CO-CHAIRMAN COHEN CALLS FOR THE RELEASE OF ALAA ABD EL-FATTAHThursday, August 04, 2022
WASHINGTON— Concerning Alaa Abd el-Fattah’s imprisonment, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman and OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative on Political Prisoners Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) released a letter calling for Secretary Blinken to prioritize “the swift release of Mr. Abd el-Fattah”. The letter read in part: “In 2011, the people of Egypt achieved something remarkable – they ousted a corrupt regime and brought about a change in government through largely peaceful protests. Alaa Abd el-Fattah was one of the leaders of the movement that advocated this change. Through his writings and public appearances, he provided an intellectual backbone for the disparate groups that shared in the vision for a more democratic Egypt. “Tragically for him, this very purpose led to his arrest and conviction. Mr. Abd el-Fattah was arrested, then released to only be arrested again. He has been in prison for eight years now. His family reports they have irregular contact with him, and his physical condition has reportedly deteriorated.” “Mr. Abd el-Fattah is one of the many political prisoners in Egypt; yet his release would bring hope to them all. As the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Special Representative for Political Prisoners – an organization to which Egypt is a Mediterranean Partner for Co-operation – I request that your department include among its immediate priorities in Egypt the swift release of Mr. Abd el-Fattah, and in the interim, urgently impress upon the Egyptian government the expectation of more humane conditions during his incarceration, including exercise time, freedom of movement outside of his cell, and reinstatement of half hour – if not longer – visits by his son and others.” “Alaa is not a danger to the Egyptian government and his only fault is being a true patriot of his country.”
CO-CHAIRMAN COHEN APPOINTED AS OSCE PARLIAMENTARY ASSEMBLY SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE ON POLITICAL PRISONERSThursday, July 21, 2022
WASHINGTON—Margareta Cederfelt, President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA), has appointed Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) as the first-ever OSCE PA Special Representative on Political Prisoners. “I welcome the chance to serve as the voice of political prisoners across the OSCE region,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “Every day, we witness more political arrests of opposition politicians, journalists, activists and civilians in Russia, Belarus, and other participating States that are cracking down on free speech, freedom of the press, and free thought. Through this position, I am committed to working tirelessly to elevate the issue of political imprisonment as the egregious violation of human rights that it is.” In his new role, Co-Chairman Cohen will collect and share intelligence on political prisoners throughout the OSCE region; raise awareness of participating States with high rates of political prisoners; advocate for the release of political prisoners; and promote dialogue at the OSCE PA and OSCE executive structures about political imprisonment. Commission Chairman Senator Ben Cardin and Congressman Chris Smith were reappointed as Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, and Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues, respectively.
Behind Enemy LinesWednesday, July 20, 2022
As Russia’s genocidal war against Ukraine continues, Ukrainians in occupied territories are demonstrating courageous resistance in the face of atrocities, deprivation, and forced displacement, the scope and scale of which has shocked the world. This hearing examined the human toll the war is taking on the people of Ukraine. It also underscored the importance of continued assistance from Ukraine’s partners to help it win the war, restore its territorial integrity, rebuild its shattered infrastructure, and bring Russian war criminals to justice. U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Michael R. Carpenter outlined his institution’s comprehensive approach to supporting Ukraine. The OSCE continues to provide Ukraine with military aid; expose Russia’s clear, gross, and uncorrected violation of the Helsinki Final Act based on its unprovoked aggression against Ukraine and the Ukrainian people people; impose costs on the Kremlin, including instituting export controls and restricting Moscow’s participation in OSCE activities due to its breach of all ten principles of the Helsinki Final Act; promote multilateral support forUkraine; and hold Russian individuals and leadership accountable, especially for Russia’s violations of human rights. Ambassador Carpenter also highlighted a recent report that centers on Russia’s human rights violations, produced by the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. Ukrainian MP Oleksiy Goncharenko highlighted the systematic attacks on his nation’s history, culture, and identity. In addition to mass civilian casualties, rape, and torture within Ukraine’s borders, more than 1.3 million citizens have been deported to the Russian Federation, 240,000 children among them. Many are forced into “filtration camps,” in which soldiers crudely inspect, interrogate, and terrorize Ukrainians to look for signs of loyalty to Kyiv. Territories that fall under Russian occupation have been quickly militarized and used for further assaults on neighboring regions. Goncharenko noted that Russia now occupies an amount of land in Ukraine roughly equivalent to the size of Pennsylvania. Olga Aivazovska, Board Chair of the Civil Network OPORA and Co-Founder of the International Center for Ukrainian Victory, highlighted heartbreaking stories of human suffering, and Putin’s use of an asymmetric arsenal – including food insecurity, energy control, and misinformation campaigns – against Ukraine. She implored the international community to sustain investigations into and seek justice for widespread human rights violations. She also called attention to the wealth of resources that Russia has stolen from Ukraine, and the investment it will require to rebuild the nation after victory. Ukrainian witnesses asked for additional U.S. military support in the form of long-range HIMARS missile systems, western fighter jets, and related training. They also emphasized the need to designate Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, to cultivate the legal and humanitarian infrastructure necessary to ensure justice, and to rebuild Ukraine’s economic, agricultural, and energy capacities. Members assured witnesses that their dedication to supporting Ukraine remains unwavering, and that Ukraine remains a great inspiration for the free world. Related Information Witness Biographies
Helsinki Commission Hearing to Highlight Life in Ukraine's Newly Occupied TerritoriesFriday, July 15, 2022
WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: BEHIND ENEMY LINES Life in Ukraine’s Newly Occupied Territories Wednesday, July 20, 2022 2:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission As Russia’s genocidal war against Ukraine continues, Ukrainians in occupied territories are demonstrating courageous resistance in the face of atrocities, deprivation, and forced displacement, the scope and scale of which has shocked the world. This hearing will examine the human toll the war is taking on the people of Ukraine. It also will underscore the importance of continued assistance from Ukraine’s partners to help it win the war, restore its territorial integrity, rebuild its shattered infrastructure, and bring Russian war criminals to justice. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Panel One: Michael Carpenter, Permanent Representative and Ambassador of the United States to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Panel Two: Oleksiy Goncharenko, Member of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine; Vice President of the Committee on Migration and Refugees, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe Olga Aivazovska, Head of the Board Civil Network OPORA; Co-Founder, International Center for Ukrainian Victory
Supporting Ukrainian RefugeesWednesday, May 25, 2022
More than 6 million Ukrainians have had to flee their country due to Russia’s brutal war of aggression. Most have entered bordering EU states, with more than half of those going to Poland. Poland and other frontline countries acted swiftly not only by opening their borders to Ukrainians, but also by enacting policies and legislation to provide them with temporary status, housing, job training, healthcare, and access to education. For its part, the Biden Administration announced that it will take in 100,000 refugees, opening a path for Ukrainians to obtain humanitarian parole in the United States. In addition, the United States has provided significant humanitarian assistance and support to countries hosting refugees. Nevertheless, as Russia’s bloody assault on Ukraine enters its third month, there is no end in sight to what has become the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. Witnesses discussed the responses and challenges that frontline countries face in supporting Ukrainian refugees and how the United States might strengthen its policies in response, including by making the process of applying for visas more efficient. Related Information Witness Biographies
Support for Ukrainian Refugees to Be Discussed at Helsinki Commission HearingFriday, May 20, 2022
WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: SUPPORTING UKRAINIAN REFUGEES U.S. Policy and Visa Issuance Wednesday, May 25, 2022 2:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission More than 6 million Ukrainians have had to flee their country due to Russia’s brutal war of aggression. Most have entered bordering EU states, with more than half of those going to Poland. Poland and other frontline countries acted swiftly not only by opening their borders to Ukrainians, but also by enacting policies and legislation to provide them with temporary status, housing, job training, healthcare, and access to education. For its part, the Biden Administration announced that it will take in 100,000 refugees, opening a path for Ukrainians to obtain humanitarian parole in the United States. In addition, the United States has provided significant humanitarian assistance and support to countries hosting refugees. Nevertheless, as Russia’s bloody assault on Ukraine enters its third month, there is no end in sight to what has become the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. Witnesses will discuss the responses and challenges that frontline countries face in supporting Ukrainian refugees and how the United States might strengthen its policies in response, including by making the process of applying for visas more efficient. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Panel 1 Dana Francis, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration,U.S. Department of State (TBC) Panel 2 H. E. Marek Magierowski, Ambassador of Poland to the United States Irina Manelis, Esq., Principal, Manelis Law
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Lithuania Becomes First to Designate Russia as Terrorist StateTuesday, May 10, 2022
Lithuania's parliament on Tuesday designated Russia as a terrorist country and recognized its actions in Ukraine as genocide. Why it matters: In doing so, Lithuania has become the first country in the world to designate Russia as a sponsor and executor of terrorism, Ukraine's Centre for Strategic Communications and Information Security tweeted. State of play: Lithuania's unicameral parliament adopted the two-pronged resolution unanimously, per a statement posted to its Facebook page. "The war against Ukraine by the Russian Federation is a genocide of the Ukrainian nation carried out by Russia. The Russian Federation is a country that supports and executes terrorism," the statement read. What they're saying: The resolution stated that Russian forces have committed war crimes in Ukrainian cities such as Bucha, Irpin, Mariupol, Borodyanka and Hostomel, Lithuanian National Radio and Television (LRT) reported. The parliament "recognizes the full-scale armed aggression – war – against Ukraine by the armed forces of the Russian Federation and its political and military leadership ... as genocide against the Ukrainian people," it added. The resolution also stated that Russia, "whose military forces deliberately and systematically target civilian targets, is a state that supports and perpetrates terrorism." The big picture: Last week, Ukraine's Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova told the U.S. Helsinki Commission that Russia had committed nearly 10,000 war crimes over the course of the war. Russian forces have deliberately targeted civilian infrastructure such as hospitals. Last month, Sima Bahous, the United Nations executive director for women, told the UN Security Council that reports of human trafficking, rape and other sexual violence in Ukraine were increasing. President Biden said last month that Russia was committing genocide in Ukraine.
Diverse Voices Reporting From UkraineWednesday, April 20, 2022
Journalists in Ukraine risk their lives daily to report the reality of war. Credible, on-the-ground reporting has documented war crimes committed by Russian forces and the continued bombardment of Ukrainian cities, targeting civilians and critical infrastructure and displacing millions. So far, at least seven journalists have been killed, and others injured, while covering Russia's genocidal war against the people of Ukraine. During a briefing, held April 20, 2022, attendees heard from three journalists currently reporting from Ukraine: Oz Katerji, a freelance conflict journalist; Asami Terajima, a journalist with the Kyiv Independent; and Olga Tokariuk, an independent journalist based in Ukraine and a non-resident fellow with CEPA. All of the panelists are journalists currently in Ukraine, whose diverse backgrounds bring important perspectives on the war. The discussion centered on their personal experiences, the contributions their diverse backgrounds bring to their coverage, and the experiences of individual Ukrainians they have encountered during the war. The briefing was moderated by Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor Bakhti Nishanov. Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) opened the hearing by expressing his gratitude and appreciation to the panelists and stressed the importance of listening to voices on the ground in Ukraine. In opening remarks, Nishanov highlighted the rampant deceit surrounding narratives on the war in Ukraine and emphasized the purpose of the briefing: to spotlight diverse voices reporting in Ukraine, to listen to their stories, and to respond with action. Oz Katerji gave an account of the horrifying tactics utilized by the Russian military in Syria, which are now being repeated in Ukraine. He stated that Putin has been given impunity for decades in response to Russian aggression in Syria, Georgia, Chechnya, and now in Ukraine. “Syria was the opening shot and Ukraine is the continuation of Putin’s war of expansion into Europe,” he said, “Putin won’t stop unless he is stopped.” Asami Terajima shared a moving account of the Ukrainian people’s spirit and resilience, and denounced claims of Nazism in Ukraine as absurd. She described Ukrainians as brave, freedom-loving people and said that even in such difficulty, they are already rebuilding their lives as best they can. Olga Tokariuk reiterated the danger faced by all those in Ukraine, whether in the eastern or western regions. Russia has attacked Lviv and injured dozens in the region, in addition to the massive human rights violations it already has committed in every region of Ukraine. Tokariuk warned that unless Russia is stopped, it will continue to perpetrate genocide on a massive scale in Ukraine. She said, “Russia will not stop in Donbas…No one in Ukraine is safe or can be safe unless Russia is defeated and Ukraine wins this war.” Attendees raised a number of questions to the panelists, ranging from the logistics of transporting military equipment to the value of counteracting propaganda within Russia. Related Information Panelist Biographies Oz Katerji: "In the Liberated Kyiv Suburbs, Two Tales of War Emerge" Olga Tokariuk: "Syrian Doctors Are Teaching Ukrainians How to Prepare for Chemical Attacks"
Journalists Reporting from Ukraine to Speak at Helsinki Commission BriefingWednesday, April 13, 2022
WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online staff briefing: DIVERSE VOICES REPORTING FROM UKRAINE Wednesday, April 20, 2022 10:00 a.m. Register: https://bit.ly/3E89IZX Journalists in Ukraine risk their lives daily to report the reality of war. Credible, on-the-ground reporting has documented war crimes committed by Russian forces and the continued bombardment of Ukrainian cities, targeting civilians and critical infrastructure and displacing millions. So far, at least seven journalists have been killed, and others injured, while covering Russia's genocidal war against the people of Ukraine. This briefing will convene journalists currently in Ukraine, whose diverse backgrounds bring important perspectives on the war. The discussion will center on their personal experiences and those of individual Ukrainians they have encountered during the war. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Oz Katerji, Freelance conflict journalist Asami Terajima, Journalist, Kyiv Independent Olga Tokariuk, Independent journalist based in Ukraine; Non-Resident Fellow, CEPA
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Experts say desperate refugees are finding new danger after leaving Ukraine - human traffickersThursday, April 07, 2022
An independent U.S. commission listened to testimony from experts on Capitol Hill on Thursday who painted a disturbing picture of yet another consequence of Russia's war in Ukraine -- human traffickers targeting vulnerable refugees who are desperate to flee to safety. The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, heard from a panel of experts who expressed serious concern for the millions of Ukrainians who have left, or want to leave, the country. The experts underscored the need for the international community to protect the refugees, coordinate reception and transfer of unaccompanied minors, raise awareness and provide security. Kari Johnston, senior official at the U.S. State Department's anti-trafficking office; Tatiana Kotlyarenko, an anti-trafficking adviser; Mykola Kuleba, director of Save Ukraine; and Nic McKinley, founder and CEO of DeliverFund spoke to the Helsinki commission about the challenges they face to assisting Ukrainians fleeing the war from being harmed by the traffickers. Kari Johnston, senior official at the U.S. State Department's anti-trafficking office, told the committee that most refugees fleeing Ukraine have so far been women and children -- some of whom are alone. Part of the problem is that Ukraine has restrictions preventing Ukrainian men from leaving the country. "We are encouraging our European partners to take necessary measures, including distributing information to refugees on human trafficking and available safe resources for them in all languages they can understand," she told the commission. "We have been encouraged by how quickly governments and people in Europe have opened their hearts and homes but also by efforts governments have made to protect them to prevent trafficking." Adviser Tatiana Kotlyarenko noted that targeting women is on the rise, partly because of their appeal to criminals in the sex trafficking industry. One tactic that's already been seen near Ukraine is traffickers posing as transportation or aid workers -- which lure refugees into a false promise of security. "There's been reports of women and children disappearing after they've crossed the border, sometimes accepting a ride or a job offer from a person they think is there to help," Kotlyarenko told the commission. "Although the extent of human trafficking is not yet known, cases are beginning to be reported." "Children have been displaced, putting them at great risk of physical harm, severe emotional distress, trauma and human trafficking," she added. "There have been children who on their own walked to the border in the cold after being separated from family members or their family members killed." The United Nations has estimated that more than 4 million refugees have fled Ukraine so far since Russia launched its invasion on Feb. 24. Established by Congress in 1975, the commission is composed of nine members of the House, nine members of the Senate and typically one member each from the departments of defense, state and commerce. Those final three slots, however, are vacant and awaiting appointments.
Protecting Ukrainian Refugees from Human TraffickingThursday, April 07, 2022
More than 4 million refugees have fled Ukraine since Russia’s massive invasion on February 24, in the largest migration of people in Europe since the Second World War. Given Ukraine’s exit restrictions on males from 18-60, the vast majority of those are women and children. Most cross the Ukrainian border without resources or a place to go, making them extremely vulnerable to human trafficking. Reports indicate that traffickers already are trolling border areas trying to lure refugees with promises of accommodation, onward transportation, or employment. Ukrainian orphans and unaccompanied minors are particularly susceptible to such predators, and they need not only to be safely evacuated from Ukraine, but also securely tracked and transferred into national child protection systems so they do not fall prey to human traffickers or otherwise disappear. To address these concerns, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing on April 7, 2022, featuring experts on human trafficking and practitioners working directly with Ukrainian refugees. Witnesses testified on efforts by frontline states, the international community, NGOs, and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) to prevent refugees from becoming victims of human traffickers by raising awareness, vetting those working with refugees and those providing housing and employment, and countering online solicitation. They also discussed the need to safely transport vulnerable populations, particularly children, safely out of warzones and properly register them to ensure that they do not go missing or become trafficking victims. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) commended the recent efforts of European countries to support refugees fleeing Ukraine. He stressed the need for governments and NGOs to coordinate in ensuring the care and safety of child refugees to avoid a crisis of missing children similar to the one that occurred in Europe in 2015. He said, “Not only do we need to ensure that children are safe and taken care of, but we must be able to reunite them with family after the war if possible.” Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) expressed his alarm over the humanitarian crisis occurring in Ukraine and condemned Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s disregard for human life and spirit. “This flow of refugees caused by Putin’s war will cause us and require us to oversee as closely as possible the welfare of the women and children [to protect them from] people who have about the same consciousness and concern for others and human spirit as Vladimir Putin,” he said. Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) advocated for further military support for Ukraine so that Ukraine can reclaim its territory and refugees can return home safely. “Evicting the murderous Putin from Ukraine is the only way to help Ukrainian civilians and allow refugees to return to Ukraine,” he said. Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), OSCE Parliamentary Special Representative on Human Trafficking issues, thanked the witnesses for their leadership in the fight against human trafficking and called for increased international cooperation in protecting women and children from traffickers. Senior Official and Principal Deputy Director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the U.S. State Department Dr. Kari Johnstone described the dire situation refugees face as they flee. Many are further endangered and exposed to human trafficking by extenuating circumstances, such as being unable to access information in their language or belonging to an already marginalized group such as Roma. Dr. Johnstone emphasized the need for trauma-informed, age-appropriate, gender-sensitive approaches to support refugees. Making sure refugees have access to appropriate work, housing, and schooling helps to keep refugees out of vulnerable situations and prevent trafficking. “While there’s no simple solution, working together…we are hopeful that we will be able to at least reduce the impact of this war,” Dr. Johnstone said. Tatiana Kotlyarenko, advisor on anti-trafficking issues at ODIHR, called for unity on all fronts to combat human trafficking and asked for continued support from Congress in strengthening ODIHR’s work on anti-human trafficking in Ukraine. She also stressed the importance of implementing strong national referral mechanisms to better identify and assist victims of human trafficking “If you want to prevent trafficking of Ukrainian women and children, we need to unite to address demand on policy, legislative, and practical levels,” she said. Mykola Kuleba, director of the NGO Save Ukraine, shared a firsthand account of the horrific conditions on the ground in Ukraine that he has witnessed while evacuating children from the war zone, emphasizing that the first step to protect Ukrainian refugees is to help Ukraine defend itself so its people don’t become refugees. He also highlighted the need for more humanitarian assistance, including food, water, and medicine. “Millions of Ukrainian children are now refugees wandering around the world. The world must help this great democratic country that has faced unprecedented evil. Each of you has the ability to aid in the rescue. Each of you can resist this evil,” Kuleba said. Nic McKinley, founder and CEO of DeliverFund, described the importance of disrupting the human trafficking market on the demand side by deterring potential buyers and attacking traffickers’ ability to profit from the exploitation of vulnerable populations. He also discussed how traffickers use social media to lure victims through advertisements for housing and employment for refugees. “You cannot have a human trafficking victim,” he said, “without a human trafficker.” Members brought a number of concerns and questions to witnesses, ranging from how best to distribute information on preventing human trafficking to refugees, to how government and NGO efforts can be coordinated to most effectively deliver assistance and provide protection for vulnerable populations. Related Information Witness Biographies
Protecting Ukrainian Refugees from Human Trafficking to Be Discussed at Helsinki Commission HearingFriday, April 01, 2022
WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: PROTECTING UKRAINIAN REFUGEES FROM HUMAN TRAFFICKING Thursday, April 7, 2022 10:30 a.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission More than 4 million refugees have fled Ukraine since Russia’s massive invasion on February 24, the largest migration of people in Europe since the Second World War. Given Ukraine’s exit restrictions on males from 18-60, the vast majority of those leaving are women and children. Most cross the Ukrainian border without resources or a place to go, making them extremely vulnerable to human trafficking. Reports indicate that traffickers already are trolling border areas trying to lure refugees with promises of accommodation, onward transportation, or employment. Ukrainian orphans and unaccompanied minors are particularly susceptible to such predators, and they need not only to be safely evacuated from Ukraine, but also securely tracked and transferred into national child protection systems so they do not fall prey to human traffickers or otherwise disappear. Witnesses will examine efforts by frontline states, the international community, NGOs, and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights to prevent refugees from becoming victims of human traffickers, to coordinate the reception and transfer of unaccompanied minors, to conduct awareness-raising and prevention programs near the border, and to provide security to protect refugees. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Panel 1: Dr. Kari Johnstone, Senior Official, U.S. Department of State, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons Panel 2: Ms. Tatiana Kotlyarenko, Anti-Trafficking Advisor, OSCE Office for Democratic Institution and Human Rights Mr. Mykola Kuleba, Director of Save Ukraine and former Presidential Commissioner for Human Rights Mr. Nic McKinley, Founder and CEO, DeliverFund
Helsinki Commission Recognizes Key Contributions from Allies and PartnersTuesday, March 08, 2022
WASHINGTON—In light of Russia’s continued criminal war on the peaceful citizens of Ukraine, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s barbaric war against the Ukrainian people has inspired global outrage and condemnation. Many countries have risen to the moment, especially our Baltic Allies, Poland, and Romania. We also recognize those other OSCE participating States that have taken particular risks and stepped up during this moment of great danger and clear moral purpose. “We thank the Government of Turkey for its significant and robust support for Ukraine. Turkey has long been among Ukraine’s most ardent and consistent advocates, and its closure of the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits to warships from Russia and Ukraine, consistent with the Montreux Convention, effectively supports Ukraine and the cause of European security. Turkey plays an indispensable role as a NATO Ally and strategic linchpin in Europe. We look forward to working closely with our Turkish allies on additional steps to support Ukraine. “We also recognize Moldova for serving as a safe haven for refugees and for its strong support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. To date, on a per capita basis, Moldova has welcomed more refugees than any other country. Despite limited resources and the unlawful presence of Russian troops on its soil, President Maia Sandu and the Government and people of Moldova have shown their mettle. We congratulate Moldova on its European Union application. We see your heroic efforts and will continue to work diligently towards supporting Moldova’s transatlantic aspirations. “In addition, despite initially concerning and confusing statements, we applaud the Government of Georgia for its increasingly robust support for the people of Ukraine, particularly given Russia’s threats and occupation of Georgia’s territory. We are grateful for Georgia’s co-sponsorship of the UN General Assembly resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, its participation in a call for the International Criminal Court to investigate Russian war crimes, and the strong statements of support by Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili in particular. We congratulate Georgia on its application to the European Union and look forward to doing our part to reinvigorate our bilateral partnership and deepening our transatlantic bond. “We are moving to limit Russia’s ability to wage war on its neighbors and will work closely with our friends to navigate this dangerous moment in history.” On February 28, the Turkish government exercised its authority as a custodian of the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits, per the 1936 Montreux Convention, and closed their use to warring parties in the Black Sea. On March 2, Turkey provided the Ukrainian military with additional Bayraktar TB2 unmanned aerial combat vehicles. Since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Moldova was among the first to open its borders to Ukrainian refugees and hosts more refugees per capita compared to any other European state. Russia illegally maintains a garrison of approximately 1,500 troops on Moldovan territory in Transnistria and supports a separatist government. On March 2, the Government of Georgia co-sponsored a UN General Assembly resolution that condemned Russia’s war against Ukraine. On the same day, Georgia joined 37 other countries formally calling for an International Criminal Court investigation of Russian war crimes in Ukraine.
HELSINKI COMMISSIONERS JOIN OSCE PA MEETING ON AFGHANISTAN, DEBATE POLICY RESPONSESTuesday, November 09, 2021
On November 4, 2021, more than 40 members of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) met remotely to discuss the current security challenges posed by developments in Afghanistan and the future of OSCE engagement with Afghanistan under the Taliban’s rule. Since 2003, Afghanistan has been an OSCE Partner for Cooperation and shares a border with several OSCE countries. The debate, which was attended by seven members of the Helsinki Commission, took place as part of the OSCE PA’s annual Autumn Meeting. Each year, the Autumn Meeting focuses on debating one or more currently relevant issues confronting the OSCE region. This year’s Autumn Meeting was originally planned to be in Dublin, Ireland, but a resurging COVID-19 pandemic forced the OSCE PA to rely on emergency procedures that allow for statutory meetings to be conducted remotely. OSCE PA Leaders Outline Challenges Posed by Afghanistan OSCE PA President Margaret Cederfelt opened the debate with an overview of the challenges presented by the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. While three OSCE countries—Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan—share a border with Afghanistan, developments there also have serious implications for the rest of the OSCE participating States. The worsening humanitarian crisis, the Taliban’s historical connections to terrorism, the negative economic fallout, the potential impact on neighboring countries, and deteriorating human rights, particularly for women and girls, were all of concern. “Those who will suffer most from this is, of course, the ordinary people,” President Cederfelt emphasized, while highlighting the impending economic turmoil Afghanistan faces. “It is essential that human security is protected by safeguarding the fundamental rights of all Afghans.” President Cederfelt also underscored the need for international cooperation while addressing this situation, given its global security implications. The three leaders of the PA General Committees highlighted aspects of the crisis related to their specific mandates. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson, who chairs the General Committee on Political Affairs and Security, noted, “Perhaps most alarming is the return of an international terrorist threat from Afghanistan. He also highlighted the production and trade of narcotics and illegal drugs backed by the Taliban as a serious challenge with global implications, thanks to major trafficking routes. “The security situation in Afghanistan is intrinsically linked with that of the OSCE region as a whole—but it will first and most immediately affect Afghanistan’s neighbors in Central Asia,” he said. “We must all be especially concerned about threats to the three OSCE participating States that have borders with Afghanistan: Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. This is perhaps the area in which our organization can have the greatest and most immediate impact." The other two general committee chairs shared their concerns as well. Pere Joan Pons of Spain, who chairs the General Committee on Economia Affairs, Science, Technology, and Environment, highlighted Afghanistan’s current economic and environmental challenges, especially given the country’s vulnerability in the face of climate change. Sereine Mauborgne of France, who chairs the General Committee on Democracy, Human Rights, and Humanitarian Questions, discussed the serious human rights violations faced by women, girls, and other vulnerable populations. In addition, many Afghans face urgent or extreme food and security issues; the Taliban lacks the capability to provide either for the Afghan people. Director of the OSCE Conflict Prevention Center Tuula Yrjölä discussed Afghanistan’s relationship to the OSCE as a Partner for Cooperation and the potential role of the OSCE role in addressing the situation. She concluded that Afghanistan’s partnership status in the OSCE was based on shared values; its future may be in question under a Taliban government. Helsinki Commissioners Participate in the General Debate Following the introductory remarks, six members of the Helsinki Commission—including all four senior commission leaders—took the floor to voice their concerns and engage with other parliamentarians. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin, who also serves as the Head of the U.S. Delegation and the OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, expressed disappointment at how quickly the democratic government and institutions in Afghanistan deteriorated, despite years of investment and support. “One of the prime reasons was corruption,” explained Chairman Cardin. The rights of women and girls and ensuring humanitarian assistance reaches populations in need were two areas that he insisted be of focus as international efforts move forward. Media freedom was of particular concern for Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen. “Lower-level Taliban forces threaten and harass journalists,” he stated. “RFE/RL has reported that over the past weeks, its remaining journalists have been questioned by armed Taliban and door-to-door searched have been conducted looking for journalists affiliated with the United States.” Media freedom is among the fundamental freedoms the OSCE seeks to protect, and Co-Chairman Cohen insisted the Taliban must be held responsible for violating these rights. Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker, who also serves as an OSCE PA Vice President, shared legislation he is sponsoring in Congress that seeks to strengthen the American response to Afghanistan and reiterated the dangers that religious and ethnic minorities in Afghanistan currently face. Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson highlighted the dangers of terrorism and the oppressive rule of the Taliban. “It cannot be business as usual with the Taliban,” he stated. “Together, we must use our leverage to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a terrorist haven devoid of human rights.” Chairman Cardin, Sen. Wicker, and Rep. Wilson all expressed concern over Afghanistan’s status as an OSCE Partner for Cooperation. “Before we recognize any representative of Afghanistan in our assembly, we should make sure that they will adhere to the principles of the Helsinki Final Act,” Chairman Cardin stated. Rep. Wilson argued that Afghanistan’s partner status should be reconsidered, and Sen. Wicker also emphasized the importance of the values shared by OSCE participating States and Partners for Cooperation. “I would hope that it is our position going forward that the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan not be recognized as an OSCE Partner for Cooperation,” Sen. Wicker said. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Gwen Moore focused on the dangers for women and girls and the human rights violations they face. Despite advances made in women’s rights in Afghanistan during the past two decades, the return of Taliban rule has brought a resurgence of violence and restrictions, endangering the lives of women throughout the country. Many have fled Afghanistan, fearing for their safety, while others have remained to fight for their country. While Rep. Moore strongly advocated for supporting resettlement efforts, she also emphasized that resettlement was a last resort. “We must continue to press for the protection of these women in their own country,” she said. Ms. Moore also proposed that the OSCE PA create and maintain a project to monitor and support Afghanistan’s female parliamentarians. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Ruben Gallego stressed the importance of aiding Afghans still in Afghanistan. “We must find ways to support Afghans in-country who are bravely calling for progress, and we must stand up for the human rights of those who suffer at the hands of the Taliban,” he said. Rep. Gallego further argued that the international community must do more than simply aid in the evacuation of those fleeing the Taliban’s rule. “We must also ensure that those who have been evacuated have long-term support in the resettlement process. The United States must do its part in accepting the bulk of Afghan refugees, and I have personally pushed in Congress to provide Afghans with the long-term resources they need to settle into a new life,” he stated, and asked all the participating parliamentarians to urge their countries to do the same. OSCE Efforts Moving Forward Throughout the debate, which highlighted various vulnerable populations and severe security threats that must be addressed in the future, one recurring theme was the need for international cooperation. While President Cederfelt began the meeting by observing that it will be impossible to know the future, Rep. Gallego expressed one certainty. “The end of America’s military commitment in Afghanistan does not mean we will turn a blind eye to Afghanistan’s people or the security of the region,” he said.
OSCE SHDM on Digital Technology and Human RightsMonday, July 26, 2021
OSCE Conference on Risks and Opportunities Posed by Digital Technologies On July 12 and 13, 2021, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) held the third Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting (SHDM) of the year, titled "Digital Technologies and Human Rights - Opportunities and Challenges." The virtual conference included representatives from 45 OSCE participating States; a dozen OSCE missions and institutions, including the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly; more than 140 academic, national, and non-governmental human rights institutions; and international organizations like the Council of Europe, European Union, and the United Nations. Digital technologies affect human rights, gender equality, and the rule of law, and in her opening remarks, Swedish Foreign Ministry Director-General for Political Affairs Elinor Hammarskjöld stressed the nexus between digital technologies and Swedish OSCE Chairpersonship-in-Office (CiO) priorities. The COVID-19 pandemic underscored how the digital divide disproportionately affects women and girls, she explained, and stressed the threat that widespread use of digital technologies can pose to fundamental freedoms if used indiscriminately by authorities. Panelists highlighted opportunities for digital technologies to benefit societies and human rights defenders, as well as dangers they can pose to human rights. Maia Rusakova, associate professor of sociology at St. Petersburg State University, warned that data collection technologies have facilitated online recruitment by human traffickers. However, facial recognition, artificial intelligence, and tracking blockchain financial transactions and social media activity could play a role in combatting the digital threats of human trafficking. Susie Alegre, an associate at the human rights NGO Doughty Street Chambers, highlighted how cutting-edge data collection can raise awareness of threats to human rights, support investigations, facilitate positive social change, and support human rights defenders. Examples include Data 4 Black Lives, eyeWitness to Atrocities, Forensic Architecture, and Bellingcat. Elif Kuskonmaz, a lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, cautioned that misuse of facial recognition technology could pose threats to peaceful assembly and freedom of speech, and that it could be exploited to wrongfully detain citizens. To prevent such abuse, she recommended that participating States adopt adequate legal frameworks concerning the collection, use, storage, and sharing of personal data. She urged all participating States to review the Council of Europe's Convention 108+, which addresses personal data collection in a national security context. Other panelists explored the capacity of artificial intelligence systems to reinforce existing structural inequalities through algorithms and the subsequent human rights implications. Civil Society Concerns about Government Use—or Abuse—of Digital Technology Civil society participants shared human rights concerns related to governmental use of digital technologies. Many urged the OSCE to call out repressive behavior and help participating States establish adequate legal protections against misuse. Several urged the United States and the European Union to target sanctions against the worst offenders. Many participants also took the opportunity to raise human rights concerns directly with government officials, and alleged misuse of data collected by government agencies to persecute human rights defenders, social activists, and their families. For example, civil society activists from Kazakhstan accused the government of conducting digital surveillance and censorship on NGOs and activists, and they complained that mandatory “security certificates” allow the government to monitor and block use of non-government-controlled social media sites such as Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram. Other NGOs raised concerns about Spain's treatment of protesters in Catalonia, Greece's treatment of Turks in Western Thrace, and Russia’s occupation of Ukraine, including Crimea. A German NGO called for the abolition of facial recognition technology due to its use by law enforcement to profile specific ethnic groups and minorities, including Roma and Sinti. Civil society participants also expressed concerns over participating States’ use of digital technology to target dissent by deploying spyware against individuals, spreading misleading government-sponsored content, and silencing protest groups and democratic movements. Several NGOs argued that their governments exploited conditions imposed by the pandemic to use surveillance camera footage, geolocation data, and contact tracing as part of a domestic surveillance campaign to discourage public political dissent. Participants highlighted how technology has been used to spread racist messaging, including the racist abuse of English football players following the recent Union of European Football Associations Euro 2020 matches. Many voiced their dismay that social media companies do not hold accountable individuals who spread racist content. Participants recommended that social media companies implement more robust algorithms to detect racist remarks. Participating States Respond Several participating States addressed the use of technology. The European Union recognized the importance of addressing human rights abuses that arise from the misuse of digital technologies. Turkey responded by touting its 2016 law on data protection and emphasizing its multiculturalism. The Holy See responded that it is necessary to improve education in proper use and effects of technology. The Holy See also called for international regulations to guarantee the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the right to private personal electronic communication.
The First Clean Olympics?Wednesday, July 21, 2021
In December 2020, the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act became law. This groundbreaking extraterritorial criminal authority redefined doping as fraud and enables U.S. law enforcement to pursue corrupt administrators, officials, doctors, coaches, and other structural perpetrators of doping anywhere in the world. The 2021 Olympics in Tokyo, which start July 23, will be the first major test of this new law as U.S. law enforcement is expected to take action against violators. At this hearing, witnesses discussed the importance of the Rodchenkov Act for victims of doping fraud and what athletes should expect going forward. Witnesses also discussed concrete aspects of the law’s enforcement—who will be responsible, how investigations would be initiated, and how perpetrators might be arrested and brought to trial for their crimes. Finally, witnesses provided their perspectives on how the new law fits into the broader anti-doping movement and efforts to reform the World Anti-Doping Agency. Related Information Witness Biographies In the News: Washington Post: Behind New Law, the FBI is Getting into Anti-Doping, but Not Everyone Wants the Help Podcast: Damocles' Sword: The Impact of the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act Press Release: Rodchenkov Act Passes Senate, Goes to President for Signature
Helsinki Commission Hearing to Examine Enforcement of Criminal Anti-Doping Law at Tokyo OlympicsWednesday, July 14, 2021
WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: THE FIRST CLEAN OLYMPICS? Rodchenkov Act Enforcement at Tokyo 2021 Wednesday, July 21, 2021 2:30 p.m. Russell Senate Office Building Room 428A Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission In December 2020, the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act became law. This groundbreaking extraterritorial criminal authority redefined doping as fraud and enables U.S. law enforcement to pursue corrupt administrators, officials, doctors, coaches, and other structural perpetrators of doping anywhere in the world. The 2021 Olympics in Tokyo, which start July 23, will be the first major test of this new law as U.S. law enforcement is expected to take action against violators. At this hearing, witnesses will discuss the importance of the Rodchenkov Act for victims of doping fraud and what athletes should expect going forward. Witnesses also will discuss concrete aspects of the law’s enforcement—who will be responsible, how investigations would be initiated, and how perpetrators might be arrested and brought to trial for their crimes. Finally, witnesses will provide their perspectives on how the new law fits into the broader anti-doping movement and efforts to reform the World Anti-Doping Agency. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Edwin Moses, Emeritus Chair, U.S. Anti-Doping Agency; Three-Time Olympian, Olympic Gold Medalist Richard Baum, U.S. Coordinator, Doping in Sport, White House Office of National Drug Control Policy Jim Walden, Partner, Walden, Macht, & Haran; Attorney for Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov; former Assistant U.S. Attorney, Eastern District of New York Debra LaPrevotte, Senior Investigator, the Sentry; former Supervisory Special Agent, Federal Bureau of Investigation Noah Hoffman, Two-Time Olympian; Competitor at Sochi 2014
By Lale Mamaux, Communications Director
and Marlene Kaufmann, General Counsel
In August, staff of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) traveled to Damascus, Syria and Beirut, Lebanon and met with government officials, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and religious groups regarding the Iraqi refugee crisis. While it is estimated that approximately 1 to 1.5 million Iraqis have fled to Syria and 50,000 have fled to Lebanon, they are not living in camps, but instead are a mobile population scattered throughout Damascus and Beirut as well as in other urban areas. That fact has made this humanitarian crisis virtually ‘invisible’ to the international community, but not for those Iraqi refugees who remain stranded, jobless, and deprived of essential services with conditions worsening by the day. This deepening crisis threatens to further destabilize the entire region.
As the years in exile drag on, Iraqi refugees are becoming more and more desperate and depressed. Those who fled with some resources have by now seen those assets depleted and are reliant on services provided by international organizations and NGOs working in the region. Syria and Jordan host the largest population of Iraqis and do not permit them to work, although many find jobs in the “informal” sector making them targets for exploitation and abuse. As a result, fewer children are enrolling in school as their parents send them out, instead, to find whatever work they can on the street. More women are prostituting themselves, desperate to provide for their children, and domestic violence and alcoholism among this population are on the rise.
The bombing of the Golden Mosque of Samara in 2006 led to a mass influx of Iraqi refugees fleeing to Syria, where according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), approximately 30,000-60,000 Iraqis were crossing the border each month. In October 2007, the government closed its borders to virtually all Iraqis and imposed stringent visa restrictions – requiring Iraqis to apply for visas at the Syrian Embassy in Baghdad. Since February 2008, Syrian immigration sources indicate that the flow of Iraqis has stabilized once again.
According to UNHCR, it has registered over 216,000 Iraqis as refugees. Since January 2007, UNHCR has identified over 7,800 at-risk refugee children or adolescents from Iraq, 95 unaccompanied or separated children, and over 5,900 women at risk. Additionally, in 2008 it identified at least 300 survivors of Sexual Gender Based Violence (SGBV).
Many Iraqis arriving in Syria are moving into areas such as Masaken Barzeh, Saida Zainab, Jaramana, and Qudssya as well as to other urban localities outside of Damascus (in Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Deir Ezzor, Lattakia, Tartous and Hassaka). Iraqis have placed enormous strains on Syria’s economy and infrastructure and caused an increase in the cost of living (i.e. rent, food, fuel, medical assistance). As Iraqis financial resources continue to diminish and desperation sets in, they face homelessness, child labor, early marriage, and survival sex. With many Iraqis too afraid to return to Iraq due primarily to the personal violence they have experienced, there is more pressure among aid organizations to cope with increasing needs.
The Syrian government under the direction of the Ministry of Education allows children from Arab countries living in Syria to attend school. Schools run by the government are free of charge. Currently, according to the government, there are approximately 55,000 Iraqi children enrolled in Syrian schools, a significantly smaller number than was expected.
While the admission of Iraqi students is relatively low, it has nevertheless put a substantial strain on an already overburdened school system. The Ministry of Education estimates that there are now 60 students per class and they are working as quickly as possible to build larger schools in order to eliminate the need for children to attend classes in shifts.
Basic education in Syria comprises grades 1-9 and school is mandatory until the age of 15. However, if a child has been absent from school for two years they are not permitted to enroll. Unfortunately, this is the case for many Iraqi children in Syria who have not attended school since they fled their homes. Other factors contributing to parents’ hesitancy to enroll their children in Syrian schools include fear of being located by authorities and deported, harassment of Iraqi children by other students, and the fact that many Iraqi families in Syria are quite mobile, moving frequently among neighborhoods.
With so many Iraqi youth not in school, many NGOs have expressed grave concern about the future generation of Iraqis who will lack an education and who are hanging around on the streets with nothing to do. Clearly, these young people could be susceptible to influence by groups or individuals who may not have their best interests in mind.
Responding to the influx of Iraqi children in school, UNHCR is working in coordination with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) to encourage enrollment in school. In addition to providing school supplies and uniforms for Iraqi children, UNHCR and UNICEF are working with the Ministry of Education to train teachers and counselors to work with these traumatized children.
For example, there are reports of some Iraqi students coming to school with knives and other weapons in their backpacks, and of their sometimes "acting out" in a violent manner -- symptoms of the trauma they experienced in Iraq and during their flight to safety. Unfortunately, these behaviors generate resentment and sometimes violent responses by other students. Currently, the Ministry of Education is only able to provide one counselor for every 250 students.
Commission staff also attended a graduation ceremony at the Greek Orthodox Ministry in Damascus for 100 Iraqi children, grades 2-7 (ages 6-12). This was a graduation from a summer program where children participated in activities such as arts and crafts in an effort to express themselves and relieve some stress from the trauma they had faced in Iraq and the uncertainty of their situation in Syria. The graduation ceremony consisted of presentations from teachers and counselors as well as singing and skits performed by the students.
Commission staff met with the Syrian Assistant Minister of Health, who described the burdens on the health care system as a result of the influx of Iraqi refugees since 2003. The health care system is comprised of 1600 clinics and 70 hospitals, 5 of which offer services free of charge to Iraqi refugees. The Minister estimated that support for the health needs of the refugee community costs the Syrian government an estimated $150 million per year.
The government is particularly concerned about communicable diseases and therefore has a mandatory vaccination program for all children. Despite substantial contributions from the European Union, UNHCR and UNICEF during the past two years to establish additional clinics and fund vaccinations, the minister estimated that only 5% of the health needs of Iraqi refugees are being met. Particularly critical are the strains put on services for kidney disease, including dialysis, and heart disease. The minister explained that these services were already quite limited for Syrian citizens. Since 2003, according to the minister, anyone needing heart surgery essentially has to “take a number and wait.”
The minister indicated that with the help of the World Health Organization (WHO) the government is also trying to address the increasing psycho-social needs of Iraqi refugees. Two hospitals, one in Damascus and one in Aleppo, are offering these services.
Trafficking in Persons/Shelter:
The Syrian government is undertaking initiatives to counter human trafficking and is in the process of establishing a shelter for victims of trafficking. Beginning in 2005, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) began holding educational workshops and invited Syrian officials to attend. A governmental committee was formed in 2006 to address trafficking issues, however progress was slow. In 2007, private sector experts advised the committee on counter trafficking measures and, as a result of this public-private partnership, anti-trafficking legislation was drafted. The legislation was endorsed by the committee in late 2007 and was sent to Parliament in June of this year.
In coordination with other partners, IOM began raising money for a trafficking shelter. The Netherlands contributed $30,000 Euros, and UNICEF gave $30,000 (USD). The Syrian government has allocated a space for the shelter, however it is in need of major renovations, which are currently under way. The shelter is expected to open in the next 3-4 months and will serve all populations, not just Iraqis.
Iraqis, especially women who arrive in Syria as the head of household with no financial resources, are facing extreme circumstances. Since the Syrian government does not allow Iraqis to work, increasing numbers of refugees have resorted to child labor, survival sex, and offering their daughters for short-term or weekend marriages, commonly referred to as “pleasure marriages” to make ends meet.
More women and children are facing Sexual Gender Based Violence (SGVB) by their husbands’ or the male head of household. UNHCR, in coordination with partners UNICEF, IOM, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and United Nations Development Program (UNDP), are working together to assist Iraqi women who have been physically or sexually abused and are in detention. UNHCR is also supporting several safe houses located in Damascus that help abused Iraqi women and children.
The Good Shepherd Sisters:
Commission staff also met with Sister Marie-Claude Naddaf of the Good Shepherd Sisters in Damascus in order to learn first-hand of the critical work that she and her community have undertaken in support of Iraqi refugees. Sister Marie-Claude described the suffering of the Iraqi people that she sees every day, those who have fled under threat of violence and arrive in Syria in an already traumatized state. Because of the circumstances and the uncertainty of their situation in Syria most Iraqi refugees, including children, suffer from severe stress and depression.
Focusing on the needs of children, the Good Shepherd Sisters, in concert with UNHCR and other organizations have provided summer camps outside of Damascus for refugee children to play and relax in a peaceful venue and escape the stresses of their daily lives. The sisters also provide extensive educational and recreational programs for adults and children throughout the year in a community center in Damascus, and have taken the lead in establishing a shelter for women and children and a hotline for abused women. Commission staff also visited the shelter and met with several of the women and children who reside there.
Distribution of Food:
Food distribution is conducted by the World Food Program (WFP) and UNHCR. Refugees in Syria receive their food and financial distribution every two months from either the Douma or Saida Zeinab distribution centers. The distribution schedule is communicated to refugees through short cell-phone messages, information posted on boards in the Douma Distribution center, or by postings on the food distribution website: http://unhcr.un.org.sy/food.htm
WFP provides the following basic commodities in their food baskets: 12.5 kilos of rice, l litre of oil, and 2.5 kilos of lentils. UNHCR provides the following complementary items that coincide with the basic commodities provided by WFP: 1 kilo of sugar, 200 grams of tea, 1 kilo of pasta, ½ kilo of tomato paste, 1 kilo of bulgur wheat, and one box each of soap and washing detergents.
In addition to food distribution UNHCR also provides a seasonal distribution of mattresses and blankets. Those Iraqis living outside of Damascus who have registered with UNHCR are able to call a hotline to find out dates and locations of food distribution.
Stories of Iraqis in Syria:
Commission staff met with Iraqi refugees serving as outreach coordinators for UNHCR to gain a better understanding of their hands-on work in the community. The coordinators have a direct line of communication into the Iraqi community in Syria, including with those who have not registered with UNHCR, and they serve as a trusted go between for UNHCR and the community. During the meeting the coordinators spoke of the dire circumstances facing Iraqi refugees in Syria and also shared their personal stories. One coordinator explained that her husband was killed in Iraq and that one of her sons was picked up by U.S. military personnel and another son was kidnapped by a militia group – both were tortured. Fearing for her life, she fled to Syria. Another coordinator told staff that three of her cousins were killed by U.S military personnel because they were accused, wrongly according to the woman, of being terrorists.
In addition, staff participated in a resettlement interview with an Iraqi family at UNHCRs Registration and Distribution Center in Douma. The family had owned a jewelry store in Baghdad and fled Iraq after one son was kidnapped and beaten by his captors. After this incident, the family first fled to another neighborhood in Baghdad where they thought they would be safe. However, shortly after the move their home was raided by militia who gave them three days to leave or be killed. The family then fled to Syria. The father made his way to Sweden, while the mother was left to care for her four children in Syria. During the interview it was revealed that the family has now been in Syria for two years, their savings are almost completely diminished and the mother is working as a seamstress to try to make ends meet. The youngest child suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder after a gun was pointed at him during the raid on their home in Baghdad. Only one of the four children has attended school in the past two years and only for several months because she was severely bullied and harassed by the other children.
Lebanon, a small country of 4 million people, has opened its doors to 50,000 Iraqi refugees, many of whom came after the 2006 bombings in Samara. Roughly 51 percent of Iraqis in Lebanon are Shi’a Muslims, 19 percent are Chaldean Catholics, and 12 percent Sunni Muslims. UNHCR has registered over 10,400 Iraqis since June 2008. In 2007, UNHCR resettled 450 Iraqis to the United States, Sweden, Canada, Australia and other countries. They expect to resettle 1500 refugees in 2008.
Iraqi refugees in Lebanon face many challenges, however it is a better economic environment than in other host countries. Unlike Jordan and Syria, Iraqis in Lebanon can work if they obtain a work permit.
The educational needs among Iraqi children in Lebanon are quite dire as 42 percent have not completed elementary school, 40 percent of Iraqi children between the ages of 6 and 17 are not enrolled in school due to the high cost of tuition and the need to help provide for their families. It is estimated that, in 2007, only 1,200 Iraqi children were enrolled in school.
Health care needs among Iraqis remain constant and medical care cannot be easily accessed in Lebanon due to its exorbitant cost. NGOs and other charitable organizations are able to provide coverage for only 24 percent of serious medical cases.
As Commission staff found during a visit to Jordan and Turkey last March, many Iraqis in Lebanon are experiencing psycho-social issues due to the stress of their displacement and the unstable environment they encounter in their host countries. This stress has contributed to a rise in domestic violence and drug and alcohol abuse among the refugee population.
Migrant domestic workers in Lebanon are a vulnerable group as well with an estimated 200,000 in the country, approximately 100,000 who arrived illegally. These domestic workers are primarily women from Southeast Asia and Africa – Sri Lanka, The Philippines, Ethiopia, and Madagascar – and are brought to Lebanon by employment agencies working in those countries. These agencies frequently promise “fee paid” employment in a secretarial capacity or in sales. The agencies typically charge the employer $1,500 to bring the domestic worker to Lebanon. Upon arrival, many employers take the women’s passports; force them to work long hours, frequently without pay; and often abuse them. Unhappy about how their people are being treated, the Philippine and Ethiopian Embassies have placed restrictions on employment in Lebanon for their citizens.
Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center:
Established in 1994, the Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center (CLMC) has as its mission “to strengthen and protect the human rights of migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers in Lebanon.” To date, the Center has assisted more than 100,000 individuals through services such as social and legal counselling and assistance; humanitarian, medical and emergency assistance; orientation seminars for migrants; temporary shelter and safe houses; summer camps and other recreational activities; vocational training and reintegration programs, as well as advocacy efforts with the public and relevant government agencies.
In the early 1990s, CLMC worked exclusively with migrant populations, primarily Sudanese. Iraqis began to arrive in 1997, primarily from the Shiite and Christian communities, seeking work and resettlement in Europe or Australia. In 2003, the number of Iraqis entering Lebanon increased substantially and many sought assistance from CLMC. With funding from the U.S. government, CLMC began a program to provide medical support to the refugees, many of whom were suffering with cancer and chronic diseases and had no access to public medical facilities in Lebanon. CLMC negotiated with public hospitals and clinics to establish a treatment program for the refugees. They were also able to arrange reduced-cost treatment with some private hospitals, particularly for those afflicted with cancer and heart disease.
CLMC also provides a wide array of educational programs for children and adults. Most Iraqi children are unable to attend school in Lebanon due to the language barrier. Many also frequently “act out” aggressively due to the psychological trauma caused by their circumstances. CLMC provides informal classes and vocational training for children, as well as summer camps where counsellors work with the kids in a relaxed atmosphere to address their unique psychological needs.
CLMC undertakes assistance programs for women as well. To date, they have held 160 seminars to train outreach workers for the migrant worker and refugee communities and as a result now have 800 women working in locations nation-wide. The Center has established a shelter for abused women and one for victims of trafficking (described below).
In coordination with UNHCR, CLMC provides legal assistance to the refugee and migrant worker community. They currently retain two full-time and ten part-time attorneys and have successfully prosecuted a substantial number of abuse cases on behalf of those who have sought shelter with CLMC. In addition, as described below, Caritas, working with UNHCR and other NGOs, successfully negotiated an amnesty for detained Iraqi refugees, giving them the opportunity to seek employment and regularize there status.
Detention Facility Visit:
Commission staff visited a detention facility operated by the General Directorate of General Security (General Security) – the governmental authority in Lebanon responsible for the legal status of foreigners in the country. The facility holds those Iraqi refugees and migrant workers who entered the country illegally and are without documentation. It is located under a freeway in downtown Beirut and was constructed from a parking garage. The conditions in the facility are deplorable, yet are much improved from several months earlier, due in large part to the work of NGOs, such as the Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center (CLMC), in coordination with General Security.
The air-intake vents, only recently installed through the efforts of Caritas, circulate air into the underground facility. Unfortunately, due to the center’s location under the freeway, the air is filled with exhaust from automobiles traveling above. Inside, fans are placed throughout to further circulate the air into the cells where detainees are held. There is no sunlight, lighting is very dim and temperatures are extremely hot in the summer and cold during the winter. The facility contains 13 cells with roughly 40 individuals housed in each cell. Detainees sit on the floor of the cell on mattresses which also serve as their beds. They are allowed to leave their cells, but not the detention facility, on very rare occasions – such as laundry detail or to receive medical treatment – and never leave the facility until their release. There is a bathroom and a separate shower in each cell which are enclosed; however there is virtually no privacy.
Women are housed together according to their nationality and men are housed alphabetically. The average length of stay can range from one month to over a year, depending on the length of time it takes to arrange deportation or voluntary departure.
CLMC has played an instrumental role in helping to improve the dire conditions of the facility. Prior to their intervention, detainees had no bathrooms, showers or mattresses to sleep on. Furthermore, they were unable to have their clothes washed and were living in utter filth. Working closely with General Security, CLMC now has several full-time staff working 24-hours a day in the facility with detainees. Additionally, CLMC was able to put bathrooms and showers in each cell, provide mattresses for each detainee, purchase a washer and dryer to clean the detainees’ clothes and bedding , and provide 3 hot meals per week.
Human Rights Watch released a report in November 2007 entitled, ‘Rot Here or Die There: Bleak Choices for Iraqi Refugees in Lebanon,’ showing the conditions that Iraqi refugees face in Lebanon if they are without documentation. In response to the report and pressure from other NGOs, General Security agreed in 2008 to release all Iraqis detained for illegal entry and allowed them to go through the existing regularization process once released. UNHCR, in coordination with its implementing partner Caritas Lebanon, supported this directive by assisting refugees with the initial regularization fee of $600, as well as providing legal advice and counseling. After being released, Iraqis have 3 months to regularize their status which requires them to find an employer who will sponsor them for a work permit. The government has recently extended this period to 6 months with the overall number of arrests declining. This decision benefits not only Iraqi refugees, but all foreigners including refugees and asylum seekers of other nationalities who have entered Lebanon illegally.
Visits with Iraqi families:
Commission staff had the opportunity to visit Iraqi families in their homes in eastern Beirut. The families shared their tragic stories with staff and the circumstances in which they are living in Lebanon. While all expressed relief to be safe from the violence in Iraq, they are faced with a great deal of uncertainty about the future and a severe lack of resources. Their compelling stories follow:
CASE A: Hana has 4 children. She is the head of her family since her husband was kidnapped in Iraq. The family came to Lebanon legally in December 2007. Hana’s eldest son was in his first year of medical school in Iraq when he received many threats. One day, while walking home from work, her son and his friends were attacked and her son was shot in the arm, his friend was shot in the face. Hana's son was able to make it to the family home; however, they had no medicine with which to treat his wounds. Hana's husband went to the pharmacy for medicine and was kidnapped, never to be heard from again. The family searched relentlessly for him in hospitals and police stations to no avail. With no news, a family member urged them to leave the country immediately for fear of another attempt on the life of the son. Hana's son is currently incapacitated because of his injured arm, however he was able to receive reconstructive surgery in February. Only one family member is currently able to work and the income is insufficient to meet their needs.
However, during the visit Hana informed Commission staff that the family had just been notified by UNHCR that their case was approved for resettlement to the United States.
CASE B: Rita, mother of 2 boys, is the head of the family since her husband was kidnapped in 2006 while she was pregnant. She came to Lebanon legally with her unmarried brother in June 2008. Her husband was a driver for the U.S. military. He received threatening letters, but never took them seriously. Rita’s mother had fled to Lebanon before her daughter after her own husband was murdered. Rita’s brother was traumatized by his father’s death and suffers from psychiatric complications. The family has no financial resources. Just two days prior to the meeting with Commission staff Rita had found a job in a textile factory working from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.
CASE C: Rana is a widow and the mother of 3 children. She came to Lebanon legally in May 2008. Her husband was a driver for the Christian Archbishopric in Iraq and was murdered in February 2008. Rana is severely traumatized. She is unable to care for herself and her children or to provide for them financially. Rana’s mother, who lives with her, suffers from cancer; she will be leaving soon for the United States. Rana hopes that she and her children can also be resettled to the U.S. with her mother.
Caritas Shelter for Victims of Trafficking:
In 2003, Caritas began implementing a program funded by the U.S. Department of State (G/TIP) for victims of trafficking. The program involves extensive cooperation with the General Security agency in Lebanon. According to Caritas, women migrant workers who are victims of trafficking have access to a safe house where they are able to escape their situation and consider future options, receive medical care, basic needs assistance, trauma counseling, legal aid, and counseling for future options in a supportive environment, and possible return to their country of origin or to a safe work situation in Lebanon. A 2005 survey conducted by Caritas/IPSOS found that 55 percent of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon face physical abuse, 39 percent are verbally abused and 17 percent are sexually abused.
During the visit, staff met with a woman who had been brought to Lebanon to work for a wealthy family and faced unimaginable torture and abuse. As she recounted her story, she trembled with fear of the horror that she lived for five months before escaping. Upon arriving in Lebanon, her passport was taken, she was forced to work long hours without pay and was typically fed very little food. She was locked inside the house when the family for whom she was working was not at home. In addition to facing the aforementioned abuse, family members would take turns holding her down on the floor and burning her bare skin (body and face) with a hot iron. After enduring this severe trauma and torture for months, she escaped one day when the family was not home by jumping from a second story window. She has been living in the Caritas shelter since her escape.
The International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC):
ICMC is the U.S. State Department's representative for processing refugees in Lebanon and works closely with the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and representatives of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), in the conduct of screening interviews for those Iraqi refugees and others who seek resettlement to the United States. Just prior to the Commission staff visit, a DHS “circuit ride” of interview staff had been in residence at the Embassy compound conducting security interviews under very difficult circumstances – for both DHS and embassy staff. Security concerns require that all interviews must take place on the Embassy compound. Due to substantial space limitations and to ensure privacy for those being interviewed, Embassy and DHS personnel are required to operate in shifts, some lasting late into the night, in order to accommodate all applicants who travell to the Embassy each day. Under these trying circumstances, DHS personnel were nevertheless able to interview 920 applicants in a four week period. ICMC staff expressed gratitude not only for the DHS staff's fortitude under this grueling schedule, but also for their professionalism and compassion in dealing with those being interviewed.
In order to alleviate these conditions, State and DHS should explore the possibility of permanently assigning one or two DHS interviewers to Embassy Beirut and providing additional housing and work space to accommodate their activities.
ICMC and the United States Refugee Program (USRP) conduct an intensive two day cultural orientation for Iraqi refugees who will be resettled to the United States. The cultural orientation is designed to provide Iraqis with a better understanding of what to expect once they arrive in the U.S. The following topics are covered in the ICMC-USRP cultural orientation training program:
- Cultural differences.
- The departure process and airport regulations.
- The nature of the IOM travel loan and the obligation to pay it back after arrival to the U.S.
- The responsibilities of the Resettlement Agency and the refugee during the first ninety days after the refugee’s arrival in the United States.
- Information on a refugee’s legal status until the acquisition of citizenship, including rights and restrictions of each status.
- Information on housing and transportation in the United States.
- The importance of learning and obeying the laws of the United States at federal and state level and the consequences of violating U.S. law.
- Information on the child and adult education system in the United States and the importance of learning English.
- The importance of finding and holding a job and understanding work values in the United States.
- Information on the health care system in the United States.
- Information on money management.
Commission staff participated in an afternoon session during the first day of orientation for a group of Iraqis who had been approved for resettlement to the U.S. During the session participants raised the following questions: I have an international driver’s license; will that work in the United States? If both parents must work, who will watch the kids? Can I work right away when I get to the United States? Staff asked the group how they felt about relocating to the United States, (e.g. nervous, happy or fearful). Those who replied generally expressed apprehension.
One gentleman said he won’t know until he’s “on the plane.”
In July, Helsinki Commission Chairman, Congressman Alcee L. Hastings introduced the Iraqi Refugee and Internally Displaced Persons Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement, and Security Act (H.R. 6496), comprehensive legislation that addresses this worsening situation. H.R. 6496 has been endorsed by more than 25 NGOs and religious organizations and does the following:
- Authorizes $700 million for each fiscal year beginning in 2009 through 2011 for the relief of Iraqi refugees and Internally Displaced Persons;
- Increases direct accountable bilateral assistance, as appropriate under U.S. law, and funding for international organizations and non-governmental organizations working in the region;
- Authorizes $500 million to increase humanitarian aid and infrastructure support for Jordan; and
- Urges increased cooperation between the United States Government and the international community to address this crisis.
Iraqi refugees in Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere in the region continue to suffer daily and are faced with unimaginable circumstances. While the American public does not see pictures of ‘refugee camps’ set up in host countries, there are millions of Iraqis struggling to survive each and every day. On the ground, desperation has set in and only worsened this humanitarian crisis.
The politics of the war must be put aside by Congress and a ‘humanitarian surge’ must be implemented. This means the provision of substantially increased bi-lateral aid, as appropriate under U.S. law, to countries hosting Iraqi refugees and increased funding to international organizations and NGOs working in the region. A U.S. contribution of at least fifty percent of the amount requested for all UN appeals for funding to assist Iraqi refugees, and IDPs, would show U.S. leadership in addressing this crisis, and hopefully encourage increased contributions by other countries as well. The process for resettling Iraqi refugees to the United States must also be expedited. This is particularly critical for those Iraqis whose lives have been threatened because of their work for the United States.
The United States should also show leadership in encouraging the international community to focus on this humanitarian crisis, recognize it for the potential security threat it poses, and take steps to alleviate the suffering Iraqi refugees.
If a picture is really worth a thousand words, then all one must do is look into the face of an Iraqi refugee who has had a family member murdered, kidnapped, or tortured, and their own life threatened, to know that the United States must respond – security in the region and the future of the Middle East depend upon it.