Archive for International

Celebrating World Indigenous Peoples’ Day and Confronting Challenges in Defending Indigenous Languages and Territory

By Jalileh Garcia, RightsViews staff writer 

August 9th marked the 2019 International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. The theme for this year is Indigenous Peoples’ Languages. 

According to the United Nations Development Programme, it is estimated that there are 370-500 million indigenous peoples in the world, representing over 5,000 different cultures. Furthermore, a majority of the 7,000 languages in the world were created and are spoken by Indigenous Peoples. Yet, despite this immense lingual diversity, human rights experts indicate that four in 10 Indigenous languages are in danger of disappearing. The main reason for the disappearance of these languages is the fragility of systems to ensure that Indigenous Peoples rights to land and territory are respected, protected, and guaranteed, including, among other reasons, forced assimilation. 

As such, entire cultures are at risk of disappearing as companies and governments are stripping Indigenous communities of their lands. These cultures include the belief in a special relationship with the environment─land has physical, cultural, and spiritual value. While Indigenous Peoples around the world have varying cultures and languages, they have all shared a common history in the face of colonization and oppression. 

Because of this history and present day marginalization, Indigenous Peoples around the world are some of the world’s most vulnerable populations. Forced assimilation that undermines Indigenous traditions and languages, institutional discrimination, and harassment enacted by extractive industries and government practices are just a few examples of the challenges Indigenous Peoples face today.

For Indigenous Peoples, the defense of the right to identity, language, self-determination, and land can be deadly in an ever capital-driven world. The production of raw materials by large corporations for the sake of acquiring capital has consistently come before the lives and needs of indigenous people, along with other communities that have historically been marginalized, disrupting land, resources, and culture.

Many Indigenous Peoples choose to protest the destruction of the environment, recognizing the threat that extractive industries pose on both their livelihoods and global welfare. Some corporations lash back at protesters with violence. In 2018 alone, 164 land and environmental defenders were reported killed, according to Global Witness, reporting that “indigenous people are on the front line of these killings, along with attacks by countries’ legal systems.” In 2017, Honduras was considered the deadliest country for land and environmental defenders, affecting many of the Indigenous Peoples who live there.  

Honduras has signed various international agreements, such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), that are meant to safeguard the rights of indigenous communities in the country. Additionally, Article 346 of the Honduran Constitution protects the rights, territories, and natural resources of the Indigenous population. Important to the UNDRIP and Indigenous Human Rights is the principle of free, prior, and informed consent by those who wish to use any territory or resources belonging to Indigenous Peoples.

Yet, despite all of this, Indigenous communities in Honduras have been excluded from  free, prior, and informed consent and consultation regarding the development of extractive industries such as mining, hydro-electric, and monoculture projects that occur in their territories. As a result, this has caused conflicts between the Indigenous communities and the state, as the state has allowed for companies to enter their territories and extract raw materials from their lands. Effectively, this has had devastating effects from the contamination of water sources to a loss of food supply, infringing on cultural values and overall violating Indigenous rights. Throughout this, both the state and companies are complicit in these extractive schemes. 

Berta Caceres

One of the iconic figures in the fights against extractive industries in Honduras was Berta Caceres, a Lenca indigenous leader, human rights defender and the co-founder of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). 

In retaliation for her work against projects that sought to extract natural resources in the Lenca territory― such as the building of the Agua Zarca dam which was licensed to the Desarrollos Energeticos S.A. (DESA) company― she faced criminalization, threats and attacks. In 2016, Berta Caceres was murdered in her home of La Esperanza, Intibuca. 

In November 2017, in a publication by the Grupo Asesor Internacional de Personas Expertas, or the International Advisory Group of Expert Persons (GAIPE), it was confirmed that the murder of Berta Caceres was organized and financed by the executives of the company DESA. The reason? To end any and all opposition against building the dam. 

The report also accused the company’s executives of being responsible for creating campaigns that sought to discredit Berta Caceres, stalking  COPINH members, instituting threats, hiring gunmen, sabotaging news outlets, bribing officials of the Justice department, and paying police forces.  

Seven people have been found guilty of executing the crime, though there were severe irregularities in the entire process. While multiple executives organized and financed Berta Caceres’ murder, only the executive president of the company, David Castillo, was accused. Even then, his preliminary hearing was suspended indefinitely and the crime remains in impunity. 

Berta Caceres’ case is only one of the many in the country, and one in hundreds of cases around the world. Nonetheless, it represents how Indigenous Peoples have actively defended their rights. Though others actively participate at the UN in Permanent Missions, each way represents a fight against a system that denies Indigenous Peoples right to identity, language, self-determination, and land. 

As we celebrate World Indigenous Peoples’ Day, we reflect on the loss of languages of indigenous peoples’ around the world, as well as the complicity that our governments and companies have in violating the rights of a population that have historically been marginalized. We also celebrate the rich cultures that make up the Indigenous Peoples around the world, who are working at the local and international levels towards crystallization of their human rights. Indigenous Peoples and their allies are also remembering Berta Cáceres and her contribution to the fight for Indigenous rights, as they prepare to celebrate the diversity and beauty of Indigenous languages in 2019.

Technology and Privacy in Refugee Aid

By: Parima Kadikar, guest contributor. Parima is a rising senior at Columbia College studying Middle Eastern Studies and Human Rights.

In an exceedingly digital world, humanitarian aid for refugees is being revolutionized by technological innovation. International non-profit organizations and UN agencies have begun to employ strategies like biometric scanning and blockchain technology to streamline aid delivery and prevent identity fraud. While these strides are noteworthy examples of progress, it is also important to address the potential privacy concerns that could result.

In the context of conversations sparked by the Patriot Act— Congress’s response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks which expanded federal jurisdiction over private data and communications for the purpose of intelligence gathering– and, more recently, by the Cambridge Analytica data-mining campaign which harvested the data of millions of Facebook users without their knowledge or consent for conservative political campaigning, many Americans are protective of both their physical and digital privacy. The evidence of this can be seen from taped webcams in college classrooms to frustration with the TSA at airports to the rising popularity of secure messaging apps for activists.

For refugees, however, concerns about privacy permeate all aspects of life. If they are living in a country with strong xenophobic sentiments, refugees may wish to  conceal their identities due to fear of discrimination. Additionally, many escape or resettlement routes taken by refugees as they flee their home nations require unauthorized border crossings. BBC has produced a video simulating the privacy dangers associated with this when an asylum seeker has a cell phone; if their location is being tracked as they flee to safety, they could be targeted by border authorities and their asylum requests could be denied for entering unauthorized.

As well as the concern about losing asylum status in their destination, refugees face the possibility that the group(s) persecuting them– whether it be a government regime, militia, or other non-state actors– could also discover their location or involvement in activism through technology usage. Such a discovery could present immediate threats to a refugee’s life, or at the very least prevent them from ever returning to their home country.

One attempt to secure refugee data is the World Food Programme’s (WFP) use of biometric scanning and blockchain technology to distribute aid in Jordan’s Zaatari camp, the second largest refugee camp in

Aerial view of Jordan’s Zaatri refugee camp, where technology is used by WFP

the world. “Eye Pay,” a project within the organization’s “Building Blocks” program, allows refugees to access a digital wallet by scanning their irises at participating shops within the camp.

While this technology is impressive, it raises concerns about feasibility. Building Blocks runs on a private-permission blockchain, which addresses data security concerns but is difficult to expand in scale.The WFP’s technology is supported by the cryptocurrency Ethereum, meaning that users who buy, sell, and mine this currency validate the chain. Therefore, the market for Ethereum must grow significantly before a program like Building Blocks can be increased in scope.

In order to successfully manage the data for large refugee populations, WFP is faced with a question of how to incentivize Ethereum holders to increase the level of coordination in these initiatives. As

Biometric scanning such as “Eye Pay” uses technology to create digital wallets accessible via iris imaging

blockchain technology provides a significantly more secure alternative to storing refugees’ data on UN databases, a successful means of incentivizing coordination so as to expand the existing program could lead to outcomes that redefine refugee aid.

However, until such technology can be implemented on a larger scale, the threat of privacy breaches remains very real for refugees. In order for a displaced person to receive official refugee status from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) (and, as a result, access to aid earmarked for refugees), they must submit a great deal of personal data to the agency. While it is understandable that UNHCR needs to collect information like employment and health records from applicants to prevent identity fraud, Privacy International, a non-profit organization that pressures companies and governments to implement better data privacy regulations, warns that issues arise when it shares jurisdiction over this data with other groups.

It is difficult to know about specific instances of UNHCR privacy breaches as the agency does not publicize this information. A 2014 breach of Australia’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP), however, led to the publication of the personal details of over 9,000 unsuccessful asylum seekers on the DIPB website. These details included full names, gender, citizenship, date of birth, period of immigration detention, location, boat arrival details, and the reasons that each applicant was denied refugee status.

A lawsuit was subsequently filed against the DIBP, alleging that the asylum seekers whose information was publicly revealed were treated unfairly during the review process. While the High Court of Australia ruled that the representative litigants in this case were treated fairly by the government, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) is currently (almost 5 years later) assessing whether or not the affected asylum seekers should be compensated for the violation.

Though the Australian breach occurred within a national government and not the UNHCR, it offers a high-profile example of how displaced people can suffer when their privacy is violated. As the global refugee crisis continues to intensify with each passing year, it is imperative that the UNHCR and its partners dedicate more resources and manpower to addressing privacy concerns. The few examples discussed in this blog, such as the WFP’s Building Blocks program, are steps in the right direction. However, until they can be implemented on larger scales, refugees remain especially vulnerable.  

The State of International Migration

An increase of migration in recent years has spurred a global conversation that asks: what is the responsibility of countries, particularly democracies, toward migrants? Relevant discussions have had real consequences on-the-ground for both migrants and states, leading to legislation which has had positive effects, and also to massive human rights violations. I examine the broad movements in worldwide migration in the past few years and pull out important themes which can be gleaned from global happenings.

The State of International Migration

According to the UN’s International Migration Report released on December 18, 2017, there has been an increase in people moving away from their country of birth by 49% since the start of the 21st century. Yet according to the 2018 World Migration Report published by the IOM, this increase in migration remains comparable to the world population; the scale of growth remains stable in regard to population.

A greater number of international migrants are moving into OECD countries to live permanently, part of a trend tracked by UN DESA. In contrast, 2017 saw refugees and asylum seekers predominately living in low- to middle-income countries, with only 16% residing in high-income countries. Thus, although high-income countries did host a majority (64%) of international migrants in 2017, with the United States hosting the largest number per country at 19% of the total, high-income countries are on average accepting the fewest number of refugees and asylees.

Despite this low acceptance rate, the need for host countries to accept refugees and asylees has increased, with the highest number of refugees recorded 22.5 million refugees and another 2.8 million awaiting adjudication of their asylum claims at the end of 2016. Since then, this number has increased to 25.4 million in 2018 because of the conflicts in Syria and Venezuela.

Migration in State Politics

According to a Yale study, in recent years nationalism, populism, and/or identity politics have led to a rise in conservative policies across Europe and in the United States, especially in the areas of immigration, affirmative action, police and criminal justice. A BBC report further showed that political parties associated with nationalism and the far-right have gathered greater support mainly due to tension around national identity and globalization. The five countries highlighted by the report with the most votes for a nationalist party include Switzerland (29%), Austria (26%), Denmark (21%), Hungary (19%), and Finland (18%). In one poignant example of how powerful these sentiments are, anti-immigration was cited as the most fundamental motivation behind Brexit by 88% of people in the UK.  In Denmark’s case, in August 2018 the country instituted a ban on face coverings, intended to prevent Muslim women from wearing the niqab or burqa. Other European countries with this ban include Belgium, Austria, France, the Netherlands, and Bulgaria. Other countries which instituted anti-immigrant legislation within the last few years include the U.S. with its 2017 move to drop the ceiling for admitting refugees from 110,000 to 50,000 (and then further reducing admissions to 45,000 for 2018); in June 2018, Hungary instituted a “Stop Soros” law intending to criminalize anyone offering aid to migrants without legal status. Then, in September of 2018, Italy increased the ease at which it could deport migrants and suspend asylum applications for individuals deemed “socially dangerous” or with any criminal history. As evident in these cases, anti-immigrant sentiment no longer exists solely in conversation and political rhetoric, but now has a strong presence in policy with real implications for migrant and refugee communities.

What’s Behind the Backlash?

At the heart of anti-immigrant sentiment is a basic fear of outsiders, which is propagated by misinformation. According to a study sponsored by the National Bureau of Economic Research, native-born citizens across the world believe that 1) there are far more immigrants in their country than in reality, 2) immigrants are more culturally and religiously different than native-born citizens, and 3) immigrants have less education, are less likely to become employed, less financially stable, and rely in greater numbers on government aid, than native-born citizens. In addition, immigrants and especially those from lower-income countries have been politically problematized and put forth as a “new” issue which requires expansive and lightning-quick responses by power-grabbing governments. Yet in the example of the United States, this is proven to be false: the U.S. hosts almost three times the number of immigrants than it did in 1970, yet it still has fewer than the 9.2 million immigrants who lived in the U.S. in 1890. The problem is evidently more one of perception. For example, in the European countries that have instituted bans on face veils, only a minute percentage of women in these countries actually wear such attire. The bans, then, are a symptom of Islamophobia and a fear of losing grasp of vaguely-defined European identity. In the previously mentioned Yale study, the authors, Craig, Rucker, and Richeson advise their readers that the core issue behind increasing conservative policies in the U.S. is an identity threat felt by “White (Christian) Americans” who are afraid of losing the status and privilege lent to them in American society by these identity factors. Fundamentally, there is a looming fear that some essential part of national identity is at risk. This fear has led countries to rush to to protect borders, as made evident in President Trump’s obsession with building a wall.

The International Responsibility of States

Much of the anti-immigration legislation is in violation of international refugee policies, which, according to the 1951 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, mandate that states must process asylum applications of persons who enter the border. States have a responsibility to protect persons with “well-founded fear” of persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, and/or membership in a particular group. States cannot, according to Article 31 of this convention, impose negative consequences against individuals who enter the country illegally but then apply for asylum, although states are allowed to limit the amount of time in which individuals may apply.

Furthermore, some anti-immigrant state policies are directly responsible for migrant deaths. In an important and devastating example, in August 2018, Malta detained three NGO rescue ships to prevent them from operating along the migration route from northern Africa and southern Europe. These rescue missions were begun as a civil society response to the extremely high death tolls along this migration route (recorded at 5,143 in 2016 by the IOM). According to the IOM report, these deaths mainly occur due to environmental conditions along the route, physical violence, risky transportation methods, and lack of safe food and water along the route. In addition to the detention of ships, Italy and Malta have both closed their ports to other NGO rescue vessels operating in the Mediterranean. By halting NGO activities, Italy and Malta have significantly increased the danger faced by migrants as they seek asylum in Europe.

Now What?

Currently, the majority of anti-immigrant, anti-refugee politics have been limited to just that – political rhetoric – yet the countries which have instituted real, problematic legislation are cause for a sobering response. The recent Global Compacts, one for migration and the other on refugees are one major step toward a unified international response to increasing migration and a greater number of refugees. The Compacts represent a productive response to the initial question I presented about the responsibility of states to migrants; this question, though, disregards the fact that migration is not a one-way process even for Global Northern countries. Perhaps a better question would be, what is the relationship between democracy and migration?  In the spirit of the Global Compacts, we should be looking at this issue with the understanding that international migration is increasing. Instead of a burden, this is an opportunity to work as an international community to reinvent a world in which mobility and globalization are inevitable and embraced for their potential.


By SaraJane Renfroe. SaraJane is an MA student in the Human Rights Studies program, focusing on migration and refugee integration.

On International Day of Peace, A Celebration of Human Rights

By Ashley E. Chappo, editor of RightsViews and a graduate of Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs and Columbia Journalism School

Human rights, specifically the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), are the focus of this year’s International Day of Peace, or “Peace Day,” which takes place across the world each year on September 21.

This UN-designated day of observance advocates peace action and education in spite of ongoing human conflict through peace-building activities, a global minute of silence, intercultural and interfaith dialogues, vigils, concerts, feasts, and marches. This year’s theme is “The Right to Peace – The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70.”

The timing for the theme is apropos: it comes at a period when the human condition is increasingly vulnerable, beset by global conflict and dependent on world leaders who have turned their backs on international cooperation. During this state of prolonged human suffering, the power and failings of a single document of 30 human rights ideals comes into pronounced focus. Why should we celebrate the UDHR? Now 70 years old, has it made any real difference to peace and the protection of people?

UN Secretary-General António Guterres spoke at UN Headquarters in New York City in Peace Day, September 21, 2018. // UNAMI // Twitter

One lens through which to view these questions: the current state of international affairs, in which we grapple with intractable problems like the Syrian Civil War, ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, crisis in Congo, civil war in Yemen, war in Afghanistan, conflict in Iraq, violence in Venezuela, and a crisis of 68.5 million people forcibly displaced worldwide. Perhaps it’s time we relied less on hope and principles, and a little more on action.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres seemed to openly acknowledge doubts about the ability of international compacts to uphold human rights in the present day as he spoke today at UN Headquarters in New York City. At the same time, he also pushed back against these uncertainties with vigorous optimism.

“When we are celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we know that human rights are violated in so many parts of the world, we even know that the human rights agenda is losing ground,” Guterres said. “But we don’t give up because respect for human rights and human dignity is a basic condition for peace.”

Forging ahead against challenges was the key sentiment of today’s remarks.

“We are here because we are determined and we do not give up. We see conflicts multiplying everywhere in the world. We see links between conflicts and terrorism. We see insecurity prevailing. We see people suffering. But we don’t give up,” he continued.

Children dressed in white played the violin in the Peace Garden at United Nations Headquarters. Guterres concluded the ceremony by ringing the Peace Bell to commemorate Peace Day.

A violionist during the annual Peace Bell ceremony held at UN headquarters in observance of the International Day of Peace (21 September). // Cia Pak // UN Photo

Overall, the feeling from the ceremony was uplifting. But are words and gatherings anything more than a good sound bite or a symbolic gesture? Why do we need the UDHR in 2018 when it has proven ineffective at preventing human atrocities in its 70-year history?

One good reason: it represents an important milestone in our human rights fight that sets a common standard for all peoples and all nations. Since the UDHR was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948, its words have reverberated across continents. Its 30 articles affirming individual rights have been translated into some 370 languages, making it one of the most translated documents in the world.

Furthermore, although not legally binding or a treaty itself, the UDHR is widely considered the foundational document of international human rights law that has served as inspiration for many of our world’s legally-binding international human rights treaties and resolutions. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1965) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), for example, both came into force as a direct outcome of the UDHR, enshrining in law many of its ideals. Similarly, the Convention Against Torture (1984) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) track their roots to the UDHR. Traces of its articles are also found in the language of many national constitutions.

As of 2018, all UN member States have ratified at least one of the nine international human rights instruments that make up the core body of legally-binding international human rights law, with the majority ratifying four or more of these treaties. Once a State becomes party to any one of these international treaties, it accepts certain obligations to respect and fulfill these rights.

In this regard, Guterres’ optimism has legs. His hopefulness was shared many years ago by Eleanor Roosevelt, chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights and a prominent author of the UDHR. She believed fully “in the force of documents which do express ideals.”

However, she also believed that human rights begin in small places, close to home.

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.” — Eleanor Roosevelt, United Nations, 1958

Eleanor Roosevelt holds up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. // UN Photo

A key part of upholding the UDHR, she notes, is civic action to ensure these rights; action that demands response from leaders who have either turned a blind eye or who openly defy justice.

“Without concerted citizen action to uphold [rights] close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world,” she said in a speech at the United Nations.

Join RightsViews in honoring the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on Peace Day 2018! As part of the global celebration of this important document, which continues into December, you can add your voice in your own language to the Declaration as part of a UN collaborative video project. You can also read an illustrated version of the UDHR, available on the UN’s website.


Ashley E. Chappo is a recent graduate of Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs, where she studied human rights and international conflict resolution, and Columbia Journalism School, where she studied multimedia and investigative reporting. You can follow her on Twitter @AshleyChappo. She is editor of RightsViews. 

Columbia Students Stand in Solidarity with Jailed Reuters Journalists

By Ashley E. Chappo, editor of RightsViews and a graduate of Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs and Columbia Journalism School

Walk into Pulitzer Hall lobby at Columbia Journalism School today, and you might notice the students dressed in all black, holding signs that read “#FreeWaLoneKyawSoeOo” and “Journalism is not a crime.”

It’s a moment of advocacy and solidarity on Columbia’s Morningside campus on behalf of Reuters journalists Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, who were sentenced to seven years in prison on September 3, 2018 by a Myanmar judge after being found guilty of violating a decades-old law on state secrets. The Burmese nationals had been investigating military crackdowns and human rights violations in Rakhine state, including the massacre of 10 Rohingya men in Rakhine’s Inn Dinn village on September 2, 2017.

Columbia Journalism students dressed in all black and held signs that read “#FreeWaLoneKyawSoeOo” and “Journalism is not a crime” on behalf of their imprisoned colleagues in Myanmar. // Thor Neureiter

The advocacy effort at the journalism school in New York City was organized mainly by students in professor Ann Cooper’s reporting class. Beginning at 11 a.m. in Pulitzer Hall, the students dressed in black and held up signs, many handwritten in black ink on dry erase boards, with messages of support for the Burmese journalists. The students were inspired by the earlier protest efforts led by the Protection Committee for Myanmar Journalists who began wearing black T-shirts to “signify the dark age of media freedom” and advocate for the release of their colleagues, according to Reuters. The entire journalism school was asked to participate in person or across social media, and students from other professional schools at Columbia were also invited.

The September ruling by the Myanmar judge to jail the journalists for seven years has been widely condemned by world leaders, press freedom organizations, and human rights advocates as an attack on press freedom and human rights, which threatens journalists and human beings everywhere. Following the arrests, the United Nations called for the immediate release of the jailed journalists. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said the court’s recent ruling is a “travesty of justice” and “shocking,” adding that the journalist’s information on the violence in Rakhine state against Rohingya Muslims is “of public interest.”

While advocacy efforts such as the one at Columbia may seem merely symbolic, they hold special significance for the jailed journalists and reporters around the world who face similar risks.

“From my eight years as executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, I know how much it means for journalists and their families to hear messages of support, to know that they are not forgotten,” professor Cooper told RightsViews. “Journalists in many countries work in very challenging press freedom conditions. It’s important for us, no matter where we live and work, to defend the rights of all journalists to report the news independently, without fear of threats or violence.”

A poster for the advocacy efforts at Columbia Journalism School on September 14, 2018. The organizers urged other students and faculty from across Columbia to dress in black and stand in solidarity with the imprisoned Burmese journalists. // Melody Jiang

The Burmese reporters were first detained on December 12, 2017 outside of Yangon. Reuters published the journalists’ special report on the killings of the Rohingya under the title “Massacre in Myanmar” on February 8, 2018 while they awaited trial behind bars. The report notes “the Reuters investigation of the Inn Din massacre was what prompted Myanmar police authorities to arrest two of the news agency’s reporters.”

Efforts to support Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo while in detention began last year at Columbia when journalism students collected books to send to the reporters in prison following a specific request for books by Wa Lone.

“I think we all hoped that would help them pass some weeks or months until they were freed, because the court case against them was so ridiculous. But now they face seven years in prison. So our new students this fall have organized an effort to tell them, once again, you are not forgotten,” Cooper said.

Around seventeen of Cooper’s current reporting students from the Class of 2019 took the lead in organizing the day of advocacy on behalf of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.

“Journalism students, especially those interested in doing international reporting, should be aware that if these types of press restrictions and anti-press actions are not confronted, it will make it harder for them to do their jobs in the future,” said Haleluya Hadero, a student in Cooper’s reporting class this fall, to RightsViews. “As it is commonly said at the J-School, journalism is a public service, and we all need to work hard to protect the integrity and freedom of the press around the world.”

The action at Columbia University follows at the heels of a particularly troubling response from Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi on the court ruling. Speaking on Thursday at the World Economic Forum in Hanoi, Vietnam, she denied claims that the court’s decision violates freedom of expression and said that the journalists are free to appeal the decision

“They were not jailed because they were journalists,” she said. “The sentence has been passed on them because the court has decided that they have broken the Official Secrets Act.”

Students gathered on the steps in front of Columbia Journalism School during a day of advocacy on behalf of the jailed Reuters journalists. // Thor Neureiter

This statement from the once-esteemed Nobel Peace Prize winner has been decried as “shameful” by Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson wrote in The Globe and Mail, “Rarely does an event more clearly embody a country’s human-rights decline than the Myanmar court’s sentencing of two Reuters journalists.”

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley expressed her own disproval with Myanmar’s leader on Twitter, tweeting, “First in denial about the abuse the Burmese military place on the Rohingya, now justifying the imprisonment of the two Reuters reporters who reported on the ethnic cleansing. Unbelievable.”

The seven-year prison sentence serves as a reminder of the challenges and limitations journalists face in doing their jobs and defending human rights. These realities are particularly pertinent for students of Columbia Journalism School, many of whom dream of future careers in international and conflict reporting.

And now, more than ever, the stakes are especially high. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that for the second year in a row the number of journalists imprisoned for their work has reached a historical high. The advocacy efforts on campus help the students to recognize the importance of the lessons they learn in the classroom on keeping themselves and their sources safe in difficult environments.

“It’s my goal to make sure that all of our students leave journalism school with a healthy appreciation of the risks faced by so many reporters around the world— and with the skills and knowledge to assess and deal with those risks,” Cooper said. The recent case of the Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo hits particularly close to home for some of Cooper’s students. One who graduated this past May worked with Wa Lone at a newspaper in Myanmar, and another had met Wa Lone’s brother while reporting from the country.

“It is important for us— as Americans or even non-citizens living in the United States, and especially as journalists— to advocate for our own who are imprisoned for simply doing their jobs,” Haleluya said. “Journalism is a service not only to the public, but also to our colleagues, wherever they might be.”


Ashley E. Chappo is a recent graduate of Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs, where she studied human rights and international conflict resolution, and Columbia Journalism School, where she studied multimedia and investigative reporting. You can follow her on Twitter @AshleyChappo. She is editor of RightsViews. 

Children Languishing Behind Bars: A Grim Reality of Indian Prisons

By Vasudev Singh and Karan Trehan, students of law in India at RML National Law University and NALSAR University of Law, respectively. 

recent revelation by the Government of India concerns the condition of children residing in prisons with their mothers and raises an important question regarding the basic human rights guaranteed to these children. As of 2015, Indian prisons accommodate some 419,623 prisoners (including pre-trial detainees/remand prisoners). Out of them, 4.3 percent— or around 18,000— are women. Women who face trial or who are found guilty of a crime are allowed to keep their children with them during their time in jail. Approximately 1,866 children lived in prison with their mothers at the end of 2015, according to prison statistics. 

According to the Indian constitution, the state governments are assigned to the administration and management of prisons. This means that the state governments can make prison laws according to their own discretion and requirements. However, these state powers remain subject to other centrally-enacted laws such as the Prisons Act, 1894. As a result, there exists a difference in the laws regarding the management of prisons and welfare of the prison population.

To date, the law dealing with the protection of children lodged in prisons with their mothers has not been uniformly codified under any act or statute in India and varies among different states. The Supreme Court of India, in the case of R.D Upadhyay v. State of A.P, AIR 2006 SC 1946, framed several guidelines for the protection and development of these children. The guidelines were framed around key areas requiring urgent intervention such as food, medical facilities, accommodation, age of residence, education and recreation facilities. Pursuant to these guidelines, different states amended their jail manuals and included provisions concerning the welfare of children and mothers in prisons. 

However, various reports have pointed toward the abysmal state of affairs in which these children have been forced to live in Indian prisons. The non-uniform and poor implementation of existing rules and guidelines has further aggravated the condition.

Approximately 1,866 children lived in prison with their mothers at the end of 2015. // Feminisminindia.com

The age up to which children are allowed to stay with their mothers in prisons varies among the states, for example. In states such as Delhi and Assam, the children are allowed to stay with their mothers until they are 6 years old. Whereas, in Bihar, they are allowed to stay only up to 2 years.

The diet, medical and educational facilities provided to children in various states also starkly varies. In many states, children below 5 years old are provided with the same food as other inmates. Furthermore, due to the lack of adequate infrastructure and funding, special medical facilities are not available in every state to look after the children. Reports have found that only the prisons in metropolitan cities such as Delhi, Chandigarh, and Mumbai have medical facilities equipped to cater to the needs of children. In other states, children are sent to nearby centers for education purposes due to the lack of a facility of formal schooling. Moreover, there are no special provisions for food, medical, educational and recreational facilities for women prisoners with children.

These non-uniform laws have left behind major inequality. Several instances of gross human rights violations have also been reported where children have been lodged alongside criminals. Thus, some children are currently living in a state of extreme neglect. Also, due to the absence of any enforcement or grievance mechanism to keep check on the implementation of rules and guidelines, the promise of ensuring a healthy upbringing for children behind bars gets defeated. Thus, the guidelines passed by the Supreme Court and the existing provisions in different states have failed to fulfill their intended purpose, rendering them futile.

Analyzing the laws of various countries, it is clear amended policy should address several important concerns. The first and foremost policy implementation should be the development of infrastructure and facilities, including a necessary increase in funding to prisons across the country. Modernization of the prisons would ensure that children have better living conditions and can lead a more dignified life. In addition, children should be allowed to remain with their mothers until they reach age of 6 years old, with the “best interest” of the child of the utmost importance. Cases involving issues of domestic violence should be taken into consideration, for example.

Special provisions for dietary, educational, medical and recreational facilities should also be made available for children and their mothers in all prisons. These proposed provisions will augment the mental as well as physical growth of children at such a tender age. Maintenance of separate prisons solely for the mothers and their children should be considered by the government. In such prisons, there would be a better atmosphere for parenting, providing more harmonious living conditions for the children and protecting them from violence which could result from living with the general prison population. Regular inspection of prisons should also be carried out. An ombudsman should be appointed for redressal of grievances and an authority should be created to ensure the enforcement of guidelines.

State governments should further endeavor to include the above-mentioned recommendations in jail manuals to better ensure equal treatment of children residing in prisons across the country. 

Article 21 of the Indian constitution guarantees the right to live with human dignity to every person. The Directive Principles enshrined within the Constitution also provide that suitable opportunities be given to children to ensure a healthy manner of development. Furthermore, India has ratified various international conventions, such as the UNCRC, which further obliges the Indian government to work toward the development of conditions beneficial to the well-being of the children. Therefore, the government should recognize the need of the hour and make necessary amendments to policy so as to meet its international as well as constitutional obligations.


Vasudev Singh is a student at RML National Law University, Lucknow. His research interests include health rights, environmental rights and prisoner rights.

Karan Trehan is a student at NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad. His research interests include children rights, refugee rights and education rights.

Lives in Limbo: Immigration as a Human Rights Issue

“Trump Zero Tolerance,” artwork by Dan Lacey // Flickr

By Jalileh Garcia, a blog writer for RightsViews and an undergraduate student at Columbia University 

In late June, the event “Lives in Limbo: Immigration as a Human Rights Issue” took place in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The event was a direct response to the current administration’s immigration policies, which were highlighted by the recent and highly controversial separation of children from their parents. In the last couple of months, photographs and voice recordings of children crying “Mami” and “Papa” have overtaken the web. The children, predominantly from Central American countries, some as young as 18 months old, have become the focal point of the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy.

Courts set a deadline for July 26 to reunite the children with their families, but the government has stated that hundreds of families were ineligible to be united. In total, 711 children remain in custody, according to the latest tally from the government. Furthermore, many of the children who have been united with their families have likely experienced significant trauma from being separated from their parents and held in detention. In the midst of the country’s ongoing immigration crisis, communities and activists have gathered to try to understand the complex issues facing immigrant children and all of those whose lives remain in limbo. 

The event “Lives in Limbo: Immigration as a Human Rights Issue” took place in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in June 2018. // Jalileh Garcia

“Welcome to a conversation about humanity,” said Geeta Pradhan, president of the Cambridge Community Foundation, who opened the event in Cambridge focused on immigration as a human rights issue. Pradhan introduced the panelists, who included Marc McGovern, mayor of Cambridge, human rights attorneys, legal scholars and professors.

McGovern began the conversation by stating, “I’ve heard people say that this is not the America they know.” However, he continued, “We must recognize that the America we know was one founded on the genocide of Native Americans, slavery, Jim Crow laws, Japanese internment, colonialism, and police brutality.” By acknowledging this history, McGovern believes we can recognize the current state of affairs in the United States as a natural progression of history.

Speaker Daniel Kanstroom, a professor of law and director of the International Human Rights program at Boston College spoke next and expounded on the current state of affairs of immigration in the United States.

“We are experiencing a clever attack on immigrants which is marked by brazenness and masked by national security facades, which have inevitably resulted in a brutal violence against human rights,” he said.  

Asylum seekers have been labeled as criminals, even though they have the right to safety, protection, and fair trials under international law. The U.S. government’s actions to separate children from their families has gone so far as to receive criticism from the United Nations. A spokeswoman of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ravina Shamdasani stated, “It is never in the best interests of the child [to be detained] and always constitutes a child rights violation.” Meanwhile, private corporations that own and manage detention centers are profiting off of the detainment of people.

These complex issues call for a deep understanding of the root causes, true solidarity with survivors, and the protection of human rights, the panel agreed.

“So, how did we get here?” asked Kanstroom.

The immigration crisis is the culmination of a decades-old deportation system, which has been structurally created, the panel noted. It is the result of reactionary politics starting with nativist movements; the Chinese Exclusion Act, for example, or when Mexican immigrants were suddenly barred from coming to the United States in 1965 unless they received authorization.

Global politics has also played a significant role. Since the Monroe Doctrine was established in 1823, the expansion of the United States’ control has continued to have significant consequences on its neighbors to the south. U.S. private companies have vacated the Latin American region of its resources by creating massive wealth gaps that have for generations perpetuated cycles of poverty. Simultaneously, corrupt governments have risen to power, many with U.S. aid through CIA or military intervention policies in Central and South America and the Caribbean. These governments have often been emboldened to turn against the interests of their people, creating the circumstances that drive many to flee from their native countries, the panel indicated.

Panelists at the event, “Lives in Limbo: Immigration as a Human Rights Issue,” in June 2018.

In the discourse of immigration, the speakers noted the importance of conversations about mental health. Mojdeh Rohani, executive director at Community Legal Services and a mental health practitioner, expounded on the topic. “What is an asylum seeker?” she asked the crowd. “Well, an asylum seeker has a story. They are survivors of domestic violence, gang violence, persecution, and trauma,” she said. The trauma asylum seekers face begins elsewhere, but it becomes heightened during their time at U.S. government-run detention centers. They come to the United States for safety, but they can be subject in inhumane conditions that exacerbate their trauma. Rohani highlighted that if we keep treating asylum seekers without dignity, “we may be responsible for harboring the next generation of gangs.”  

The panelists at the “Lives in Limbo” event endeavored to come up with initiatives that individuals and communities could partake in to help resolve the immigration crisis.

Michael J. Wishnie, a clinical professor of law at Yale Law School, spoke on the matter. “We must come together, stand up, and bear witness to the human experience.” Wishnie also suggested that people engage in policy changes, grassroots movements and electoral processes.

To build upon this, Roberto Gonzales, professor of education at Harvard, asked the people of Cambridge to “focus efforts on the local level, as every policy is carried out in our localities, and could be affecting our very neighbors.”

However, the panelists acknowledged, the real change needs to come from a change of hearts. Policies cannot be grounded in empathy if people do not feel empathy for immigrant populations and a necessity to protect their human rights. Perhaps the most excruciating fact is that changes of attitude do not happen overnight. If future generations come to prioritize human rights, the people in the United States and abroad can begin to see tangible change to immigration policies that threaten the basic rights of fellow humans.


Jalileh Garcia is an undergraduate student at Columbia University pursuing a Human Rights major with a specialization in Latin America. She is originally from Honduras and is interested in transitional justice, intersectionality, and the interchange of immigration and human rights. She is an executive board member of Columbia University’s Alianza, the Baha’i Club, and the Columbia Students for Human Rights (CUSHR). 

Ensuring Healthcare in India by Going Beyond Politics

By Ananye Krishna, a student at Nalsar University of Law, Hyderabad, India

The government of India launched the Ayushman Bharat – National Health Protection Mission in late March 2018 to provide health coverage of Rs. 5 Lakh (or approximately $7,335) per year for all Indian families. This was a much needed reform measure in the Indian healthcare system, but the question remains whether the government made required infrastructural changes in order to ensure the full benefits that would allow the Indian people to access their fundamental human rights to healthcare.

The poor state of healthcare in India was illustrated last year when more than 60 children died in a government hospital because of inadequate infrastructure. This was not an isolated incident. There have been cases of fires breaking out in hospitals and of surgeries being conducted en masse under extremely poor conditions. Such incidents demonstrate that the right to health as guaranteed by the Indian constitution is being violated through lack of adequate reform. Reports suggest that the government made its March decision in haste considering that primary health centers (state-owned rural healthcare facilities) across the country, specifically in North India, are in a deplorable state, rendering the reform inadequate.   

From above, it is clear that the current state of the healthcare system will make it difficult for the people to benefit from the government’s reforms. Some activists have also suggested that this policy might be a political ruse prior to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in order to ensure the victory of the ruling BJP (Bhartiya Janta Party) government. These half-hearted measures are not acceptable; democracy should not only be about winning elections and political patronage. It should be about the welfare of the people. A popularly elected government has a duty to ensure that the constitutionally guaranteed right to healthcare is not violated.

An initiative in a rural health center in India. // Trinity Care Foundation // Flickr

Furthermore, with India a party to International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), it becomes the duty of the government to protect the right to health of its people and provide them with the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health as provided under Article 12 of the ICESCR.  Also, considering that India is a party to the World Health Organization constitution, it is important that the state follows the standards set by the international organization. When WHO states that maximum available resources must be put to use to ensure the right to health, these same standards should be upheld by the Indian government. Thus, it is important that the government focus its attention on the infrastructural and professional development of primary health care centers in India to protect the basic human rights of its people. These reforms are currently absent from the government’s plan to address the poor state of healthcare.

If proper infrastructural development is undertaken, it is possible that doctors wary of working in rural areas and in poorly equipped institutions could be attracted to work in these healthcare centers, for example. The current policy of making it mandatory for doctors to engage in rural service does not work toward any effective benefit because the deplorable state of government hospitals forces most of the people to turn toward private hospitals despite exorbitant rates at these facilities. Thus, the government continues to deny people their right to healthcare and forces them to bear an unnecessary financial burden when their financial state may already be poor. If any mandatory action has to be taken, then that action should be aimed at ensuring that no hospital, clinic or other healthcare institution overcharges it patients.

As mentioned previously, the current policy of the government is to prescribe mandatory rural service for doctors. This policy has been challenged by doctors who naturally find this to be an unnecessary restraint on their professional life. No other profession is subject to similar restraints. This policy even seems constitutionally unsound as it appears to violate Article 19(1)(g) of the Indian constitution, which states the people have the freedom to practice their profession as they wish. It is important for the government to understand that excessive regulation will lead to resentment among the people, harshly impacting the functioning of the whole democracy.

If the government truly seeks improvement in the health of its people and protection of their fundamental human rights to healthcare, then it will have to remove excessive regulations and engage in proper infrastructural development. When properly equipped healthcare institutions are built, doctors are more likely to be attracted to these institutions. To incentivize doctors, policy should consider more adequate compensation, on par with what the doctor would have potentially earned otherwise. Furthermore, if doctors have to serve in remote areas, the government should ensure that they have the necessary amenities to function at their full potential.

Under the current healthcare system in India, the pent up resentment and poor infrastructure negatively impact overall efficiency. Reform, if properly undertaken, can provide a strong base for building the Indian healthcare system and ensuring the rights of both the people and the doctors.


Ananye Krishna is a Year IV student at Nalsar University of Law, Hyderabad, India.

Death Penalty for Child Rapists in India: Populist, Hasty, Counterproductive

by Shardool Kulkarni, a law student at the University of Mumbai

This January, an eight-year-old girl hailing from a minority shepherding family in India was abducted, gang raped and brutally murdered in the Kathua region of Jammu and Kashmir. In the subsequent months, the incident generated polarized reactions in India and around the world, with public outcry juxtaposed against the response from individuals in authority and alleged politicization of rape owing to the victim’s minority status. The ensuing public discourse has placed the ruling dispensation headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi under intense scrutiny, particularly in relation to the government’s stance and policies regarding child rape.

In April 2018, the Criminal Law Amendment Ordinance, 2018 was promulgated. The said ordinance brought in several changes to the existing legal framework pertaining to child rape in India, the most significant being the imposition of the death penalty as punishment for rape of a girl below the age of twelve years. The move, while hailed by some as an example of the government’s toughened stance on child sexual abuse, was criticized by academics, judges, NGOs and legal practitioners as being likely to worsen the plight of victims of child sexual abuse.

Disincentivising Reporting

The Kathua rape case involved the victim being abducted, drugged, gang-raped and brutally murdered by eight persons, including four policemen. However, it is pertinent to note that this is not the norm when it comes to instances of child sexual abuse: according to the National Crime Records Bureau of India, 95.5 percent of rapes are committed by persons known to the victim. The perpetrator of abuse is not the figurative shadowy stranger who strikes fear into the minds of the public, but rather the more closely known devils such as parents, older siblings, teachers, neighbors, or family friends. Victims of rape aged below twelve years are also unlikely to report a crime unless an older family member does so on their behalf. The likelihood of this happening is already low and could be diminished further if the consequence of reporting is the death penalty. As such, the amendment is likely to push the already underreported crime of child sexual abuse deeper into the chasm of unspoken, unacknowledged secrets of Indian society.

A Death Sentence for Victims?

The ordinance seemingly also ignores the possibility that making the act of raping a girl below twelve years punishable by death, a punishment usually reserved for murders, could encourage perpetrators to kill their young victims. Rape is an exceedingly difficult crime to prosecute if the only witness in most cases, the victim, is dead. While it may seem counterintuitive that a rapist would murder his or her victim and increase his or her chances of being sentenced to death, the heightened risk of being caught if the victim survives and thereby receiving the death penalty anyway could, in the opinion of some, prompt more rapists to kill their victims.

Indian students protest against rape in India in 2015. Sexual assault of women has been an ongoing issue in India. // Sajjad Hussain // AFP Photo

Following the enactment of the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, the term “rape” has been accorded a wider connotation, including not only the traditional notion of penetrative sex but also other forced sexual acts such as fellatio. Thus, “rape,” as defined by the Indian Penal Code, is unrelated to the risk of death and need not necessarily be an act that may result in the death of the child owing to the sheer physical violence accompanied by it. Placing the punishment for raping a child on the same pedestal as the punishment for murdering a child might simply incentivize more abusers to ensure that their victim does not live to tell the tale.

Gender Bias: An Evidence of Populism and Apathy

Most media outlets in India carried news of the government’s decision on child rape. Interestingly, the ordinance only makes the rape of girls below the age of twelve years punishable by death, casting a blind eye toward male victims who constitute 52.94 percent of the victims of child sexual abuse in India. This sidelining of male victims points to a knee-jerk response to momentary outrage, a clear manifestation of the skewed discourse surrounding sexual violence that too often turns a blind eye to male victims. 

Subsequent to the promulgation of the ordinance, the Central Government announced its intention to amend the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) in order to make the changes brought in by the ordinance apply to male victims as well. While the move is a welcome one, it further highlights the fact that the policy in question was a hasty move.

Death Penalty: An Ineffective Deterrent

In its 262nd report, the Law Commission of India concluded that there was no evidence to suggest that the deterrent effect of the death penalty was any better than that of life imprisonment. In the United States of America, for example, states that did not impose capital punishment for homicide were found to have lower homicide rates than states that did impose capital punishment. As such, the presumption that the death penalty acts as an effective deterrent is fundamentally flawed.

Moreover, presuming that death penalty does indeed deter child sexual abuse, the deterrent effect is watered down significantly in India by poor case disposal and conviction rates. In its 2016 report titled “Crime in India,” the National Crime Records Bureau revealed that the conviction rate under the POCSO Act is an abysmal 28.9 percent. To make matters worse, pendency in cases of child rape was 89.6 percent. Moreover, there are no witness protection programs in place, and no probe has been made into the functioning of Child Welfare Committees set up by the government. Imposing stringent punishments becomes meaningless if the law remains a mere dead letter.

Several persons in authority responsible for the ruling dispensation, including two ministers in the State of Jammu and Kashmir, protested against the arrest of the accused in the horrific Kathua rape case. The apathy of the police authorities, the statements made by persons in power and the communal color that the entire incident acquired created a strong public sentiment against the ruling party on the issue of child rape. In this light, the Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance, 2018 can only be regarded as a hasty and populist move to placate the outraged public without addressing, and moreover possibly aggravating, the plight of the innocent victims of these horrific human rights violations.


Shardool Kulkarni is in his penultimate year as a law student of the five-year law course at the University of Mumbai. He holds the distinction of being the youngest Indian to have deposed before a parliamentary committee in Indian legislative history. In the past, he has worked as a law trainee under Justice F. M. I. Kalifulla, Judge, Supreme Court of India, and as an Attaché to the Office of the Speaker, Lok Sabha, Parliament of India.

A Way Forward? Climate Change, Immigration, and International Law

“Climate refugees” will be the new face of immigration. Why isn’t international law prepared? This story is Part II of a two-part series on climate change, immigration and international law.

By Genevieve Zingg, editor of RightsViews and an M.A. student in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University

A potential solution to the looming issue of climate migration has recently been put forward by a commission of academic and policy experts who spent the last two years developing the Model International Mobility Convention. The proposed framework establishes the minimum rights afforded to all people who cross state borders, with special rights afforded to forced migrants, refugees, migrant victims of trafficking and migrants stranded in crisis situations.

A Way Forward? Advancing the International Mobility Convention

The Mobility Convention broadens the scope of international protection by recognizing what it terms “forced migrants.” Climate migrants lacking legal grounds for asylum under the 1951 Convention would qualify for protection under the forced migrant definition it advances.

“We were looking for rules that will really improve protections for forced migrants and refugees,” says Michael Doyle, who helped develop the Model International Mobility Convention as the director of the Columbia Global Policy Initiative and co-director of its International Migration project. “The moral claims that they make on us— environmental reasons— are not that different from the grounds of the 1951 Convention, which are just too narrow,” he said. “We have no expectation that Trump, Viktor Orbán in Hungary or Andrzej Duda in Poland will be interested. But this is a long game, so we’re visiting universities and NGOs to explain the logic behind this highly comprehensive convention that we’ve prepared.”

Doyle rattles off an enviable list of recently visited cities— Nairobi, Mumbai, Paris, London, Ottawa, Vancouver, Barcelona, São Paulo— where he’s travelled to spread the word about the convention. “The hope is to build a valuable network of alliances, building the kind of coalition that will get the attention of friends in government, a sufficiently significant number of them that this prospect might be established,” he explained.

He cites the landmark Mine Ban Treaty, signed in Ottawa in 1997, as exemplifying the power of academic and civil society organizations mobilized in pursuit of a common goal.

The Mobility Convention proposes key changes to international migration, for instance in terms of responsibility-sharing. “The current principle is responsibility by proximity,” Doyle says, referencing the disproportionate impacts of the Syrian conflict on neighboring countries Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. “84 percent of refugees live in developing countries nearby, and that is not sustainable.”

On the outskirts of Dadaab refugee camp, a family gathers sticks and branches for firewood and shelter. The carcasses of animals which have perished in the drought are strewn across the desert. //  Andy Hall // Oxfam East Africa, 2011

According to Susan Martin, founder of the Institute for the Study of International Migration at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service and previous executive director of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, the vast majority of climate migrants will be internally displaced, or will travel cross-border to a neighboring country that isn’t much better off than they are.

“Some are able to use their social networks and social capital, their skills and financial resources to move, but the most highly vulnerable people don’t have any of that capital – and if they can move, it’s not very far from where they’re already endangered,” she said. 

“Responsibility is nominally determined by your capacity to exist, but this top-down quota system fell flat in Europe,” Doyle explained. “We’re proposing using naming and shaming against a set of standards to encourage better behavior.”

The proposed system would have UNHCR annually identify refugee costs and the number of refugees needing to be resettled worldwide. The agency would then examine country population, GDP, past refugee loads and so on in order to determine a proportionate quota system based on each country’s capacity. Countries would be expected to make voluntary pledges in terms of dollars and resettlement based on the agency’s calculation. To create a naming-and-shaming incentive, UNHCR would publish a report at the end of each year revealing whether each country lived up to its commitments and resettled its fair share of refugees according to its socioeconomic capacity.

The political tensions that come with responsibility-sharing could be dramatically lessened if we start now. According to Martin, the key is building resilience early by focusing on increasing financial resources and human capital. Australia and New Zealand, for example, have begun admitting people in small numbers who can form the backbone of a diaspora for later climate migrants. Seasonal programs providing supplementary income for farmers and fishers affected by environmental impacts can similarly help raise financial and educational resources.

“This way, they’ll be better able to meet the standards of immigration in other countries rather than being treated as an emergency,” Martin said.

“It’s much better to help people qualify for legal immigration instead of responding to it as a crisis,” Martin emphasized.
“That’s what happened with the Syrian crisis – European countries, including those in Eastern Europe, could have easily absorbed those numbers.”

Conflict, Chaos, Money: Good Preparation is Good Politics

Governments have many incentives to prepare for climate migration. Climate impacts will exacerbate conflict, and failure to prepare legal avenues for displaced persons will only further increase the risks of regional destabilization. For example, climate-related conditions, particularly droughts, have driven conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and contributed to the outbreak of the Arab Spring across several countries in the Middle East and North Africa in 2010.

Man holding a boy during a clash near the border train station of Idomeni, northern Greece, as Macedonian riot police block refugees from crossing the border, August 2015. // AP Photo // Darko Vojinovic

“If no attention is paid and no relevant action is taken to resolve conflicts, you have thousands of refugees in the region with no solution and no prospects for peace to allow voluntary return,” Bertrand warned, highlighting that refugees now make up 25 percent of Lebanon’s population. “Those very numbers can destabilize the destination country – and these situations can last 15, 20 years.”

Bertrand pointed to Afghanistan to illustrate how protracted refugee situations can be. He was sent to Kabul in 1988 to repatriate Afghans after the departure of Soviet forces, as legal arrangements were made for UNHCR to open a repatriation office and ensure that displaced Afghans could return home. “But it’s been 30 years and there are still significant numbers in Pakistan that have not yet returned,” he explained, “and the situation is still triggering new movements.”

Second, contrary to right-wing rhetoric, immigrants actually have positive economic impacts on host countries. Doyle urges the implementation of labor-based migration. “Why not identify where a country is likely to experience shortages and open up visas for this?” he asked, pointing to Canada and Australia, two countries that have already started doing this.“Legal documentation is a win-win all around: design a better system, say, matching recent graduates with openings. There will be a large demand in many areas.”

Martin similarly highlights that many immigrants have the skills needed for the labor force in highly developed countries, especially when considering the implications of aging baby boomers. The reality is that immigrants are not often competing with natives for jobs. 

What now? Making Migration a Social Norm

To convince people opposed to migration,  we need to focus on making migration in urgent circumstances a norm. Looking at the populist boom in North America and Western Europe, Martin highlighted that framing migration solely in terms of international law and international frameworks can feel elitist, as it excludes large swaths of society who have been excluded from these types of issues and discussions. Rather than appearing as hot topics during sudden times of unrest, concepts of migration and displacement should be promoted at an earlier stage so people of all strata, education levels and belief systems grow up understanding the phenomenon to be natural and normal.

A “Refugees Welcome” sign displayed on the Palacio de Cibeles in Madrid, October 2015. // Harvey Barrison //  Creative Commons.

Doyle urges students to campaign in the human rights sense of climate migration, lobbying governments, forming campaigns, and mobilizing in support of low-hanging policy fruit like family reunification. He suggests looking to cities as bases of support. 

The private sector, too, presents a key partnership opportunity. Companies like Ikea, Google, and Uniqlo all have corporate social responsibility initiatives that can be mobilized in support of more adept immigration policies.

Over the next ten years, Doyle hopes that civil society and academia will mobilize in support of the Mobility Convention, urging cities and governments to adapt immigration policies and offer stronger protections to both conflict and climate-driven migrants.

“By 2028, we hope to have formed a coalition,” Doyle says. “A coalition that will see the value of bringing international law up to date.”


Genevieve Zingg is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University, focusing on human rights in the context of armed conflict, counterterrorism and national security. She is interested in refugees and migration, foreign policy and international politics, international criminal and humanitarian law, and intersectional issues of race and gender. She holds a B.A. (Hons.) from the University of Toronto and has professional experience working in Geneva, Athens, Paris, Brussels and Toronto. Connect with her on Twitter @GenZingg. She is editor of RightsViews.