Archive for the ‘Refugees and Asylum Seekers’ Category

That Israeli interior minister, Eli Yishai, last Friday in an interview with the Isreali newspaper, Maariv can claim “This country belongs to us, to the white man”, demonstrates the staggering ability of this modern world to echo the most abhorrent excesses of 20th century racist doctrine in the very state founded by those fleeing such persecution.

This isn’t just a case of an extremist grabbing headlines, such inflammatory and blatantly racist statements are the norm for various members of the Israeli government including the prime minister himself who claimed recently that “The breach of our borders by infiltrators could threaten the Jewish and democratic state (…) we will begin by removing the infiltrators from South Sudan and move on to others”.

Nor is this a case of politicians talking tough in order to garner votes. Just this month draconian legislation was passed allowing anyone attempting to enter of having entered Israel illegally to be imprisoned for up to three years. Furthermore, anyone helping migrants or providing them with shelter could face prison sentences of between five and 15 years.

Perhaps most worrying is the stoking of public anger against African immigrants, the latest direct consequence of which has been the firebombing of a house containing 10 Eritreans. Politicians such as Eli Yishai and Michael Ben-Ari of the National Union shamelessly associate African immigrants with viral diseases, HIV and criminality while sources from Israel´s very own health ministry clearly state that “99.9% of the migrants who come to work in Israel are not infected with any unique disease whatsoever” and a recent parliamentary committee recently found the percentage of crimes committed by foreigners to be 13.5% although they make up 28.5% of the population.

Despite the apparent contradictions, maybe in the end we should not be surprised: name the only two nation states in history to be explicitly based on ethnicity – Nazi Germany and Israel. Eli Yishai said he was speaking out of “love for my country”, but let this be a wakeup call for all Israelis who really love their country. Instead of perpetuating centuries old hate Israel must break from its past and embrace secularism, for a Jewish state – Judaism being the only major religion strictly based on lineage – will never be at peace.


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On a Thursday morning of last month, at 10:30am, Ana Fabricia Cordoba, a land and victims activist from the department of Urabá, North Colombia, was murdered on a bus in Medellín. Ana is the tenth activist this year to be murdered, undoubtedly due to her work demanding the recognition of the human rights of victims of violence and those expelled from their lands.

Being Colombia’s second city with almost 4 million inhabitants, Medellín seems an unlikely scene for a story of rural collectivization. However, it is here in the sprawling slums, where small farmers, dispossessed of their lands, must eke out a living. Hundreds of thousands have come here from the regions of Urabá and Chocó in forced displacements that coincidently begun to increase in scale following the expansion of the African palm oil industry in these regions. They know that only collective action will get them back their lands, yet from poverty, repression and murder this is an uphill struggle; a social movement to which straight forward technical prescriptions cannot, unfortunately, be applied.

According to the Colombian Institute for Rural Development, throughout Colombia, “Small farmers’ land has been invaded and those who remain have been subjected to secret military strategies of intimidation”. Upon displacement they suffer discrimination and further repression, family and community ties are ruptured and life persists in a constant state of insecurity. Any attempt to organize and work together in order to improve, protect or reclaim their land is brutally repressed by both state and non-state actors. Today, numbering almost 5 million,Colombia’s forcibly displaced population equals that ofSudan making these two countries the worst cases of forced displacement in the world.

Despite positive rhetoric, Colombian state discourse and media tar the forcibly displaced with the brush of conflict, implicitly linking them to guerilla or paramilitary groups. The state actively and unfairly criminalizes land activists and what they can’t do within the confines of the law, they leave to paramilitary groups with whom they have proven links. Since the 80s, small farmers’ lands throughoutColombiahave slowly been taken by large landholders with strong links to paramilitary groups. Under the banner of “progress”, the land oligarchy point out high export profits in order to justify their position. In reality, what is actually promoted is a regressive, backward social order in which 1.4% of land owners own 65% of the land.

The fact is that, as well as challenging the economic monopoly on natural resources enjoyed by multinationals, small farmers working successfully together directly threaten the mechanized-monoculture agricultural model which favors unequal ownership patterns and regressive income distribution. Many people find it hard to believe, but small farming is actually more efficient than large-scale agriculture. It goes against our logic but, putting aside sustainability and environmental concerns, the majority of research (including that of the World Bank) clearly indicates an inverse relationship between farm size and efficiency. Furthermore, small farming generates more employment and distributes wealth more evenly, leading to further benefits associated with social equality.

ACA (Campesino Action of Antioquia) is a farmers’ collective that represents peasants who settled in the region of Angelopolis. Previously considered barren by commercial agriculture, by working together, ACA turned this land into one of the most productive areas in the region. However, this wealth drew the attention of paramilitaries who orchestrated a campaign of intimidation and threats that lead to the community’s eventual forced displacement. Confined to the slums of Medellín, ACA are constantly subject to threats and intimidation due to their work. Rather than focusing on capacity building and technological development, ACA must now focus on collectivizing politically in order to reclaim their stolen land.

Collective action, from forming cooperatives to participating in the democratic process and state-run development programs, is a natural human behavior which we have employed, to varying degrees, for millennia in order to survive and prosper. The optimal extent and manner depend upon a complex set of cultural, social, historical and geographic factors best understood by those to whom they are specific.

From grain silos to fertilizer, small farmers know themselves what is best for them, their families and communities. It is high time that well meaning experts stop attempting to hand down prescriptions to ‘cure’ underdevelopment and, instead, look to the crux of the problem and start supporting small farmers throughout the world in taking the individual and collective action necessary to help themselves. This doesn’t mean, of course, that there is no place for advice and consultation; there will always be something we can learn from one another. However, the deluge of prescriptions that has flowed from “The West to the rest” for the past 60 years has failed to deliver a sustainable solution to rural poverty throughout the developing world.

The majority of these prescriptions from development experts effectively place the responsibility for small farmers’ failure to collectivize on the heads of small farmers. However, in light of the violence and repression inColombia, can we really ‘blame’ small farmers for not being able to collectivize and organize effectively? The fact is that recommendations to small farmers on how they should farm their land completely ignore the brutal repression they experience and, furthermore, fall neatly into a long tradition of blaming the poor for the problems of the world.

Rather than studying agricultural practices in far away lands, it would be far more productive to pose a few questions regarding our own societies; where do the weapons come from? Where to the drugs and palm oil from the forcibly acquired lands go? Simple, Follow the money.

As long as we persist in turning a blind eye to the fact that we are a part of the problem there will be nothing we can share with small farmers that will help deliver a sustainable solution to rural poverty. We must use the rights we are lucky enough to enjoy to demand that our governments defend the human rights of small farmers and do everything they can to pressure foreign governments and businesses to do the same. This way, small farmers will be free to link up in whatever way and to whatever degree suits them best in order to improve their livelihoods and confront the challenges of global warming and a rising world population.

In Medellín they demand one thing; respect for their human rights, something worth more than all the advice, models and programs we can muster. Collectivization is, rather than technical, a social process. Being its seedbed, freedom must be cultivated to ensure a natural, bottom-up process best suited to improving livelihoods.

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It doesn’t take much for the media to reveal its true colours and this week they have exemplified this in the incredibly bigoted and misinformed reaction to the fantastic decision to grant asylum to two homosexual men who face persecution in their own countries for their sexuality. The headlines are hardly surprising, its not that often that the tabloids get to combine their homophobia and racism in a single article. The Daily Star running with ‘No Room For Gays’ is almost unbelievable, The Sun also runs with ‘Gay Illegals Can Stay’ but even the BBC News 24 reporter’s instant reaction was essentially;  ‘Well, surely now they will all just say they are gay so they can stay’.

Not only did this case point the the bigotry of the media (which it of course doesnt take a genius to uncover), it also highlights a couple of other points, the pathetic methods of the UK Border Agency (which a previous article has already outlined the potential affects of) and also the media’s contradictions.

Firstly, in the Refugee Action email out after the ruling, they highlighted how the UKBA staff who assess cases such as this were focusing not on the persecution but on the sexuality, for example the following question was asked:

“Why do you choose to be a homosexual when it is illegal in your country?”

Its difficult to know where to start in trying to dissect the faults in this question. It presupposes that one chooses their sexuality, suggests that if you are homosexual you should not do it if its illegal and thereby legitimises  the concept of criminalising a sexuality (but in another country). Their previous ruling that people should go back to their home countries and ‘be discreet’ about their sexuality continues to display an utter lack of understanding. Would they send a member of the Zimbabwean opposition party the MDC back and tell them to be discreet about their politics?

Lastly I want to point out the striking contradiction of the tabloid press which has occured simultaneously to their disgust at the granting of asylum to the to men concerned here in the campaign to prevent the stoning of Sakineh Mohammadi-Ashtiani (I have provided The Sun link here). Its very positive that people are questioning the state repression of the Islamic Republic and have decided to campaign against the stoning of a woman accused of adultery. However the contradiction lies in the fact that one of the homosexual men which apparently there is not room for is also Iranian. So, they will campaign to stop the persecution of a woman awaiting a terrible fate in Iran, but they will condemn the ruling which keeps a man from returning to a different kind of persecution in the same country. Is it that he is homosexual, or that he is an asylum seeker that they don’t support him? Or is it another way to maniuplate anti-Islamic sentiment and an easy way to score points over the barbarism of the Muslim regime?

In order to understand the contradiction of the press, try this. Think about what would happen if the stories were reversed; if the court had ruled that a woman who committed adultery would not be returned to Iran because of the persecution she would face and a homosexual man was going to be stoned to death in the same country. What would be the reaction then? ‘No room for adulterers?’ I think not.

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Yesterday we had six visitors to our chairty.   Two student nurses, two student social workers, one development worker and one psychiatric specialist working in Accident and Emergency.  We did our usual thing of telling the visitors a little about where asylum system seekers come from, why they end up in the UK, some of the difficulties they face and how our charity supports over 750 asylum seekers and refugees each year.

We also had time for questions.  Most came from the psychiatric specialist.  She really wanted to understand what was going on.   For her it was vital.  She’s an expert in self-harm and suicide.  The reason she came to see us is that she sees too many asylum seekers in her job.  Asylum seekers who are so desperate because of how they are treated in the UK that that try to kill themselves.  “And they really go for it,” she said.

What struck me was what she said next.  She has to send them away as they do not have a mental illness.  Their self-harming and attempting suicide is caused by what they are experieincing.  In some ways it is perfectly natural for someone to resort to such desperate measures when they are in such desperate situations.

At least 33 asylum seekers have committed suicide in the UK since 2005 (http://www.irr.org.uk/2005/september/ha000021.html).

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