HEADLINES: Refugees

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Israel, with its affluence and relatively stable democracy, has long been a popular destination for refugees and asylum seekers escaping persecution and violence throughout Africa. Lately, however, the government of conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Natanyahu has pushed through a flurry of anti-refugee legislation. Two weeks ago, 21 migrants from Eritrea, an infamous violator of human rights, arrived at the newly built fence that now runs along Israel’s southern border with Egypt. The group was forced to sit and wait in the desert, where many “feared that they might die under the harsh and unrelenting sun,” because Israel refused to let them into the country. Netanyahu explained, “It is important that everyone understand that Israel is no longer a destination for infiltrators.” After a week, however, Israel announced a compromise, under which the two women and one teenage boy would be allowed into the country, but the other 18 men were sent back into Egypt. Omer Shatz, a lawyer working for We Are Refugees, an Israeli legal nonprofit, said, “If it is considered dangerous for the two women and the boy to go back to Egypt, then it is dangerous for all of them.”  More than 60,000 sub-Saharan Africans have claimed asylum in Israel over the past several years, but since the the border fence was built, the number of border crossings a month has fallen from 2,000 to 251. The interior minister, Eli Yishai, “has vowed to clear the country of all illegal immigrants within three years.” [NYTimes]

In a new and surprising policy move, Syrian refugees living along the Turkish-Syrian border will be forced either to move into camps or to emigrate further inward into Turkey. Currently over 40,000 Syrian refugees are living in rented housing in the region. The Turkish government, which has staunchly condemned Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his actions, says that “the new measures are part of an effort to regain control of the country’s turnstile borders, while calming hostilities in a region of Turkey where many residents do not support the Syrian rebels and instead side with Assad.”  Assad’s government is dominated by the minority Alawite sect that also has strong representation in the border regions of Turkey. Many Syrians currently living in Turkish border cities were shocked and angered by the change in policy. One young Syrian rebel proclaimed, “We would prefer to die under the artillery shells in Damascus than to suffer such treatment here.”  The matter is far from resolved, though, as over 100,000 Syrian refugees were displaced in August, and the crisis continues to escalate. [Washington Post]

In a new program in Baltimore, as well as in eight other cities around the nation, refugees will have access to urban farming as a part of their resettlement process.  The program, named New Roots, is administered by the International Rescue Committee. The IRC understands that many of these refugees come with agrarian backgrounds, and that access to urban farming can help them utilize their skills in their journey towards self-sufficiency and fulfillment. Many refugees are then able to sell their produce to local businesses or at farmer’s markets. Ruben Chandrasekar, executive director of the IRC’s Baltimore office, said, “I fundamentally believe that the refugees with a farming background gain some sort of spiritual strength from this kind of work. It’s a way for them to heal from some of the traumas that they suffered.  It’s a way to bring life out of the earth.”  New Roots also encourages the refugees to focus on growing produce from their own cultures, giving them a much needed sense of familiarity.  For many refugee farmers, it is the highlight of their week. [Washington Post]

The fragile relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan continues to be strained, as Pakistan has become more and more disgruntled at the state of their refugee program. Pakistan is the host of the world’s largest refugee community, despite its fiscal and political constraints. Millions of Afghans fled during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980’s, and refugees continued to stream into Pakistan during the Taliban rule. Pakistan’s minister of states and frontier regions said, “We know what the situation in Afghanistan is, but that’s the failure of the Afghan government and the international forces there.  In 10 years, they haven’t been able to provide refugees a secure place to live.  That means the whole burden is on Pakistan.”  Public opinion regarding Afghan refugees has grown increasingly negative, as there is a stigma that Afghans are somehow connected to crime. It is not yet clear what action, if any, Pakistan will take. For many Afghan refugees, however, life in Pakistan is all they know. “Even if they bulldoze our houses, we won’t go,” said one 19-year old Afghan boy, “If I’m forced to go to Afghanistan, I don’t know what I would do there.  I was born here, grew up here and Pakistan is my country.” Tensions between the refugees and the native population continue to rise, however. [LATimes]

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