(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Alpine migrant route into France a dead-end for many

    Standing in the kitchen of an old ochre-coloured stone house in the Roya Valley near France’s southern border with Italy, four young men carrying backpacks are eating a hurried meal. They are smiling, but clearly anxious. On a signal from the homeowner, they leave the house and duck into two cars waiting outside. A few minutes, and kilometres, later, eight more young men emerge through some olive trees and slip down a muddy path before getting into the vehicles. The convoy zigzags along a valley road, which winds between the steep wall of a mountain and the bed of a river swollen by autumn showers.


    The 12 passengers are all Eritreans; the drivers all French. The former arrived to France covertly, without visas. The latter are risking arrest and prosecution for the smuggling of undocumented migrants.


    In the Roya Valley, convoys like these have become a regular occurrence for the past year. Surrounded by Italy to the south, east, and north, this area of the French Alps, which starts about 30 kilometres north of the Riviera, has become an entry point for migrants who have made their way north from southern Italy and then become stuck in Ventimiglia, where the border was closed in June 2015. After being pushed back from train stations and roads leading into the French Riviera, a growing number of migrants are trying to find a route through the Alps. But the journey into the valley is proving a dead-end for many.

    “They don’t understand that after Ventimiglia, they get into France, but if they continue north, they’ll end up back in Italy,” explains Nathalie Massiglia, who lives in the village of Breil-sur-Roya in the valley. A professional clown, she is part of the Roya People’s Collective, which hosts and feeds migrants who wander into the valley and then transports them to small, distant train stations so they can continue their journeys. “We have become [active] because of the circumstances,” Massiglia says. “How can you close your eyes when there are men, women, sometimes children, wandering along our roads, exhausted, lost, starving?”


    Farm camp


    No one knows how many migrants have passed through the Roya Valley, but those helping them say it’s in the thousands. “The first people came to my house about a year ago; for the past six months, it hasn’t slowed down,” says Cédric Herrou, a 37-year-old farmer who is currently facing smuggling charges. His farm, where he raises laying hens and cultivates 800 olive trees, sits just outside Breil-sur-Roya and is the first property migrants come to when they exit a railway tunnel on the winding, mountain road from Ventimiglia.


    “Every night, I go to bed wondering how many will come to me. Almost every night, my dog starts barking and I make bets with myself: three, four, 10, more?” Herrou says.


    On this wet Sunday in November, there are about 20 migrants staying at a camp Herrou has set up a few metres away from his small house. Accessible only by foot, it consists of two caravans that Herrou had delivered by helicopter last summer, five tents, a wooden shed, and a large canvas sheet to protect it from the elements. A group of young Eritreans and Sudanese are sitting around a campfire scrutinising a charred map of Europe and discussing their next move.


    Patrick Bar/IRIN
    A group of Eritrean and Sudanese migrants staying at Herrou's camp discuss their next move

    Weghe, 17, left Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, a year ago to avoid compulsory and indefinite military service, and so that he could practise his Protestant faith freely. He did stints in Sudan, Libya, and Italy before arriving at Herrou’s farm last week. “We understood quickly in Ventimiglia that the border was shut; the trains and the roads to France were watched by police,” he says. “Some migrants had tried going through four, five, six times. Every time, they were sent back to Italy. So we walked along the railway at night, for seven hours [until] we saw some light.”


    Unaccompanied minors


    Weghe had no idea that getting out of the valley would be even more difficult than getting in and that his status as an unaccompanied minor probably wouldn’t help him if he was caught.


    “We see increasing numbers of unaccompanied children arriving,” says Françoise Cotta, a local lawyer whose large house often hosts up to 10 migrants. “They are supposed to be taken in by social services, but we have evidence of children being taken back to the border.”


    She filed a complaint of child neglect against the prefect of the Alpes Maritimes department on 21 November. The department only took in 238 unaccompanied migrant children this year, compared to 1,500 in 2015, despite the increase in young migrants passing through the region in the past 12 months. Cotta views the figure as proof of a hardening of attitudes against migrants, including children.


    Patrick Bar/IRIN
    Abdallah, 15, from Sudan, was returned to Italy after being removed from a train near the French border

    Abdallah, a 15-year-old from Sudan’s Darfur region, says he was arrested on a train near the French border. “I told the police I was 15, but the officer wrote down 1997 as my birth date. I told an Arab-speaking policeman there was a mistake, but they still sent me back to Italy.” Abdallah and two friends then crossed into France on foot, following the railway line. Now he is stuck in the valley, along with dozens of other young African migrants.


    A community divided


    Police officers, and even the foreign legion, have been deployed in and around the Roya Valley. Officially, they are fighting terrorism as part of the government’s Operation Sentinel. In practice, soldiers patrol train stations and small roads, while police officers check trains and set up roadblocks, effectively sealing all exits out of the valley. “Of course we are looking for illegal migrants,” a police officer admits, checking a car boot. “We catch them every day.”


    But the migrants keep coming and winter is fast approaching in the mountains, where temperatures can plummet dangerously quickly. “Will there have to be deaths in order to get the state to take responsibility and stop putting it on our shoulders to take in these people?” asks Alain Creton. He and his partner Camille, mountain guides and farmers, often receive messages from locals asking them to take in migrants they’re afraid to host themselves.


    Patrick Bar/IRIN
    Alain Creton and his partner Camille with a group of migrants they're hosting until transport can be organised

    Not everyone feels a duty to help. On 22 September, the department voted against hosting any of the migrants removed from camps in Calais. Some local people in the Roya Valley report sightings of migrants to the police, while others are sympathetic but prefer not to get involved for fear of getting into trouble themselves.


    On 23 November, hundreds of supporters gathered in front of Nice’s criminal court, where Herrou’s case was being heard. His trial ended up being postponed until January, but another local man, Pierre-Alain Mannonis, went on trial for transporting three young, injured Eritrean women, one of them a minor. He said he acted out of a sense of duty and humanity, and the prosecutor requested a six-month suspended sentence. He could have faced up to five years in prison, as well as 30,000 euros in fines. Herrou still could.



    Alpine migrant route into France a dead-end for many
  • Liberté, égalité, impunité

    As French investigators prepare to return to Central African Republic to look further into two-year-old accusations that French soldiers deployed in the country sexually abused children, there is no sign of any criminal charges being laid any time soon, let alone of convictions being secured.


    This is despite the fact that accounts provided to UN staff by child victims and witnesses in May and June 2014, and given to French authorities in July 2014, included the names of the children and some nicknames and physical characteristics of 11 alleged perpetrators serving in France’s Sangaris military mission.


    The force deployed with the blessing of the UN Security Council and at the request of CAR’s president in December 2013, a time when clashes between rival armed groups gave rise to fears of genocide and forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes.


    The reported abuse occurred in a camp for displaced civilians at Bangui airport, under the protection of French and UN peacekeepers.


    The allegations described in these accounts include French soldiers requesting and in several cases receiving fellatio from young boys in return for food and money; one French soldier urinating in the mouth of one of his victims; and soldiers from Chad and Equatorial Guinea deployed under the UN mission anally raping young boys. The alleged abuses took place in late 2013 and early 2014.


    These incidents, and four other cases of alleged physical abuse committed by Sangaris troops in CAR, are currently under investigation.


    No progress


    The office of the Paris prosecutor in charge of the dossiers told IRIN there had been no significant progress in the main case since May 2015, when discreet preliminary investigations launched the previous August were upgraded into a full-scale, well-publicised criminal enquiry involving the appointment of magistrates. The change in status came soon after the Guardian newspaper broke the story of the alleged sexual abuse.


    Read more


    Exclusive: Top UN whistleblower resigns, citing impunity and lack of accountability


    EXCLUSIVE: The ethical failure – Why I resigned from the UN


    Pope’s visit highlights CAR’s deep scars


    In the absence of military courts, crimes committed by French soldiers abroad are dealt with by the civilian justice system, specifically the military wing of the office of the prosecutor of the High Court in Paris.


    France’s justice system is inquisitorial, rather than adversarial, which means the role of these magistrates is not to build a case for the prosecution but to look impartially into the circumstances of an allegation to determine whether criminal charges are merited.


    Until convicted in court, suspects enjoy the presumption of innocence, a point that has been emphasised by the army high command in the main CAR case. (There is a separate case of alleged sexual abuse against two minors, one aged five, by two French troops deployed in Burkina Faso: the pair were immediately suspended. The Paris prosecutor is also looking into this case.)


    When accusations involve members of the armed forces, military police are also involved in the investigations.


    “We are not going to see anyone before all the facts are verified,” the head of military police told a French documentary last year when asked why investigators had not yet questioned any of the Sangaris suspects. 


    The investigators returning to CAR this summer are due to talk with child victims and witnesses who have not yet been interviewed. But this doesn’t necessarily mean any charges will then be brought.


    “They are right,” a source in the Paris prosecutor’s office said of those who have lamented that the case is very unlikely to come to trial. While declining to comment on whether the veracity of the allegations had been established, the source said none of the cases had actually been dropped.


    Zero tolerance?


    This is a case that illustrates the apparent chasm between regular public pronouncements about zero tolerance for crimes committed by troops serving in peacekeeping missions and actually delivering justice for victims of such human rights abuses and international crimes.


    French troops in CAR
    Crispin Dembassa-Kette/IRIN
    French troops in CAR

    “The longer this drags on, the more perpetrators are emboldened, seeing colleagues getting away with dreadful stuff, perpetuating a culture of impunity,” said Paula Donovan of Code Blue, a campaign run by the NGO Aids-Free World to end impunity for UN peacekeeping personnel. 


    The chronology of the case suggests that key events could have taken place sooner. For example, French investigators only interviewed the children in June 2015. This was almost a year after senior human rights official Anders Kompass – who has since resigned from the UN – handed the interview summaries taken by the UN human rights officer (HRO) in Bangui to the French diplomatic mission in Geneva.


    Moreover, the officer herself insists she informed Sangaris commanders in Bangui of the allegations as early as May 2014.


    The source at the French prosecutor’s office told IRIN that the June 2015 interviews “did not shed enough light to indict anyone”. Only five of the 14 suspects mentioned in the original summaries could be identified, the source added.


    The French investigators interviewed these five in December 2015 – two months after the documentary aired.


    UN foot-dragging


    Within the UN bureaucracy, the contortions and delays in reporting key information were set out in excruciating detail in a report issued by an external panel of experts in December 2015. 


    As well as lambasting a range of senior UN officials for their actions and inactions in the affair, the report lends credence to France’s claims that its investigations were severely hampered by the UN’s refusal to allow key staff members to be directly interviewed and its insistence that convoluted “official channels” be followed.


    “Exchanges between the French Permanent Mission [in New York] and the UN, including with their respective senior officials and legal offices, took weeks for each round of communication,” according to the panel.


    French investigators initially approached the HRO and a UNICEF staff member in Bangui in August 2014. But it wasn’t until the following April that, guided by the UN’s Office of Legal Affairs, she provided answers to their questions, which had to be submitted in writing, nor until July 2015 that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon waived her legal immunity, a privilege all UN staff enjoy.


    “[I]mmunity should not be a bar to UN officials and experts on mission when they are called to testify as witnesses to crimes of sexual violence,” the panel said in its recommendations.


    In denial over abuse?


    Emmanuel Daoud, a lawyer for ECPAT, an NGO working to end the sexual exploitation of children and acting as a “civil party” in the criminal proceedings, agreed that the use of immunity had been a problem for the investigators. But he dismissed any suggestion that French investigators had been dragging their feet, insisting they had worked “very professionally”.

    Hundreds of internally displaced people gather at Bangui’s M'poko International Airport in the Central African Republic.

    Hundreds of internally displaced people gather at Bangui’s M'poko International Airport in the Central African Republic.
    A. Greco/UNHCR
    Displaced at Bangui airport that peacekeeprs were supposed to protect

    He said it wasn’t unusual for such investigations to take so long and pointed out that this was a particularly complex case, not only because the crimes took place in a foreign country in the throes of violent unrest (with interviews requiring translators), but also because the implicated Sangaris troops had rotated out of CAR – in one case to Afghanistan.


    Even when conducted in France, criminal investigations in rape cases last three years on average, with trial verdicts coming only five years after complaints are lodged, according to a 2013 book entitled Rape, an Almost Ordinary Crime.


    For its part, the UN Secretariat maintains it acted correctly all along. In May 2015, Ban’s spokesman Stéphane Dujarric told reporters: “We very much cooperated with the French judicial authorities on this… And I think the issue of [the] lifting or not lifting of immunity is not really pertinent in this case.”


    Perhaps surprisingly, given its own vociferous criticism of the UN’s inability to prevent and punish sexual violence committed by peacekeeping troops, Code Blue agrees.


    “In this particular instance, the argument about immunity as the main impediment to the French investigation doesn't hold water” because of the extensive details contained in the HRO’s initial report, explained Aids-Free World’s Communications Director Gill Mathurin.


    But this doesn’t mean Mathurin believes mistakes weren’t made. Had the UN alerted the French authorities back in May 2014, “it is likely that they could have prevented subsequent abuses from occurring”, she said.


    In April 2016, the UN said 108 more victims in CAR, mostly underaged girls, had come forward with accounts of sexual abuse (including bestiality) committed between 2013 and 2015, allegedly by UN and French troops.


    Three months earlier, reports had come to light of yet more abuses, allegedly committed in 2014 by troops from France and other countries on children as young as seven.



    Lead photo: French troops on parade, by Luc Lagarde/Flickr

    Liberté, égalité, impunité
    French peacekeepers unlikely to face prosecution for alleged child sex abuse
  • Counting the money

    The rejoicing and back-slapping at the conclusion at the weekend of the Paris climate summit extended even to the African delegations. Historically sidelined, they had come to the UN meeting determined that this time they would make their voices heard.

    South Africa’s environment minister Edna Molewa, for one, was ecstatic about the deal. “I just wish I could jump high now. South Africa accepts the Paris Agreement as the best agreement at this moment. It is not perfect, but it represents a major leap forward for developing countries,” Molewa said. 

    Nigeria’s newly-appointed environment minister, Amina Mohammed, noted that “Africa leaves Paris with its head high with adaptation and climate finance for renewable energies.”

    If it was all about the money, then Africa got what it wanted early on in the conference. In one major success, the European Union, Sweden and G7 jointly pledged $10 billion to the newly-minted African Renewable Energy Initiative (AREI), whose goal is to supply at least 300GW of power by 2030 through clean energy sources.

    Pledges secured, African delegations seemed to go quiet at the summit. It was left to civil society to demand more robust positions on compensation for climate damage, and deeper cuts on emissions by industrialized countries.

    “The agreement will not keep the world to the below 1.5 degrees and this will mean more losses and damages, floods, droughts, sea level rise, and conflicts in Africa", said Sam Ogallah of the PanAfrican Climate Justice Alliance.

    One-off financial pledges cannot match the possibly trillions of dollars in new and additional money required to combat climate change. Those financial flows need to be predictable, transparent and monitored. 

    “And how will those funds be managed - how sure are we that they will come?” questioned environmental activist and writer Wanjohi Kabukuri. Given the multiplicity of funding channels “it’s going to be like a maize to trace and keep everyone accountable," he told IRIN.

    There are currently more than 40 funding mechanisms set up to distribute climate money. They have overlapping remits and different reporting procedures. As funding grows, it’s only going to get more complicated. The following graphic tries to make sense of the existing acronym soup.


    Counting the money
  • From the silly to the surreal

    Saving the entire planet is a serious matter. So thank goodness the Paris climate talks are also generating some things to smile about, even if not always for the intended reasons.

    Here’s a selection that left us smirking, speechless, or simply shaking our heads:




    Oxfam COP21 campaign poster
    Apparently, if you take a photo of your eyes, post it on Twitter, and add the hashtag #eyesonParis, you’ve done your bit to stop climate change.

    And if your ocular selfie features pink-penciled brows, a sinister stare, or a pair of 70s-throwback glasses, you’re even closer to persuading world leaders to end global warming. 

    Featuring snaps of celebrities and members of the public, Oxfam’s bizarre advocacy campaign aims to show politicians at COP21 that the world is watching them. But with visuals as myopic as this poster, this initiative to secure a fair climate deal could sink in a blink.






    In the fine tradition of the Razzies and the Ig Noble awards, Paris has its own parody honours – the Fossils. So far, named and shamed for their wayward climate records, are Turkey, Belgium, New Zealand… and the International Maritime Organization.









    Air France poster
    Faux Air France poster by Brandalism at COP21

    If you are a company with an enormous carbon footprint, then the climate summit is the perfect opportunity to do a bit of “greenwashing” to spruce up your climate credentials. Or it could have been, if it wasn’t for the street activists Brandalism, who are determined to poke a hole in your PR conceit.

    The guerrilla artists have put up around 600 alternative public ads in Paris mocking the corporate sponsors of the climate talks – like Air France – and the “links between advertising, consumerism, fossil fuel dependency and climate change”.






    Full-bore, pedal to the metal, US climate change denialism can be a bit of a culture shock. But pro-life website LifeSiteNews.com walks you through the logic in its take on COP21. The “culture of death” (i.e. contraception) is linked to climate activism because “saving the planet is foremost an anti-human enterprise”. Absolutely.

    But if you’re a bit confused, there’s a handy video that explains it all. It’s produced by the Heartland Institute, which before becoming involved with climate change, the Tea Party movement and opposing Obamacare, was hired by cigarette company Philip Morris to dispute the evidence of links between cancer and secondary smoking.


    If you think the claims by LifeSiteNews.com are a head scratch, there’s also this. No one quite knows what it means.


    Saving the entire planet is a serious matter. So thank goodness the Paris climate talks are also generating some things to smile about
    From the silly to the surreal
  • Look back and learn: The Evian Conference, 1938

    Gathered on the calm shores of Lake Geneva, a group of 32 political representatives failed to reach agreement on how to accommodate hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing violent oppression.

    This is not the opening paragraph of a recent news report on Europe’s efforts to deal with the migration crisis and the exodus from Syria. It describes the Evian conference in 1938 when politicians, diplomats and refugee support groups came together in the French spa town at the invitation of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

    On 6 July 1938, the pressing situation was that of overwhelmingly Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria and the need to find urgent solutions for their absorption as Adolf Hitler’s Nazi laws made them outcasts in their own countries.

    Ten days later, the Evian conference was over – with no meaningful outcome. Country after country stood up and expressed sympathy with the refugees, yet offered no significant practical help. The United States itself – represented not by Roosevelt or even an elected official but by a friend of the president called Myron C. Taylor – refused to increase the annual admission quota of 27,370 from Germany and Austria even before the meeting began. Lord Winterton, representative of Great Britain, clearly outlined his country's position: “The United Kingdom is not a country of immigration”. 

    As Golda Meir, later foreign minister and prime minister of the State of Israel, wrote about the conference many years later: "sitting there in that magnificent hall and listening to the delegates of 32 countries rise, each in turn, to explain how much they would have liked to take in substantial numbers of refugees and how unfortunate it was that they were not able to do so, was a terrible experience, [...] "(Golda Meir: My Life, New York, 1975, p. 158, Original English).

    On 13 July 1938, the German newspaper "Völkischer Beobachter” triumphantly commented: "No one wants them.”??

    So why was this the case? And what can the failure of Evian tell us about the current policy debate over the fate of the refugees fleeing the self-styled Islamic State and the war in Syria? 

    The historical and cultural context is obviously quite different, but the opposition to accepting Jewish immigrants in the 1930s was rooted in many of the same concerns politicians cite today: security, the need to maintain a cohesive society, safeguarding national economic interest.

    Just a few decades before, immigration had been considered such an insignificant issue in Europe that it was not even a suitable matter for legislation. In Holland and the UK, foreigners just needed to have sufficient funds and valid papers. Everyone was welcome. The first effort to restrict those coming to the UK came in 1905 with the Aliens Act. 

    The 1920s, however, saw mass migration and displacement following World War I. And by 1938, more than half a million refugees were on the move across Europe, fleeing the Nazis, who had rendered first 900,000 German Jews stateless under the Nuremberg Laws, then 200,000 Austrian Jews following the invasion in 1938.


    At the Evian conference, some of the reasons behind the delegates’ reluctance to accept refugees were laid flat on the table. 

    A key concern was the destabilising effect that large numbers of refugees might have on society, driven by the perception that they would be unable to assimilate, a notion that is still front and centre of the current debate over the Syrian refugee crisis. “We have no real racial problem,” declared the Australian representative at Evian, T. W. White. “We are not desirous of importing one.”

    “Let us stop immigration completely for a while and give our present alien population an opportunity to become Americanized first before they foreignize us,” wrote the editor of Defender Magazine in America. This was not a new thread in American thinking. Since 1924, immigration policy had been led by the principle of maintaining the stability of American society through blocking the immigration of those who might threaten it, with a particular threat seen from Asia.


    Like some Eastern European leaders and key Republicans today, others were only willing to take those of particular faiths. Brazil stated its willingness to accept only applications accompanied by a certificate of Christian baptism. 

    Then, as now, politicians were strongly influenced by economic concerns. Both Europe and America were only just recovering from the Great Depression, a period that had also seen the start of welfare provision. In America, millions were still dependent on federal relief. 

    As is the case today, 1938 was also characterised by concerns that refugees would take up resources meant for the poor and dispossessed citizens of the host country. “If homes are available for 20,000 children, then certainly there are 20,000 American children whose condition could be tremendously benefited,” wrote Senator Robert Taft to a constituent who had asked him to vote in favour of allowing 20,000 Jewish children to come to America. He voted against. The children were barred.

    In1933, the offer of British Jews to cover all costs associated with the influx – then estimated at between 3,000 and 4,000 – was critical to the British government’s decision to allow the first refugees to enter the UK. Those who were accepted, even children, were forbidden from working.

    The perception that incoming refugees would take jobs – a prevalent argument today – was also widespread. Trade unions on both sides of the Atlantic campaigned against refugees in case their members’ jobs should be threatened. In France, still coping with the influx especially from Russia of the 1920s, Jews were already blocked from key professions by 1935. The Metz Chamber of Commerce described them as “highly undesirable” and the British Medical Association vetoed a Home Office scheme to bring just 500 Austrian Jewish doctors to Britain after the Anschluss.

    For other countries, accepting refugees was a way of plugging economic gaps. Canada stated at Evian that they were only prepared to accept experienced agricultural workers. Britain made an exception for domestic servants, although one particularly picky official said he was “appalled to see the bad type of refugee presenting… so filthily dirty in their person and their clothing that they were utterly unfit to go inside a decent British home.”


    Today, a key argument against accepting refugees is the fear that Islamist terrorists could be amongst their number, a dynamic, it is implied, that is specific to this crisis. Not so. In 1938, there were also widespread fears that amongst those genuinely in need could be hidden dangers to American society: Nazi spies, and Communists. A State Department-approved article published in the Saturday Evening Post newspaper in 1941 warned that “disguised as refugees, Nazi agents have penetrated all over the world”. Even Roosevelt himself warned: “among refugees there are some spies.”

    In France, the connection was also made between incoming refugees, communism and Nazi spies. The consequences of the struggle to distinguish between the persecuted and those who presented a possible risk became increasingly clear as conflict escalated from 1939 onwards. In the UK, the government actually interned 27,000 Jews as “enemy aliens” alongside Nazi sympathisers. In one camp on the Isle of Man, 80 percent of those interned were Jewish refugees. 

    And there was also out-and-out prejudice. Anti-Semitism was clearly a key starting point both for many delegates and the societies they represented. The dehumanising portrayal of refugees as vermin, as bringers of disease and danger and instability, tapped into deep-seated prejudices. But as today's rhetoric shows, there is little about such portrayals that is actually specific to anti-Semitism: chillingly similar language and fears are now levelled at Muslims.

    The net result: refugees were widely seen as undesirable. Just five percent of Americans in 1938 were in favour of “allowing German, Austrian and other political refugees to come into the United States.” 

    The only country that came to Evian with substantial support for refugees was the Dominican Republic. Its delegate, the brother of the then dictator Rafael Trujillo, stated that 100,000 refugees could be accommodated. Excatly why they made the offer is a matter of conjecture: expectation of funds, a need for agricultural workers, and a desire to distract from the 1937 massacres of Haitians are among the theories. In the event, only around 800 refugees ever made it to the Caribbean. 

    The only concrete achievement of the conference was the creation of the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees (IGCR), which was to be a voluntary organisation, totally dependent on private funding. It lasted until 1947, although any impact of its work is hard to find, and was wrapped up shortly after the founding of the UN. 

    There are of course important differences between 1938 and now. The Jewish refugee crisis was deliberately created by the Nazis as part of its strategy to destabilise Europe, and those who left were a small and very specific minority, not an entire population fleeing indiscriminate warfare. Germany was not in the midst of an ongoing civil war in which the head of state was a key protagonist (in 1938, political leaders were still trying to appease and accommodate Hitler). 

    But today’s politicians, in addition to operating in the post-1951 framework of international humanitarian law regarding refugees, have access to a wealth of data and analysis that their 1938 counterparts did not, particularly that assimilation is possible and that refugees tend to bring net economic benefits. For those who fight for the rights of refugees, the importance of continuing to do so is also clear. One key lesson from Evian: failing to tackle a mass refugee problem is a decision that is neither neutral nor without consequences. 

    Look back and learn: Refugees in 1938
  • Syrian refugees respond to their ‘worst nightmare’

    Fade Kintar, a 24-year-old chemical engineer from Damascus, was among a group of Syrian refugees watching the horror of multiple terrorist attacks in Paris unfold on TV on Friday night in his temporary housing unit in the German town of Sontra.

    “When we saw that on the news, all those attacks there, we just felt afraid,” he said.

    It was not the fear felt by Europeans who wondered if similar scenes might play out in their own towns or cities. It was a fear of what the attacks would mean for the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees like themselves who have sought refuge in Europe in recent months.

    Even before Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks, and even before a Syrian passport (possibly fake) was found near the body of one of the attackers, Kintar worried the events in Paris would further diminish his chances of being accepted by local people in Sontra.

    “They already hate us, just because we’re strangers,” he told IRIN. “We thought they’d attack us. [Since Friday] we just stay in our homes. We don’t go out too much.”

    If Syrian refugees in Europe do become scapegoats for the attacks in Paris then the extremists will have achieved at least one of their likely goals, Aboud Dandachi, a Syrian blogger living in Istanbul, told IRIN.


    "Da'esh [IS] would love to turn Europeans hostile towards refugees; in fact it's a top priority for them right now"

    “Da’esh [IS] would love to turn Europeans hostile towards refugees; in fact it’s a top priority for them right now,” he said, explaining that the radical Islamist group “hate the fact that Europe is seen as a refuge for Muslims fleeing their atrocities.”


    Dandachi said the attacks were bound to have an impact on the Refugees Welcome ethos that has seen Europe, and Germany in particular, open its doors to a seemingly endless stream of asylum seekers this year. 

    “They’re definitely going to be a lot more wary about taking refugees, not just from Syria, but from anywhere in the world. It’s inevitable,” he said.

    “As refugees, this is our worst nightmare. This is what we were afraid was going to happen.”

    Parisians show understanding

    Anas, a 23-year-old agricultural student who has lived in Paris since fleeing Syria in 2013, described French people as “really welcoming.”

    “They accepted me as a refugee,” he told IRIN. “They were moved by what had happened to me.”

    He agreed that the attacks would make Europeans “less trusting” of refugees, but insisted that the French people he had spoken to since Friday’s attacks “were not hostile towards us”.

    “Friends of mine took part in gatherings in Place de La Republique (in Paris) and spoke to French people there. They understood. They did distinguish between the refugees and the people who did this.”

    A new ‘rush’ for refugees?

    Dandachi, in Istanbul, has four cousins who have made the journey to Europe – two via the UN refugee agency’s formal resettlement programme and two who used “the illegal route”.

    He said he wouldn’t be following them any time soon, but that the Syrians who congregate in Istanbul’s Akasary Square – a popular spot for making contact with smugglers who can arrange passage to Greece – “will be in more of a rush now” given the growing fears that Europe will move to close its borders in the wake of the attacks.

    He blamed Friday’s attacks on the rise of unchecked extremism, but also described Europe’s response to the refugee crisis as “completely untenable”.

    “There has to be compassion tempered by prudence,” he said. “This open door policy is untenable – not only are you not saving the most vulnerable who can’t make the trip, but you’re creating a situation where there’s going to be a backlash in Europe. 

    “In the end, we need acceptance, and the way refugees are coming into Europe is going to be very hard to create that acceptance.”

    He urged Europe to expand resettlement programmes and to prioritise the most vulnerable: “The Yazidis, families consisting of widows and small children – they’re not going to be a security risk. Single, young men can wait it out until there’s integrity in the process. Let Europe choose who they want to bring in.”

    For those Syrian and other refugees, like Kintar, who have already made it to Europe, life was already “hard enough”.

    “Now it’ll be even harder,” he said.





    Syrian refugees' ‘worst nightmare'
  • "We can do better"

    I didn’t come to Lesvos as a volunteer. I came as a journalist, to report truthfully what I saw there.

    But in those crucial, urgent moments – when a few people struggle to feed 2,000 or screaming women hold their infants out to you from a storm-battered boat and there is simply no one else to put out their hands and help, you can’t just stand there and ask for an interview. At least, I couldn’t. So my five days on the island became five weeks. And it was in the act of volunteering whatever support was needed that I found the real story of the refugees: the story of how apathy and mismanagement turned a crisis into a tragedy.

    It begins at the beaches. We all know boats are sinking – more than 3,000 lives have been lost this year in the Mediterranean crossing. Just the other day, a boat with 300 people went down. Apart from limited rescue operations by an overstretched Greek coastguard, what I call ‘the Independents’ – small bands of volunteers from Lesvos and around the world – are often all that stand between the refugees and that ugly, growing number.

    The aid system in Lesvos can and must be reformed. For me, there are three vital elements missing: honesty, humility and humanity.

    On my first day on the beaches I was swimming buoyancy aids out to refugees jumping from waterlogged dinghies. That was the day I first used CPR and later, watched as the government registration rules kept a mother from holding her dying child. All this as representatives of a major aid agency stood with dry shoes on the beach taking photos with their phones. The rule, to which I am sure there are exceptions, seems to be that after a day on the beach you can tell the aid workers from the volunteers on the basis of who has wet feet.

    At the island’s makeshift refugee camps, everyone has wet feet. Trench foot and flu were rampant during last week’s storms, and in the absence of adequate shelter construction or even tarpaulin provision, we volunteers handing out bin liners created a frenzy. For weeks, police had been using violence and teargas almost daily. Food shortages have been constant and the near-total absence of translators aggravates regular episodes of panic and violence during the agonising and ineffectual registration system.

    Nights are the worst. Once the aid agencies ‘clock off’, there is no one to help the lost child, the bleeding mother-to-be, the ailing grandfather. And in the face of every kind of deprivation you could name, comes a chorus from every corner: “It’s not our jurisdiction.” So the volunteers make it theirs, and even when the world is watching, this is the reality it never sees.

    The aid system in Lesvos can and must be reformed. For me, there are three vital elements missing: honesty, humility and humanity.


    The crisis sweeping Europe is not going away any time soon. Refugee numbers are on the rise and winter is on the way. Without radical reform, thousands of men, women and children are going to die needlessly on European soil.

    Neither frontline governments nor NGOs can possibly prepare for this unless they are prepared to tell this simple truth.

    Perhaps if this were not a debt-ridden nation in the midst of its own crisis, there would be a “gigantic humanitarian effort” under way in Greece, but for the record, there is not. And Camp Moria has not been a place where children get PlayStations and have their faces painted. The racist violence, corruption, police impunity and legal failures criticised in the past are very much still part of the picture. As worrying as this is, the fact is: only the Independents seem willing to speak about them. 


    What frustrates the Independents more than anything is the apparent territorialism of the big aid agencies. In one particularly revealing incident, a woman whose infant had drowned on the crossing was literally fought over on the beach by employees of rival charities keen to represent her case and the media attention it would garner. Bartering in this kind of ‘poverty porn’ alienates the refugee community from those who are meant to be supporting them.

    “You guys are the only ones that make us feel heard,” one refugee told me.

    Many Independents come with vital skills: lifeguards from Denmark, coastguards from Spain, paramedics from Norway. The list goes on. But often, it’s the basic contributions that are most needed: small-scale fundraising, cooking and cleaning, building shelters and perhaps the most precious commodity of all: time. “You guys are the only ones that make us feel heard,” one refugee told me. Independents also enjoy a degree of freedom that allows them to respond more efficiently to rapidly changing circumstances and endless red tape. We’re prepared to drive hypothermic children to shelter without waiting for police permission, for example. And we are present at all hours in places formal agencies have abandoned.

    Most Independents understand that those working for formal organisations, while empowered in some ways, are restricted in others. But when overstretched, the only answer is to collaborate with Independents as autonomous, equal partners in the provision of a lifesaving service; to share resources where possible and maintain a dialogue always.

    The same goes for refugees themselves. Many have urgently needed skills – from construction to translation. A formalised and mutually beneficial system to utilise these skills could transform the camps.

    Lack of coordination and support leaves untrained Independents working night and day, not getting what they need, while aid agencies seem to have storehouses full of resources and lack the personnel to distribute them. If only an efficient, dynamic relationship could be built between these two sides, we might start to see some of the infrastructure needed to cope with what is surely still to come.


    Last week, when I needed to get papers fast-tracked for a bereaved mother whose infant was hospitalised and on the brink of death, I asked a UNHCR (UN refugee agency) staff member what could be done for her. He just stared at me. "Please, can you take her name at least? We can have someone look for her tomorrow, make sure she gets where she needs to go," I implored. He shook his head: "Registration is the police's responsibility." I asked him exactly what his responsibility was. He ignored me.

    Their endurance, their dignity, their courage to carry on, is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. They’re not victims, they’re survivors.

    I got my degree in Politics and International Development from SOAS, University of London. When I started, I was aspiring to work for UNHCR myself. What I learned at university made me more critical of the structures in which they operate, but after my experience in Lesvos I really don’t think I ever could. Time and again I’ve been shocked by the apathy and detachment displayed by the professional aid workers. There’s also the question of how Syrians are treated so much better than anyone else, something the aid system doesn’t seem to be contesting nearly enough.

    See: The humanitarian caste system?

    In a crisis situation when most suffer without even the basics, some will always try to cheat the system. It’s not like there would be a level playing field even if they didn’t – the survival game is rigged and competition is brutal. But that doesn’t give anyone, from a position of power and privilege, the right to make generalised assumptions that every starving, dehydrated woman that faints in the queue is faking it or just “hysterical” (a favourite camp term). Once you start making generalised assumptions like that, dehumanising the ones you’re meant to help, you’re no longer qualified to be of help.

    On the ferry to Athens recently, I hid two Afghan mothers with infants in my cabin so they’d have somewhere to sleep out of the oceanic wind, and spent my evening on deck with some of my new-found Syrian friends. As we talked the night away, we found ourselves cracking jokes about all this, doing impressions, demanding “PAPERS!” from each other whenever someone needed the toilet.

    But like me, I think they laugh to keep from crying. Their endurance, their dignity, their courage to carry on, is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. They’re not victims, they’re survivors. And if my critique of the aid system here seems idealistic, it is only because I hold it to the standards they deserve. The people I have met and the stories they have told me are all the evidence we need: we can do better than this.


    "We can do better"
    A volunteer’s perspective of Europe’s refugee response
    Marienna Pope-Weidemann never meant to become a volunteer. But she spent the last five weeks on the Greek island of Lesvos: pulling babies from the water; negotiating with the police; and becoming increasingly frustrated with the official response. Here are her thoughts on how aid agencies and volunteers can work better together.

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