Human Rights

Over Three Million Refugees Leaving Venezuela, Carrying Global Questions and Answers

Through years of legal activism and engagement with both scientific and political data gathered from around the world, we recognize two major problems facing the planet over the coming decades: climate change and socio-political upheaval. We also recognize that these two forces are directly related. Together, these two can potentially destabilize a variety of systems from infrastructure to food distribution networks, but the first and most daunting challenge they present is already upon us and already requires immediate global attention: involuntary human migration.

Preparing an Appropriate Response  

Before the international community can anticipate and prepare for massive unpredictable population shifts, we must observe and gather information from shifts that are already underway. So as 3.4 million refugees and asylum seekers leave the turmoil surrounding them in Venezuela, the international community bears two key responsibilities. First, neighboring nations must find ways to manage and accommodate this influx. In this case, the largest number of migrants have been hosted by Columbia (1.1 million), followed by Peru (0.5 million), Chile, Argentina, Ecuador and Brazil. A smaller number of migrants have been accepted by Mexico and countries in Central America.

Second, nations everywhere must observe and monitor how these countries process, shelter, and assimilate this spike in asylum seekers without slipping into the grip of a humanitarian crisis. Calling for compassion first and sanctions second when faced with a neighbor in turmoil can help, according to this UN human rights expert. https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/01/1031722 So can the development of stable channels and precedents for the delivery of humanitarian aid, as outlined in this report.

If neighboring nations gather data and examine best practices, the transfer and assimilation of large migratory populations can take place in the future with a minimal amount of uncertainty, danger, and threats to the most vulnerable, including children, the elderly and the disabled. A study of best practices can also reduce the threat of violence, including trafficking and sexual assault, that can often occur when border crossings and processing procedures are chaotic and disorganized.

Why is this research important?

While the best response to any political or environmental crisis is advanced preparation and prevention, an unpreventable crisis can bring valuable lessons that allow the global community to prepare for a recurrence of similar events, from political turmoil to other drivers of migration, including natural disasters and disease outbreaks.

What we learn today from the events in Venezuela can help us prepare for both the challenges of climate change and the politically destabilizing events that may take place at the same time. Please join us as we follow the decisions and actions of the UN and those of South American nations facing a spike in permanent and temporary refugees.  

Venezuelan Security Forces Avoid Accountability

On Friday, the United Nations human rights office released a report calling on the government of Venezuela to seek justice for the victims of a recent wave of extrajudicial killings. During these events, security forces have swept through poor neighborhoods in Venezuelan cities in what have been officially called “crime fighting operations”.

Between July 2015 and March 2017, officers for the Operation for the Liberation of the People, carrying out an apparent crime reduction initiative, have moved through streets and entered homes, killing over 500 people. Most of the targets of these killings have been young men. In many cases, according to the UN report, evidence has been staged to make it look as though the killings took place after an exchange of fire.

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The officers involved in the killings have been granted immunity and none have faced charges.

The UN has called for an investigation into these killings and representatives have proposed the involvement of the International Criminal Court, but so far, UN investigators have been denied access to Venezuela and have based their findings on interviews with victims and witnesses.

Some of the evidence has been provided by exiled former Attorney General Luisa Ortega.

Increasingly authoritarian president Nicolas Maduro has led the country into a spiral of recession and hyperinflation, and as Venezuela’s currency loses value, hunger and discontent have sparked unrest and uncertainty. Maduro has responded to the UN report by calling the accusations of unaccountability “lies” and blaming the country’s economic strife on recently imposed US oil sanctions.

The UN report has been released just the United States has announced plans to leave the UN

Human Rights Council, of which Venezuela is still a member.

Last year alone, about 125 Venezuelan people died in anti-government protests. Inquiries into these deaths and those caused by the 2015-2017 sweeps both fall to the Bureau for scientific, criminal and forensic investigations, but the bureau is also allegedly responsible for these killings.

The lack of accountability for those involved, and the economically unstable and increasingly authoritarian climate of Venezuela, mark a path toward humanitarian crisis, a path that has been accelerated by Maduro’s questionable electoral victory earlier this spring. It remains to be seen how the member nations of the Human Rights Council will respond, but the US has limited its influence over this response by withdrawing its participation.

The combination of authoritarian governments and economic instability often place nations on a path toward systemic human rights violations. And as this progression takes place, we often see familiar signs: pushback and defensive posturing on the part of a challenged or illegitimate leader, immunity for officials who carry out crimes against civilians, and the state’s refusal to cooperate with international bodies, including investigators.

We anticipate another well-known hallmark will result from this ongoing spiral: a refugee crisis. Emigration will likely accelerate from Venezuela to surrounding states, and those who leave will likely reach US borders before the crisis is resolved. Our level of preparation will determine whether this influx can be absorbed and our response can earn the respect of the global community, or if our current chaotic and inhumane approach at the southern border will still be prevalent at that time.

Families Separated at the Border

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Last week, we discussed the announcement by the United Nations regarding the Trump administration policy of separating asylum-seeking families at the US border. At that time, the UN had recently called out the practice as a violation of human rights, and an already-high profile and much-discussed situation has received a growing level of attention during the intervening week.

The elements of the policy are reviewed in detail by Vox, here in a helpful breakdown that discusses the realities of the situation and dispels some false narratives before they take root.  

But many of us still have questions about the policy, the practice, its execution, and what we can personally do to take action on behalf of those who have been harmed by these events. Here’s a quick set of questions and answers that may be helpful.

Are children really being pulled from the arms of their asylum-seeking parents at the border? Or is this an exaggeration of real events or a burst of new attention being focused on a long-standing practice?

Yes, children are being separated from their parents. And yes, this form of enforcement has arrived with the Trump administration and is part of a newly established “zero-tolerance” mandate explained in the link above. It is actually happening, and it wasn’t happening before October of 2017. Many of those who have been separated from their children are forthright asylum seekers who have committed no crimes and broken no laws.

I have a specific question. How can I get to the source?

Contact the Us Department of Health and Human Services (https://www.hhs.gov/), which runs the Administration for Children and Families (https://www.acf.hhs.gov/), which manages the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

I want to help these children directly. I am a lawyer/journalist/prospective foster parent/non-profit organization/community leader/ etc. What do I do?

If you are a lawyer or if you wish to donate to groups providing direct aid to separated families, please click here for a list of organizations that need your help.

(This excellent article is regularly updated with new groups and new actions, so check back in again later.)

To reach the “Unaccompanied Alien Children’s Services” program within the ORR, contact the ORR main office by calling here: 202-401-9246.

If you speak fluent Spanish, Mam, Q’eqchi’ or K’iche’ AND have a paralegal background, contact the Texas Civil Rights Project here. www.texascivilrightsproject.org.

All I can do is donate. Where do I go?

The Slate article above lists several organizations that can help, but you can start here with the Texas Civil Rights Project https://texascivilrightsproject.org/ and the ACLU.

Meanwhile, check in with Just Atonement and join our efforts to take a legal stand on behalf of those who are harmed by policies and corporate actions that benefit institutions and the wealthy at the expense of the most vulnerable among us. 

Family Separation at the US Border: The UN Finally Speaks Out

The practice of separating families—including the removal of very young children from the custody of their parents—has put into place by two immigration-related executive orders passed in January of 2017, then formally announced by attorney general Jeff Sessions in May of 2018. These policies have been implemented by the Trump administration, despite claims by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency that the administration “does not have a blanket policy on separating families as a deterrent” to would-be asylum seekers. (And despite claims by Trump himself that the practice existed before 2017).

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Some confusion has arisen over this policy and practice during the month that has elapsed between the attorney general’s announcement and the present, with slightly misleading statements made and parsed regarding the “loss” of approximately 1,400 children who were placed in the care of sponsors who later could not be reached for updates on their welfare or whereabouts.

But while the argument can be made that children placed with sponsors can’t and should not be tracked by federal agencies, one disturbing aspect of this jumbled narrative is clear: Since October of 2017, several hundred children of Central American asylum seekers have been forcibly removed from their parents—without recourse or explanation-- as part of a “zero tolerance” illegal immigration policy and the resulting criminal prosecutions applied to those who cross “irregularly”. These separations have been overtly used as a deterrent by the Trump administration, and as of June 5, 2018, the United Nations has formally spoken out against the practice.

United Nations human rights office spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani called upon the United States to immediately halt the practice as she spoke to reporters in Geneva. “The practice of separating families amounts to arbitrary and unlawful interference in family life, and is a serious violation of the rights of the child. The use of immigration detention and family separation as a deterrent runs counter to human rights standards and principles,” she said.

Shamdasani made clear that this form of family separation flouts international human rights laws, to which the US is subject.

As it happens, this formal announcement has been released days after Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley attempted to visit an immigration detention center in Texas and was denied access, during a video taped scene in which the Senator was mysteriously forbidden from entering the facility, a former Wal-Mart with blacked out windows. No explanations have yet been provided and no information has been shared regarding who occupies the building and what conditions exist inside.

The UN announcement may result in an increased attempt to provide transparency or course corrections, but this is a disturbing turn of events in a nation with an otherwise positive record regarding democracy and respect for human rights. Join us as we follow these unfolding events.

Extreme Poverty in the United States: Present and Future

For generations, the United States has been viewed from the outside as one of the world’s wealthier nations, a place where anyone willing to take advantage of available educational resources and employment opportunities could gain access—at a minimum—to basic necessities like shelter, nutrition, electricity and plumbing.

This attitude and these assumptions have been just as pervasive among those who live within the US. The belief that “real” poverty is absent from the fabric of American life has been persistent, even during a dramatic two-decade rise in income inequality. In the United States, many believe that the poorest of the poor are protected by a basic safety net that keeps them from disappearing through the cracks—a net that provides supplemental nutritional support, free K-12 education, access to subsidized medical care, and refuge for those who find themselves homeless.

But this is simply not the case. And now, attacks on an already fraying, sometimes non-existent web of resources for those at the lowest end of the income spectrum have presented a growing segment of the population with literally nowhere to turn when hardship strikes. With the arrival of the current administration, even the thinnest fibers of stability, nutrition, safety and shelter are being aggressively dismantled.

The United States: Human Rights, Extreme Poverty, and Unmet Obligations

Philip Alston is a UN Special Rapporteur who observes and reports on poverty conditions among UN member nations, and his role involves visiting specific states (in 2017, the US) and reporting to the Council on “the extent to which the government’s policies and programs relating to extreme poverty are consistent with its human rights obligations, and to offer constructive recommendations to the government and other stakeholders.”

Did the United States Pass the Test?

Here is the text of Alston’s Report. The report’s introductory summary is short and direct and its two-fold message is clear: First, poverty and its ancillary effects (poor health, shorter lifespans, higher infant mortality rates, and lower engagement in the democratic process) are more prevalent in the United States than most other countries in the developed world. Our performance is dismal. And second, the Trump administration’s dramatic change in policy direction serves to exacerbate these problems and generate a radical redistribution of wealth and stability from the poor to the extremely well-off.

New tax policies disproportionately benefit the wealthiest 1% percent of the population while continuing the steady decrease in income share for the bottom 90%. This, combined with an aggressive dismantling of the social safety net and an active campaign of deregulation that removes basic protections from the daily lives of the lower and middle class, bode very poorly for already stagnant wages, diminishing employment opportunities, and limited health care access for most of the country.

In order to create this report, Philip Alston visited with and collected data from members of congress and government officials at all levels. He also took an extensive journey through American cities and rural areas and gained first hand access to the lives, homes and stories of people at all class levels, including those who live day-to-day in extreme poverty.

Review this article from the Guardian for descriptive accounts and a few photos of those he met with during this process, and join us as we work to counter the impact of these inexplicably cruel and destructive policy decisions.