques. Inspired by the revolution in Tunisia and Egypt, protesters in Syria demand a greater democracy. While the capital and the main cities remained quiet to date, skirmishes and most violent events took place in villages and smaller towns. Dozens of civilians have fled to the neighboring countries while thousand sought refuge in Turkey.

In its coverage of the clashes, international media speaks of brutal acts committed by the Syrian regime against the civilians. On the other side, Syrian media talk of armed gangs and radical Muslim groups pouring money into the hands of the poor farmers in small town to win them to their side. Besides, terrorist groups (according to the narrative of the Syrian media) are aiming to divide Syria and weaken its spirit of solidarity.  In response to all this noise, Syrian government has pledged to answer the demands of the protesters. So where does Syria stand now?

New Reforms

The unrest that sparked in Deraa urged the Syrian administration to adapt serious reforms. Buthaina Shaaban, president’s advisor, announced that the government is keen on meeting the demands of its people. “We ensure that implementations of these reforms will start soon because the Syrian administration is eager to maintain peace on its territory,” said Shabaan in a press conference held on March 24 in Damascus. These include 20% salary raise for employees of the public sector, more funding for healthcare, increase job opportunities for youths,  democratize the ruling mono-party (Baath Party) system into multi-party system, issue a new media law that protects censorship-free practice of independent media, alongside many other considerations to restructure life in Syria.

Shaaban’s speech made Syrians happy. Everyone looked forward to see the fruitful results of her promises. “I’m impatiently waiting to receive the salary raise,” says M.T., a school teacher on condition of anonymity, “It would help the people to face high living expenses“.

In fact, reforms are not new to the Syrian society although to date they were only related to economy. When Bashar Al Assad became a president in 2001 he worked on moving the country from its older socialist style economy to a free market. In practice everything started in 2004 when private schools, banks and companies sprung up across the country.  The modest middle class emerged to run small and medium size businesses. Moreover, the government authorized foreign ownership to encourage investment, but investors were mainly Turks or Arabs from the gulf.

However, the recent reform promises are still questionable. Shaaban’s speech was given on the 24th of March. To date, not much change is visible. Minister Shaaban announced that a new media law will replace the current law soon.  Discussions are still ongoing with no consensus on a final version. The 20% raise of salaries wouldn’t empower the citizens to face the inflation storm.

In 2010, UNDP experts published The Third National MDGs Progress Report which gives the index for poverty line during the period of 1997-2007. The report aimed at gaining insights from the past to plan for the next ten years. People who live in extreme poverty fell from 14.24 percent to 11.4 percent in 2004. In 2007 this figure deteriorated to 12.7 which mean that 6.7 million people are considered to be poor out of 21 million of total population. Hence, reforms which started with Bashar AlAassad did not contribute much to the boost the economic climate.

President Assad has successfully created an image of himself within Syria as a reformer, but without delivering much,” says Christopher Phillips, Syria Specialist at the Economist’s Intelligence Unit in London. “Assad has talked of reforms while retaining political power and overseeing a growth in corruption. Even his economic reforms have served only to benefit a modest middle class, while poverty and unemployment have increased due to poor management, lack of planning and high levels of corruption,” Phillips continues.

Questioning Human Rights during unrest

When protests sparked in Syria to ask for greater democracy, much violence was involved. The government was accused of using gunfire and mass arrest against civilians in its attempt to end these riots. However, the Syrian government stressed, in its recent reform plan, that only peaceful demonstrations are allowed. This means that citizens should approach authorities in advance to obtain a letter of approval.

I participated in the demonstrations that support President Assad,” says Michael Bitar a Syrian citizen. “We marched the whole city with no problem with authorities, but those who use weapons against fellow civilians, of course, should be punished. They are harming humans and public property,” he argues. “To set an example, there were peaceful demonstrations in front of the residence of the French Council. The goal was to send Sarkozy a message regarding the sanctions he is trying to force on Syria. We were all safe,” Bitar says.

On the other side, Human Rights Organizations, such as Amnesty International and others ignored all peaceful demonstrations and reported only on riots and clashes between the government and the protesters. Syrian government’s use of violence to solve the trouble was strongly condemned and was described as “brutal”.

A report entitled “We’ve Never Seen Such Horror” by the New York-based Human Rights Watch was issued to sharply criticize violations of human rights in Syria during the unrest. The 54 page report contains interviews with the citizens of Deraa, the town where protests began. In this book, beatings, torture, and killings were described by witnesses of riots, yet with no specificities. The explanation to that, as it was mentioned in the report, was because the government decided to bar international reporters from accessing needed information.

Syria has an authoritarian closed regime,” says Mohdi Mouzzaffari, expert on Middle Eastern issues and professor at Aarhus University, “Barring the international media from accessing the country sends mixed messages. If Syrian government claims that armed groups are creating terror, they should allow international reporters in to verify their claim.”

The Syrian problem through the eyes of media

International media dedicated a fair share of its pages to cover Middle Eastern uprisings and Syria had a fair share too. Replacing reality footage with amateur videos found on You Tube and other social media, CNN, BCC, Reuters and other international mainstream outlets reported on the brutality of the regime against its people. Conversely, most Arabic Televisions, better defined as state propaganda to all ruling governments, reported on how Syrian police are killed by armed gangs and terrorists.

Surprisingly, Reuters’ correspondent to Syria Khaled YAacob Aweis was accused of filing false news against Syria and by leaning on stories told by ordinary people as ‘the news to be broadcasted’ without checking the accuracy of these stories. This led to withdrawal of Aweis’s accreditation in Damascus. Australian channel ABC confirmed that Reuters’ reports on Syria were false as pictures of civilians being beaten by armed force belong to neighboring countries and non-Syrian streets. As a result Syrian authorities barred all international correspondents from accessing the country.

Obviously Reuters was not the only one. Aljazeera, which has proven itself as an emblem for independent media in the Arab World, filed similar reports too. “I was enjoying a Friday lunch and a sunny afternoon with my family as we usually do in Aleppo,” says Hala, a young pharmacist from Aleppo, Syria’s second city. “Watching the television while having my lunch I suddenly saw breaking news on Aljazeera reporting on riots in Aleppo. That’s unbelievable! Aleppo has remained very quiet during the entire period of revolts.”

News on Syrian state TV refers to enemies who endeavor to weaken Syria’s solidarity and spark sectarian rivals. In his speech President Assad describes demonstrations that broken out in the Deraa, Hama, and other Syrian cities as chaos. “We are for supporting people’s demands, but we cannot support chaos”,” The chaos that presidents spoke of resulted in dozens of people killed every day.”

I’m sad for what’s happening in Syria,” says Osama Al Tessini a Syrian expatriate based in Germany. “I know there are false reports, but I’m sure that there is some truth in it since I’m in contact with my friends in Syria. This way I’m able to get see the clear picture, while the International viewer doesn’t have the chance to hear the natives. Out there is the international media.”

Cloudy future?

The future of the Syria under the current circumstances is hard to predict. The regime is still able to control the situation and the army is showing full support. “In Egypt the army sided with the public leaving Moubarak alone to face his destiny, “says Professor Mouzzaffari. “The Syrian army maintains loyalty to Bashar AlAssad, and that’s what is empowering the Syrian administration to stand on a solid ground. Speaking of the sanctions, I think that the Europeans states want to have a similar reaction to Syria as they reacted to Libya, but sanctions against the Syrian regime are unlikely for the time being.”

Those who survived the revolution experience, such as the Egyptians, think it is the only way leading to democracy and that it should be repeated in Syria. “Let Syrians choose their leader through fair and transparent elections,” says Hanan Solayman, an Egyptian activists and journalist. “The road to democracy is not immediate, but we’re living a transitional period.”

With similar uprisings in the Arab region, however, there were no filed reports on Reuters or Aljazeera. International media’s coverage is outraging the international public opinion through streaming violent videos. For the Syrian viewer, who is able to hear both sides, it is confusing to reach a right judgment. He is torn between the urgent need for serious reforms of the political and the socio-economic make up of his country, waiting for the leader who showed willingness to reform and mourning the killed and the wounded people every Friday.

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Domesticating Human Rights Prosecution

By Joyce Fernandez

On June 1, 2011, Andal Ampatuan Sr., the former governor and notorious warlord accused of masterminding the 2009 massacre of 57 people in the Southern Philippines province of Maguindanao, was finally arraigned in a Manila court, a year and a half after his arrest, and 10 months after he can legally delay entering a plea.

More consternating to those already wearied by the leaden pace of justice was the fact that the arraignment only happened because Ampatuan, patriarch of the clan that has controlled conflict-ridden Maguindanao for generations, volunteered to have his day in court, allegedly to distract the public from a supposed $4.5 million payout by his fellow accused son for a favorable judgement on his own case. Not surprising to many, Ampatuan Sr. pleaded “not guilty” to 57 counts of murder.

Powerful people in the Philippines are generally thought to play fast and loose with the rule of law, so wanton is the disregard for justice and lawful conduct, in fact, that impunity can assume a snarky, almost comical aspect: In May, another provincial governor convicted of killing his long-time confidant was caught on security camera ducking into a family-owned building in Manila’s posh business district while serving a 12-year term in the national prison. When rearrested, the ex-governor insisted he was not escaping, merely having an ‘intolerable” toothache checked. How was he able to just walk out of jail? “There are eight gates (at the prison), which cannot all be guarded,” he told media.

Impunity is such that public horror over capers and tragedies alike tends to subside once the media spectacle has played out, giving way to a deep cynicism that justice can ever be served or that the rich and mighty can even be touched. The brutality of the Maguindanao murders—in which the victims were found shovelled into a shallow pit, with the women’s bodies horribly mutilated—shocked the nation, but many thought it would have been another case of bitter, election-related violence in the far-flung badlands of Mindanao had 32 journalists not been among those killed.

The mass killing of journalists, the biggest ever in the world in one single event, drew international attention and put pressure on then President Gloria Arroyo to order the arrest of her political allies, the Ampatuans. And even with the intense media circus surrounding the case, the continued inversion of justice has gnawed at the likelihood of conviction—a key witness has been killed, others have withdrawn, legal processes have been twisted like so much silly string. “An arraignment made dependent on the willingness of the accused to enter a plea weakens and undermines the rule of law,” says Harry Roque, lawyer for the victims’ families. “This is truly a sad commentary on the state of our criminal justice system.”

A roadmap to end impunity

In February, the Philippines finally ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, signifying its commitment to uphold human rights and international criminal justice. Recent trends in criminal law, however, suggest that a country battling systemic impunity and corruption like the Philippines can demonstrate stronger commitment to the rule of law by availing of a UN-backed “hybrid” tribunal that embeds international initiatives within a domestic context, similar to the commission created for the crime-ridden state of Guatemala now being hailed as a “groundbreaking” new model for international criminal justice, the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG. Adopting a CICIG-like model can offer a roadmap for the Philippines to strengthen its legal system to end structural impunity and corruption under the impartiality of an international body.

Guatemala after its civil war became a no-man’s land of illegal security forces and clandestine criminal organizations, which had close ties to state institutions. The government was powerless to stop the murders, kidnappings, extortions and gang violence that increasingly threatened citizens. Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, famously summarized the country’s chaos: “Guatemala is a good place to commit a murder, because you will almost certainly get away with it.”

Escalating lawlessness prompted Guatemala to seek UN help. A 2003 proposal for a similar commission to investigate illegal security groups judged unconstitutional by a Guatemalan court was re-negotiated to limit prosecutorial powers to joining cases only as a private prosecutor and became the basis for CICIG.

Since its creation in September, 2007, CICIG has achieved “notable and unprecedented short-term successes,” according to a recent report by the conflict prevention think tank International Crisis Group, including the dismissal and prosecution of several senior officials, the removal of a compromised attorney-general and the selection of a respected successor, the adoption of guidelines for the appointment of Supreme Court justices, and the enactment of legal reforms.

Headed by a UN-appointed foreign commissioner and incorporating international staff, the commission’s independence, objectivity, and expertise have given it great credibility among the Guatemalan public, making crucial cracks in the wall of impunity. “Guatemala definitely is better (because of CICIG) in terms of those engaged in corruption knowing they are more at risk,” says Mark Schneider, senior vice-president and special adviser on Latin America of International Crisis Group.

A similar history

CICIG’s significant innovation, according to a 2010 report in the Journal of International Criminal Justice, is a “demonstration effect” that translates its “ultimate deference to the domestic judicial system” to an opportunity to train local personnel and transfer technical capacities and push for legal reform. It also has the potential to dismantle organized crime “by successfully investigating and assisting in the prosecution of a small number of emblematic cases.”

CICIG’s effectivity was highlighted in the bizarre case of Rodrigo Rosenberg, a lawyer who engineered his own assassination to frame President Alvaro Colom for the murder of a businessman and his daughter. The accusation nearly toppled Colom’s government, and it turned to CICIG to investigate, and ultimately, resolve the case, which also led to uncovering police groups for hire as assassins.

The parallels between Guatemala and the Philippines are striking, and should augur well for the adoption of a similar commission in a country where the homicide conviction rate is 10 percent (Guatemala’s is a staggering 2.06 percent), where police and military elements are said to be involved in crimes ranging from carnapping syndicates and narcotics trafficking, to goods smuggling and illegal gambling, and where politicians’ heavily-armed private militias roam unchallenged in the regions.

Both countries have similar historical experiences, a common colonizer (Spain), a small elite and a massive underclass, an agricultural economy and land reform struggles, endemic corruption and tax collection inefficiencies, and a lack of basic services. Both even share the same year, 1986, when democracy was restored.

The similarities are such that the eight high-profile cases CICIG took on to galvanize public attention can easily find corresponding cases in the Philippines that will resonate with the public—in Guatemala, cases against the daughter of a congressman for human trafficking and illegal adoption, against military generals for embezzlement, against a senior prosecutor for obstructing justice, and, most notably, the embezzlement charges against ex-President Alfonso Portillo, likely will connect with Filipinos who have been fed a daily diet of government scandal in the press: the P73.85 million tax evasion complaint against the congressman-son of ex-President Gloria Arroyo, the alleged rubout by the national police of members of a notorious crime syndicate, and the supposed “deliberate inaction” of the public prosecutor on cases against close political allies of ex-President Arroyo. The close comparisons indicate that if a hybrid commission can work in Guatemala, it can do so in the Philippines.

A workable prospect

“We should really follow the CICIG model,” insists Harry Roque. “I think it is very clear that the Philippine government is simply not equipped to handle cases such as the multiple murders in the Maguindanao massacre. Our rules are antiquated.”

UN Rapporteur Frank La Rue, the Guatemalan human rights lawyer who had been a consultant to CICIG, according to Roque, is coming to Manila in September to explore the creation of such a commission for the Philippines.

While CICIG is virtually unknown in the Philippines, there are indications that such a novel arrangement may have avid takers. Corruption may be structural, and the population, jaded, but, the international profile of such a commission may be attractive to the Aquino government.

Observes long-time journalist and foreign affairs expert Jose Franco: ”Given the Philippine democratic setup—having a multi-party system, strong civil society movements, a zealous student activism and a vibrant environment for political squabbles—I have no doubt that the country will be among the first to replicate the CICIG. The Philippines, being a founding member of the ASEAN and the UN, has shown its astuteness in interpreting the various regional agreements and international conventions.”

A Philippine commission, moreover, can learn key lessons from CICIG’s mistakes and refine the model. Despite its successes, CICIG has been criticized for arbitrary case selection and failing to lay the groundwork for the eventual dismantling of illegal security groups. The commission also failed to secure long-term funding commitment from its UN donors such that CICIG’s direction depended on ”virtually annual forages of funding,” according to ICG’s Schneider. ”But CICIG clearly is a demonstrably useful and novel effort to bring independent and competent strengths to the battle against impunity and corruption. It may have to be modified for different countries but the core competencies should be retained and replicated.”

The model’s local judicial legitimacy, moreover, should remove any objection President Aquino may have to a hybrid commission on grounds of violating sovereignty, argues Roque. The existing European Union-Philippines Justice Support Program (EPJUST), which monitors extra-legal killings and enforced disappearances in the country, is already a precursor, he points out. ”Only a commission like CICIG’s (which has powers to promote prosecution, not just to investigate) will be more proactive.”

The Philippines, in fact, had already come close to a CICIG-like intervention when it asked the US government to determine the innocence or guilt of a Filipino housekeeper convicted of double murder in Singapore, which had sparked an intense diplomatic row between the two neighboring countries. The US investigating team upheld the conviction, and the two countries decided to resume diplomatic relations.

Political will or won’t?

All indications point to the country capable of making a hybrid commission workable, and perhaps, with its past experience, even more successful than Guatemala’s. The only question remaining is the Philippines’ inclination to do so. As with most initiatives in the country, in the end, the determining factor again rests on the much-debated (or much-awaited) political resolve of President Aquino, who has made fighting corruption the avowed cornerstone of his administration (His campaign slogan, “No Corruption, No Poor.”) He will have to summon the courage to stand up to the corrupt politicians and military generals and their organized-crime associates who will likely oppose the commission. His main advantage in this respect: Unlike his predecessors, he is widely thought not to be personally corrupt.

In such wait-and-see climate, some are understandably not so optimistic, given an equally deepening culture of  apathy. Guatemala got CICIG as a desperate response to a “rising fear of a narco-criminal state that drove even conservative forces to accept an international law enforcement intervention of this nature,” according to Schneider. Such “critical circumstance,” it is argued, has yet to happen in the Philippines, and the alternative, the President’s volition, remains an exasperating, Hamlet-esque speculation. Says lawyer Ray Paolo Santiago of the Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism: “Although there are parallelisms between the Philippines and Guatemala, the main difference is the complete breakdown of the government system. The Philippines has not reached that level. I think we are actually far from that.

“What is needed is a strong political will by the Chief Executive. It is not a question of whether it can be done. It is a question of whether there is will for it to be done.”

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The New Londoners

Photo credit: Dobriyana Tropankeva

By Dobriyana Tropankeva

“New Londoners”  –  this is how the young generation of migrants is called in the British capital. Henry is one of them. He came to the UK at the age of 12 and claimed to be unaccompanied asylum seeking child. Every year around 3000 kids like him arrive in Great Britain to seek a better future. Instead they end up in the complicated refugee system, not knowing for years if they will be deported or not. The result  is that the promised land of dreams turns out to be roller-coaster nightmare.

The great expectations

Many children escape from the worst possible situations  –  war zones, genocides, famine, forced labor, female genital mutilation, extreme poverty. The majority of the unaccompanied adolescent children come from countries with recent armed conflicts or minorities’ persecution in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Eritrea, China, Somalia etc. [1].

Henry grew up in a tiny room with his 5-membered family in the suburbs of Kampala, the capital of Uganda. He couldn’t remember a day that he hasn’t been supposed to work, trying to sell just about everything possible from fruits to hand-made toys.  Henry changed 8 schools for 2 years. His parents didn’t have money, so when the time for the fee payment came, he just continued to the next school.  “In the end you learn a bit, but you don’t make any official exams. There was no future for me there.” shared Henry.

Many children have scarce knowledge about the world. Some of the younger children even don’t know where are they going until they land in the new state. “Everything that I knew about England was from snick up views in somebody else’s TV,” remembered Henry, “When you grew up like me and you hear about London, you think that everything is great in England. That was the image.”

Usually another adult or the trafficker chooses the country. The main destinations are the liberal western European countries, which are targeted because of their reputation as free democratic and safe countries.

Traveling beyond borders

Many children travel for miles by land to get to the UK. The lucky ones that can afford an airplane tickets get the faster way. Still this is usually the first big international journey for them.  They are two main ways for adolescent children to travel across borders. In the first
case they are accompanied by paid agents, who have a false version of the children passport.

Henry was 12, when he and his brother were travelled with a paid agent to the UK. This way has considerable risk for children to become victims of illegal trafficking. According to investigation conducted by the BBC in 2010,  “A total of 330 children aged between nine and 17 vanished between April 2008 and August 2009.” [2]

Social workers believe traffickers targeted many children for prostitution as asylum seeking children initially have no photographs, no real names and no documents. However, luckily for Henry and his brother they met their sister, who had previously immigrated to the UK.

“My sister  separated me and my brother.” remembers Henry; “She said that we couldn’t live together because if we make a mistake they will send all of us to our home country. I haven’t seen him for many years. Even now we are not close because of that separation.”

On arrival many unaccompanied children are distressed because they had to leave their family, siblings and friends. They usually show signs of grief, fear and disorientation, but the worst thing is the mistrust.

The other way for children to travel across borders is alone with false passport, which  states that they are 18 or older. Most of the children who arrive to the UK are between 16 and 17. In 2008, for example, only 9% of unaccompanied children seeking asylum were under 14, 24% were aged 14-15, and 47% were aged 16-17 and the ages of as many as 20% of the young people seeking asylum under the age of 18 were unknown [3].

Age disputed – The immigration bureaucracy roller coaster

The problem in this case is that once the young refugees claim unaccompanied asylum seeking children status they have to prove that they are really under 18.

The youngsters are regarded as suspects and “not genuine” until they prove the opposite [4]. However, there is no liable age assessment test discovered so far. The immigration officers from the UK Border Agency (UKBA) need to make age assessment upon their impressions upon personal and visible characteristics.

Unfortunately the physical appearance of many youngsters that come from problematic areas may appear older than their real age, because of the traumatic stresses and the premature life that they endured. The UKBA disputes nearly the half of the young refugees [5].

Conflict of interests with the age assessment

According to the Children Act 1989 the age disputed migrants need to be evaluated by the Local authority in the area where they are presented as an asylum seeker [6]. They are interview by social worker from the local authority.

However, there is significant conflict of interest, considering the fact the same council will have to take the burden of supporting financially the child. According to research from May 2007 managers are pressurising social workers to assess unaccompanied asylum-seeking children as older than they are to save money [7].

In a case that they are assessed over 16, they receive less financial support and if they are 18, they are not supported by the local authority budget anymore. Some specialists warn that with the recent budget cuts the pressure on social workers assessing children age will be even bigger and the financial burden of may lead the local authorities to financial crisis [8].

While children are waiting to be assessed they are treated as majors and can be locked up in detention centers. Although the British government has promised that by May 2011 the children detention will stop, currently they are 6 asylum-seeking minors held in short-term pre-departure centers [9].

Claiming asylum

Once the age assessment is determined, the child can claim asylum. According to the UN Convention a refugee is  “A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…” [10]

Most of the children have to go alone to the UKBA and fill in a form, called a Statement of Evidence, which explains why they need international protection and after that they are interviewed. For the children is traumatic to describe their past of persecution and war experiences. In cases like circumcision and rape is extremely shameful for the children to talk with other people.

“I went alone. I was really scared”, remembers Henry. “You must make sure that the story that you are saying, will make THEM believe. After one week living in the UK, I was certain – I did not want to go back. That was the one thing that I knew for sure.”

Discretional leave

94% of children who seek asylum alone in the UK are refused.  In 2010, of 2,700 decisions were made from unaccompanied asylum seeking children, 1,935 were given discretionary leave to remain. Discretional leave allows them to stay in the UK until they are 18, on the base that they can’t go back safe to their country.

However, the decision is just postponed. The uncertainty overshadows the children’s lives, because they don’t know what will happen with their future.

Foster care & Schools

Once the children are given decision they are accommodated with a foster parent.  “If you are lucky like me you don’t change your foster family and you start to build up your life again”, says Henry.

Many children however change several foster parents, which increase the instability in their lives. They speak a little or no English when they enter the country. This slows down not only their acceptance in the school system and the ability to learn the material, but also their relationship with the other pupils.

Henry said in this matter: “The main problem at school was my accent. Kids are really mean because they don’t really sit around and analyse the situation where have you been, where you come from – you are just different. You have to grow up fast. At 10 you will be thinking in a much in term of life skills and in terms of life you will be thinking as 18 years old.”

The traumatic situations that children migrants endured in their home countries make most of them to grow up prematurely. This is why they can’t find common interest with the other pupils of their age and often stay lonely. Some of them also face racial discrimination.

“I was probably the only African kid in the school.”, recalled Henry “I did not know what racism is then. Now I know that I experienced bulling. The only thing that used to get to me was when it was about my parents. As far as I am concerned from where I come you respect family.”

The 18 years’ Limbo

Some of them turn 18 without final decision. At this point they can’t stay anymore at their foster parents and they are not allowed to work. Henry’s case was one of those. He waited for 7 years for the final decision.“When you turn 18 you are not normal like other 18-years olds celebrating and partying. You start to worry. They can send you back. You can either go down or survive.”

Henry was an exceptional case. His foster mother let him stay, while he was waiting for final decision. However most of the children must leave their foster parents once they turn 18.

The right of education

Not having a final decision also damages the prospects of higher education for the refugee children. From February 2011, the holders of discretional leave are not entitled anymore to students’ loans and they have to pay the overseas fees. In numbers this doubles the price and the figures range between £8000 to £14000. As most of the asylum-seeking children came with nothing to the UK, this leaves them on the mercy of the few charitable foundations. However the scholarships are not sufficient to cover the deep financial abyss that was opened with the introduction of the overseas taxes.

Fortunately Henry came from other generation, when the state was more generous with the children in need. After he spoke with the principle in his college, he got a scholarship to study mechanics. At the age of 19 he got also his indefinitely leave, which meant that he was allowed to stay and work in the UK.

The path to a better practice

The first and foremost priority of the immigration services should be to make faster decision on the situation of unaccompanied asylum seeking children. The prolonging of the process and leaving them for years in the limbo of discretional leave damages their whole childhood inevitably. They are also two recent events that need to be paid attention. First of all the budget cuts will affect badly the refugee children – there should be funding proportional to the number of asylum seeking children in every local community.

Furthermore, the decision for overseas fees should be reverse for children with discretional leave, who grew up in the country and had made their entry A-level exam like every other pupil in the UK deserve equal rights to access to education. These are merely the requirements that can turn the young generation of new Londoners successful and equal part of the British society.

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[1] The Children’s Legal Centre: Separated and Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children
[2] BBC: Asylum-seeking children are going missing from care
[3] The Children’s Legal Centre: Separated and Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children
[4] The Children’s Society: Going it Alone: Children in the Asylum Process
[5] The Children’s Society: Going it Alone: Children in the Asylum Process
[6] The Children’s Legal Centre: Who is responsible for assessing the age of an asylum seeker?
[7] Inside Housing: Child asylum seekers will receive worse care, union warns

The Guardian: Minors Conflict
[8] Inside Housing: Child asylum seekers will receive worse care, union warns
[9] Our Kingdom: The UK continues to detain children, a year after the Coalition’s pledge to end it
Asylum-seeking children are going missing from care