We Need Global Solidarity for Refugees

As a European and a Swede (and an economist), I am struck by how often we discuss refugees in terms of the “cost” of accepting asylum seekers.

These conversations miss out on the many economic benefits of migration. Young refugees are often so inclined to start building their new lives that they integrate quite quickly into a new country with much to offer. We also miss the most important component of the conversation – the refugees themselves.

Wars, violence and persecution lead to people fleeing from their homes. A new report released on June 19, 2019 from UNHCR shows that 70.8 million people are now forcibly displaced worldwide – more than the UN Refugee Agency has ever recorded. Levels have doubled in the past 20 years and increased by 2.3 million people in the past year alone.

This year’s UNHCR Global Trends report states that these figures are conservative since the Venezuelan crisis is only partly reflected. According to data from neighboring nations, about 4 million Venezuelans have fled the country, which makes it one of the world’s largest displacement crises in recent history.

What do these numbers actually mean? 

The majority of individuals who are forcibly displaced are Internally Displaced People (IDPs) – people who are displaced to other areas within their own country. There are 41.3 million IDPs worldwide. Refugees – people forced to flee their country because of conflict, war or persecution – accounted for 25.9 million people worldwide in 2018 (half a million more than in 2017). Asylum seekers are people outside their country of origin who receive international protection but are awaiting the outcome of their claim to refugee status. They account for 3.5 million people globally.

Now, here are some important facts: 

  • About 80% of refugees live in countries neighboring their countries of origin
  • The world’s poorest countries host a third of all refugees worldwide
  • High income countries (like most countries in Europe) host only 2.7 refugees per 1,000 of population on average
  • In 2018, every second refugee was a child

Research shows that women and children are the most vulnerable in times of crisis. Sexual violence and rape is used as a weapon of war to further inhibit civilian populations to fight for peace and their fundamental human rights. One very recent case of this is Sudan today. 

Europe has seen a surge of refugees since 2014. Many have risked their lives in horribly overcrowded rubber dinghies to cross the Mediterranean Sea for safety – sometime without functioning life vests. UNHCR estimates that over 17,800 people have died at sea between 2014 and 2018. In this year alone, the UN Refugee Agency estimates that 559 people have died and are missing.

The largest group of people seeking refuge in Europe after crossing the Mediterranean are from Afghanistan.

The war-torn nation was recently reported as the most dangerous country in the world, and 2018 was the most deadly year ever recorded for civilians in Afghanistan.

So what is Europe doing to support asylum seekers from Afghanistan and those crossing the Mediterranean Sea? From what I understand and see in my daily life in Sweden – not enough.

This week, the Swedish parliament voted to extend a “temporary” stringent law which has been highly criticized by humanitarian aid organizations and UN Agencies. Sweden, Norway, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and other countries in Europe continue to deport individuals back to Afghanistan – many of whom arrived in Europe as unaccompanied minors several years ago.

Sea rescues have been criminalized as NGO rescue ships are no longer permitted to work out of Italy. Pia Klemp, a German boat captain, faces 20 years in prison and horrendous fines for saving people from drowning in the Mediterranean.

Sweden is using old prisons to forcibly detain high-school attending, Swedish speaking young asylum-seekers from Afghanistan who await deportations. The wait may last several months and the migration and judicial system for asylum seekers is highly criticized. Racism is becoming more visible.

This week, a friend of mine who is an Afghani asylum seeker in Sweden was harassed by police for no reason as he got off a train. We later found out from migration officials that they have been ordered to intimidate asylum seekers so that they will be more inclined to return voluntarily.

Despite being an eternal optimist, I have a hard time seeing anything positive in this stark situation. The message that Europe is sending is that some lives are valued less than others – that some lives are just not important enough to be saved.

“While language around refugees and migrants is often divisive, we are also witnessing an outpouring of generosity and solidarity, especially by communities who are themselves hosting large numbers of refugees. We are also seeing unprecedented engagement by new actors including development actors, private businesses, and individuals, which not only reflects but also delivers the spirit of the Global Compact on Refugees,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugee Filippo Grandi.

“We must build on these positive examples and redouble our solidarity with the many thousands of innocent people who are forced to flee their homes each day.”

We are facing a European crisis that will cost us our solidarity, our humanity and our safeguarding of human rights. The price is too high. If we lose these, we won’t have anything of value left.

I am thankful to be a part of the Swedish Facebook group Vi står inte ut! (We can’t stand it!) which has become a network of 10,000 individuals working to support asylum seekers in various ways. It is through networks like this one that I witness solidarity and fire to fight for our sisters and brothers from other countries.

It is difficult to continue to read and share the stories of refugees, but we must speak the unspeakable, break the silence and fight for a change in our world today.

The Venezuelan Babies Being Born Stateless in Colombia

In 2016 alone, Venezuela’s infant mortality rose by 30% and maternal mortality by 65%. Back then, the situation in Venezuela wasn’t as dire as it is now. Because of the current economic crisis, women in Venezuela don’t have access to the healthcare or supplies they need to give birth safely and raise their babies.

Hospitals are running low on doctors and medicine. For example, the Jose Manuel de los Rios Children’s Hospital in Caracas lost 20% of its medical staff in just two years as 68 of its doctors fled the country between 2016 and 2018. Many women don’t have access to diapers, milk and formula. In some cases women are also too malnourished to breastfeed their babies.

Knowing this, it’s not surprising that many pregnant women are leaving the country to give birth. So far, the UN Refugee Agency estimates that 2.4 million Venezuelans have left their country for other Latin American nations. Their most common destinations are Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Argentina, Chile and Brazil, in that order. While the latter countries grant citizenship to everyone born in their territories; the situation in Colombia is different.

In Cúcuta, Colombia, a city located near the border between Colombia and Venezuela, medical authorities indicate that there are now more Venezuelan women giving birth than Colombian women. Out of the 554 babies born in medical institutions in Cúcuta in September 2018, 353 (64%) have Venezuelan mothers.

Colombian legislation states that children, even when born in Colombia, cannot have Colombian nationality if their parents aren’t Colombian or don’t have a legal migrant status in the country. This applies to the babies being born of Venezuelan women who don’t have official refugee status yet.

Venezuelan citizens are currently struggling to acquire passports, which leads to impediments and difficulties to process a visa or asylum request. The lack of documentation also presents an obstacle for these mothers to register their babies as Venezuelan citizens in the Venezuelan consulates in Colombia because they can’t prove their own nationality.

These babies are stuck being stateless until their parents can register them in a Venezuelan consulate.

Not having a national identity and legal attachment to a country means having no government protection, and no access to certain benefits and rights.

The Colombian government is looking for solutions to this problem, but in the meantime there is a risk of having an ‘invisible generation’ of Venezuelans who do not legally exist in any country.

This is one of the many consequences of the Venezuelan refugee crisis that countries in Latin America need to address to reduce the vulnerability of Venezuelans.

Mothers are leaving their country to ensure their babies are born somewhere they can live safely, but without a nationality they are stuck in migration limbo.

How Venezuela’s Crisis Has Affected Women’s Lives

This past July, The New York Times’ front page featured an image of Venezuela’s street protests, showcasing the deep political, economic, and human rights crisis in the country. The violence that has ensued is a serious problem, but other, less visible effects are also problematic – and some affect the country’s women more than its men.

Situations of conflict and crisis are not gender neutral. Luz Patricia Mejía, a Venezuelan expert in women’s rights working at the Organization of American States, made this point in an interview when saying that in any kind of crisis, women’s rights are disproportionately affected. Three areas in which women have been suffering the greatest in the Venezuela crisis: menstrual and sexual health, maternal and infant health, and gender-based violence.  

Menstrual and sexual health:

Food isn’t the only things missing in Venezuela’s supermarkets and pharmacies: so are condoms, birth control pills and menstrual hygiene products.

Earlier this year, factories from different companies had to stop production of sanitary pads, affecting not only the women who desperately need them, but also the women and men employed by those factories. Venezuelans have had to turn to social media to find basic necessities, and many women have resorted to this to get tampons and pads – by exchanging them for flour, for example.

Venezuela is the country with the highest rate of teen pregnancy and earliest start of sexual activity in South America. A lack of contraception is especially problematic. Because of this, couples have had to make drastic changes to their sex lives to avoid pregnancy, such as using calendar-based methods and buying birth control pills off the black market.

Some Venezuelan women have chosen an extreme method of avoiding pregnancy during the crisis: sterilization. Speaking about her decision to go through the procedure, a young mother of two, aged only 25, said in an interview: “I will not bring a child to suffer. 

Some women who do find themselves pregnant amid the crisis have resorted to a dangerousand illegalalternative: unsafe abortions through homemade herbal medicine and introducing acids through the vaginal canal, procedures that can cause severe and life-threatening bleeding.

Maternal and infant health:

Lack of medicine and basic hospital supplies, as well as a reduction of the number of doctors in the country (in recent years, around 20% of doctors have left Venezuela because of working conditions) adversely affect maternal and infant health in the country. Hospitals have been lacking incubators and other essentials to care for pregnant women and newborn babies. Lack of food also means many mothers are unable to breastfeed.

More worrisome, infant mortality increased by 30% and maternal mortality by a staggering 65% in 2016—and back then, the crisis was not yet at its worst. 

Gender-based violence:  

Domestic and gender based violence don’t stop just because the rest of the country is in a crisis. In 2016, for example, the number of femicides increased compared to the year before. The dire situations in hospitals also affect the victims of domestic violence who need medical attention. Impunity of gender-based crimes is also a major issue, especially given that it’s currently estimated that impunity of human rights related crime in the country hovers around 98%.

As the crisis in Venezuela persists, so do the daily struggles of women to access their basic needs and rights. The ways in which this crisis has affected women’s lives highlights how gender issues are extremely important in the context of crisis and conflict, and should be taken into consideration as these situations are studied, researched, reported, and addressed.