Refugees and Pandemics: COVID-19

According to the UN, there are currently 25.9 million refugees in the world. Amongst the chaos and uncertainty of the Covid-19 outbreak, it is easy to forget about such human rights crises. Yet those living in refugee camps are one of the most at-risk populations in the current climate. Here are 5 reasons explaining why this population is so vulnerable. 

1. Living in close proximity 

Cox’s Bazar, a large refugee settlement in Bangladesh, is severely overcrowded with each person having little more than 10m2 of space. That’s roughly the same as a medium-sized garden shed. In the UK it is illegal for a one-bed flat to be less than 37m2. This high density causes obvious issues when trying to practise social distancing, to prevent the spread of a disease such as Covid-19. This risk has already materialised in the recent spread of measles and diphtheria. 

2. Lack of infrastructure/healthcare 

Refugee camps are often set up quickly and with very limited resources. This results in a severe lack of necessary infrastructure such as proper toilets, waste disposal and running water. Coupled with limited access to food, this creates a deteriorating state of health for the majority of those living in camps. Whilst there are hospitals, they are very basic. Cox’s Bazar currently has about 300 hospital beds available. In London alone, an additional 4000 hospital beds are being made available. In simple terms, the additional beds in London are the equivalent per person to the entire capacity in the camp at Cox’s Bazar. This shows the disparity in the capability of dealing with Covid-19 in refugee camps. 

3. Communication barriers 

A common theme in refugee camps is a lack of proper communication technology. There is often very little mobile signal and few affordable service providers, so even if a refugee has access to a phone they can’t always use it. The spread of timely, expert information is crucial to effectively mitigate the impacts of health crises such as the Covid-19 outbreak. So, the gap in information caused by the lack of communication further increases the risks faced by those living in refugee camps. 

4. Natural disasters

The impacts of natural disasters can be catastrophic on refugee camps. Take Kutupalong or Balukhali camps in Cox’s Bazar for example, home to around 750,000 Rohingya refugees. In June, the monsoon season will sweep Bangladesh the same way it does every year. The flooding, mud and destruction brought by extreme winds and rainfall exaggerate the lack of sanitation, increasing the spread of diseases.  

5. Aid workers

Another risk factor associated with refugee camps is the reliance on national and international aid workers. With travel restrictions worldwide and general guidance to implement social distancing between individuals, aid workers will be putting themselves in increased danger by continuing to work in refugee camps during the pandemic, if they can get to the camps at all. This personal risk and restricted travel, in turn, threatens to remove a key source of support for refugees, leaving them more isolated than they were before the outbreak.

The most recent BBC Panorama programme explored the impact of the Coronavirus outbreak on Europe’s refugee camps from the inside. You can watch the programme here.

To Be Gay in Chechnya

The persecution of the LGBT community is Chechnya is not news. For years rampant homophobia has forced them into hiding, but recent anti-gay purges have created a massive escalation in fear. 

In February 2017 an officially sanctioned purge was launched, with police and security officials detaining dozens of gay and bisexual men, humiliating, starving and torturing them. The government carried out forcible disappearances on a number of the men, whilst others were returned to their families barely alive. Once released, the government informed their relatives of their sexuality before encouraging them to carry out honour killings. Though the homophobia was no surprise, the systemised nature of the 2017 purge was unprecedented. 

Following international calls for a thorough investigation, in 2018 Russia’s justice minister released a statement saying that their investigation had shown no sign of right’s violations and that they were unable to find any representatives of the LGBT community to assist in the investigation. Whilst there is no doubt that the investigation carried out was less than thorough, I also find it very unsurprising that a persecuted population did not come forward and admit to possessing the persecuted characteristic when asked by their government. Seems pretty obvious to me. 

Whilst the detentions appeared to stop in mid-2017, 2019 saw a new wave of persecution. This new wave saw police demanding large sums of money for the release of prisoners, whilst authorities confiscated and destroyed the men’s passports, ensuring that even on release, they were unable to leave Chechnya.

In March 2019, 30 countries supported a joint statement at the UNHRC expressing their deep concern about LGBT persecution in Chechnya and again called for a thorough investigation. But what good is condemning the Chechen authorities for detaining and torturing a group of people that they claim don’t exist? For years the Chechen government has denied claims of the purge against the LGBT community by claiming that gay people simply don’t exist in Chechnya. 

For aggressive homophobia to be so entrenched in a twenty-first-century government is absolutely horrifying, but the complete lack of concrete action by the international community is just as damaging to human rights conditions more generally. By passively standing by and letting such abuses happen essentially ensures that they will continue to happen in the future.

Reversing Roe

Abortion rights have long been one of the most controversial human rights. In a world where women are gaining more and more control over their lives and their bodies, political moves such as Georgia, USA’s “heartbeat bill” spark civil dispute and rightly strike fear into the hearts of young women everywhere. 

Abortion in the United States became legal in 1973 in the famous case of Roe v Wade and is now considered a Constitutional right. So why 46 years later are States like Georgia beginning the process of reversing Roe? And why should we be fighting to stop them? 

The heartbeat bill makes it illegal for a doctor to provide an abortion once a “heartbeat” has been detected. This usually happens at around 6 weeks. Plot twist – this “heartbeat” is not a heartbeat, but the first signs of cardiac activity. At 6 weeks a fetus has not yet formed a heart. 

Most women do not find out that they are pregnant until the sixth week or later. In a state where abortion laws are already stringent and maternal death rates are amongst the highest in the country this bill would make abortions inaccessible for so many women. Luckily this assault on women’s reproductive rights has been temporarily blocked by a federal judge and will be reconsidered in October this year. 

Georgia’s attack on women’s right not scary enough for you? You’re in luck! Georgia was only 1 of 16 US states that proposed heartbeat bills in 2019. Terrifying. 

One of the most frustrating things about anti-abortion laws like this one is the clear disregard for the dangerous situation that it’s putting women in. Criminalising abortion doesn’t stop abortions. You aren’t saving the lives of the babies you are claiming to protect, you are just putting the lives of their mothers at risk. Women facing an unwanted pregnancy will find a way to terminate. Whether they do this themselves using medieval methods, find an illegal, unsafe back-alley doctor to perform the abortion for them, or if they are fortunate enough to be able to afford to travel somewhere that respects women’s rights. They will abort. 

We have been fighting for women’s rights since the concept of human rights was born. We have come an incredible distance in that time but the fight is not over. The struggle continues.

Human Rights Day: Young Defenders of Human Rights

Today marks 71 years since the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and people across the world are celebrating International Human Rights Day. This year the UN announced the theme would be “youth standing up for human rights”. So instead of looking at another human rights violation, this post is going to look at the uplifting activism of three young people across the world. 

Karin Watson (Chile) : Women’s Reproductive Rights 

Karin comes from what she describes as a “privileged background in a struggling country”. She has been campaigning for increased abortion rights for women in Chile and argues that whilst 2017 saw a lift on the absolute ban of abortions, there is a lot more work to be done to ensure safe and legal abortions for all women. Along with a friend she set up Que Se Sepa! a platform that aims to erase the stigma around abortions by providing a safe space for women to share their own stories. Alongside her campaigning for reproductive rights, she is an advocate for increasing human rights education. 

Adélaïde Charlier (Belgium) : Environmental Rights 

Youth fighting the climate crisis is certainly not a new concept anymore, with young people across the world causing a stir by missing school to protest the inaction of world leaders in fighting climate change. The most famous of these young faces is Greta Thunberg, but there are many more young climate activists out there, including Belgium’s Adélaïde Charlier. In an interview with Amnesty International, she talks of the growing traction her strikes gained, growing from 350 people initially to over 35000 young people striking together. She finished by saying “We took a risk by skipping school, but it’s what we have to do if we want to make change happen!”

Marsel Tuğkan (Turkey): LGBT Rights 

The space for human rights in Turkey is ever-shrinking but Marsel is fighting hard to ensure it remains open and vibrant. Amidst a growing campaign of intimidation against the LGBT community in Turkey, and ahead of the 2018 pride march in Istanbul, Marsel said: “Now, it is more important than ever to show solidarity, both for one another within the community and as a show of strength for the rest of the country.”

These young activists are a glimmer of hope amongst an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty within the global human rights community. In a world where an old white man accused of multiple sexual crimes is the leader of the United States and where a Nobel Peace Prize winner is on trial for genocide, we could use a few more inspirational human rights defenders like these three. 

The China Cables

Although I have already written a post on the Uighurs in Xinjiang, given recent events I feel obliged to dedicate another post to explain the unfolding situation. Just over a week ago a series of official Chinese documents were leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalism, detailing the processes behind the Xinjiang detention camps. The documents have been labelled the China Cables.  

The China Cables were discussed in a new BBC Panorama programme “How to Brainwash a Million People”. Accompanied by interviews with ex-detainees, the families of detainees and for the first time, an ex-teacher from the camps, the thirty-minute programme provides a succinct and emotional account of the story of Xinjiang. 

What do the documents tell us?  The documents include a telegram, which acts as an operations manual for running the mass detention camps, which was accompanied by the signature of Zhu Hailun, then deputy secretary of Xinjiang’s Communist Party and the region’s top security official. This is the most incriminating of the documents released, and was described in the Panorama programme as a “clear and brutal guide”. Some of the most alarming text included the emphasis on removing any uncensored contact with the outside world, for example, section 2 of the telegram has been translated as “prevent escapes” and includes instructions for if students are granted permission to leave the camp, stating “they must have someone specially accompany, monitor and control them”, whilst section 3 details how students “may not contact the outside world apart from during prescribed activities”. It continues in section 14 instructing an “increase in discipline and punishment”, and finishes with section 25 “strict secrecy”. 

First-hand accounts. The Panorama programme spoke to one man who explained how he had been taken from his house in the night and transported to a camp, where he was stripped naked and put in chains. He notes how the guards didn’t see the detainees as human and how he was unsure whether or not he would make it out alive. Another ex-detainee described the physical abuse she experienced inside a camp. She explained how when they went to the toilet they were limited to two minutes and were constantly being told to hurry up by guards, if they took too long they risked being hit on the back of the head with an electric baton. She continued “my only dream was to die”. 

China’s response. Despite all of the evidence from the leaked documents, to satellite photos, to victim testaments, the Chinese government has maintained its denial of the whole thing. China’s UK ambassador dismissed the documents as fake news, and in a press conference about the Xinjiang camps, said that there was no impact on their freedom of religion or beliefs at all. This utter denialism employed by China either assumes that the rest of the world is stupid or simply doesn’t care. 

In my opinion, this is clearly a genocide, and whilst key figures have described the situation as “the largest internment of an ethnic minority since the Holocaust”, there are potential issues that arise when trying to define the situation as genocide using the UN Genocide Convention. The Convention entails the destruction of an ethnic group, however, the “brainwashing” methods that are being used, the forcible learning of language and denouncement of religion, fall short of the Convention’s definition. The closest the Convention gets to the Xinjiang camps is “causing serious bodily or mental harm” – which could definitely be argued in the case of the Uighurs, but would not be concrete. This, therefore, represents not only a gross abuse of power by the Chinese State, systematic destruction of an innocent population, and a clear tactic of denial, but also a failing in the international system that should be protecting us from such abuse.