Hastings and Wicker Mark World Day Against Trafficking in PersonsThursday, July 30, 2020
WASHINGTON—To mark World Day against Trafficking in Persons on July 30, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following joint statement: “Human trafficking is the modern equivalent of slavery, an abhorrent crime that affects up to 25 million people worldwide. Traffickers lure victims—mostly women and children—by force, fraud, or coercion into situations of sex or labor exploitation. “The United States has been a leader internationally in the fight against human trafficking, including through the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Recently, OSCE participating State Uzbekistan has made great progress in tackling child and forced labor in the cotton harvest. However, we remain concerned that according to the State Department’s 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report, three other OSCE participating States—Belarus, Russia, and Turkmenistan—continue to be among the worst when it comes to human trafficking. “Potential victims have been made even more vulnerable by the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has reduced the resources and assistance available to survivors and weakened the ability of law enforcement and the judiciary to investigate and prosecute traffickers. “Quarantine measures have prompted traffickers to maximize the use of online platforms to recruit and exploit their victims. We need to step up our efforts to ensure that our investigations keep pace with the traffickers’ evolving techniques and continue to support civil society organizations that provide vital assistance to survivors.” The United States is one of the top destinations in the world for trafficked victims; U.S. citizens are also trafficked domestically. In response, Congress has passed several laws mandating stronger protection for victims, harsher prosecution for criminals, as well as measures to assist survivors and prevent human trafficking. Several federal agencies are active in combating trafficking and partner with non-profit organizations that play an important role in raising awareness within communities, rescuing victims, providing direct assistance, and conducting research on all aspects of human trafficking.
Hastings: Petty Parochialism Denies OSCE Vital Leadership During Global CrisisTuesday, July 14, 2020
WASHINGTON—Following yesterday’s failure of OSCE representatives to renew the mandates of four leadership positions—the OSCE Secretary General, the High Commissioner on National Minorities, the Representative on Freedom of the Media, and the Director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “We are in trouble when petty parochialism denies us vital leadership in the midst of a global crisis. Now more than ever, reliable multilateral institutions are needed to forge solutions during and after the current pandemic. “Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Turkey, and other OSCE participating States who have blocked consensus on extending dedicated public servants should be ashamed of themselves. History will show the folly of abandoning essential leadership for cooperation.” Negotiations to renew each mandate collapsed in part in response to the written objections of Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Turkey, and the subsequent withholding of consensus by other participating States. Even efforts to devise interim extensions failed, leaving vital OSCE leadership positions vacant during an unprecedented global crisis. The failure highlights the unwillingness of some OSCE participating States to live up to their stated commitments to democratic institutions, the rule of law, media pluralism, and free and fair elections. Leaving key leadership roles unfilled drastically weakens the OSCE’s ability to hold countries accountable for their actions and undermines the principles of the Helsinki Final Act. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is the world’s largest regional security organization. It spans 57 participating States reaching from Vancouver to Vladivostok. The OSCE sets standards in fields including military security, economic and environmental cooperation, and human rights and humanitarian concerns. In addition, the OSCE undertakes a variety of initiatives designed to prevent, manage, and resolve conflict within and among the participating States.
Hastings: Plagues Do Not Stop PersecutionFriday, June 19, 2020
WASHINGTON—Ahead of World Refugee Day on June 20, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “The COVID-19 pandemic has exponentially multiplied the overwhelming challenges already faced by refugees and asylum seekers worldwide. To stop the spread of the disease, many countries have closed their borders or strictly limited entry. Unfortunately, this gives refugees nowhere to turn; plagues do not stop persecution. “I encourage governments in the OSCE region to be mindful of safeguarding the public health of their citizens and residents, while still living up to their commitments to offer refuge to the most vulnerable. No country should exploit the pandemic to permanently restrict entry from refugees and asylum seekers. “In addition, authorities must ensure that refugees and asylum seekers can access the services they need to stay healthy. The close quarters in many camps and detention centers make social distancing impossible and, along with a lack of quality medical care and in some cases even basic sanitation, can contribute to coronavirus outbreaks among already vulnerable populations.” In a June 2019 podcast, the Helsinki Commission examined the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable communities throughout the OSCE, including refugees and minorities. More than 79.5 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced as of the end of 2019, including 26 million refugees, 45.7 internally displaced persons, and 4.2 million asylum seekers, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Almost 7 million of these refugees and more than 2.1 million asylum seekers were located in OSCE participating States. On March 17, UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration announced they were suspending resettlement departures following pandemic-related entry restrictions by resettlement countries. They announced a resumption on June 18. One hundred and sixty-one countries still have partial or full entry closures, including 97 countries with no exemptions for refugees or asylum seekers. The U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration suspended U.S. Refugee Admissions Program admissions for two weeks on March 19 and subsequently indefinitely. The few admissions since have been emergency exceptions. In addition, rules effective March 20 restricted land ports of entry from Canada and Mexico to “essential travel.” Neither rule included travel by asylum seekers, refugees, or unaccompanied minors as “essential.” All U.S. restrictions currently remain in effect.
Helsinki Commission Chairman Condemns Russian-backed Syrian Government Offensive in IdlibWednesday, March 04, 2020
WASHINGTON—In response to mounting casualties from clashes between Turkish and Russian-backed Syrian forces in northwestern Syria and the Turkish government’s decision to open its borders to refugee flows toward mainland Europe, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “A vicious Russian and Syrian government offensive in Idlib province is responsible for the unacceptable military escalation, civilian suffering, and displacement crisis we have witnessed in recent days and weeks,” said Chairman Hastings. “Presidents Putin and Assad must stop this assault immediately and comply with international humanitarian law requiring them to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure. I further urge the Trump administration to deploy appropriate resources to address these pressing security and humanitarian challenges, which will undoubtedly impact the OSCE region. We must sustainably meet the needs of the most vulnerable and the countless refugees resulting from Russian and Syrian aggression.” On February 27, Russian-backed Syrian forces killed at least 33 Turkish soldiers in the northwestern Idlib province of Syria. Following this incident, the Turkish government announced the opening of Turkey’s borders for refugees and migrants to go westward to European Union member countries, despite the March 2016 EU-Turkey agreement “to end the irregular migration from Turkey to the EU.” That agreement is founded on the multi-billion euro EU Facility for Refugees in Turkey established in 2015. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in a March 2 statement, the daily rate of refugees and asylum-seekers arriving in Greece from Turkey has increased in March. Since early December, fighting in northwestern Syria has displaced more than 948,000 people, including 569,000 children and 195,000 women, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Turkey hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees. Along with the United States, Tukey is a NATO ally. The United States, Russian Federation and Turkey, are participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Congressional Delegation Led by Chairman Hastings Champions U.S. Leadership in Transatlantic Security, Human RightsTuesday, February 25, 2020
WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) last week led a bicameral, bipartisan congressional delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s (OSCE PA) 19th Winter Meeting in Vienna, Austria. At the meeting, Chairman Hastings and other members of the delegation engaged with OSCE officials, delegations from other OSCE participating States, and diplomats to advance U.S. interests while assuring friends, allies, and potential adversaries of the U.S. commitment to security and cooperation in Europe. The 11-member delegation was among the largest U.S. delegations ever to attend the annual gathering, which attracted more than 300 parliamentarians from 53 OSCE participating States. Chairman Hastings, a former president of the OSCE PA, was joined in Austria by Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), and Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (MO-05), Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), and Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08). Rep. Gregory Meeks (NY-05), Rep. Lloyd Doggett (TX-35), and Rep. Andy Harris (MD-01) also joined the delegation, which benefited from the active support of Ambassador James Gilmore, the U.S. Representative to the OSCE. In the Standing Committee, which oversees the OSCE PA’s work, Chairman Hastings highlighted recommendations resulting from a seminar for young parliamentarians on “Future Leadership for Political Inclusion in the OSCE Region,” hosted in Washington in early February by the Helsinki Commission and the OSCE PA. “We brought together some 35 young parliamentarians from 19 OSCE participating States and three partner States to learn from each other and incubate the solutions of the future,” Chairman Hastings said. “As I called on all of you at our last meeting in Marrakech, we must counter the economic and social despair afflicting our youth and we all have a role.” At the same committee, Co-Chairman Wicker, who serves as a vice president of the assembly, shared his recent experience at the Munich Security Conference. The committee also reviewed a written report submitted by former Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), OSCE PA Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues. In the committee focused on security issues, Rep. Hudson condemned Russia’s violations of Helsinki principles related to its aggression against Ukraine, while in the committee focusing on economic issues Rep. Harris cautioned Europe regarding the growing Chinese presence in the region. During a special debate on confronting anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance in the OSCE region, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), who serves as the OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, delivered introductory remarks by video. “It is our responsibility to safeguard our democracies by speaking out and using our tools and voices as legislators against those who would divide our societies,” Sen. Cardin said. Later in the debate, Rep. Cohen urged participating States “to teach Holocaust history, which a fourth of the people in Europe or more don't understand or remember, and teach it so that the most horrific crime against humanity will be remembered so that it will not be repeated.” Rep. Cleaver linked anti-Semitism to broader trends of intolerance in society, and called OSCE participating States to action, stating, “There are many scary things in our world, but there is nothing quite able to generate fright like prejudice inspired by ignorance and nationalism manufactured by fear.” Rep. Hudson chaired a meeting of the OSCE PA Ad Hoc Committee on Countering Terrorism, and Rep. Moore participated in a similar meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee on Migration. On the margins of the Winter Meeting’s official sessions, members of Congress met with the Ukrainian delegation to the OSCE PA to discuss U.S. support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty in the face of unrelenting Russian aggression. Delegation members also met with OSCE Secretary General Thomas Greminger, Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Director Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir, Special Representative and Coordinator for Combatting Trafficking in Human Beings Valiant Richey, and High Commissioner for National Minorities Lamberto Zannier.
Human Rights and DemocracyWednesday, January 29, 2020
For nearly three decades, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has been at the forefront of efforts to promote human rights and democracy throughout the 57-nation OSCE region. Although best known for international election observation, ODIHR has also been instrumental in countering various forms of intolerance, helping governments combat human trafficking, protecting human rights defenders, and implementing OSCE commitments to fundamental freedoms. The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened the hearing to demonstrate bipartisan support for ODIHR, to reinforce the U.S.’s support related OSCE initiatives, and to hear about the ongoing work of ODIHR. Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) chaired the hearing and was joined by Commissioners Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Rep. Wilson’s opening remarks highlighted the historic achievements of ODIHR, which include assisting countries to “transition from communism to democracy,” supporting “civil society participation in OSCE events,” and facilitating “strong cooperation with the Parliamentary Assembly.” In her first appearance before Congress, ODIHR Director Ambassador Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir addressed multiple challenges that have impeded the effectiveness of ODIHR activities. She then outlined ODIHR’s role in offering proactive solutions. In particular, Ambassador Gísladóttir stressed the importance of dialogue and asserted that democracy is about “respect and trust, an acceptance of differing opinions, an exchange of views, and the willingness to share power and seek compromise.” She concluded on an optimistic note, emphasizing unity within the OSCE and its “commitment to democracy and to the wellbeing of its people.” Although conscious of ODIHR’s efforts, commissioners voiced concerns that some OSCE participating States are not complying with their commitments to uphold basic human rights standards. Commissioners specifically acknowledged restrictions on religious freedom in Russia, poor conditions for activists and journalists, and rising anti-Semitism and discrimination against the Roma people across the region. This hearing continued the Helsinki Commission practice of regularly engaging with senior OSCE officials.The Commission typically holds hearing with the foreign minister of the country holding the rotating chairmanship of the OSCE. The Commission has also held hearings with previous ODIHR directors as well as the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media.
Director of OSCE Office For Democratic Institutions and Human Rights to Testify at Helsinki Commission HearingWednesday, January 22, 2020
WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: HUMAN RIGHTS AND DEMOCRACY Obstacles and Opportunities in the OSCE Region Wednesday, January 29, 2020 10:00 a.m. Longworth House Office Building Room 1334 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission For nearly three decades, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has been at the forefront of efforts to promote human rights and democracy throughout the 57-nation OSCE region. In her first appearance before Congress, ODIHR Director Ambassador Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir will discuss the organization’s flagship work in international election observation; countering anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance; and helping governments to combat human trafficking, protect human rights defenders, and better implement their commitments to fundamental freedoms including assembly and religion. The OSCE, the world’s largest regional security body, is based on a comprehensive concept of security that recognizes that respect for human rights and functioning democratic institutions underpin regional peace and security. ODIHR provides support, assistance, and expertise to participating States and civil society to promote democracy, rule of law, human rights, and tolerance and non-discrimination. ODIHR observes elections at the invitation of participating States, reviews legislation, and advises governments on how to develop and sustain democratic institutions. The office also works closely with the OSCE’s field operations and organizes Europe’s largest annual human rights meeting, bringing together annually hundreds of government officials, international experts, civil society representatives and human rights activists.
Public Diplomacy, Democracy, and Global LeadershipThursday, December 05, 2019
For more than a century, the United States has advanced shared human rights, economic, and security policy goals in the transatlantic relationship by cultivating people-to-people ties through public diplomacy initiatives. As democracies around the world face new challenges emanating from demographic shifts, technological advancements, and evolving security threats, the need for public diplomacy initiatives that cultivate leaders who espouse democratic principles, including inclusive and representative governance, grows more relevant. The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened a hearing to focus on U.S.-led public diplomacy international exchange initiatives that strengthen democratic institutions by targeting young and diverse leaders, encouraging civic engagement, and fostering social inclusion and cohesion in the OSCE region. Presiding over the hearing, Chairman Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) stated, “This year, under my leadership, the Helsinki Commission has held events on the importance of international election observation, good governance, and focused on democratic backsliding in particular countries as part of our continued commitment to the underlying principles of the Helsinki Final Act. Common to all of these issues is the role good leaders can play in ensuring free and fair elections; laws that are equitable, transparent, and enforced; and laying the groundwork to ensure protections and rights for all in their constituencies […] for the long-term stability of our nation and the transatlantic partnership.” In his opening remarks, Chairman Hastings also noted that he planned to introduce legislation to support of leadership exchanges and knowledge-building between diverse transatlantic policymakers, and to encourage representative democracies. He also announced a February program for young OSCE parliamentarians to strengthen their political inclusion and advance peace and security efforts. Chairman Hastings was joined by Commissioners Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05) and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Rep. Veasey raised the importance of metrics in assessing the impact of leadership programs and soft diplomacy, while Rep. Cleaver stated, “For the first time since the end of World War II, the extreme right is actually winning seats in the German Parliament,” highlighting increased security risks related to public diplomacy programs operating in countries that have seen an increase in hate crimes and racial prejudice. Witnesses included Cordell Carter, II, Executive Director of the Socrates Program at the Aspen Institute; Stacie Walters Fujii, Chair of the American Council of Young Political Leaders; and Lora Berg, Counselor for Inclusive Leadership at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Carter reviewed the Aspen Institute’s public policy programming on transatlantic relations and discussed the importance of promoting democratic values, including efforts to strengthen the capacity of congressional staff and encourage dialogues around the United States on being an “inclusive republic.” He concluded by asking Congress to create more opportunities for public discourse on issues that threaten the stability of democracies around the world. Fujii discussed the importance of international exchanges in supporting democracies and the work of American Council of Young Political Leaders (ACYPL). ACYPL was founded in 1966 to strengthen transatlantic relationships by promoting mutual understanding among young political leaders in Western Europe and the former Soviet Union. Critical aspects of the program include offering international leaders the opportunity to come to the U.S. to observe campaigning, polling stations, election returns, and the response of the American people to elections, complemented by follow-on educational conversations about democratic processes in their countries. Berg highlighted the importance of public diplomacy initiatives in advancing inclusive leadership and observed that nations gain in richness and capacity when diversity is reflected in leadership. She also noted that inclusive leadership not only plays an important role in promoting social harmony, but it also helps to ensure economic growth, stating that “the places with the highest social cohesion are the most reliable for investment.” Berg explained that the GMF’s Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN) grew out of work she engaged in while working for the Department of State. TILN is an innovative network of young, diverse leaders across the United States and Europe supported by the Helsinki Commission and State Department. Berg argued for the expansion of U.S. Government-supported public diplomacy inclusive leadership initiatives targeting youth and diverse populations in western democracies, including through public-private partnerships, the creation of a public diplomacy officer position in Europe to foster Europe-wide next generation transatlantic leadership, and increased political participation measures domestically and abroad for diverse populations.
Helsinki Commission to Review Role of Professional Exchanges in Strengthening Democratic InstitutionsMonday, December 02, 2019
WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: PUBLIC DIPLOMACY, DEMOCRACY, AND GLOBAL LEADERSHIP An Approach for the 21st Century Thursday, December 5, 2019 10:00 a.m. Longworth House Office Building Room 1334 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission For more than a century, the United States has advanced human rights, economic, and security policy goals in Europe by cultivating people-to-people ties across the Atlantic. More than 500 heads of state, 100 Members of Congress, and thousands of professionals have participated in U.S. Government-sponsored exchanges, including the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program, while public and private organizations have hosted similar programs to bring leaders together. Witnesses at the hearing will explore the origins and role of professional exchanges and other public diplomacy programs that strengthen relationships with U.S. allies in the face of shared challenges including eroding trust in democratic institutions, demographic shifts, technological advancements, and evolving security threats. In particular, the hearing will focus on international exchange initiatives that strengthen democratic institutions by targeting young and diverse leaders, encouraging civic engagement, and fostering social inclusion and cohesion in the OSCE region. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Lora Berg, Senior Fellow, Leadership Programs, German Marshall Fund of the United States Cordell Carter, II, Executive Director, Socrates Program, The Aspen Institute Stacie Walters Fujii, Chair, American Council of Young Political Leaders (ACYPL) Photo credit: German Marshall Fund of the United States
Helsinki Commission Provides Robust, Bipartisan U.S. Representation at Inter-Parliamentary Gathering in MoroccoMonday, November 04, 2019
Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) led a congressional delegation to Marrakech, Morocco, in early October for the 18th Autumn Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA). The delegation included Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), an OSCE Vice President and head of the U.S. Delegation to OSCE PA in 2019, as well as Ranking House Commissioner Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), Commissioner Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (MO-05) and Rep. Andy Harris (MD). Prior to arriving in Marrakech, the delegation visited Tunisia and Israel for a firsthand examination of what recently has been a dynamic political landscape in each country, with implications for U.S. policy. The Assembly’s ongoing activities provide the United States good opportunities for active engagement of its allies and friends, as well as to advance issues of U.S. concern or interest. Autumn Meetings were established in 2002 to bridge the gap between the OSCE PA’s annual sessions, usually held in late June or early July and ending with the adoption of a substantive declaration, and winter meetings held in mid-February to engage OSCE officials and institutions. Autumn meetings provide an additional opportunity for dialogue and often include—as was the case in Marrakech—a forum focusing on Mediterranean issues. The program also includes a meeting of the Standing Committee, composed of heads of delegations, which makes many of the executive decisions shaping OSCE PA activity. For the first time, in 2019 the Autumn Meeting was hosted not by an OSCE participating State, but by a Mediterranean partner country. The 2019 meeting attracted approximately 190 parliamentarians from among the 57 participating States and five Mediterranean partner countries. The U.S. delegation was the largest ever to an Autumn Meeting, making overall U.S. participation in the OSCE PA in 2019 the highest since the assembly was founded in 1991. Chairman Hastings addressed the Mediterranean forum, reporting on the delegation’s visit to Tunisia and Israel beforehand and emphasizing the need to increase opportunities for youth and to engage civil society. Co-Chairman Wicker also reported on delegation travels in the Standing Committee, concentrating on elections and government formation in Tunisia and Israel, adding that in Israel the threat posed by Iran also was an important topic. He also noted that the U.S. Government shared the concerns of France and Italy, among other countries, regarding Turkish drilling for natural gas in the Mediterranean Sea near Cyprus. The three other sessions of the Autumn Meeting focused on the security, economic/environmental and human dimensions of OSCE work, each with guest speakers from the host country or elsewhere in Africa. In his capacity as a Vice President of OSCE PA, Sen. Wicker chaired a session on the exchange of best practices between the OSCE and African regional partners, noting that the OSCE’s concept of “comprehensive security” has had successful applications in European dialogue that could also be valuable in the wider Euro-Mediterranean region. Rep. Harris spoke in a session highlighting economic development and environmental migration, addressing issues ranging from human trafficking to energy diversity to water supplies. In a session on combating intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief, Rep. Cleaver focused on the real dangers of rising intolerance in an ever-smaller world. On the margins of the formal sessions, the U.S. delegation held bilateral meetings with the parliamentary delegations of Ukraine and Morocco, and Chairman Hastings hosted all attending Mediterranean partner country parliamentarians to a session focusing on U.S. policy and interests in North Africa and the Middle East. Chairman Hastings and Co-Chairman Wicker also participated in a working lunch to discuss possible reforms of the OSCE PA to make the Assembly more effective and visible. Rep. Harris attended an event convened by the OSCE Ad Hoc Committee on Migration, while Rep. Joe Wilson met with the Bulgarian and other delegations to discuss items of common interest. The U.S. delegation also extensively engaged parliamentarians and diplomats from Albania ahead of that country’s chairmanship of the OSCE in 2020. While the OSCE PA will remain active throughout the remainder of 2019—including observing elections in Belarus and Uzbekistan and attending the December meeting of the OSCE Ministerial Council in Bratislava, Slovakia—the next large gathering of OSCE PA delegates will be in February of 2020, for the Winter Meeting in Vienna.
At What Cost?Thursday, October 31, 2019
Sparked by the recent Turkish military offensive in northeastern Syria, increased tensions between the United States and Turkey have reignited the debate about the future of U.S.-Turkish bilateral relations. The Helsinki Commission convened this hearing to discuss how the United States should respond to the Turkish Government’s continuing abuse of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Expert witnesses at the hearing reviewed prominent cases of politically-motivated prosecution, failures of due process, and prospects for judicial reform as they relate to Turkey’s commitments as a member of both the OSCE and NATO. The panel also evaluated President Erdogan’s plan to return millions of Syrian refugees to their war-torn country or push them to Europe, and the human consequences of his military incursion into Syria. Presiding over the hearing, Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson affirmed that as co-chair for the Caucus on U.S.-Turkey Relations & Turkish Americans he supports the people of Turkey and the U.S.-Turkish alliance. He cautioned, however, that President Erdogan’s actions threaten to undermine that alliance and damage the security of the region. Rep. Marc Veasey noted that Turkey is being “torn between two worlds”: one of democracy and one of autocracy. Sen. John Boozman and Rep. Steve Cohen were also present at the hearing. The Commission heard testimony from Gonul Tol, Director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute; Merve Tahiroglu, the Turkey Program Coordinator at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED); Henri Barkey, the Bernard L. and Bertha F. Cohen Professor at Lehigh University; Eric Schwartz, the President of Refugees International; and Talip Kucukcan, professor of sociology at Marmara University. Dr. Tol testified that “most freedoms under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have been dramatically curtailed” but counseled that Turkey “is not a fullblown dictatorship.” The Turkish government has targeted activists, journalists, and opposition politicians with “trumped-up terrorism charges and “largely criminalized Kurdish political expression.” She highlighted the opposition’s recent victories in mayoral elections as “a testament to the peoples of Turkey, the great majority of whom refuse to give up on the idea of democratic rule.” Dr. Tol further urged the United States to view “the Kurdish question…[as] a matter of democratization and human rights” for the Turkish state. Ms. Tahiroglu explained the deterioration of the rule of law under Erdogan’s government. According to her testimony, Erdogan’s administration has politicized the judiciary and rendered it “a main weapon against government critics and opponents” through repressive laws and false terrorism charges. She noted key judicial cases against civil society activists, journalists, opposition politicians, professors, U.S. citizens, and employees of U.S. consulates in the country. Ms. Tahiroglu testified that the breakdown of the rule of law in Turkey matters for U.S. interests because it has swept up U.S. citizens, “fuels anti-Americanism,” and “embolden[s] Turkey’s aggressive policies abroad by suppressing dissenting voices.” Dr. Barkey focused his testimony on the Turkish government’s suppression of the struggle for recognition of Kurdish social and political identity. Barkey explained the significance of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP)—Turkey’s second largest opposition party—in providing an opportunity for Turkey’s Kurdish population to participate in Turkish politics. “From that perspective, they have been very, very successful,” Barkey assessed. “It may have been far too successful for its own good.” Dr. Barkey detailed President Erdogan’s “relentless campaign to dismantle and delegitimize the HDP.” Mr. Schwartz spoke about the humanitarian implications of Turkey’s incursion into northeastern Syria. The reports of human rights abuses and civilian deaths are cause for deep concern, he said. He criticized the decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria instead of implementing a strategic departure. Schwartz concluded with a recommendation for the United States to support locally based NGOs that provide humanitarian assistance to populations by the Turkish operation. Dr. Kucukcan reminded the audience that Turkey’s incursion occurred with President Donald Trump’s consent. The incursion, he noted, serves to protect Turkey’s national security and preserve the territorial integrity of Syria. Dr. Kucukcan disputed that Turkey plans “ethnic cleansing” or “demographic engineering in places where [military] operations took place.”
Helsinki Commission Hearing to Review Human Rights Developments in TurkeyFriday, October 25, 2019
WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: AT WHAT COST? The Human Toll of Turkey’s Policy at Home and Abroad Thursday, October 31, 2019 10:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2200 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Sparked by the recent Turkish military offensive in northeastern Syria, increased tensions between the United States and Turkey have reignited the debate about the future of U.S.-Turkish bilateral relations. At the hearing, expert witnesses will discuss how the United States should respond to the Turkish Government’s continuing abuse of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Participants will review prominent cases of politically-motivated prosecution, failures of due process, and prospects for judicial reform as they relate to Turkey’s commitments as a member of both the OSCE and NATO. The panel also will evaluate President Erdogan’s plan to return millions of Syrian refugees to their war-torn country or push them to Europe, and the human consequences of his military incursion into Syria. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Henri Barkey, Bernard L. and Bertha F. Cohen Professor, Lehigh University Talip Kucukcan, Professor of Sociology, Marmara University Eric Schwartz, President, Refugees International Merve Tahiroglu, Turkey Program Coordinator, Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) Gonul Tol, Director, Center for Turkish Studies, Middle East Institute (MEI) Additional witnesses may be added.
Chairman Hastings Leads Bipartisan Delegation to Tunisia, Israel, and MoroccoTuesday, October 08, 2019
WASHINGTON—From September 28 to October 6, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) led a bipartisan, bicameral U.S. delegation to Tunisia, Israel, and Morocco to assess the state of security, human rights, and democracy in the Middle East and North Africa. The delegation concluded with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) Autumn Meeting in Marrakech, Morocco, where the strong U.S. presence demonstrated the consistent and bipartisan commitment of the United States to security and cooperation in the OSCE and neighboring Mediterranean regions. “As a Member of Congress, I spent decades traveling to the Middle East and North Africa,” said Chairman Hastings, who formerly served President of the OSCE PA as well as the OSCE PA Special Representative to the Mediterranean Partners for Cooperation. “This trip was an occasion to revisit long-standing relationships and discuss some of the most consequential dynamics impacting the Mediterranean region today.” Chairman Hastings was joined on the delegation by Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS); Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05), and Rep. Andy Harris (MD-01). In Tunisia, the delegation met with Interim President Mohamed Ennaceur, who noted that that the gravest threat facing his nation is the economic and social despair afflicting many young people. Members also held roundtable discussions with civil society groups and local and international election observers, who provided an assessment of the September 15 presidential election and prospects for country’s upcoming legislative election and presidential run-off. In Israel, the delegation met with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohamed Shtayyeh. Members also met with civil society to assess possible threats to the rule of law impacting both Israelis and Palestinians, and with Christian leaders to explore interreligious relations and the mediating role Christian churches play in the Holy Land. During the OSCE PA Autumn Meeting, Chairman Hastings and other members of the delegation discussed ways to maximize cooperation with OSCE Mediterranean Partners in areas ranging from migration and human trafficking, to tolerance and non-discrimination, to energy and water, all in the context of good governance and democratic institutions. “In the coming days, I urge you, my distinguished colleagues, to continue exploring ways to integrate civil society in our work and to deepen engagement with the OSCE Mediterranean Partners, particularly through support for, and observation of their electoral processes,” said Chairman Hastings during the meeting. Co-Chairman Wicker, who serves as a vice-president of the OSCE PA and as the 2019 Head of the U.S. Delegation to the OSCE PA, chaired a session focusing on regional and national perspectives of cooperation across North Africa and the African continent. In Morocco, members also met with the Algerian, Moroccan, and Ukrainian delegations to the OSCE PA; OSCE PA President George Tsereteli; and OSCE PA Secretary General Roberto Montella.
Remarks to the Mediterranean ForumFriday, October 04, 2019
Autumn Meeting of the OSCE PA *NOTE: As prepared for delivery* Before arriving in Morocco, I led a bicameral and bipartisan Congressional delegation to Tunisia and Israel. While in these countries, my colleagues and I held high-level exchanges with national leadership, civil society, religious leaders, and others to assess the current state of regional security, human rights and democracy. As a Member of Congress, I spent decades traveling to the Middle East and North Africa. I was never more proud of that engagement, than when I served as President of the Parliamentary Assembly and its Special Representative to the Mediterranean Partners for Cooperation. This trip was an occasion to revisit longstanding relationships and discuss some of the most consequential dynamics impacting the Mediterranean region today. Our delegation arrived in Tunisia and Israel at sensitive political moments. Tunisia held its second democratic presidential election ever on September 15 and will follow in the coming weeks with its third-ever free legislative election and a presidential run-off. In Israel, the country’s second national election this year on September 17 once again delivered an ambiguous result, touching off a flurry of government formation negotiations with no end in sight. In Tunis, my colleagues and I met with Interim President Mohamed Ennaceur. I commended him for leading his country through a historic peaceful transition of power following the death of President Beji Caid Essebsi earlier this year. When I asked about the most serious existential threat facing Tunisia, he had a bracing assessment: that the gravest threat is the economic and social despair afflicting so many youth. We should heed President Ennaceur’s words and commit ourselves during this meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly to discussing ways to restore hope and opportunity for the youth in our societies. Early next year, I intend to do my part to respond to the call of President Ennaceur and others by hosting young parliamentarians from throughout the OSCE region and the Partners for Cooperation in Washington for a seminar that empowers our future leaders. I look forward to sharing details with your delegations in the near term. While in Tunisia, our delegation also held roundtables with civil society groups and local and international election observers. I was encouraged by the bold commitment of these groups to preserving and advancing the gains Tunisia has made since 2011 in respect for the rule of law, democracy, and fundamental freedoms. I remain concerned, however, that the ongoing imprisonment of one of the leading presidential candidates could undermine confidence in the democratic process. In Israel, our delegation met both with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohamed Shtayyeh. Both leaders were candid in their assessments of the impasse in the peace process. While no clear opportunities emerged, I was affirmed in my belief that parliamentary diplomacy bridges divides. Prime Minister Netanyahu shared his sobering assessment of the global threat posed by Iran and the existential danger it poses to the people of Israel. I hope we will discuss ways of addressing this matter during our debates in the coming days. During a roundtable with Israel-based civil society, we heard warnings about possible threats to the rule of law impacting both Israeli citizens and Palestinians. In a separate meeting with the leaders of major Christian denominations, including Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III, we explored interreligious relations and the mediating role Christian churches play in the Holy Land. In Luxembourg this summer, this assembly passed a resolution I authored on the importance of integrating and protecting civil society engagement in the work of the OSCE and this Assembly. Our meetings with such groups in Tunis and Jerusalem confirms the value of consulting local activists in our work as parliamentarians at home and abroad. In the coming days, I urge you, my distinguished colleagues, to continue exploring ways to integrate civil society in our work and to deepen engagement with the Mediterranean Partners, particularly through support for- and observation of their electoral processes.
Safe and Dignified ReturnFriday, September 20, 2019
In July, nearly 300 parliamentarians from the 57 OSCE participating States met for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) 2019 annual session in Luxembourg, where they addressed in a final declaration the wide range of issues of current concern to the organization. Of these issues, none received more attention than those relating to human rights and humanitarian questions; the relevant section of the declaration contained more than 180 paragraphs. Leading subjects of concern included the treatment of investigative journalists, manifestations of discrimination and intolerance in society, gender inequality, and efforts to stifle dissent. The text also focused heavily on migration, including the rights of refugees. During the consideration of a final text for adoption, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), who has been active in representing the United States at OSCE PA meetings in recent years and serves on the OSCE PA’s Ad Hoc Committee on Migration, proposed an amendment underlining the importance of the right of safe return of refugees. Her amendment, co-sponsored by other members of Congress and by parliamentarians from Cyprus, Georgia, Ireland, Italy, and North Macedonia, made clear that returns should not only be safe, but also voluntary and dignified. The adopted text, included in the Luxembourg Declaration, reads as follows: “The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly underlines that the right of voluntary, safe and dignified return for refugees and internally displaced persons to their homes and properties must be guaranteed;” The concept of voluntary return is at the heart of binding international law on refugees. The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees states, “No Contracting State shall expel or return (‘refouler’) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” The convention originally was restricted to people who became refugees because of “events occurring in Europe before 1 January 1951.” The 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which removed the convention’s time and geographic restrictions, maintains the binding “non-refoulement” obligation. There are only a few exceptions on “grounds of national security or public order” and only after “due process of law.” According to the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, presented in 1998 by the United Nations Secretary General’s Representative on Internally Displaced Persons, “Competent authorities have the primary duty and responsibility to establish conditions, as well as provide the means, which allow internally displaced persons to return voluntarily, in safety and with dignity, to their homes or places of habitual residence, or to resettle voluntarily in another part of the country.” The principles are not legally binding on governments, but they are the point of reference for how a government should respond to internally displaced persons.
2019 Human Dimension Implementation MeetingFriday, September 13, 2019
From September 16 to September 27, OSCE participating States will meet in Warsaw, Poland, for the 2019 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM), organized by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). As Europe’s largest annual human rights conference, the HDIM brings together hundreds of government and nongovernmental representatives, international experts, and human rights activists for two weeks to review OSCE human rights commitments and progress. During the 2019 meeting, three specifically selected topics will each be the focus of a full-day discussion: “safety of journalists,” “hate crimes,” and “Roma and Sinti.” These special topics are chosen to highlight key areas for improvement in the OSCE region and promote discussion of pressing issues. Human Dimension Implementation Meeting 2019 Since the HDIM was established in 1998, the OSCE participating States have a standing agreement to hold an annual two-week meeting to review the participating States’ compliance with the human dimension commitments they have previously adopted by consensus. The phrase “human dimension” was coined to describe the OSCE norms and activities related to fundamental freedoms, democracy (such as free elections, the rule of law, and independence of the judiciary), humanitarian concerns (such as refugee migration and human trafficking), and concerns relating to tolerance and nondiscrimination (such as countering anti-Semitism and racism). Each year, the HDIM allows participating States to assess one another’s implementation of OSCE human dimension commitments, identify challenges, and make recommendations for improvement. The HDIM agenda covers all human dimension commitments, including freedoms of expression and the media, peaceful assembly and association, and religion or belief; democratic elections; the rule of law; tolerance and non-discrimination; combating trafficking in persons; women’s rights; and national minorities, including Roma and Sinti. Unique about the HDIM is the inclusion and strong participation of non-governmental organizations. The United States has been a stout advocate for the involvement of NGOs in the HDIM, recognizing the vital role that civil society plays in human rights and democracy-building initiatives. OSCE structures allow NGO representatives to raise issues of concern directly with government representatives, both by speaking during the formal working sessions of the HDIM and by organizing side events that examine specific issues in greater detail. Members of the U.S. delegation to the 2019 HDIM include: Ambassador James S. Gilmore, U.S. Permanent Representative to the OSCE and Head of Delegation Christopher Robinson, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs Roger D. Carstens, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Elan S. Carr, Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Alex T. Johnson, Chief of Staff, U.S. Helsinki Commission
Delegation Led by Co-Chairman Wicker Demonstrates U.S. Commitment to Countering Kremlin Aggression and Preserving Stability in EuropeWednesday, July 10, 2019
WASHINGTON—From July 4 to July 8, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) led the largest bipartisan, bicameral U.S. delegation in history to the 2019 OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) Annual Session in Luxembourg. The participation of 19 members of Congress showed the deep U.S. commitment to European security and to countering Kremlin aggression and anti-democratic trends across the 57-country OSCE region. “The size of our delegation for this Parliamentary Assembly is a clear demonstration of the importance that the Americans place on this institution and its mission,” said Sen. Wicker ahead of the official opening of the event, which brought together approximately 300 parliamentarians from North America, Europe, and Central Asia. Sen. Wicker, who also serves as a vice-president of the OSCE PA, was joined in Luxembourg by House Majority Leader and former Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Steny Hoyer (MD-05); Helsinki Commissioners Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), and Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04). Other participants included Sen. John Cornyn (TX), Sen. Rick Scott (FL), Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Rep. Tom Cole (OK-04), Rep. Val Demings (FL-10), Rep. Jeff Duncan (SC-03), Rep. Garret Graves (LA-06), Rep. Tom Graves (GA-14), Rep. Andy Harris (MD-01), Rep. Billy Long (MO-07), Rep. Gregory Meeks (NY-05), and Rep. Lee Zeldin (NY-01). In the opening plenary, Rep. Hoyer, a founder of the OSCE PA, reminded the delegates of the OSCE’s commitment to human rights, fundamental freedoms, and democratic governance. Rep. Moore then spearheaded the passage of a resolution on protecting and engaging civil society that was originally introduced by Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20). The assembly also adopted a second U.S. initiative on educating children to avoid human trafficking introduced by Rep. Smith, who serves as OSCE PA Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues. Fourteen of the 16 amendments proposed by the U.S. delegation were adopted, including those holding the Kremlin accountable for the collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; criticizing Moscow for abusing INTERPOL diffusions to harass Kremlin critics abroad; expressing concern about the overreliance of European countries on Russia for energy supplies; and seeking to protect those who report hate crimes from retaliation. During the annual session, Sen. Wicker and Rep. Smith co-hosted a presentation to raise awareness and encourage reporting of efforts to entice children into being trafficked. Sen. Cardin, who serves as the OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, hosted a discussion on best practices to combat hate in society. Prior to attending the annual session, Co-Chairman Wicker convened the first-ever Helsinki Commission hearing held outside of the United States. In Gdansk, Poland, senior U.S. civilian and military leaders briefed members of Congress on their approaches to enhancing security in the region. High-level defense officials from Lithuania, Poland, Finland, Sweden, and Estonia also provided regional perspectives on the evolving security environment in and around the Baltic Sea. Hearing participants included Lt. Gen. Stephen M. Twitty, Deputy Commander, United States European Command; Douglas D. Jones, Deputy Permanent Representative, United States Mission to NATO; Raimundas Karoblis, Minister of National Defense, Republic of Lithuania; Maj. Gen, Krzysztof Król, Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces; Janne Kuusela, Director-General, Defense Policy Department, Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Finland; Jan-Olof Lind, State Secretary to the Minister for Defense, the Kingdom of Sweden; and Kristjan Prikk, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defense, the Republic of Estonia. The hearing underscored America’s commitment to security in the Baltic Sea region and its unwavering support for U.S. friends and allies.
The Helsinki Process: A Four Decade OverviewFriday, June 28, 2019
In August 1975, the heads of state or government of 35 countries – the Soviet Union and all of Europe except Albania, plus the United States and Canada – held a historic summit in Helsinki, Finland, where they signed the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. This document is known as the Helsinki Final Act or the Helsinki Accords. The Conference, known as the CSCE, continued with follow-up meetings and is today institutionalized as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, based in Vienna, Austria. Learn more about the signature of the Helsinki Final Act; the role that the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe played during the Cold War; how the Helsinki Process successfully adapted to the post-Cold War environment of the 1990s; and how today's OSCE can and does contribute to regional security, now and in the future.
Chairman Hastings on World Refugee DayThursday, June 20, 2019
WASHINGTON—In honor of World Refugee Day, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) today issued the following statement: “On World Refugee Day, we recognize those who risk everything—even their lives—in the search for freedom and safety. They have fled their homes in fear, only to face perilous journeys and uncertain futures. “There are more refugees now than at any point since World War II. There are nearly 71 million displaced persons worldwide. Almost 26 million of them are refugees, half of whom are children. “International organizations like the OSCE help ensure that humanitarian assistance and protections, including anti-discrimination measures, are being delivered in accordance with international norms and human rights. “Please join me in commemorating the courage and resilience of the millions of refugees and displaced persons around the world fleeing persecution, war, and violence. Their stories inspire us, and their triumphs have enormously strengthened the nations that have welcomed them.”
Partially Protected?Friday, June 14, 2019
The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened an expert briefing on the background, implementation, and legal and political implications of temporary protection for people in the United States and Europe who come from countries of conflict or natural disaster but not qualify for asylum. The discussion explored whether some European Union countries are choosing temporary protection even when asylum claims are credible. Alex T. Johnson, Chief of Staff for the Helsinki Commission, said in his opening remarks, “Chairman Hastings sees [protected status] as a priority, particularly in the United States and in the OSCE region because of the erosion of human rights and democratic institutions that we are seeing now. It’s particularly urgent as we look at our own domestic compliance with commitments in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and how we partner with countries who are also exploring issues related to granted protected status for vulnerable communities in their midst.” Johnson also noted Chairman Hasting’s introduction of H.Con.Res. 5, which expresses support for Haitians residing in the United States with Temporary Protected Status (TPS). In the discussion that followed, Jill Wilson of the Congressional Research Service provided context on TPS and its implementation in the U.S. Wilson reported, “Ten countries are currently covered by TPS, benefitting some 400,000 individuals in the United States. The Trump administration has announced terminations for six of these ten countries on the grounds that the conditions on which the original designations were based no longer exist. These terminations are currently on hold pending court action.” Recent efforts by members of the 115th and 116th Congress saw a greater number and variety of TPS-related bills that seek either to expand or restrict TPS and shift the decision-making power from the Secretary of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to the U.S. Congress. Currently, the Secretary of the DHS, in consultation with other key government offices namely the U.S. State Department, has the power to designate a country for temporary protection in periods of six, twelve, or eighteen months based on three categories: armed conflict, natural disaster, or extraordinary circumstances that prevent the safe return of a country’s nationals. Marleine Bastien of the Family Action Network Movement shared her expertise on the current political and economic situation in Haiti, following the catastrophic earthquake in 2010 and subsequent natural disasters that resulted in major public health emergencies, about 300,000 displaced people, and severely damaged infrastructure. Despite these continuing poor conditions, Haiti’s TPS status is subject to termination. Bastien remarked, “We hope that Congress will take a close look at what’s going on in Haiti today…The conditions in Haiti continue to deteriorate. Haiti still qualifies for temporary protected status… TPS is still applicable, not only for the countries that qualify now, but for the countries in the future which may experience natural and political disasters.” Without its TPS re-instated, she said, Haiti does not have the capacity to resettle and support the 58,000 Haitians currently living in the U.S. Sui Chung, an attorney with the Immigration Law and Litigation Group in Miami, Florida, and Chair of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Committee of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) stated that unless legislation like the American Dream and Promise Act, H.R. 6 is passed, TPS recipients remain at risk of being detained or deported. Chung remarked, “Although the federal courts have enjoined the termination of TPS for some countries, these court orders are temporary. If a higher court rules unfavorably, those with TPS would be vulnerable to losing authorization to work and reside in the U.S., and they would be subject to deportation.” Chung stated that 94 percent of individuals under TPS are employed, generating about $5.5 billion in federal, state, and local taxes, with roughly $25 billion spending power. According to Chung, losing this population could cripple the U.S. economy and harm communities. Catherine Woollard, Secretary General of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, described Europe’s decision-making process for protection status as an inconsistent and unfair “asylum lottery” She argued that the lack of fairness and uniformity in granting TPS originates from the selection process, where the decision to grant protection status is left solely to the discretion of the twenty-eight European Union Member States rather than a universal eligibility process. Woollard noted, “Our analysis shows that these different protection statuses have a wide variation when it comes to the rights attached. Key rights that are of interest and necessity for people who are seeking protection vary. If you have refugee status, your residence rights are for a longer duration. For subsidiary protection, less time is granted for residential rights. In some cases, there are very stark differences.”
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.