All posts by jmkeralis

Invisible among Invisibles: North Korean Defectors Never Truly find Refuge

Last month, seven defectors were gunned down by North Korean border guards as they crossed the frozen Yalu river along the country’s border with China. Five of them were killed instantly; the other two were dragged, wounded, back across the border with permission from Chinese authorities. This incident is reportedly the first of its kind – observers say that North Korean border guards have never shot refugees once they made it to the Chinese side – and may indicate that border guards have been ordered to crack down on the rapidly increasing numbers of defectors.

From the time of the Korean armistice to the early 90s, there were few known defectors from North Korea, and most of these were either military personnel or political figures. According to the South Korean Ministry of Unification, there were an estimated 14,000 defectors between 1953 and 2005, and only 607 of those escaped before 1989. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990, however, North Korea lost its largest trading partner, which set off a period of industrial decline, and the subsequent decline of its communist neighbors made the problem worse. This also took its toll on the country’s input-heavy agricultural system, whose output began to decline at an alarming rate. Then, when a series of natural disasters (including severe flooding and a major drought) hit the country during the 90s, leading to widespread famine. The pace of defection began to pick up in 1994 and has increased steadily ever since as food insecurity and economic decay continues to plague the country. Videos obtained by the Sunday Telegraph with footage from North Korea, show harrowing footage of people starving and fed up with corrupt officials.

For those who flee, there are few options, and they never truly feel safe. Even among refugees, who are already overlooked and marginalized, North Koreans are invisible. China, where the vast majority of defectors flee, considers them illegal economic migrants; refugee agencies such as UNHCR are denied access to them, and it is illegal to even try to count them. Chinese citizens who provide assistance to them are harshly punished. Many of those who flee remain in the border areas, hiding in safehouses or with family members. Others work to save up enough money to flee to neighboring Thailand, or to make it to a South Korean embassy, where they will be granted amnesty and allowed to settle in South Korea. They are hunted the entire way by Chinese authorities, who deport as many as 300 defectors per week. Even when they are resettled, whether in South Korea close by or even as far away as the U.S. (which has officially resettled 100 or so North Korean refugees), defectors are guarded and work tirelessly to keep their identities hidden, as family members who stay behind are often punished if the regime discovers that a relative escaped.

As long as the North Korean regime remains what it is, little stands to change for defectors in any kind of major way. There are, however, some concrete ways to make the transition substantially easier for those who choose to leave. While South Korea accepts asylum seekers from the North and is the leading country for resettlement, the South Korean government is reluctant to make moves that risk provoking the North; in light of last year’s sinking of the Cheonan and the January shelling Yeonpyong, it is not difficult to understand why. Also, both China and South Korea maintain that a large exodus of asylum seekers would destabilize North Korea and force them to deal with the economic consequences, citing the re-absorption of East Germany as an example. If both of these countries started small, however, coordinated with other nations and emphasized resettlement as a humanitarian initiative (rather than a political move), then they could diminish the risk of angering the North and would greatly relieve the suffering of a population that has suffered under the repressive burdens of the Kim regime. Unfortunately, it does not look like China will be changing its tune any time soon. While the status quo is maintained, defectors will continue to brave the dangers and take their chances to obtain a shaky freedom – and those who stay behind will be left behind.

Elections in Côte d’Ivoire: Same plot, different ending?

Copyright 2011 Jessica Keralis

Add Laurent Gbagbo to a long list of heads of state who do not understand the concept of losing gracefully.

On November 28, 2010, opposition leader and former Ivorian prime minister Alassane Ouattara was declared the winner in a run-off election against incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo. Despite several incidents of violence, the election was largely considered to be free and fair. The UN’s Independent Electoral Commission announced Ouattara as the winner on December 2, but unfortunately, this was not good enough for Gbagbo. Immediately after the Commission’s announcement, Paul Yao N’Dre, the president of the country’s Constitutional Council (and an ally of Gbagbo), declared the results invalid and, the next day, proclaimed Gbagbo to be the winner of the election. The Council threw out half a million votes from seven regions in the north (Ouattara’s support base), stating that “[t]he irregularities are of such a nature that they invalidate the vote.” The result is, as usual, chaos: both Gbagbo and Ouattara have declared themselves president and taken the oath of office. The military has closed the borders and implemented an overnight curfew; international news sources are suspended. Although the UN, the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the U.S., and France have all recognized Ouattara as the winner, Gbagbo insists that he won and proclaims that he is “not looking to be loved by them.” He retains control of the country’s military, and the golden rule of international politics is (as we all know) whoever has the guns makes the rules. Gbagbo has also demanded that the UN peacekeeping force, which is guarding Ouattara and his newly-appointed cabinet in a hotel in Abidjan, leave the country. Youssoufou Bamba, Ouattara’s appointed UN envoy, has appealed to the UN to take action, warning that Côte d’Ivoire is “on the brink of genocide.”

As the pressure, and violence, escalates, Ivorians are leaving the country in droves. As 2010 came to a close, over 18,000 refugees had fled to neighboring Liberia, Guinea, and Ghana. UNHCR estimates that 400-500 Ivorians cross the border into Liberia every day; 55% are women, and 62% are children. Families have reported walking several hours, even days, through the bush to get to barges that will take them to neighboring countries. No political alliance predominates: the group contains both Gbagbo’s and Ouattara’s supporters, who have said that they are seeking asylum due to fear of another civil war. Many refugees show up injured, malnourished, or ill with conditions such as malaria, respiratory infections, and diarrhea. Some have even reported being prevented from leaving the country by armed forces and having to travel extra distance to cross the border. UNHCR has spent $53 million to position aid and emergency services to assist up to 30,000 refugees, but they are struggling to deal with the influx of the displaced. Some houses have up to 20 family members crammed into one room. Others sleep in corridors, on verandas, or just outside.

Unfortunately, this kind of election fall-out is par for the course in Africa (and elsewhere); the world saw the same story in Zimbabwe and Kenya. What is different this time, however, is the response: African voices, in addition to international ones, are calling for Gbagbo to step down. ECOWAS has been attempting to negotiate a transfer of power. They have offered Gbagbo amnesty if he steps down, but if he does not, they will oust him by force. The outcome of this standoff will have significant implications for the future of African politics: if ECOWAS follows through and makes Gbagbo face the music, other leaders may think twice about ignoring election results. If they back down, however, and broker some kind of power-sharing agreement (à la Zimbabwe), then it will only reinforce the standard protocol of ignoring election results if you control the military. In addition to the political statement it will make, the ultimate result of the Ivorian election will determine the fate of a ballooning population of refugees whose memories of the country’s last civil war are all too fresh.

Persecuted for the Word: Christians in Iraq Flee Targeted Violence

Copyright 2010 Jessica Keralis

In Iraq, the media focuses primarily on sectarian violence between the two major sects of Islam, the Sunni and the Shi’a. The country’s political life (and strife) is defined by relations between the Sunni and Shiite political parties. With Muslims comprising 97% of the population, it is easy to overlook the country’s tiny Christian minority. Unfortunately, it is precisely this disregard that makes them an easy target for extremists – which is why they are fleeing in droves.

Iraqi Christians have been leaving in a steady exodus after the October 31 attack on the Our Lady of Salvation cathedral in Bagdad. A group of Sunni insurgents stormed the cathedral during Mass, taking the church’s construction and cleaning crew and 100 worshippers hostage. After a four-hour stand-off with Iraqi defense forces, 58 victims were killed, including two priests. It was the second time the cathedral had been targeted.

No single population has been spared by the violence in post-war Iraq: thousands of Sunni and Shiite Arabs have been killed alongside Christians and Kurds. However, minority groups, including Christians, have been explicitly targeted by insurgents and have been driven out in disproportionate numbers: despite making up only 3% of the country’s pre-invasion population, they comprise 40% of the country’s refugees. More than half of them have already left Iraq, despite pleas from Christian leaders to stay. Compounding the problem is the government’s inability to protect them – or perhaps its apathy. While Christians and other minority groups are protected on paper, the legal protections in the constitution have done little to stop violence or discrimination against them. Christians have a grand total of 5 seats (and almost no political influence) in the new 325-seat parliament. And with the political stand-off that has left the country with no effective government for most of 2010, they have simply slipped through the cracks. Even worse is the fact that Iraqi refugees continue to be forcibly repatriated, despite the obvious danger and repeated insistence by UNHCR that they not be made to return to the most dangerous parts of the country.

The Kurdish Regional Government has offered safe haven to Christian refugees, providing assistance with housing and jobs. Those that can afford it have fled to this semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq; some have moved in with relatives. Still others hide in monasteries and churches. After each wave of attacks, fewer and fewer return to their homes and jobs. “I expect that a month from now not a single Christian will be left in Mosul,” said Nelson P. Khoshaba, an engineer who works for the city.

“Driving out Trash”: Five years brings only more evictions for Harare’s slum-dwellers

Copyright 2010 Jessica Keralis

This was originally posted on the APHA International Health Section’s blog.

The Shona word murambatsvina means “to drive out trash.” This was the word used to describe the Zimbabwean government’s campaign to forcibly clear out the slum areas around the country, under the pretense of combating illegal housing and reducing the spread of infectious disease. Zimbabwe’s psychotic de-facto dictator current president has described the “urban renewal campaign” as “a vigorous clean-up campaign to restore sanity.” UNHCR has estimated that the forced evictions have directly affected at least 700,000 people, and that approximately 2.4 million more could have been indirectly affected in some way. The campaign was condemned by the UN and was called a crime against humanity.

Five years later, the evicted slum-dwellers still remain homeless. The few houses that were built as part of the re-housing scheme were given to government employees. Obvious human rights abuses aside (like torching people’s houses and belongings) aside, the campaign had serious health consequences for the evicted populations. HIV patients were cut off from clinics and antiretroviral medications. Thousands of IDPs are still living under emergency plastic sheeting with no medical services or clean water, no schools, no sanitation, and no source of income. Amnesty International has reported a shockingly high neonatal mortality rate among babies born to evicted mothers: in five months, there were 21 newborn deaths in Hopley, a settlement 10 km south of Harare. Most of the babies died within 48 hours of birth. The women have said that they were fully aware of the importance of maternal healthcare, and they all wanted to give birth in a hospital or with a trained birth attendant, but many could not afford the $50 required to register for antenatal care. The nearest maternity clinic is 8 km away. Some thought their babies had died because of minimal access to healthcare, while others suspected they had died of cold because they live in plastic shacks.

Amnesty International and other human rights groups have called for an investigation of the newborn deaths, but there seems to be little hope of a serious inquiry. Meanwhile, there are growing concerns of another eviction campaign: residents are again being forced to leave their homes because they cannot afford a(n arbitrarily-imposed) $140 “lease renewal fee.” Zimbabwe’s government of course denies this, but it a bit difficult to argue when the evidence consists of shacks on fire. Several MEPs have called for the Zimbabwean diplomat to the EU to be sent home in response to the evictions – but will it be enough?

Environmental Migrants: What do you do when no one can agree on what you are?

Copyright 2010, Jessica Keralis

One might think that refugees’ lives are already complicated enough as it is. The simple necessities of putting a roof over your head and food on your table are daunting, not to mention the bureaucratic process of making sure you are doing it all legally in whatever country you are trying to settle. But when a person is displaced by a controversial phenomenon which some cannot even agree exists, putting down new roots inevitably becomes infinitely more convoluted.

Climate refugees, or those displaced by natural disasters or other environmental phenomena that many attribute to climate change, are only now beginning to receive widespread international attention. The earthquake in Haiti and the floods in Pakistan have contributed significantly to this increased awareness. Unfortunately, no one seems to be able to agree on how to deal with them, where to send them, or even what to call them: some organizations prefer the term “environmental migrants,” while the UN has used the term “environmentally induced migrants.” “Climate refugee,” while popular in the media, is a highly controversial term: UNHCR has expressed concern that referring to these migrants as “refugees” might lessen protection for conventional political refugees that have legal rights to assistance. While political refugees (obviously) cannot go to their governments for assistance, many environmental migrants can. Others argue that times have changed and that environmental migrants should be classified as refugees in order to receive legal and material assistance. The debate rages on.

Regardless of what they are called, millions currently suffer some form of environment or climate-influenced displacement. At the Copenhagen summit last year, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said that 36 million were displaced due to natural disasters in 2008, 20 million of whom were forced to move due to climate change-related factors. The UN University’s Institute for Environment and Human Security estimates that there are nearly 50 million environmental refugees in the world today, though this estimate is somewhat controversial. Recent examples of large-scale environmental migration include the 1.5 million displaced in Haiti and the seven million driven from their homes by flooding in Pakistan. Other groups are forced to move due to slower or smaller-scale environmental degradation, such as desertification in north-central Africa and regular flooding in Bangladesh. Pacific island nations such as Tuvalu, Kiribati, and Vanuatu are slowly disappearing under rising sea levels. Oftentimes these slow environmental changes can trigger or exacerbate conflict by increasing conflict for resources.

The upcoming talks in Cancún highlight the sense of urgency surrounding this issue. However, many commentators are skeptical that any meaningful progress will be made, considering how poorly negotiations went during the Copenhagen summit. Additionally, a recent study by the UN Environmental Programme has established that even if all countries followed through with their commitments in the Copenhagen accord, CO2 emissions would not be sufficiently reduced to halt the rise in global average temperatures to two degrees Celsius, which is regarded as the “danger threshold.” While some hope for an eventual legally-binding agreement between countries, others are crafting their own solutions. In Bangladesh, for example, a non-profit organization called Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha (a name meaning “self-reliance”) designs boats to house schools, libraries, and climate shelters. In Pakistan, communities are determined to get back on their feet, with or without international assistance. “We appreciate all the outside help, including seeds being supplied by the US, but the [we] are proud people and we are determined to help ourselves.”

Jessica Keralis is a public health specialist with an active interest in international health and refugee issues. She is the Communications Committee chair for the International Health section of the American Public Health Association. She blogs for the IH section and can be followed on Twitter here.