Thursday, 30 April 2015

Mediterranean Migrant Crisis: Don't Let Them Drown

Amnesty International picture

 This month, more than 1,000 women, men and children drowned in one week as several overcrowded boats sank in the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas.
It is the equivalent of five passenger planes full of people.  If they had been holiday makers, instead of migrants, imagine the response. 

And that might be just a start. In previous years, the warmer weather has marked the start of ‘boat season’ – when thousands of desperate people embark on the treacherous journey to Europe. Even before the tragic events this month, 50 times as many people died since the beginning of 2015, compared to the same period last year. And even more people are expected to attempt this dangerous trip this summer, particularly as the violence persists in Libya, to where many Syrians escaping the conflict have fled.
Women, men and children leave their homes, risking death, exploitation and starvation along the way, to board over-crowded, unseaworthy and often crewless boats, having paid all they have or can borrow to people smugglers.
Many die. Many lose their loved ones or become separated from them.

Here is Kate Allen, 
Amnesty International UK director's account of her visit to Lampedusa: 
"I’ve just returned from meeting with shipwreck survivors, coastguards and officials in Lampedusa – the Italian island on the frontline of the crisis in the Mediterranean Sea.

It was incredibly harrowing but, as always, I was truly touched by the bravery of those I met.

People like the 19-year-old woman who told me that her mother was killed while they were trying to escape Boko Haram.

She then met a man who took her to Libya and prostituted her. She told me how she had to run for her life to get away from him, and about the discrimination and violence directed at black Africans in Libya.

I spent one morning with the head of the local hospital, who told me that he and his small team examine all arrivals, dead and alive. He talked about his experiences, from joyful reunions between mothers and their children, to examining a young girl in a body bag to find she was actually still alive and managing to resuscitate her. She now lives in Sweden.

He had many, many heart-wrenching stories and I struggled not to cry.

On the ground, amongst the people who are actually helping, I didn’t hear a bad word directed at the migrants and refugees. Their resentment is against the international community.

Speaking to the mayor of Lampedusa, she told me: ‘We can’t condemn people to die because they are black. We don’t let people drown.’

The number of people making this journey really isn’t huge – as long as the rest of Europe would only play its part."

At the recent emergency summit in Brussels, EU leaders pledged to triple funding for rescue operations in the Mediterranean. The EU will also look at ways to capture and destroy smugglers' boats and deploy immigration officers to non-EU countries, officials said. But Amnesty International says  they have not gone far enough and urge the UK government and its European Union partners to strengthen search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean and the Aegean seas through a joint effort involving all EU countries here. You can sign their petition here

But even if naval operations manage to rescue the vast majority, there are bitter disputes about how to deal with the tens of thousands who make it to safety. Britain, for example, has said it will provide significant naval support, but it won't accept more asylum seekers. 

Some people in southern Europe say that's not enough. The burden has to be more equitably shared. There should be a common asylum and immigration policy within the EU. But as different countries have very different priorities, it  will take years to get the balance right and achieve a common policy. 

Friday, 3 April 2015

Survivors of war and torture united by music - Stone Flowers

Stone Flowers members/courtesy of Stone Flowers

Stone Flowers – a musical group comprised of war and torture survivors – is releasing its new album Ngunda, proving that something beautiful can come out of unimaginable violence.

I liked working on this story because Stone Flowers is more than the sum of its parts: it is a music group, producing beautiful, uplifting music, but it is also a therapeutic and political project. Members have experienced torture and terrible losses - of home, family, culture and even of the person they were before. They write about these difficult topics, along with hope and resilience, in the languages and rhythms of their home countries, which include Iran, Kuwait, Sri Lanka, Sudan and DRC.  

Music helps reduce the trauma and gives survivors a way of speaking out against human rights abuses.  It also allows a connection with home and a more positive association with the loss of that home.

 As Stone Flowers members all bring their own musical heritages to the process, the result is rich and unusual - a cornucopia of styles and influences, where Arabic poetry mixed with West African rhythms and English folk segued into Caribbean and Tamil songs.

The name of the group, Stone Flowers, comes from a Persian folk song the group performed for their first album.  They liked the name because it evokes both strength and fragility, and also because it had Manchester overtones (i.e. Stone Roses), where the group is based. 

Created four years ago, Stone Flowers is supported by the charities Musicians without Borders UK and Freedom from Torture North West.  The group is performing life at many events and is now recording a new album, ‘Ngunda’, which will be launched at Amnesty International HQ in London on June 5.  The album takes its name from one of the ten tracks: Ngunda Azali Mutu, meaning 'A refugee is a human being' in the Bantu language Lingala.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Turn the Lights Back on in Syria: fourth year of conflict

This Sunday, March 15, marks the fourth anniversary of the start of the bloody conflict in Syria.  I wanted to share “Afraid of the Dark”, a short video reminding people that the conflict is still going on and showing one of its repercussions.

Since the start of the war,  83% of all the lights in Syria have literally gone out. Analysing satellite images, scientists based at Wuhan University in China, in co-operation with the #withSyria coalition of 130 non-governmental organisations, have shown that the number of lights visible over Syria at night has fallen by 83% since March 2011. In cities like Aleppo, the situation is even more extreme – satellite images show that 97 percent of lights have gone out since 2011.

The video makers - BAFTA-winning agency Don’t Panic and production partners UNIT9 – wanted to use this little-thought off repercussion of the conflict as a symbol of the darkness and chaos in which the country has been plunged already four years ago.  Over 200,000 people have died and millions more have been forced to flee their homes.

Four years since the start of the crisis, tell world leaders that they must stand by Syrians

"It is a literal truth that 83% of Syria's lights have gone out since the start of the war," said Richard Beer, Creative Director of Don't Panic, "but the darkness that afflicts them has a metaphorical truth that goes deeper. We wanted to use this shocking statistic to tell the story of just how far Syria has fallen into darkness, in every conceivable way, despite UN resolutions and international outcry. The hero of our film, Khalid, could afford to be afraid of the dark four years ago; now he faces far worse every day, despite his own bravery. He, and all Syrians like him, need our help."

Directed by UNIT9’s Greg&Jacob, this video is part of an international campaign launched by the #withSyria coalition. The coalition is a movement of humanitarian and human rights organisations from around the world, including Oxfam, Amnesty, International Rescue Committee, and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), standing in solidarity with those caught in the conflict.

The #withSyria coalition launched this video alongside a global petition, calling on world leaders to ‘turn the lights back on in Syria’ by:

•           Prioritising a political solution with human rights at its heart;

•           Boosting the humanitarian response both for those inside Syria and refugees, including through increased resettlement;

•           Insisting that all parties put an end to attacks on civilians and stop blocking aid

A new report 'Failing Syria' released today by 21 humanitarian and human rights organisations accuses warring parties and powerful states of failing to achieve what three 2014 UN Security Council resolutions set out to do. 

Monday, 23 February 2015

Yazidi girls who escaped Islamic State are trapped by trauma

Last summer, militants from the Islamic State group attacked a small ethnic group called the Yazidis, executing men and taking thousands of women and girls as slaves. The Yazidi (or Yezidi) people are a Kurdish tribe who follow an ancient Mesopotamian pagan religion in which they worship the sun and have a spiritual connection with the land.  

Kimbal Bumstead, a young British-Dutch artist, spent some time in the Yazidi refugee camp of Batman in Turkey in October. People told him that on the 3rd August, ISIS militia came to their village and took 80 men out into the streets and told them they must convert to Islam or they will be killed. Those who refused were shot; those who accepted were also shot. They told horrific stories about their family members and friends being slaughtered and their women and girls being raped and sold into sexual slavery.  Here is his report

Some of the Yazidi women managed to escape from the terrorist group and are now living in huge refugee camps in Kurdistan, Northern Iraq. They are freed, but far from free, as PBS's special correspondent Marcia Biggs explains in her harrowing report. She speaks with young women in Dohuk, one of the refugee camps, about rape, violence, threats, the terrible escapes that they endured and their continuing struggles with psychological trauma and stigma - especially in a culture were rape is shameful and virginity for young women is essential.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Morocco - First female Muslim leaders lead quiet revolution

This is a little gem I’ve found on the Frontline Club website: Casablanca Calling, a documentary about women leading a quiet revolution in Morocco. I love this story because it shows strong women taking control and making changes in their own terms. They are neither following Western dreams nor accepting their country's repressive views of Islam.  It reminds me of the Queen Mothers of Ghana, who are reinventing their traditional roles to improve the lives of girls and women in their communities. I am going to Ghana in June with filmmaker Dominique Chadwick to report on that story.

Casablanca Calling, by documentary filmmaker Rosa Rogers and triple BAFTA winning producer Hilary Durman takes us into the heart of this quiet social revolution in Morocco through the lives of the women at its forefront.  It is  the story of a society in transition and a mission to educate a nation.

In a country where 60% of women have never been to school, a new generation of women have started working as official Muslim leaders or Morchidat.  The Morchidat, the world’s first female Muslim leaders, are setting out to change their country: empowering women through the teachings of Islam and challenging the attitudes which breed extremism. 

They work in some of the poorest communities in Morocco to separate the true teachings of Islam from some of the prejudices emanating from a largely conservative culture. They work to support education for girls and campaign against early marriages.  And they encourage young people to build a more progressive Morocco, as opposed to pursuing the agenda that many young people in the country do, which is aspiring to a life in the West.

Through personal stories, family dramas and everyday lives, Casablanca Calling gives a unique perspective on women’s lives in contemporary Morocco. It tells the story of committed people, social change and a sacred mission.

The film will be presented at theFrontline Club on Friday 30 January 2015 at 7:00 PM. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with director Rosa Rogers and producer Hilary Durman.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Lebanon - Media in a polarised country

Talking with students from various universities in Beirut

I wonder how my Lebanese colleagues manage to do any meaningful work.  How do you cover the news in such a polarised country? How do you report on other views, on other religious and political convictions – especially when you work for media which are themselves so polarised? 

I went to Beirut recently with the wonderful Milica Pesic, executive director of the Media Diversity Institute (MDI), a London-based international organisation promoting and researching media diversity.  During our weeklong visit, we discussed with top Lebanese journalists, as well as journalism faculty and students from five universities, how their media could try to ease tensions rather than fuelling hostility and violence.  Our visit was part of a two-year project called “Toward an Inclusive and Responsible Media in Lebanon” run by MDI and its Lebanese partner the Maharat Foundation, an organisation working on building a more democratic society through freedom of expression.

Byblos/credit: Veronique Mistiaen

The first thing Milica and I did when arriving in Lebanon was to visit the ancient city of Byblos, one of the oldest continuously inhabited city is the world. Created 7,000 years ago, this UNESCO World Heritage Site, some 40 km north of Beirut is a true microcosm of the various civilizations which have populated Lebanon over the centuries.   We thought that regular visits to Byblos should be mandatory for students, political and religious leaders, journalists and anyone in danger of forgetting the rich, diverse past of their country.
Walking through the coastal city, you can see layers upon layers of ruins from previous civilisations. Here are walls built by the Phoenicians, there a tower erected by the crusaders and everywhere are traces of the various cultures, ethnic groups and languages that have made the richness of this small country.

Sadly, because of its geographical location and the brutal civil war, which was fought along religious fault lines, Lebanon’s pluralism has long been replaced by ferocious polarisation.
The influx of more than one million refugees from Syria is further threatening this fragile country, where one out of every four people is now a Syrian refugee. 

And over the past few years, the media have exacerbated the sectarianism and have become more polarised themselves.  Journalists we spoke with explained that newspapers and TV stations – even universities – are increasingly in the hands of political, religious and business leaders who use them as their mouthpieces and instruments of control. 

Not surprisingly, the polarisation between media has in turn reinforced Lebanon’s social and political polarisation.

In that context, the work of Maharat Foundation and partner organizations like MDI is crucial. The Foundation has designed a Reporting Diversity module to help journalists, students and academics improve their skills in reporting on religious intolerance, sectarianism and extremism. Maharat is also trying to make the media industry acknowledge their part of responsibility for this polarisation and offering guidelines for a more inclusive, ethical and responsible coverage. 

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Things the world gets wrong – Perils of Perception

We don’t know the basic makeup of the countries we live in.  In fact, we are wrong on most key social issues, according to a fascinating recent Ipsos MORI’s global survey.  

This study shows how wrong the public across 14 very different countries (including UK, Australia, Sweden, Japan, US, France and South Korea) are about key population characteristics and social issues.  Generally, we tend to overestimate what we see as problems or differences (unemployment, murder rate, immigration) and underestimate the familiar or what we assume is the norm (voting, Christians).  

And we are not just a bit off – we are massively wrong.

       In the UK for example:

       • We hugely over-estimate the proportion of Muslims: we think one in five British people are Muslims (21%) when the actual figure is 5% (one in twenty). 
•      • We think that a quarter of the population are immigrants  (24%), while the real figure is nearly half (13%).

• We believe that the British population is much older than it actually is – the average estimate is that 37% of the population are 65+, when it is in fact only 17%.

• And we think that one in six (16%) of all teenage girls aged 15-19 give birth each year, when the actual figure is only 3%. 

• In contrast, we underestimate the proportion of the electorate that voted in the last general election - the average guess is 49% when the official turnout was much higher at 66%.

• We think  39% of the country identify themselves as Christian compared with the actual figure of 59%.

The same discrepancies between perceptions and reality are seen across the 14 countries surveyed. See survey’s index of ignorance below.

The big questions for me are: what is the impact of this huge gap between reality and perceptions and how do we get things so wrong? 
Bobby Duffy, Managing Director of Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute, said: “These misperceptions present clear issues for informed public debate and policy-making.  For example, public priorities may well be different if we had a clearer view of the scale of immigration and the real incidence of teenage mothers.  People also under-estimate “positive” behaviours like voting, which may be important if people think it is more “normal” not to vote than it actually is.”

And how should politicians react? Should they act on these perceptions and design policies around them or should they try to challenge them?

As to why we get things so wrong, I blame the media. Although (or beacuse?) I am a journalist, I believe the media is largely responsible for reflecting distorted images of our societies.  For example, a relentless diet of Daily Mail’ stories about  ‘waves’ and ‘hordes’ of immigrants ‘flooding’, ‘invading’ British towns and villages must influence our perception on immigration.

Although the researchers didn’t generally ask respondents how they formed their views, they did ask the people who answered more than double the actual level for the immigration question how they formed their perceptions.

And surprisingly, the media (TV and newspapers) were far from their main reason. Rather, they said they based their immigration views on what they saw in their local areas and when they visited other cities. And because they believed people come into the country illegally, so aren’t counted.  

And now I wonder, how do people know who is an immigrant?  By the colour of their skin, the way they dress, the way they speak, behave? And that’s another big question…